The lost of paradise Essay

This essay has a total of 3285 words and 12 pages.

the lost of paradise




Epic Characteristics of Milton's Masterwork, Paradise Lost
By: Dani

pic Characteristics of Milton's Masterwork Paradise Lost is one of the finest examples of
the epic tradition in all of literature. In composing this extraordinary work, John Milton
was, for the most part, following in the manner of epic poets of past centuries: Barbara
Lewalski notes that Paradise Lost is an "epic whose closest structural affinities are to
Virgil's Aeneid . . . "; she continues, however, to state that we now recognize as well
the influence of epic traditions and the presence of epic features other than Virgilian.
Among the poem's Homeric elements are its Iliadic subject, the death and woe resulting
from an act of disobedience; the portrayal of Satan as an Archillean hero motivated by a
sense of injured merit and also as an Odyssean hero of wiles and craft; the description of
Satan's perilous Odyssey to find a new homeland; and the battle scenes in heaven. . . .
The poem also incorporates a Hesiodic gigantomachy; numerous Ovidian metamorphoses; an
Ariostan Paradise of Fools; [and] Spenserian allegorical figures (Sin and Death) . . . .
(3) There were changes, however, as John M. Steadman makes clear: The regularity with
which Milton frequently conforms to principles of epic structure make his occasional (but
nevertheless fundamental) variations on the epic tradition all the more striking by
contrast. The most important departures from epic decorum--the rejection of a martial
theme, and the choice of an argument that emphasizes the hero's transgression and defeat
instead of celebrating his virtues and triumphs--are paradoxically conditioned by concern
for the ethical and religious decorum of the epic genre. On the whole, Milton has retained
the formal motifs and devices of the heroic poem but has invested them with Christian
matter and meaning. In this sense his epic is . . . something of a
"pseudomorph"--retaining the form of classical epic but replacing its values and contents
with Judeo-Christian correlatives. (Epic and Tragic Structure . . . 20) Steadman goes on
to defend Milton's changes in the form of the epic, saying that "such revaluations are not
unusual in the epic tradition; they were in fact inevitable" (20). It is important, before
continuing with an examination of Paradise Lost and its epic characteristics and
conventions (specifically, those in Book I), to review for a moment exactly what an "epic"
is. Again, according to Lewalski, "Renaissance critics generally thought of epics as long
poems treating heroic actions or other weighty matters in a high style, thereby evoking
awe or wonder" (12). Today's definition does not differ; the following summary of
characteristics and conventions of the epic is taken from Thrall and Hibbard's A Handbook
to Literature, wherein they write that an epic is "a long narrative POEM in elevated STYLE
presenting characters of high position in a series of adventures which form an organic
whole through their relation to a central figure of heroic proportions and through their
development of EPISODES important to the history of a nation or race." Common
characteristics include The hero is a figure of heroic stature, of national or
international importance, and of great historical or legendary significance; (2) The
setting is vast in scope, covering great nations, the world, or the universe; (3) The
action consists of deeds of great valor or requiring superhuman courage; (4) Supernatural
forces--gods, angels, demons--interest themselves in the action and intervene from time to
time; (5) a STYLE of sustained elevation and grand simplicity is used; and (6) the epic
poet recounts the deeds of his heroes with objectivity. (174-76) There are also a number
of common devices or CONVENTIONS used by most epic poets: ". . . the poet opens by stating
his theme, invokes a Muse to inspire and instruct him, and opens his narrative 'in medias
res'--in the middle of things--giving the necessary EXPOSITION in later portions of the
epic; he includes catalogues of warriors, ships, armies; he gives extended formal speeches
by the main characters; and he makes frequent use of the EPIC SIMILE" (176). The epic
simile is "an elaborated comparison. This type differs from an ordinary SIMILE in that it
is more involved, more ornate, and is a conscious imitation of the Homeric manner. The
secondary object or picture is developed into an independent aesthetic object, an IMAGE
which for the moment excludes the primary object with which it is compared" (176). With
this as background, it is now possible to trace the epic elements present in Book I of
Paradise Lost rather easily. That all of those six characteristics noted above are present
and demonstrable is certain; it is equally certain that it is through the manipulation of
some of these epic characteristics and conventions that Milton offers to the reader a
number of the most controversial and interesting questions and situations in the poem. One
of the most formidable problems that the reader must face is that of hero; exactly who is
the epic hero in the poem? Steadman notes that for many readers, Milton's devil is a much
stronger character than his God, and his image of Hell far more forceful than his picture
of Heaven. From such subjective impressions as these they infer (wrongly) that the
Hell-scenes must be more 'sincere' than the descriptions of Heaven. They conclude, with
Dryden, that Satan must be the real 'hero' of Paradise Lost (Milton's 27); it is not to
Satan, clearly, notes Steadman, that the mantle of hero falls; "in the language of
Renaissance criticism, Adam--the central figure in the poem--is clearly the 'epic person'
or 'primary hero'" (viii). Going a step further, Steadman also remarks that, "in supplying
Satan with many of the conventional attributes of the epic hero, Milton indirectly
censures the epic tradition for celebrating vice as heroic virtue. . . . Milton relies on
a 'reductio ad absurdum' to discredit a spurious conception of heroism" (39). Francis C.
Blessington adds an interesting note to the discussion when she calls Satan not a
classical hero but a classical villain: Satan is made the archetype of the sophistical
rhetoric, the shallow egotism, and the destructive pride, the vices of the classical epic
as well as of the classical world. In addition, he is the perversion of classical heroic
virtues. He often begins by resembling a victim, sometimes even a perversion of that . . .
. [He is] not a classical hero but a classical villain who unheroically defeats creatures
far below him in stature. (18) Steadman would concur: In the course of Milton's epic his
fallen archangel conceives and executes an enterprise of conquest and destruction closely
resembling that of the conventional epic hero. Nevertheless, for a seventeenth-century
Protestant, this apparently heroic exploit should have fitted into a familiar ethical
category, a pattern already delineated and condemned by theologians in their discussions
of pagan virtue. Besides preoccupying Luther and Calvin, this subject had also engaged
Paolo Sarpi and Richard Humfrey. These authors had advanced the following charges against
the ancient Gentiles: In their deeds of valor and virtuous acts, they sought their own
glory instead of God's. However heroic such works might appear, they were performed for a
bad end and were therefore sinful. The ancient Gentiles were only superficially virtuous,
for they lacked inward sanctity. They sought their reward on earth rather than in Heaven,
pursuing worldly renown rather than celestial glory. Their religion tended to fill man
with pride by persuading him that he was naturally virtuous. Their teachings incited him
to revenge rather than to patience. (Milton's . . . 211-12) That Milton wanted his readers
to be forced to face the problem of Satan seeming heroic is certain. Satan is, after all,
an angel. He was a mighty angel in Heaven. In order for us to see the power of God, it is
necessary that Satan also be powerful. It is important that Satan, a parody of God, be
viewed as an eloquent, bold being, one possessing superhuman strength, extraordinary
martial prowess, fortitude, and other attributes--otherwise, what message is there to us?
But Milton would also expect his readers to perceive fact from fancy; he would expect us
to see through Satan's seeming greatness to his core of evil and pride and petty acts of
revenge. That is, after all, part of the test. If we perceive Satan's real villainy, we
indeed show ourselves sufficient. The next three characteristics of the epic listed above
are hardly items of debate. The setting is indeed vast in scope, ranging from Heaven to
Hell and to the Earth. The action surely consists of deeds of great valour requiring
superhuman courage. And there are supernatural forces (gods, angels, and demons) at work
throughout the poem. One question may occur in regard to the second of these: is it valour
and courage that Satan and his followers showed in fighting the War in Heaven with God? Of
course, we may have a bit of trouble thinking of Satan as showing courage and valour. But
it may be the words themselves and modern connotations connected with them that cause the
difficulty. When examined more closely, there seems to be little difficulty. According to
the Oxford English Dictionary, valour means "the quality of mind which enables a person to
face danger with boldness or firmness; courage or bravery, especially as shown in warfare
or conflict"; courage is defined as "that quality of mind which shows itself in facing
danger without fear or shrinking." Satan most certainly may be said to fit these
descriptions. The OED provides an even more appropriate and interesting definition of
courage dating from the 14th to the 17th centuries, one in which courage meant "anger,
wrath; haughtiness, pride . . . ." Another of the characteristics of the epic, the use of
an elevated style, may also surely be acknowledged in Paradise Lost: . . . Milton . . .
needed a style that could at once invoke and revamp the classical tradition. I shall not
discuss the controversies over Milton's 'Latinate' style but only point out some things
that have not been said but which help to give the impression of a classical style in
Paradise Lost. Milton's method of elevating the language is the common one suggested by
Aristotle: vary, within reason, the mode of normal speech by using unfamiliar words,
figures, unusual forms and spellings, and, most of all, metaphors. (Blessington 78) There
were (and are) those, of course, such as William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, T. S. Eliot, and
others, who censured Milton's style. To them, Christopher Ricks responded with the
following: That his [Milton's] style astonishes is itself some cause of surprise. The epic
is of all literary kind the most dignified, the most concerned to fulfil expectation
rather than to baffle or ignore it. . . . [H]e must combine two fervours: a heroic
dedication to tradition; and a heroic dedication to himself, a confidence in his own
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