Paradise Lost As An Epic

Discuss Paradise Lost, written by John Milton, as an epic.

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The term "epic" has come to mean different things in common usage today, such as anything that is big, important, or impressive (used both as an adjective and as a noun -- such as an "epic" film, or any long book is called "an epic").  It has even worked its way into slang -- something cool or awe-inspiring is often called "epic".

Originally, however, the term "epic" meant something specific -- a poem (often written in a prescribed meter) which addressed a major historical or mythico-historical event in a culture's past.  It did not apply to just any poetry that was long, or written in a certain meter.  It was poetry which was composed to address shared historical memory -- a war, such the Trojan War, described in the Iliad, a heroic journey, such as Odysseus's voyages in The Odyssey, or the founding myth of a culture, such as described in The Aeneid.  In all cases, the importance was greater than just the narrative -- there were important cultural truths embedded in the poetry, and the culture derived some of its identity from the epic poetry.  In all cases, the divine (gods, or in the case of Paradise Lost God and angels and devils) is involved in the story.  Epic poetry, though it may address the adventures of one person, are not personal poetry (that is called lyric) -- epic poetry is about the story of a whole group of people, or a culture.  The story of an epic was never a surprise to the listeners it was composed for -- they already knew the story, because it was the story of their history, their religion, and the cultural identity they already knew.  It was an artful retelling of the stories that make a culture what it is.

So what makes Paradise Lost an epic?  The story was already known -- the main points of the fall of Satan and the story of the Garden of Eden were already stories that everyone in Milton's time and country knew.  He certainly embroidered and expanded upon the story (the Bible, for example, doesn't really address Satan as a personality like Milton does) but the main points of the story were taken from the Christian Scriptures and church tradition.  It is a poem written in an expansive, majestic verse, with a serious tone (that is another requirement of an epic).  It is long (epics...

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