Here is a list of the most common characteristics of an epic. Milton clearly follows the conventions of this form of literature.
- Long narrative poem, usually written in blank verse. Paradise Lost certainly is a long story -- not only a retelling of the Adam and Eve story, but establishing the back-story of Satan's loss of heaven and his plans for revenge. It also has several sections of text discussing the future of man's place in the world and a flash-forward of sorts of events up to the Christ's coming into the world. The epic is written in blank verse which is unrhymed iambic pentameter.
- Starts "in medias res" which means 'in the middle of the action." While the epic is ultimately the story of Adam and Eve, it starts in the middle of Satan being thrown out of heaven along with his band of rebel angels.
- Starts with an address to a muse. In this Christian poem, the muse is not a traditional Greek diety, but the "Heavenly Muse."
- Uses an elevated style. This long poem has very challenging language and the sheet number of allusions on the first page illustrate the difficulty and majesty of the subject matter that Milton is undertaking. He claims to be explaining "the ways of God to man." To make such a claim requires the language and sophistication to back it up. Another element of the elevated style is the use of epic similes -- long, extended similies. An example from book 9 compares Satan's movement as the snake in the garden to a ship that is being very carefully navigated through the water to reach its ultimate goal.
- Tells the story of a cultural hero. While the story starts with Satan, the heroes of the story are Adam and Eve. Even though they have the tragic fall from grace and are banished from Paradise, it is through them and their actions and attitudes that man is to learn about God's love.
- Reflects the society in which it was written. Milton is writing in a time of great change in the Christian world. England has separated from the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant religion has taken a firm hold throughout Europe. Book 12 in particular addresses some of the issues of the Christian church, but the ultimate message is that Christians live with God's forgiveness and guidance through prayer. This clearly reflects Milton's society in mid 1600's.