Epic Simile In Paradise Lost

Discuss the epic similes employed by Milton in book 1 of Paradise Lost.

Milton uses epic similes to make extended comparisons. These comparisons provide details, heighten emotions, and amplify the majestic scope of the poem.

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An epic or Homeric simile is not just characterized by use of the words "like" or "as" to make a single comparison. It is an extended simile—it goes on and on.

For example, in The Odyssey, an epic simile describes the blinding of Polyphemus, the cyclops:

as a blacksmith...

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An epic or Homeric simile is not just characterized by use of the words "like" or "as" to make a single comparison. It is an extended simile—it goes on and on.

For example, in The Odyssey, an epic simile describes the blinding of Polyphemus, the cyclops:

as a blacksmith plunges a glowing ax or adze in an ice-cold bath and the metal screeches steam and its temper hardens—that's the iron's strength—so the eye of Cyclops sizzled round that stake.

This comparison isn't only a matter of Odysseus plunging the hot metal rod into the cyclops's eye as a blacksmith does a glowing ax into a cold bath. We get a series of "ands" (and the metal screeches, and it hardens), which adds vivid detail, importance, and emotional intensity to the description.

Borrowing from the Homeric epic tradition, Milton does the same in Paradise Lost. Similes go on and on, not simply ending with a single comparison. An example would be Satan rising up in hell after having been flung there by God. Satan's huge wings unfurl and he flies upward:

till on dry Land
He lights, as if it were Land that ever burn'd
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear'd in hue, as when the force
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter'd side
Of thundring Aetna

Here, Satan descends onto the dry land of hell that is first compared to a land forever burning and is then likened to the appearance of a hill torn from the shattered (exploded) side of a volcano like Pelorus or Mt. Etna.

Milton's use of extended similes adds a magnificence to the writing that not only ratchets up our emotions because what is described is so extreme but also emphasizes the grandeur of the subject matter, which is nothing less than explaining the ways of God to humanity.

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Paradise Lost, mirroring Homeric epics like The Aeneid, begins in medias res, that is, in the middle of things--after God has already cast Satan and his followers out of heaven and into a pit of fire.  Milton conceived of Paradise Lost as a contemporary epic poem about man's fall from grace and the struggle between good and evil, personified by God and Satan.  Important elements of Milton's epic include heroic language and settings, catalogs of mythical beings, the names of those engaged in the essential struggle, life and death consequences of victory and defeat, and epic similes.

Appropriately, the first epic simile in Book I describes the poem's main character, Satan:

[Satan] lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge/As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,/Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr'd on Jove,/Briareos or Typhoon, whom the Den/By ancient Tarsus held. . . .(ll.196-200)

Milton establishes, again using an epic convention, that Satan is as large as one of the Titans, the physically huge precursors of the Greek and Roman gods who actually went to war with their children, gods such as Zeus (also, Jove), over control of earth and mankind. Milton's readers would understand the war between Zeus and his fellow gods and the Titans as analogous to the war between Satan and God.

As Satan moves out of the lake of fire, his shield, hung on his shoulders, is described in epic terms: "the broad circumference/Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb/Through Optic Glass. . . ."  This simile is particularly important because it emphasizes the large scale of everybody and everything in the poem: just as Satan himself is so large that he covers "many a rood" (a rood is equal to about 7 yards), his shield must also be equally large to protect his body and is therefore compared to the moon.

One of the important similes in Book I establishes the magnitude of Satan's fallen angels:

As when the potent Rod/Of Amram's Son [Moses]. . ./up call'd a pitchy cloud/Of Locusts, warping on the Eastern Wind. . ./So numberless were those bad Angels seen/Hovering on wing under the Cope of Hell (ll.339-345)

Here, Milton establishes not only the size (numberless) of Satan's army of fallen angels but also compares them, in terms every reader would recognize as negative, to the locusts called up by Moses in order to get the Pharoah to release the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.  Any reader of Paradise Lost tempted to sympathize with Satan and the fallen angels is reminded that they are no different from the plagues in Egypt.  In the following passage, another simile compares the fallen angels to the barbarian hordes who came from northern Europe to terrorize the cultivated societies of southern Europe, another comparison that would resonate negatively with an audience in the mid-seventeenth century.

These are only a few of the epic similes Milton employs to set the stage for the conflict that follows in Books II through XII, and although at some points, some similes describe Satan as truly heroic, Milton's goal in using such similes is to create a Christian epic, using the conventions of the Homeric epic.



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