What kind of a poem is Milton's Paradise Lost and what other works fall into this category?
Milton’s motives in writing his great poem were religious. Paradise Lost is an immensely ambitious poem, bringing together the epic project of Homer and the text of the Bible. Milton faced both strategic and logistical problems in writing it. Milton wanted to make his poem accessible to his coreligionists though fluent in Latin. Milton compromised brilliantly on the language question by inventing a new language for poetry that was halfway between Latin and English. In the opening lines of Book I, we hear diction, vocabulary, rhythms, and syntactic structures that are wholly alien to the language of everyday life, then and now. Note the suspension or delay of the key verb sing, which doesn’t appear until the sixth line. This is a wholly Latinate construction.
Epic, as defined by Aristotle, is loose, episodic, and digressive. It is narrative, not dramatic, in its organization. Whereas the material in tragedy is carefully structured, beginning strictly at the final, conclusive moment, epic typically begins in media res, “in the middle of things.” Milton toyed with the model of the epic poets Homer and Vergil and with that of the tragedian Sophocles. He made detailed plans for the dramatic tragedy he thought of writing, tentatively called Adam Unparadised. One great speech from Satan in Adam Unparadised was later grafted into Book IV of Paradise Lost. As the enemy of mankind, Satan debates with himself about his intent to bring sin into Eden: Will doing so damn him, or is it justifiable in his rebellion? In the end, “Disdain forbids” him from submitting to God. He is too proud. Even though Milton decided not to write a drama, he retained a dramatic conception of Satan in Paradise Lost. The best speeches in the poem are Satan’s. The speech in which Satan dooms himself to fall would have occurred at a key moment in the drama, what Aristotle termed the peripeteia or “turning point” in the play. This is the irredeemable moment for Satan. Up to this point, he could have saved himself, but by committing himself to the destruction of Adam and Eve, he also destroys himself.
Both Milton’s life and his poetry reflect the spirit of his time. Romantic myth holds that Milton, the blind poet, dictated his work to his daughters. In reality, he kept his daughters in ignorance; at least two of them probably could not even write. It’s impossible to make sense of Paradise Lost unless one sets it in the context of the English Civil War.
Milton had served the Commonwealth during its years of domination and civic power in the mid-17th century, in part by writing anti-episcopal tracts. The Puritans maintained that God did not serve any king; individuals had a personal relationship with God, not one that was mediated through bishops or monarchs. From the Puritans’ point of view, the Civil War had failed, and from the larger point of view of the English nation, the war was one of the most traumatic events in modern history.
Milton was on the edge of things during the time he was writing Paradise Lost, and that edginess gives the poem much of its power. Paradise Lost is a work of literature that requires us to educate ourselves in order to make sense of it. It is an extraordinary achievement that has challenged readers of every generation.
Milton's "Paradise Lost" is a literary epic.
An epic is a long narrative poem written in a grand style celebrating the adventures and exploits of a hero.
There are two types of epic:
1. The epics belonging to the oral tradition. That is, these epics belonged to the primitive times when the people were illiterate. These epics were not written down but were preserved in the memories of the people and were passed on from one generation to the next. As civilization progressed and the people became literate, one poet would finally collect all the stories and write them down. The Greek epic "Iliad" is an example of the epic belonging to the oral tradition. It is believed that Homer was the poet who collected all the stories and wrote them down during the 8th century B.C.
2. In direct contrast to the epics belonging to the oral tradition we have literary epics. Literary epics are epics which are written down by a single poet in close imitation of the primitive epics belonging to the oral tradition. Virgil's "Aeneid" like Milton's "Paradise Lost" is a literary epic. Other examples would be, Dante's "Divine Comedy" and Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso."