Epic Characteristics of Milton's Paradise Lost

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Paradise Lost is one of the finest examples of the epic tradition in all of literature. In composing this extraordinary work, John Milton was, for the most part, following in the manner of epic poets of past centuries: Barbara Lewalski notes that Paradise Lost is an "epic whose closest structural affinities are to Virgil's Aeneid . . . "; she continues, however, to state that we now recognize as well the influence of epic traditions and the presence of epic features other than Virgilian. Among the poem's Homeric elements are its Iliadic subject, the death and woe resulting from an act of disobedience; the portrayal of Satan as an Archillean hero motivated by a sense of injured merit and also as an Odyssean hero of wiles and craft; the description of Satan's perilous Odyssey to find a new homeland; and the battle scenes in heaven. . . . The poem also incorporates a Hesiodic gigantomachy; numerous Ovidian metamorphoses; an Ariostan Paradise of Fools; [and] Spenserian allegorical figures (Sin and Death) . . . . (3) There were changes, however, as John M. Steadman makes clear: The regularity with which Milton frequently conforms to principles of epic structure make his occasional (but nevertheless fundamental) variations on the epic tradition all the more striking by contrast. The most important departures from epic decorum--the rejection of a martial theme, and the choice of an argument that emphasizes the hero's transgression and defeat instead of celebrating his virtues and triumphs--are paradoxically conditioned by concern for the ethical and religious decorum of the epic genre. On the whole, Milton has retained the formal motifs and devices of the heroic poem but has invested them with Christian matter and meaning. In this sense his epic is . . . something of a "pseudomorph"--retaining the form of classical epic but replacing its values and contents with Judeo-Christian correlatives. (Epic and Tragic Structure . . . 20) Steadman goes on to defend Milton's changes in the form of the epic, saying that "such revaluations are not unusual in the epic tradition; they were in fact inevitable" (20). It is important, before continuing with an examination of Paradise Lost and its epic characteristics and conventions (specifically, those in Book I), to review for a moment exactly what an "epic" is. Again, according to Lewalski, "Renaissance critics generally thought of epics as long poems treating heroic actions or other weighty matters in a high style, thereby evoking awe or wonder" (12).
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