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Epic Conventions or characteristics common to both types include: 1. The hero is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance, usually the ideal man of his culture. He often has superhuman or divine traits. He has an imposing physical stature and is greater in all ways than the common man. 2. The setting is vast in scope. It covers great geographical distances, perhaps even visiting the underworld, other worlds, and other times. 3. The action consists of deeds of valor or superhuman courage (especially in battle). 4. Supernatural forces interest themselves in the action and intervene at times. The intervention of the gods is called "machinery." 5. The style of writing is elevated, even ceremonial. 6. Additional conventions: certainly all are not always present) • Opens by stating the theme of the epic. • Writer invokes a Muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus. The poet prays to the muses to provide him with divine inspiration to tell the story of a great hero. • Narrative opens in media res. This means "in the middle of things," usually with the hero at his lowest point. Earlier portions of the story appear later as flashbacks. • Catalogs and genealogies are given. These long lists of objects, places, and people place the finite action of the epic within a broader, universal context. Oftentimes, the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members. • Main characters give extended formal speeches. • Use of the epic simile. A standard simile is a comparison using "like" or "as." An epic or Homeric simile is a more involved, ornate comparison, extended in great detail. • Heavy use of repetition and stock phrases. The poet repeats passages that consist of several lines in various sections of the epic and uses Homeric epithets, short, recurrent phrases used to describe people, places, or things. Both made the poem easier to memorize.
PARADISE LOST AS AN EPIC In literature, an epic is a narrative poem on the grand scale and in majestic style concerning the exploits and adventures of a superhuman hero
(or heroes) engaged in a quest or some serious endeavour. The hero is distinguished above all men by his strength and courage, and is restrained only by a sense of honour. The subject-matter of epic includes myth, legend, history, and folk tale. It is usually set in a heroic age of the past and embodies its country's early history and expresses its values. Battles and perilous journeys play a large part, as do gods, the supernatural, and magic; scenes are often set in the Underworld or in heaven. The high sounding, bombastic and ornate language, war like speeches, ancient and mythical references and the use of supernatural machinery are some of the main features or essential ingredients of the epic writing. The Epic can be defines as:
“An Epic is a highest form of poetry i.e. a long narrative poem in which characters and actions are of heroic proportions. It is written in an elevated style with a serious theme at least of national or international level. “
An epic must accord with the technical principles of great epics of classical antiquity set by the classical writers like Homer and Virgil. But when we analyse “Paradise Lost” as an epic, following the set principles, we can aptly say that John Milton, a puritan, and a scholarly person, surpasses even his favourite masters Homer and Virgil in producing a model structure of epic writing for rest of the times. Unlike the national subjects taken up by Homer and Virgil, Milton succeeds in writing an epic having more serious rather universal subject that is the fall of man on the model of the Greek and Latin epics. The subject, whom Aristotle, Tasso, Homer, Virgil and other epic poets took are ancient and their themes are nation but Milton’s subject is more ancient than that of any other epic. He deals with the subject
“Of man’s disobedience and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste, Brought death into this work and all our woe With loss of Eden”
Characteristics of Paradise Lost as an Epic
Aristotle described six characteristics: "fable, action, characters, sentiments, diction, and meter" most important elements of epic.
Fable: Fable or story is the basis of the epic. Bossu is of the opinion that “the poet’s first business is to find a moral, which is perfect or imperfect according as the action is more or less so.” The subject of the Paradise lost concerns with not only a nation or a particular country, rather the destiny of the whole mankind is
associated with it. In this particular sense, Paradise lost excels others epic as its action is contrived in hell, executed on earth and punishes by heaven. Coleridge commenting on the Universal appeal of Paradise Lost says,
“The superiority of Paradise Lost is obvious in this respect that the interest transcends the limit of a nation… it contains the matter of deep interest to all mankind; forming the basis of all religions and the true occasion of all of all philosophy what so ever”
Besides, Milton has filled his story with so many surprising incidents which bear so close an analogy with what is delivered in Holy writ, that it is capable of pleasing the most delicate reader, without giving offense to the most scrupulous. Theme: The first conviction of epic writing is that it carries a serious theme at least of nation or international level. The destiny of a nation or region is associated with it. The theme of an epic, according to Aristotle, must be “probable and marvelous”. Milton, however, makes some changes in choosing theme as in the very early lines he declares that his aim was to attempt,
“Things unattempted yet in Prose or rhyme”
Explaining subject or theme of Paradise Lost, Hallam says that it is “the finest ever chosen for heroic poetry, it is also manage by Milton with remarkable skill. The Iliad wants completeness; the subject of Odyssey is hardly extension, the Aeneid is spread over too long a space: the Pharasalia is open to the same criticism and the Iliad: the subject of the Thebaid possesses no interest in our eyes: yet the fall of Man has a more general interest than the Crusade.” Character The characters in the epic, like other classical epics, are of high status rather more high and noble than ancient heroes of Homer and Virgil. The characters in Milton’s Paradise Lost are the most sublime that human beings can conceive. They are God, Christ, the good and evil angels, and Adam and Eve, the Parents of whole human race and their status enjoying heavenly life. Addison says
“It is impossible for any of Paradise readers whatever nation, country or people he may belong to, not to be related to the person who is the principal actor in it; but what is still infinitely more to its advantage, the principal actors not only our progenitors, but our representative.”
The heroes of ancient epics have the outstanding personalities, heroic mould and stuff, but Adam is bestowed with more heroic qualities than any other hero. Whereas Satan, an Archfiend, revolts and preaches disaffection against God, yet, Milton portrays him so skillfully that he appears to be more exalted and most depraved being. The quality of Satan as leader is hence
responsible for most of the critics to consider him to be a hero of this great epic. Even the critics like Robert Burn is forced to say "Give me the spirit of my favorite hero, Milton's Satan" Episodes: Like the classical epic writers, Milton succeeds in lending “Paradise Lost” with perfect unity of plot. Everything or even in the poem leads up to or flows from it. The plucking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the war between God & Satan, followed by the fall of Satan, Long descriptions of hell and heaven and seduction scene all these events are closely woven and seem a single and a compact action. As a masterly person, Milton plunges into the middle of the story, instead of beginning, but in the middle he traces the earlier story and forwards the story to a striking end. During this Milton still is following a rule of epic writing. In the course of the events Milton convincingly shows the utter powerlessness, helplessness and depravity of evil beside the almightiness, beauty and benevolence of God. Evil never succeeds; it never does under any circumstances. Milton shows this in the defeat of Satan:
“so stretch’d out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay, Chain’d on the burning lake; nor ever thence Had ris’n, or heav’d his head, but that the will And high permission of all-ruling heaven, Left him at large to his own dark designs.”
Diction & style: War like speeches is another feature of epics. Through these speeches, the poet actually explains the background and the scenery, the characters themselves speak fully explaining their thoughts, feelings and motives. Milton once again seems at the top, while presenting the war like speeches of Satan, who emerges as a giant leader with all heroic qualities inspiring all the readers. In Book-I Satan has been represented in heroic dimension. He displays unyielding courage, shrewdness as leader. From the very first speech, he appears to be a great orator with profound leadership qualities.
“What though the field be lost, all is not lost, The unconquered will ……… immortal hate”
He like a great leader arranges a council and gives them the urge to wage another war against The Supreme Victor. Thorough analysis of their defeat is done to formulate new strategy. He like a great leader praises his fellows and gives them boost by calling them Princes, The Knights and the Warriors he also pinches them by his words
“Wake up or be fallen forever”
The whip of words works and all of the fallen shrubs rise and whole dark hell resounds with their slogans and flashes with blazing swords and shields as Milton describes the scene in these lines,
“Highly they raged Against the highest, and fierce with grasped arms Clashed on their soundings shields, the den of war Hurling defiance towards the vault of heaven.”
Integrity: The use of similes, metaphors and allusions are another ingredient of epic writing and ‘Paradise Lost’ is the best blend of this quality. Especially Book-I can aptly be declared as one of the best example of Milton’s skill in using similes and metaphors. Milton being the most learned uses similes, metaphors and allusions to suit their appropriateness adding to the grandeur of the poem. He found an inexhaustible store of learning and experience in classical literature and mythology, from which he drew material for his similes. He tells us that the palace of hell is far beyond the magnificence of “Babylone, or great Alcairo”, and the army of rebel angel far exceeds those,
“That fought at Thebes and Ilium, on each side Mixed with auxiliary gods; and what resounds In fable or romance of Uther’s son, Begirt with British and Armoric Knights; And all who since, baptized or infidel; Jousted in Aspramount or Matalban, Damasco, Morocco, or Tribisond, When charlemain with all his peerage fell By Fontarabia.”
Machinery: The classical writers set another tradition ie, the use of supernatural machinery, which develops the plot and solves its complications. John Milton’s skill once again excels other poets in exhibiting the superb usage of supernatural machinery in the poem. There are only two human characters, Adam & Eve, rest of all the characters including God, angles, Satan and rebellion angels all are supernatural beings. Thus the use of supernatural machinery in this epic is very convincing. Sentiments; As paradise Lost primarily deals with supernatural powers and agencies, there is very little scope for the expression of human sentiments. Adam and Eve are the only two human characters. Their sentiments both of fears and repentance have, of course, been beautifully and forcefully rendered. The anguish rising from the horrors attending the sense of the divine displeasure are very justly and powerfully described. But the real greatness of Milton lies in the fact that he has rendered supernatural powers as human beings and ascribed to them human sentiments. Dr Johnson says that,
“The sentiments, as expressive of manners, are appropriated to characters are, for the later part, unexceptionally just.”
To conclude it would be very apt to remark that “Paradise Lost” fulfills all the requirements and the convictions laid down by the classics and is one of the best epic ever written in English literature. A sane critic is justified in giving these remarks;
“There is nothing in English literature, but Paradise Lost”
English literature will remain indebted to Milton for his remarkable and glowing piece of literature for all the ages. Milton following the classical tradition matches his own purpose i.e. “justifies the ways of God to men” and has transformed the classical secular epic into a theological and universal one. He actually has enriched the epic tradition and it is apt to say that ‘Paradise Lost’ is the best example of the tradition and the individual talent. Therefore, it’s confirmed that the subject of this epic is more ancient, serious and lofty than any other epic. It promotes a universal view of man’s life.
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