John Milton prepared himself for many years to create an epic poem in English that would rank with the epics of Homer and Vergil. Paradise Lost is nothing less than the Christian epic of humanity. One of Milton’s models for Paradise Lost was the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), an epic poem of the oral tradition that evolved as the composition of a number of poets but is commonly attributed to Homer. The Iliad celebrates heroes. A model of even greater influence was the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), an epic poem written by a single poet, Vergil, whose intent was to celebrate the national glory of Rome. Milton’s original intent was to follow Vergil’s lead and write a patriotic epic poem of England, but he changed his mind, espousing an even greater enterprise. In retelling the story of the Fall of Man, he attempts to do nothing less than “justify the ways of God to men.”
To emphasize the importance of his subject matter, Vergil chose to write in a solemn tone using heightened language, and Milton adopted the same policy. Much of the difficulty of Paradise Lost for readers lies in the language. The poem uses uncommon words put together in long sentences containing multiple clauses constructed and ordered in peculiar ways. The convoluted syntax and unfamiliar language give the poem its distinctive...
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