Paradise Lost As An Epic

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

Milton's Paradise Lost is a poem of great ambition that could have taken no form other than that of an epic. Milton largely ignored the long poems already written in English and deliberately modeled his work on the great classical epics of Virgil and Homer.

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John Milton was among the most ambitious of poets, and there was never any doubt that he would write an epic poem. He spent a long time considering the subject, and at one time it seemed likely that he would write the great national epic of England, the Arthuriad, or the story of King Arthur. Even this, however, was too trivial a subject for Milton's ambition, which was on a cosmic—rather than a national—scale.

Somewhat paradoxically, much of the innovation in Paradise Lost is due to Milton's selection of the most ancient form of poetry. There are poems in English before Milton which are sometimes called epic, but his models were exclusively classical and Italian. He decided that his epic poem need not rhyme, choosing instead blank verse as the closest alternative to the heroic hexameters of classical poets. Essentially, Paradise Lost sets the standard of the English epic for all future writers. When they depart from it, as Byron and Tennyson did, it is with full knowledge of their predecessor's influence.

However, Milton's most controversial choices in following the classical conventions of epic poetry were theological. He chose to make God, the Son, and the angels characters in the poem, as Homer and Virgil had done with the Greek and Roman gods. He also wrote with a measure of impartiality which is a feature of epic. Homer is famously impartial between the Greeks and the Trojans, but even Virgil treats characters like Dido and Turnus with a measure of sympathy. When such commentators as William Blake saw Satan as the true hero of Paradise Lost, they were paying unconscious tribute to Milton's artistry in making the adversary of mankind such a compelling figure.

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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 usually are, although that is not their defining characteristic!) and addresses the collective imagination of his culture -- the identification of Christians with their own foundations myths as described in Hebrew Scripture. Much is contained in Paradise Lost to make the seventeenth-century Christian in England understand him- or herself better; it affirms the reasons behind the current morality, and retells the history so that the reader feels a participation in the events which happened long ago.  This is part of what makes Milton's poem an "epic".

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Milton's Paradise Lost is a long, narrative poem told in a serious manner, using elevated language, featuring characters of a high position.  All of these characteristics suggest the work is an epic poem.

The piece also begins in medias res (Latin for "in the middle of things") as Homer's epic poems do.  The speaker also invokes, following the custom of the Greeks, help from the supernatural to inspire and guide him in the telling of the tale.  

The manner and language of the poem, as well as the request for help, are revealed in the opening of the poem:

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

Brought death into the world, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,

Sing Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That shepherd [Moses], who first taught the chosen seed,

In the beginning how the Heavens and Earth

Rose out of Chaos:....I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar

Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

The serious tone and elevated language are obvious (the speaker is not just writing a narrative, he is attempting to do something never before done in literature, for instance), but what may be most notable, or at least most interesing, is the speaker's connection of the Muses from Greek myth to the Holy Spirit of the Bible.  The speaker fuses the Greek and the Christian, or, as some would phrase it, the Pagan with the Christian.  In preparing to tell the epic tale of Satan's fall from heaven, the speaker equates the Muses and the Holy Spirit. 

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