Milton and the Epic

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What is epic and what does it have to do with Milton?

Paradise Lost, you will no doubt have been told, is an epic poem – not ‘because it is long’ (as a student once informed me ingeniously in an exam essay) and not in the colloquial (slang) sense that it is ‘brilliant’, although it is generally regarded as such (not always by undergraduates slogging through some portions 🙂 ).

Epic is concerned with ‘truth’, albeit not necessarily historical. The travels of Odysseus, for eg, symbolised man’s journey through life and its obstacles. There were Renaissance epics on creation and biblical narratives but the Fall is essentially unheroic (Adam and Eve fall so fail), which makes it a problematic subject for epic. It is of course epic in the broader sense ie it is enormously significant for the future of mankind. For Milton, we live in a post-lapsarian world [means after the fall]. All the political, moral and social corruption he sees around him in seventeenth-century England is a living image of man’s fallen state. His epic gives him an opportunity to construct imaginatively his image of the pre-lapsarian world (before the Fall). He gives the reader his vision of an ideal world which was exactly as God intended it (surprisingly for the time, Milton represents Adam and Eve as enjoying a sexual relationship before the fall; unsurprisingly for the period, he also represents Eve as inferior and subordinate to Adam).

See my lecture on Paradise Lost for more.

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