Milton claims his epic poem Paradise Lost exceeds the work of his accomplished predecessors. He argues that he tackles the most difficult task of recounting the history of not just one hero, but the entire human race. However, he does not appear to follow the conventional rules of an epic when he introduces an allegory into Paradise Lost through his portrayal of Sin and Death in Book II. Some readers denounce his work for this inconsistency, but others justify his action and uncover extremely important symbolism from this "forbidden" literal device.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines an epic "a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero" ("epic," def. 1) and allegory as "the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence" ("allegory," def. 1). Based on these definitions, it is unclear whether allegories fit into a true epic. From one perspective, such extended symbolism is not appropriate because it relies on "fictional figures" whereas an epic is based on a "historical hero". For this reason, some readers may dislike Milton’s extended symbolism of Sin and Death since it violates the traditional form of an epic. However From another point of view, an allegory is an acceptable literary component to an epic because it is considered an element of "elevated style". Therefore, other readers may see nothing wrong with Milton’s literary decision.
Milton’s poetic license entitles him to write as he pleases and therefore justifies his adaptation of an allegory into his epic. It is clearly apparent that Milton recognizes this privilege when...
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...ilton relies heavily on the Bible for much of his information.
With Milton’s timeframe and era for writing Paradise Lost in mind, we can justify his choice to incorporate an allegory into his epic. Allegories present meanings on two levels, one literal and the other hidden, which often expresses a moral or idea produced by the author. With this in mind, the allegory is key to understanding many parts of Paradise lots since Milton addresses so many issues in this one scene. Within the allegory alone, we discover extensive symbolism and wonder if there are more details to be uncovered each time we study the epic. Milton effectively elicits his readers’ attention by raising such controversy and holds our fascination with his intriguing hidden ideas, meanings, and symbolic relationships.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
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