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EPIC SIMILES IN PARADISE LOST

Milton introduced many of the traditional conventions found in the earlier epics of Homer and Virgil and in
Paradise Lost, in order to invest it with complete epic dimensions. A very important device is the epic simile. An epic
simile is a lengthy comparison of a person, object or event with something which may give rise to one or more parallels
within itself. The illustrations of the epic similes in Paradise Lost Bk-I import a peculiar flavour of style and create a
powerful effect of breadth of vision and significance operating on more levels than one. The accepted view of the
function of the epic similes in Bk –I is indicated by the epithets applied to them—long-tailed, decorative, digressive and
detached. Comparison in Odes and epic poems are introduced not only to illustrate and embellish the discourse but to
amuse and relax the mind of the reader by frequently disengaging him from too painful an alienation to the principal
subject by leading him into other agreeable images.

The epic similes in Paradise Lost are for the greater part, expanded beyond the point of the comparison into
independent pictures. They are “excursions of the imagination beyond the needs of the narrative.” (Wright). The
digressions may be justified because-

i) They enhance the poetry by glorious images and statements,


ii) They supply variety and relief by introducing people and scenes outside the proper scope of the story,
iii) Because a poetical analogy is more effective than a prosaic one,
iv) Milton takes the opportunity of these digressions to display his vast scholarship and learning.

Milton’s epic similes in Paradise Lost are less numerous and more varied than those of his predecessors. He
displays great excellence in amplitude and he expands the image beyond the dimensions which the occasion
requires, returning to it at the close. For example, while describing the land that ever burned with solid fire,
Milton moves off into a transposed description of a volcanic eruption ‘on the shattered side/ of thundering
Aetna’ and returns to the point of comparison with ‘such resting found the sole/ of unblest feet.’ This image is
modelled on one found in Aeneid, Bk III.

The epic simile is given a more concrete form when the transposed description moves onto a further point of
comparison that arises independently and naturally as the simile dove-tails to its close. A cluster of similes may,
therefore, enable the poet to impress vividly without really describing the episode. In describing the fallen
angels to thickly bestrewn autumnal leaves on the brooks in Vallambrosa, than to the scattered sedge on the
Red Sea, and finally bringing to mind the Pharaoh’s drowned army, Milton conveys the sense of their being
numerous, prostrate, helpless and morally confused. The serenity of Nature in Vallambrosa and Etruria is
sharply contrasted with the terrible reality of Satan’s followers. Milton here decorates the narrative and diverts
the mind from the sordid reality of Hell to “ a far more agreeable image.”

The epic similes enable the poet to describe without really describing to convey imaginatively what surmounts
the reach of the human senses. When Satan is compared with “that sea-beast Leviathan”, picture of a huge
monster is conjured emphasizing the physical immensity of Satan. Also implicit in this epic simile is the notion
of Satan as a diabolical deceiver of mankind, just as the vastness of Leviathan’s body often deceives sailors in
the dark by appearing to be as island, on the shore of which the boat anchors for the night. Satan’s imposing
size bestows on him heroic dimensions- his shield is compared to the moon views through Galileo’s telescope,
his spear is likened to the tallest pine-tree that grows on the Norwegian hills, the portrait of Satan is thus
rendered vivid and pictorially impressive.

Very often, by means of a single simile, Milton suggests a multiple relationship rather than a single comparison.
In the description of fallen angels, with subtle and cautious irony, Milton moves downwards from a classical
example of seasonal death to a Biblical moral simile by drawing a parallel between the confounded devils and
the drowned cavalry of Pharaoh.a little later the fallen angel appear as a pestilential cloud comparable to the
plague of locusts in the Old Testament. (locust- some winged insects). Thence they are compared with the
“exodus southwards of the hordes of Barbarians, they are then further degraded to the Puritanically
degenerate states of brutish beasts worshipped as pagan deities. An ‘insect’ simile brought in at the end of the
Bk I describes the activity of the fallen angels, comparing them to the crew of industrious and hardworking
bees. Thus, Milton is able to effectively depict the power of active evil, which is the basic theme of Paradise
Lost. Hence, we are further prepared for the reduction of the fallen angels when comparing them to the race of
pygmies.

Since most of the epic similes draw upon classical mythology and the Bible, they appear to obscure the
narrative for the common reader, but if each simile is approached with intellectual clarity, we will comprehend
that it sets up significant echoes which reverberate all throughout the story. The epic similes, therefore,
become a narrative rather than a descriptive device. The meandering form of the epic simile has led the view
that they do not represent the integral part of the narrative design. Some critics regard them as a burden to the
poem impending its flow, whereas others consider them as episodic beauties and welcome the relaxation from
the solemn narrative. It may be justifiably said that the epic simile in Paradise Lost are poetic device for
detailing the portrait sharply and effectively.

With the use of epic simile in Paradise Lost the poem’s texture thickens, takes on added dimensions, a new
perspective, reflects well-known motifs of history and legend, and gains an added symbolic power through the
extra personal references. Conclusively, it may be said that the epic simile employed by Milton are very
appropriate for descriptive purposes. The rich range of material, the historical, Biblical, mythological and
literary comparisons express the theme not as a means of ornamentation, but illustrate it in the deepest, most
complex sense.