Homer and Virgil were the two great masters of the Classical epic. Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid have invariably served as models for all writers of the classical epic. Milton was a great classical scholar and he sought to write an epic. He dreamt of immortality and he aspired to be one with Homer and Virgil as the author of a classical epic. Milton turned his great classical and Biblical learning to a poem to "assert eternal providence, and justify the ways of God to men".
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
Milton achieved eminent success in making Paradise Lost as classical epic. In spite of certain drawbacks and defects, Milton's epic is entitled to take its rightful place among half a dozen classical epics in the world. The first essential feature of the epic is its theme. The theme of an epic must have a national importance or significance; that is, the epic must be a true and faithful mirror of the life and of a nation. Homer represented the national life, thought and culture of ht Greeks in the Iliad, and Virgil gave expression to the hopes and aspirations of the Romans in the Aeneid. The Fall of Man is the theme of the epic.
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 has three qualifications. First, it should be one action, secondly, it should be an entire action, and thirdly, it should be a great action. In short, the action of an epic should be one, entire and great. All these three qualities of epic action are followed by Milton.
The action of Paradise Lost is one and there is a unity of action. The central action is the Fall of Man, and everything in the epic as, the battle of angels, the creation of the world, is subordinated to this central action. There are digressions at the beginning of the third and seventh books, but they do not affect the unity and central action of the poem. The whole action of Paradise Lost is single and compact. In the second place, its action is entire which means that it has a beginning, middle and an end. The action in Paradise Lost is contrived in hell, executed upon earth, and punished by heaven. In the third place the action ought to be great, by greatness of the action, Aristotle means that it should not only be great in its nature but also in its duration. The entire action of Paradise Lost has a stamp of grandeur and greatness about it. Milton's subject is greater than Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid. It does not determine the fate of one single person or nation; but of the whole human race.
Milton plunges into the middle of the action. Milton, in imitation of the great poets, opens his Paradise Lost, with an infernal council plotting the fall of man.
The characters of the epic must have dignity and variety. In Paradise Lost, we have a wide variety of characters marked with qualities. In Paradise Lost, we have human as well as superhuman characters. Adams and Eve are human characters, whereas God, Christ and Satan are superhuman characters.
An epic must have a hero with great qualities. Identification of the hero is different in Paradise Lost. Adam can be called the hero of the epic. He is not a warrior or a conqueror but a noble figure.
An epic is a serious poem embodying sublime and nobler thoughts. Milton's Paradise Lost is a sublime and noble poem characterized by loftiness of thought and sentiment.
An epic is not without a moral. Moral forms an integral and intrinsic part in Milton's poem. It seeks to "vindicate the ways of God to man, to show the reasonableness of religion and the necessity of obedience to the Divine Law".
Milton, in conformity with the epic practice, begins Paradise Lost by invoking the Muse to help him in his great task. But since Milton seeks the aid of the Heavenly Muse, the Holy spirit,
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know'st:
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
In and epic poem the poet narrates very little in his person. The characters themselves carry forward the mission of the poet.
Lastly the language of an epic must be sublime and rose above the language of common parlance.
- - - - - - - - - - - What though the fields be lost?
All is not lost
Aristotle observes that a sublime style can be formed by three methods --- by the use of metaphors, by making use of the idioms and by lengthening of the phrase by the addition of words. Milton employs all these three methods to give the air of grandeur to his epic. His similes and metaphors are epical. Latin words are frequently introduced. The style of Paradise Lost is the truest example of grand style. On one place, Satan says:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n
On the other place:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
Milton's Paradise Lost is a successful classical epic. Paradise lost has thus many excellences as an epic but the defects in it also not be forgotten. The introduction of allegorical persons like sin and death, the frequent allusions to heathen mythological fables, the intervention of grotesque incidents, the frequent indulgence in puns and useless display of learning and the unnecessary use of technical terms as in the description of Pandemonium are some blemishes in the style of the poem.
One other point must also be noted. An epic is an objective poem, and personal reflections are out of place in it. But the most sublime parts of Paradise Lost reflect the individuality of the poet. How ever this has added to the interest of the work as a poem though it is not, strictly speaking, permissible in an epic.