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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
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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 (Dece-


mber, 1958), 258-69.
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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)

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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 them-
selves on God (I.795-7). Before the council ever begins, then, Milton has planted
the impressions of change and instability, of foolishness, pomposity, vain pridea
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 speeches
themselves would be the echoes in the hollow rocks, keeping seamen from
sleep; the crowd's approval is the lulling, sleep-producing murmur. Their great

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


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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 pas-
toral loveliness, like the countryside scene with the elves, it stands in ironic
contrast to the iron Pandemonium world. The sun is a departing sunthe com-
ing 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 "Sail-
broad 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 picturehe
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 anticipat-
ing 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 cor-
morant, 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 bright-
ness 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 brightnessreminding us of what he once


wasnor disturbed by the heatreminding 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 recogni-
zes 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 pre-
sent 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.

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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 hu-
man 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 embodi-
ment of the changes and shifts in Satan's character and, second, in their qual-
ity 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 Proserpinain 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 ex-

pect, 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 seem-


ingly 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 accom-
panimens of their fallen, rebellious state is only illusionwhether from "mor-
tal or immortal miuds," or, to paraphrase, from heroic human or fallen angel-
ic 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 pain-
ful 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 ac-
count, 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 Sa-
tanic 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 imitat-
ion 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

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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 heaven-
ly army. But then Satan and his host have to be met in battle. Although war-
fare 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 sidesthe 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 couragethose
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 repent-
ance 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)

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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 Mar-
tyrdom""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 hu-
man 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 Godand thus a negating, "uncreating"
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power. He acknowledges elements of truth in mythologythe original pastoral
ideal, the fall from innocence, the Deucalian flood, for instancesubsuming
this material within his Christian framework. He moves on far beyond the tra-
ditional epic values to the essential Christian values described above. His "high-
er Argument" has raised the whole name of epicor, more accurately, trans-
cended 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, re-
presenting 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.

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