You are on page 1of 13

The Epic Simile in Paradise Lost Eleanor Tate A study of Milton's use ot epic simile leads one into

several basic issues of Paradise Lost — aspects of Milton's method, his attitude toward Satan, the relationship of heroic to Christian values, for instance. Throughout the I.c. poem Milton observes Ciceronian decorum in handling his characters, letting each speak in character. It is Milton himself as author who uses the classical images. For instance, Raphael, in describing to Adam the war in Heaven ( surely the material for classical figures ), in keeping with his angelic character, draws only on the cosmos or nature for his illustrations. Michael uses no extended similes in the prophetic vision given to Adam in Books XI and XII. And Milton uses none in describing God or Christ, treating Heaven as supreme in its own absolute terms. By far the majority of the similes are used to describe Satan, his legions, or Hell, although Eden is compared to classical gardens (always superior to them ) and Eve to classical goddesses who met unfortunate fates. Interestingly, apart from the references to heroic material in the introduction to Book IX, there are only two classical allusions in connection with Adam. His love for Eve is compared to Jupiter's for Juno (IV.499 - 501 ), perhaps suggesting its questionable nature (Juno, with the girdle of Venus, beguiled Jupiter into passionate love in the Iliad), and their fall is likened to that of Deucalian and Pyrrha after the mythical flood ( I X 1 4 ). One Biblical simile compares Adam to the shorn Samson. Milton uses the phoenix and "Maia's Son" figures in connecticn with Raphael, and the Biblical Jacob and natural mist figures in connection with Michael, along with the Janus-Argus and Iris allusions. Apart from carrying the ideas of a messenger, watchfulness, and beauty, these classical figures are emotiorally
1

rather neutral. A further generalization or two concerning the over-all nature of Milton's epic similes might be worthwhile before considering individual figures in their relation to Milton's attitude toward Satan or toward heroic values. There is a wide range in the similes, indicating both Milton's learning and versatility. Classical figures outnumber the others, with those drawn from nature or the universe running a close second (a number of these, of course, have a classical history). Milton drew also on history, geography, and contemporary events and interests, as well as on legends and folklore. He used several military figures, several musical ones, and a number relsted to the sea and ships, these last, for the most part, describing Satan. Again, it is interesting to note that there are only about seven Biblical figures. Through his many classical allusions Milton does gain a sense of remoteness in time, and through his geographic ones a sense of vastness in space. As Kingsley Widmer has noted, Satan and his world are in a state of constant flux, in contrast to the immutability of God and Heaven. Much of this effect is achieved through figures such ss the ship and sea images.1 The impression of change and motion in Satan, in fsct, works constantly on several levels at once, all conveyed through the similes, ss will be demonstrated through individual examples in a moment. A balance is maintsined between up and down imagery, greatness and smallness, heat and cold, light and darkness. This shifting takes place in spite of Satan — one feels that he is being held in perfect check by forces beyond himself. The first epic simile of the poem (1.197-208) in a real sense sets the tore of the figures describing Satan. His great size is suggested by comparing him, first, to the Titans, who warred against the Olympisn goPs, and then to the great sea

1 "The Iconography of Renunciation: the miltcpic Simile," ELH, XXV (December, 1958), 258-69.
9

monster, Leviathan. But as soon as Leviathan is mentioned, thoughts of his future Judgment come to mind (Isaiah 27.1). Milton does not rely alone on these associations, however, to undercut the impressive view of Satan just set up. He goes on to recount the old legend of the seamen who, mistaking the slumbering whale for an island, anchored in its side and found shelter till morning. The figure embodies one of the main themes of the poem, borne out by its context. In spite of itself, Leviathan offered shelter to the "night-founder'd Skiff," a term which

suggests the whole fallen world of mankind. Out of evil God will bring good to man. The next few lines, supporting this ironic interpretation of the image as an anticipation of all that is to follow, describe the limiting power of "all-ruling Heaven" upon Satan, adding: while he sought Evil to others, and enrag'd might see How all his malice serv'd but to bring forth Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shown On Man by him seduc't, but on himself Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour'd. (I.215-20) The next simile works in the same ironic way. Satan and his forces glory at their escape from the "Stygian flood" and their arrival at Hell (a state no better!), under the illusion that they had done this "by thir own recover'd strength,/Not by the sufferance of supernal Power" (I.240-1). The figure of the locusts, ostensibly used to praise the order among Satan's forces, works in just the opposite way, effecting condemnation on the sub-surface level. The fallen angels obey their "General's Voice" As when the potent Rod Of Amrarin's Son in Egypt's evil day Wav'd round the Coast, up call'd a pitchy cloud Of Locusts, Warping on the Eastern Wind, That o'er the Realm impious Pharaoh hung Like Night, and darken'd all the Land of Nile. (I.338-44)
3

The fallen angels, reduced to insect size, are under the complete control, not of Satan, but of God, represented here by Moses' rod. The Satanic forces serve only to bring judgment upon such as the rebel Pharaoh. They bring about. God's will for His people. Thus the transfer made in tlic figure from Satan to Moses completely undermines Satan's proud authority. At the close of Book I, in anticipation of the council in Hell, which is the opening material of Book II, the fallen angels are compared to bees (Virgil's figure) as they go about their state affairs. The reference to their "Straw-built Citadel," however, undercuts with a stroke all favorable connotations of the simile, emphasizing instead their false illusion. And in the lines immediately following, the reduction in size is continued as they are compared to dwarfs, pygmies, and "Faery Elves." In the meantime, the "Seraphic Lords," possessing the same quality of being as these diminished angels, in "secret conclave sat/A thousand Demi-Gods on golden seats," ready to begin their great consultation on how they could avenge themselves on God (I.795-7). Before the council ever begins, then, Milton has planted the impressions of change and instability, of foolishness, pomposity, vain pride—a sense of the desperate keeping up of mere outer show. As is typical of many of Milton's figures, the modifying effect of the simile extends both backwards and forwards. C. S. Lewis has noted that the dwarfing which takes place here "has a retrospective effect on the hugeness of Pandemonium" itself, even as it extends forward to the "great consult" of Book II.2 The figures used to describe the council are consistent with this ironic tone. The fiends' murmur of approval after Mammon's speech advising peace sounded like the lulling noise after a night of blustering wind. The themselves would be the speeches

echoes in the hollow rocks, keeping seamen from Their great

sleep; the crowd's approval is the lulling, sleep-producing murmur.

2 A Preface to Paradise Lost (New York 1942), p. 41.
A

energy suddenly ebbs in the figure until Beelzebub re-arouses them with his plan against God's new creation,man. This temporary revival is suggested, too, in the simile describing their joy at the conclusion of the council. It was as though storm clouds lowered and darkened the sky, yet If chance the radiant Sun with farewell sweet Extend his ev'ning beam, the fields revive, The birds thir note renew, and bleating herds Attest thir joy, that hill and valley rings. (II.492-5) The image is first of all a relief after the Pandemonium scene. Yet in its pastoral loveliness, like the countryside scene with the elves, it stands in ironic contrast to the iron Pandemonium world. The sun is a departing sun—the coming darkness is the reality. The temporary joy is all illusion. Towards the end of this second book, two humorous figures occur together picturing Satan in his journey to earth, both making him look rather absurd. In the first Satan in all regal pomp As in a cloudy Chair ascending rides Audacious, but that seat soon failing, meets A vast vacuity: all unawares Flutt'ring his pennons vain plumb down he drops Ten thousand fadom deep, and to this hour Down had been falling, had not by ill chance The strong rebuff of some tumultuous cloud Instinct with Fire and Nitre hurried him As many miles aloft. (II. 930-8) Satan is bumped around at the mercy of the elements. The account is full of sudden humorous action, surprise, helplessness, humiliation. His great "Sailbroad Vans" are suddenly reduced to ineffective fluttering pennons. The plain style of "plumb down he drops" is in fine contrast to the more ornate language of the preceding lines. The exaggeration, too, adds to the comic picture—he

would still be dropping "to this hour" had not of his own sulphurous clouds

thrown him violently aloft. At the end of this second book, then, in which he had superintended the building of Pandemonium, reigned in Hell as supreme Lord, made his heroic offer to visit earth alone, been acclaimed by all, Satan through this figure is deprived of all dignity and rendered ridiculous. Another amusing simile follows to strengthen the effect, this one anticipating the whole argument of the epic. Satan's heroic journey is compared to that of the eager griffin in search of his purloined treasure, having been outwitted in spite of his watchfulness by the one-eyed Arimaspian. And so, even before his seduction of man, the loss of his prey is anticipated in this image. In the nature similes Satan is compared to such things as a vulture, a wolf, a goat. And, of course, ironically he voluntarily takes the form of a cormorant, a toad, and a serpent in the garden scenes, all these forms suggesting his great decline in glory. One of the best natural images, a brief but effective one, occurs toward the end of Book III. Satan lands on the sun, attracted to it as by the brightness of Heaven itself. Milton describes the event: There lands the Fiend, a spot like which perhaps Astronomer in Sun's lucent Orb Through his glaz'd Optic Tube yet never saw. (III. 588-90) Satan was neither dazzled by the brightness—reminding us of what he once was—nor disturbed by the heat—reminding of what he has now become, quite accustomed to heat! But he appears as a mere spot on the sun, seen through a telescope. This deflated view of him in this extended passage carries over by association to his address to the sun at the beginning of Book IV. He recognizes it as a symbol of God and then goes on:
•f

to thee I call, But with no friendly voice, and add thy name

O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams That bring to my remembrance from what state I fell, how glorious once above thy Sphere. (IV. 35-9) The reductive image of Book III serves to heighten the pride implieit in these lines, even as Satan laments his fallen state and acknowledges the justice of God. And the conveyed sense of the acute awareness of both his past and present state accounts in some measure for the greatness of this passage, I feel. Later in Book IV Gabriel and his angelic squadron challenge Satan. And, again, through an excellent simile Milton foreshadows the ensuing action of Paradise Lost. The angels hem him round With ported Spears, as thick as when a field Of Ceres ripe for harvest waving bends Her bearded Grove of ears, which way the wind Sways them: the careful Plowman doubting stands Lest on the threshing floor his hopeful sheaves Prove chaff. (IV. 979-85) Tillyard in his reading of these lines relates the Plowman to Adam and Eve, stating that the Plowman ties the whole action to earth. The "bearded Grove of ears" with its tree image, he adds, brings together the great and the small: Heaven, Hell, and earth are all related in the figures.3 It would be much more pertinent, it seems to me, to relate the Plowman-wheat-chaff figure to Christ's parable in Mattew 13.24-30, in which He likens the kingdom of heaven to a field sown with good seed. In the night the enemy came and sowed tares

among the wheat. When the tares sprang up, the servants asked their master if they should gather them up. But he replied: Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both 3 Studies in Milton (London, 1951), pp. 63-4.
— 7 —

grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. The "careful Plowman doubting," I feel, refers to Gabriel, the angelic agent of God, standing in much the same position as the questioning servants of the parable. This condensed allusion reaches out to suggest God's foreknowledge and to anticipate Satan's seduction of man, embracing the whole span of human history and the final judgment of evil and triumph of justice. It leaves man, finally, at home with God. In this context the great golden scales take on added meaning, being thus related to the ultimate establishment of justice and order. Satan flees when his scale mounts aloft, but, even though doomed, he does not abandon his plan against God. These central figures used to describe Satan, then, work with consistent irony, undercutting his heroism and grandeur through reduction, or through a reminder of his severe limitation by God, or through ridicule, or through an anticipation of his ultimate defeat. They are dramatic, first, in their embodiment of the changes and shifts in Satan's character and, second, in their quality of extending backwards arid forwards, modifying our response to the events of the whole poem. As noted, Eden is compared several times to classical gardens and Eve to classical goddesses. In just about every case there is the suggestion of an evil fate, often a seduction. For instance in Book IV Eve is compared to Pandora, who "ensnar'd/Mankind with her fair looks" (11. 717-18). And in Book IX,

as she goes out alone to do her gardening, To Pales, or Pomona, thus adorn'd, Likest she seem'd, Pomona when she fled Vertumnus, or to Ceres in her Prime,
O

Yet Virgin of Proserpina from Jove (IX. 393-6)
Each of these was a pastoral goddess, but the list develops intensity of reference with each one named. Pomona was pursued and finally overcome by a disguised and flattering Vertumnus, suggesting Satan's successful attempt on Eve. And

Eve was like Ceres before the birth of Proserpina—in other words, before the institution of seasons, before winter or death, before the fall to the underworld. Later in this same book (11. 561-2) Eve is compared to Circe, implying her

enchanting powers. The similes surrounding the unfallen Eve, as we would expect, are much less complex than those connected with the fallen Satan. They work mainly by suggesting her appealing beauty and by anticipating her fall. Another group of epic figures relates more directly to the whole question of Milton's attitude toward heroic values. Satan's arousing of his army in Book I, for instance, is described in seemingly positive heroic terms: Anon they move In perfect Phalanx to the Dorian mood Of Flutes and soft Recorders; such as rais'd To highth of noblest temper Heroes old Arming to Battle, and instead of rage Deliberate valor breath'd, firm and unmov'd With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage With solemn touches, troubl'd thoughts, and chase Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain From mortal or immortal minds. Thus they Breathing united force with fixed thought Mov'd on in silence to soft Pipes that charm'd Thir painful steps o'er the burnt soil.

(I. 549-62)
In the first place, this description of the gathering of the army immediately

follows the account of Satan's attempt to encourage his forces. "With high

words, that bore/Semblance of worth, not substance," he "gently rais'd/Thir fainting courage, and dispell'd thir fears" (11. 529-30). So now by relation-

ship the magnificent outer show of the army becomes also mere "Semblance of worth, not substance." The music had power to banish "Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain," but the banishment of these inevitable accompanimens of their fallen, rebellious state is only illusion—whether from "mor-

tal or immortal miuds," or, to paraphrase, from heroic human or fallen angelic minds. Each noun receives its full force in this excellent line; the list serves only to remind us of the dark actuality. The soft music charming "Thir painful steps o'er the burnt soil" again brings together in ironic contrast the illu-sion ion and the inescapable reality. Both at the beginning and the end of the account, then, Milton has carefully undercut the apparent triumphant rallying of the fiends. Still in this same context, Milton compares the Satanic army to heroic armies of myth, legend, and history (I. 574-87). If all such armies, including the Giants who warred against Olympus, those that fought at Thebes and Troy, Arthur's or Charlemagne's forces, were combined, they would be a mere pygmy force against Satan's host. It seems to me that in both these instances heroic values are undermined, in the first case by their application to the Satanic army and, in the second, by the comparison. As he moves from myth to history in this second figure, the ideals reduced really become the cherished national ideals. And, ironically, they are minimized by Satan's successful imitation of them. In passing, it might be noted that the effect is different when Satan parodies heavenly values. He never quite succeeds, and the attempted imitation only points up the falseness of his world. In Book II at their epic games the fallen angels sing With notes angelical to many a Harp Thir own Heroic deeds and hapless fall
— 10 —

Thir Song was partial, but the harmony Suspended Hell, and took with ravishment The thronging audience. (II. 548-9, 552, 554) Again, the effect is greatly ironic. Their state is Hell; and they escape from it momentarily by self-contemplation and praise. In Book VI, it is true, Milton used heroic imagery to describe the heavenly army. But then Satan and his host have to be met in battle. Although warfare is not the usual occupation of the angels, they do display true bravery in their championship of God's cause. The daring fallen angels, eager for renown, will remain Nameless in dark oblivion . . . For strength from Truth divided and from Just, Illaudable, naught merits but dispraise And ignominy, yet to glory aspires Vain-glorious, and through infamy seeks fame; Therefore Eternal silence be thir doom.

(VI. 380-5)
Milton recognizes the heroic valor displayed by both sides—the rebel army was "In might ... wondrous and in Acts of War," he acknowledges (1.377). But

there are higher and more truly heroic virtues than strength and courage—those which are essentially Christian and thus foreign to classical legend. He moves to these in Book IX. This last phase of his argument, concerning man's repentance and reconciliation with God, Milton calls .. . more Heroic than the wrath Of stern Achilles on his Foe pursu'd Thrice Fugitive about Troy Wall; or rage Of Turnus for Lavinia disespous'd, Or Neptune's ire or Juno's, that so long Perplex'd the Greek and Cythered's Son. (IX. 14-19)
— 11 —

It is interesting that in each illustration in the above quotation an epic hero is the recipient of wrath: Hector is fugitive from Achilles; Aeneas experiences the anger of Turnus and Juno, and Ulysses that of Neptune. At first sight, with the possible exception of the Achilles figure (although the emphasis of the allusion is on Hector simply by proportion), the series of similes seems to be inverted. But isn't Milton preparing for his more direct statement which follows shortly? Adam's acceptance of God's judgment is more heroic than the actions of these other epic heroes under wrath. Milton has selected as his material that which until now had gone unsung: "the better fortitude/Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom"—"That which justly gives Heroic name/To Person or to Poem" (11. 32, 40, 41). And later in Book XI, when considering the faithfulness of Enoch, Milton again emphatically rejects might and valor as the marks of greatest human glory, regretting that Thus Fame shall be achiev'd, renown on Earth, And what most merits fame in silence hid. (XI. 698-9) Abdiel, the contrite Adam, and Enoch demonstrate in the poem the true virtue of godly fortitude, defined by the OED as "unyielding courage in the endurance of pain or adveasity" (IV,477) and further qualified by Milton with the terms Patience and Martyrdom. Christ Himself, as Michael indicates in Book XII, through His obedience motivated by love, is the perfect embodiment of the ideal. Throughout the poem, by an absence of classical allusion in treating them, Milton has kept God, Christ, and Adam entirely separate from the concept of classical heroism. Milton's comparison of "Great things to small" in Paradise Lost has been consistent in tone, leading up to the final transcendence of Christian over epic values. And I would hold that this remarkably consistent use of simile contributes strongly to the unity of the poem. Through his epic figures, then, Milton rejects Satan as an anti-hero, representing energy, strength, and valor divorced from justice, from God—and thus a negating, "uncreating"
17

12

power. He acknowledges elements of truth in mythology—the original pastoral ideal, the fall from innocence, the Deucalian flood, for instance—subsuming this material within his Christian framework. He moves on far beyond the traditional epic values to the essential Christian values described above. His "higher Argument" has raised the whole name of epic—or, more accurately, transcended it. The final irony, I suppose, is that Milton has used the traditional epic form in which to reject traditional epic values. It is in connection with Satan and his activities that he uses the grand style, for the most part. The true hero, such as Adam or Christ, warrants no such treatment. Nor do the angelic "poets," Raphael and Michael, use the grand style in their visionary passages. Milton, then, in a real sense, probably in the process of writing his poem, goes beyond the very form in which he chose to write. The concluding dream vision of Books XI and XII thus becomes structurally a dramatic aspect of the whole movement of the poem away from the epic. Through Michael, as an ideal poet, Milton is performing the very role of poet-prophet to which he had aspired in "II Penseroso." In his aim of justifying the ways of God to men, he hopes to have his part in making 'Hell grant what love did seek" ("II Penseroso," 1. 108) by frustrating the work of Satan in man's heart. The two main themes of the poem have come together. God's ways have been justified to Adam, representing Everyman, and he is thus enabled to accept God's judgment upon him and take up life with its responsibilities in the imperfect world beyond Paradise. Such an acceptance has involved a renunciation of heroic rebellion in favor of submission in an attitude of Christian fortitude and patience.

— 13