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Epic Similes in Paradise Lost

Epic simile is an extended simile, in some cases running to fifteen or twenty lines, in
which the comparisons made, are elaborated in considerable detail.
It is a common feature of epic poetry, but is found in other kinds as well.
In an epic poem similes are used for the purpose of illustration, but they serve also to
decorate the epic theme or character.
Epic similes are also given the name of Homeric similes because Homer elaborated
his similes in such a way that a particular kind of dignity and beauty was created in
his poetry and since then it became the tradition of epic poetry.
Milton has brought in a number of such similes in the Book I of Paradise Lost.
In the first simile he compares the huge form of Satan sprawling on the lake of fire to
the fabled sea-beast called Leviathan. It was a kind of big whale of such great size that
when it came to the surface, it occupied many miles and gave the impression of an
island in mid-ocean. In this simile though the dominant impression is size but the
other impressions are also produced. The Leviathan is dangerous and tricky so is
Satan.
The second epic simile is where he compares the shield of Satan to the appearance of
the moon as it was observed by Galileo through his newly invented telescope.
Although this is an anachronism in one sense, it helps us to form some idea of the
magnificence of Satans shield.
With a view to give us an idea of the countless hosts of fallen angels, Milton compares
their dense masses to the autumnal leaves in Vallambrosa in Italy. In autumn all
deciduous trees shed their leaves and the forest would be thickly carpeted with them.
This is not so much an epic simile as a complete parallelism.
The resemblance does not, perhaps, last above a line or two, but the poet runs
on with the hint until he has raised out of it some glorious image or sentiment,

proper to inflame the mind of the reader, and to give it that sublime kind of
entertainment which is suitable to the nature of a heroic poem.

"Three poets, in three distant ages born,


Greece, Italy and England did adorn.
The first in loftiness of thought surpass'd;
The next in majesty; in both the last:
The force of Nature could no further go;
To make a third she join'd the former two."
John Dryden (1631 - 1700)
English poet, playwright, and literary critic, 1688.Referring to John Milton in
relation to Homer and Virgil.
Epic simile is, in simple words, an elaborate comparison that travels beyond the point
of comparison and gives a complete poetic picture of some scene or incident
suggested to the mind of the poet. They are used for illustration and ornamentation.
They add dignity to the style. Such long-tailed similes stand by itself illuminating and
beautifying much more than the ordinary narrative.
No doubt similes are a vital epic part but a group of critics of epic similes as used by
Homer, Virgil or Milton points out that epic similes are elaborate comparisons
extended beyond the original point of similarity and developed into independent
pictures often irrelevant and moved a far-away from the initial connection. Thus, it is
generally regarded as excursions of the imagination beyond the needs of narrative.
However, such criticism does not do justice to the epic similes used by Milton,
particularly in Paradise Lost Book I. In this context, one should rememberAddisons
famous observation about the essential characteristic ofMiltons epic similes:
When Milton eludes either to things or persons he never quits his similes until
it rises to some very great idea, which is often foreign to the occasions that gave birth
to. He runs on with the idea till he has raised out of it some glorious image to inflame
the mind of the readers and to give it that sublime kind of entertainment which is
suitable to the nature of a heroic poem.
There can be no doubt that the variety of scene and incident introduced through
these similes is one of their charms. Miltons similes answer the demands of the

narrative; their images stuffed with poetic scenes, characters and events that
compose the poem. They release certain imaginative forces that have controlled and
directed like any other factor of the story. An analysis of some of the important
similes in Paradise Lost BookI should show the validity of the above observation.

image courtesy

The first simile is the one in whichMilton compares the huge bulk of Satan with that of
the monstrous size of the mythical Titans or giants who are fabled to be of the
greatest in size ever born. Milton extends the simile into a comparison of Satan with
Leviathan. It serves to build up the suggestion of awe and mystery that Milton intends
to accumulate round Satan. The suggestion of Satans huge dimensions is emphasized
by another simile in which Satans massive, ponderous, round shield is compared to
the moon
The broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon.
Immediately onwards Milton digresses by referring to Galileo viewing the moon
through his telescope. This reference to Galileo though not related to the Original
object of analogy, serves to add a super terrestrial dimension to the poem.
Another significant simile is the one which compares the innumerable angels
fallen and groveling in the lake of fire to the cloud of locusts. Miltons comparisons of
angels with locusts are significant because the locusts are messengers of disasters and
their association with the angel serves to suggest the evil nature of the fallen
angel. Milton in another simile compares the fallen angels with the autumnal leaves
thickly strewn on the streams in vallambrosa. The reference of fallen leaves is very

appropriate since it suggests and reinforces the fallen nature and diminished glory of
the angels in hell.
Finally, one should also mention another very significant simile in which the
thick airy could of angels in pandemonium is compared to bees:
As bees
In springtime, when the sun with Taurus rides.
Pour forth their populous youth above the hire
In clusters;
The diminutive size of the bees and the angels is a clear painter to the fact that in
spiritual essence the angels in hell are funny.
Miltons similes, it is fair to say in the conclusion serve to suggest dipper
realities and do not merely exist as grand images and rich decorative embellishments.
Altogether, Miltons similes testify to the wide range of his knowledge, observation,
memory and classical scholarship and familiarity with the course of ancient histories.
These add to the pomp and magnificence of his narrative, breaking into them
pleasantly and preventing us from feeling a sense of monotony.