The so-called “grand style” of John Milton’s epic poem is the lofty, elevated, or non-colloquial phrasing he uses to add to the dignity of the poem and imply the importance of its subject matter. Milton deliberately chose this style to fit the grand or lofty topic he had chosen for his epic – nothing less than the fall of man and the justice of God’s response to that fall. A more colloquial or “everyday” style of language would not have seemed appropriate to such an inherently important plot and theme.
Several elements help contribute to the “grand style” in which Paradise Lost is written. They include the following:
- A tendency to write in long, often complicated sentences, so that readers cannot simply breeze through the poem but must ponder it carefully. A good example of such a sentence is the very first sentence of the poem, which goes on for 16 lines before the first period finally appears. Although the structure of this sentence is not especially difficult to follow, neither can that structure be called easy or instantly accessible. Milton’s sentences often flow on and on, adding a kind of majesty to the phrasing of the work.
- A tendency to allude, either overtly or indirectly, to the Bible and to classical literature. Since the Christian Bible and the Greek and Roman classics were among the most important texts of Milton’s culture, his habitual allusions to them instantly elevate the tone of his phrasing.
- A tendency to use a kind of sentence structure more common in Latin than in simple Anglo-Saxon English. For instance, in the first sentence of Paradise Lost, the very first verb does not appear until line 6. Instead of beginning the poem by writing, “Sing, Heav’nly Muse, of man’s first disobedience,” Milton does not provide the crucial verb “Sing” until line six. This postponement of the verb creates a kind of suspense, as we wonder what verb will make sense of the first five lines. Another superb example of Milton’s use of “Latinate” syntax, or sentence structure, occurs, in lines 44-45, where Milton, speaking of Satan says,
Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ethereal sky.
An example of the “grand style” at the beginning of Book 3 involves Milton’s reference to Hell as the “Stygian pool” (14). Rather than simply referring to “Hell” or even to “Hades,” Milton offers a classical allusion to enhance the grandeur and resonance of his language. Another classical allusion appears two lines later, in the reference to “th’ Orphéan lyre” (17). This tendency to discuss Christian ideas by alluding to classical precedents is typical of the entire poem. Milton was steeped in the Bible, but he was also thoroughly familiar with the Greek and Latin classics and used his classical learning to enhance the richness of his style. Thus in one line he refers to the classical “Muses” (27), and then three lines later he refers to Biblical “Sion” (30). This constant interplay of the classical and the Christian is one of the main features of Milton’s “grand style.”
For an excellent brief overview of the poem, please see C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).