How does Milton create the elevated, epic style that gives Paradise Lost its power?
Milton wrote Paradise Lost at a time when tastes in English poetry were in transformation, partly as a reflection of the political changes that had taken place with the Restoration of the monarchy. He was essentially out of touch with the latest trends. The poem is in blank verse, at a time when rhymed heroic couplets were becoming the standard.
In English, unlike in the Romance languages and German, rhyming verse often takes on a sing-song quality which many readers deem inappropriate to the most serious subjects. By choosing blank verse Milton avoided this possible pitfall. Milton's subject is the biblical Fall of Man—for the religious, the most serious topic one can deal with. He self-consciously presents this as an epic, but one that is even more important and thus artistically more grave and powerful than the epic poems of Homer and Virgil. To state in the opening lines that one is "justifying the ways of God to man" is to let the reader know that what follows is intended as a work that will out-do everything previously written.
Milton's sentences are long and complex at a time when, as stated, English poetry was changing and becoming simpler and more direct, as in the works of John Dryden. It is often difficult to follow Milton's complicated mode of expression. He was a scholar of classical languages, and much of his phraseology seems carried over from Latin into English, giving an austere remoteness to his style.
Another factor in the weighty, serious character of the poem is the depiction of Satan. In the first two books of Paradise Lost Satan, though he is the "arch fiend," is given language to speak and is described in a manner more befitting a hero than a villain. This was a factor that endeared Milton to the anti-religious Romantics a century and a half later, such as Blake and Shelley. But even looked at objectively, the perception of Satan as a powerful adversary, like a negative superhero, enhances the power of Milton's poem. The length of the work overall, the startlingly rich and elevated language, the use of blank verse, the complicated sentence structure, and the explicit announcement at the start that this poem will essentially do something never before attempted by a poet, all contribute to the power of Paradise Lost.
Milton's Paradise Lost's epic style results from several techniques:
(1) Milton uses an unconventional syntax and lengthy sentences, making his lines difficult to read. But in so doing, he engages the reader in the text.
(2) Biblical and classical allusions that lend formality to the lines.
(3) Powerful lines that are easy to remember because of their alliteration, assonance, and parallel structure:
"Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."
"The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell or a Hell of Heaven."
(4) The creation of such a fascinating character as Satan, who in his pride and unconquerable will, provides a riveting antagonist:
"What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?"
(5) Imagery that creates indelible impressions on the reader:
Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition . . .