Milton, a great classical scholar, aspired to achieve immortality and be counted among the likes of Homer and Virgil as the author of a classical epic. With his extensive knowledge of classical and biblical literature, he embarked on writing Paradise Lost, a poem that aimed to "assert eternal providence and justify the ways of God to men." Despite its flaws, Paradise Lost deserves its place among the world's classic epics.
Theme of the Epic
The theme of an epic should possess national importance and reflect the life and values of a nation. Just as Homer depicted Greek life in the Iliad and Virgil portrayed Roman aspirations in the Aeneid, Milton's epic focuses on the Fall of Man:
"Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe."
The epic action in Paradise Lost satisfies three essential qualifications. Firstly, it is a single action with a unity that revolves around the Fall of Man. Though there are digressions in the third and seventh books, they do not disrupt the central action. Secondly, the action is entire, encompassing a beginning, middle, and end. Paradise Lost unfolds in hell, on earth, and in heaven, showcasing the consequences of the fall. Lastly, the epic action should be great, and Milton's depiction of the fall of humanity possesses grandeur and significance beyond the fate of individuals or nations.
An epic requires dignified and varied characters. Paradise Lost presents a wide range of characters, both human and superhuman. Adam and Eve represent the human side, while God, Christ, and Satan embody the superhuman aspect. Although not a conventional warrior or conqueror, Adam can be regarded as the hero of the epic due to his nobility.
Sublime and Noble Thoughts
An epic is characterized by its serious nature and the embodiment of sublime and noble thoughts. Paradise Lost exemplifies this, with its lofty and profound ideas and sentiments.
Moral and Didactic Element
An epic must contain a moral element that explores the reasonableness of religion and the necessity of obedience to divine law. Paradise Lost fulfills this requirement by seeking to vindicate the ways of God to man. Milton invokes the Heavenly Muse, the Holy Spirit, to guide him in his poetic endeavor.
Style and Language
The language of an epic should be sublime, transcending ordinary speech. Milton employs metaphors, idioms, and extended phrases to create a grand and elevated style. Latin words are also incorporated to enhance the epic tone. The language of Paradise Lost embodies these qualities and exhibits a true grand style.
Defects and Blemishes
Although Paradise Lost excels as a classical epic, it is not without flaws. Allegorical figures such as Sin and Death, frequent allusions to pagan mythology, the inclusion of grotesque incidents, excessive puns and displays of learning, and unnecessary technical terms in describing Pandemonium are considered blemishes in the poem's style.
An epic should remain objective, devoid of personal reflections. However, the most sublime parts of Paradise Lost reveal Milton's individuality, adding to the poem's overall appeal. Although this deviates from strict epic conventions, it contributes to the
work's poetic richness.
Despite its imperfections, Milton's Paradise Lost stands as a successful classical epic. It encompasses the essential elements of a grand theme, unified and great action, dignified characters, sublime thoughts, moral teachings, and a language that rises above the ordinary. While there are blemishes in the form of allegorical figures, mythological allusions, and personal reflections, these aspects also contribute to the poem's unique charm and interest. Overall, Paradise Lost takes its rightful place among the esteemed classical epics of the world, showcasing Milton's mastery as a poet and scholar.
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