How is Milton's so-called "grand style" significant in Paradise Lost?

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The so-called “grand” or lofty style of Milton’s Paradise Lost is significant to the poem in numerous ways, chiefly because it struck Milton as by far the style most appropriate to the lofty subject matter he had chosen for his poem. Rather than choosing a “low” (that is, a common or colloquial) style or the kind of “middle” style used in much conventional poetry, Milton chose an elevated style because it seemed the only style that could do justice to the important matters he meant to discuss and depict.

Several elements of Milton’s “grand style” might be listed as follows:

  • a tendency to use long and complex sentences
  • a tendency to employ learned allusions, especially to the Bible and to the Greek and Roman classics
  • a relative absence of obvious humor, especially any crude humor
  • a tendency to choose unusual words in place of simple, common words
  • a tendency to construct sentences in ways that resemble sentence structures often found in Latin
  • a general (but not total) tendency to avoid crudeness of any kind, especially sexual crudity
  • a tendency to display the learning of the poet and to expect similar learning in the poem’s readers

Many aspects of this “grand style” that illustrate its significance can be seen at the very beginning of Book 3, when Milton invokes divine inspiration by addressing a hymn to “holy Light” (1). Here Light is personified, so that it seems more than a mere physical fact but instead seems something living, even divine, and thus deserving of the dignity of the so-called “grand style.” Another example of the “grand style” in this passage appears in line 6, when Milton uses numerous words of Latin origin to describe Light as a “Bright effluence of bright essence increate” (6). This is not simple, plain, unadorned, Anglo-Saxon phrasing; rather, it is the kind of lofty phrasing Milton considered appropriate to his highly important topics. Milton can write very simple English, as when he refers to “The rising world of waters dark and deep” (3.11), but even here there is a touch of Latin sentence structure, since the adjectives follow the noun rather than preceding it.

A different kind of writer, with different purposes, would have written, “The Almighty power hurled him . . . .” Milton, however, makes his phrasing sound like a grand or elevated kind of English by using this kind of “Latinate” sentence structure.

A tendency to make learned allusions, as in the reference to “th’Aonian mount” in line 15.  Instead of referring openly to “Helicon,” a name with which many more readers would have been familiar, Milton chooses to refer to “th’ Aonian mount,” partly to display his own learning, partly to test, challenge, and stimulate the learning of his readers, and partly to make the phrasing unusual or above the ordinary.

For more on this topic, see Christopher Ricks, Milton’s Grand Style (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).

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