PARADISE LOST AS AN EPIC POEM
“The glory of Paradise lost is that it resumes the take up or begins after the interval on the essential medieval theme and combines it with Renaissance culture and exuberance with neo-classical compression of form.”
An epic is a poem that is a long narrative and has a sublime subject that is presented in a dignified way with ornamental language. The characters in an epic must belong to the highest rank in society. They must be distinguished and above the common men in so far as their birth and status is concerned. An epic can never be expected without a conflict existing between two forces. The action has inculcation of heroic deeds and there is an array of armies as well as luster of weapons. Its theme is never without a sublime moral. The two great masters in the history of English literature were Homer and Virgil. Homer wrote Iliad and Virgil wrote Aeneid. For these two masterpieces ever written in the history of literature, both these poets i.e. Homer and Virgil became models for poets like Milton.
Milton dreamt of immortal fame and wished to be one with Homer or Virgil as an author of an epic poem. He used his great classical and Biblical learning as a tool to write a masterpiece like ‘Paradise Lost‘ to “justify the ways of God to man.”
“I may assert Eternal
Providence, and justify
the ways of God to man.”
Milton achieved a great success and became distinguished in writing ‘Paradise Lost’ in the form of a long narrative poem consisting of 12 books. It is no doubt, a narrative poem of human actions with a wider scope and large significance because it deals with the whole human race. Let’s try to discover all elements of ‘Paradise Lost’ as an epic poem.
The first essential feature of an epic is that it is of wider and universal scope. It has national importance or significance. It means that an epic must be a true and faithful mirror of life and of a nation. Homer in Iliad showed the national life, thought and culture of the Greeks. Virgil in Aeneid revealed the hopes and aspirations of the Romans. Like these ‘Paradise Lost‘ has also a lofty theme with universal appeal to all human beings living anywhere. Milton tells at the beginning of the poem that his aim is to attempt “things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme”. The fall of man is the theme of this epic. It means he not only follows all the characteristic features of the epics of Homer and Virgil but also modifies and ennobles his epic by giving it a Christian view.
“Of the man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe.”
W.J. Long keeping in view the theme of the poem comments: “Paradise Lost is a classical epic not of a man or a hero but the whole race of man.”
The second important feature of an epic is that all classical epics have a number of episodes and digressions. These episodes and digressions are introduced to impart variety and to increase the length of the epic. They are closely related to the central theme, so that, the epic forms an ‘Organic whole.’ All the classical epics have their main qualities i.e., one action, entire action and great action. ‘Paradise Lost’ has also a unity of action because the central action is the Fall of Man, and everything in the epic including the battle of angels and the creation of the world is subordinate (ماتحت)to this central action. Moreover, there is a curious parallelism between the Fall of Satan and the Fall of Man. Indeed in this respect, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is superior to Virgil’s Aeneid which contains looseness and superfluity. Entire action means that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The action is contrived in Hell, executed upon Earth and punished by Heaven.
Thirdly, traditionally an epic has an ancient and great subject taken from legend and history. The subject of Milton’s epic is also ancient. It is more ancient than any other epic in English literature. It is related to the time before the nations were created. It is universal in its appeal. Nothing can be so appealing in nature than its theme because it is universal. Its action is greater than Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid because its subject does not belong to the fate of a single person, city or nation or empire rather it belongs to the whole human race. This reality of great action also meets the demands of an action recommended by Aristotle. As Legious says: “Loftiness and sublimity are two words that occur to as the moment we think of ‘Paradise Lost.”
The fourth important feature of an epic is “The invocation to the Muse”. This invocation has been made to inspire and bless the poet to complete his task skillfully and properly. Milton also uses this invocation and begins his poem with an invocation to the Muse to help him in his great task. He does not intend to have a middle flight. However, Milton’s invocation is different from the invocations used in other epics. In other epics, the other poets seek the aid of pagan Muses of poetry. As his epic stands on Christian grounds, he seeks aid of the Heavenly Muse i.e., the Holy Spirit.
“And Chiefly thou, O spirit dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st. “
“…..what in me is dark
Illumine what is low raise and support”.
The fifth salient feature of an epic is that all the characters must have dignity and variety. In ‘Paradise Lost,’ a wide variety of characters marked with certain great qualities has been introduced. We come across human as well as superhuman characters. Human characters are Adam and Eve while God, Christ and Satan are superhuman characters in Paradise Lost.
Sixthly, an epic must have a hero with great qualities because we cannot imagine an epic without a heroic figure. Although it is very difficult and controversial to point out the hero of ‘Paradise Lost‘, it has great heroic figures like God, Satan and Adam. So many critics call Satan the hero of this poem because not only he is an outstanding personality but his companions are also of heroic stuff. This thing we find in the description of Satan, Beelzebub and other fallen angels. Some critics have different approaches. They call Adam the hero of the poem. They say that Adam is not a warrior or a conqueror rather he is a noble figure. We can say that it has indeed ‘no hero’ for it is only a quibble to insist, as had been done, that Satan is the hero. However, one thing that should be accepted by every reader is that it is necessary for a great figure to have heroic qualities. It does not matter whether he is a hero or not.
Seventhly, an epic can never be without a serious moral lesson. The moral forms are part and parcel of Milton’s poem. The theme of the poem is to indicate the ways of God to men, to show the reasonableness of religion and the need for obedience to the “Divine Law.“
The eighth remarkable feature of a classical epic is that its language is sublime and above the common parlance. In this regard, Aristotle’s views cannot be overlooked. He observes that a sublime style can be formed by three methods. These three methods are the use of metaphors, the use of idioms of other languages and the length of phrases. Milton implies all these methods to give an air of grandeur to his epic. How beautifully he says!
“…………what things the fields be lost?
All is not lost”
No doubt, the style of the poem is the truest example of great style. In one place, Satan says:
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”.
On the other place, he says, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
In so far as the use of allusions is concerned, Milton presents an allusion from astronomy science to elaborate the size of Satan’s shield.
“Like the moon, whose orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening, from the top of Fesole.”
In the following lines, Milton has superbly used simile.
“Thick as autumnal leaves that strews
The brooks in Vallombrosa
Skiff deeming some island.”
A critic observes: “Frequent allusions to classical myth and literature, to Biblical mythology, to contemporary literature, frequent Latinisms and frequent use of Homeric similes all contribute to the sublimity and loftiness of Milton’s style.”
The ninth remarkable feature of a classical epic is the use of supernatural machinery in the action of the poem. In almost all the epics, we see that these supernatural elements in which gods+ and goddesses are included observe the fate of the humans and come to help the hero in crucial moments. Milton’s characters are both human and super-human. The supernatural machinery plays the role of great significance in making or marring the fate of Satan, his followers, Adam and Eve.
The tenth characteristic of an epic is that it narrates to us the adventures and warlike exploits of the hero. We observe action, thrill and sensation. We also observe heroic deeds of valour by the hero, villain and any other figures presented in the story. In the poem, Paradise Lost we see that Satan after his fall flies from the lake of fire and lands on the solid land. He also calls his followers there on solid land. Myriads of banners are unfurled. Drums and trumpets are sounded. Shouts of war are raised against the authority of God. Satan exposes his unflinching resolution and courage and inexhaustible stamina to wage an unending war against the Almighty.
Milton’s poem is no doubt, a classical epic. But critics have pointed out its defects. That’s why, its defects can never be overlooked. Its first major defect is the use of allegorical fables as well as the use of technical terms as we observe in the display of Pandemonium. Dryden does not lag behind in criticizing Milton’s style. He points out that this poem is not heroic enough. Its basic theme is not war rather it discusses man and the loss of man’s happiness. He further says that it has not happy ending. It also contains two Roman characters. All the other characters are heavenly machinery in Paradise Lost.
But in my opinion, these objections are futile and unnecessary because war is not part and parcel of an epic as a theme. The other objection which is raised on the unhappy end of the poem is also a conventional one but it does not mean that all the epics must have a happy end. In so far as Dryden’s third objection is concerned, it is rejected by Addison. He says that though the characters depicted in the poem are limited in number but each character has a variety of roles to play.
To sum up, we can say that this poem is a fine and superb example of the fusion of tradition and individual talent. In “Paradise Lost“, Milton used almost all the epic devices which he had observed and studied in classical epics. It is a true epic in composition, in pattern and in sequence of events. It possesses all the essential characteristics that Aristotle demanded for an epic poem. We fully agree with the remarks of C.M. Bowra who says, “In ‘Paradise Lost’ we find all the features of epic with lofty and exalted style.” (Words: 1869)