Discuss Paradise Lost as a Classical Epic | John Milton

Discuss Paradise Lost as a Classical Epic


Paradise Lost which John Milton wrote at that time when he was nearly sixty years old, was indeed a masterpiece if we discuss it in view of the requirements of a classical epic. No one was ever able to surpass it. It is not the case that the author wrote the poem and it took everyone’s attention and became an epic poem; rather he deliberately wrote it with effort. John Milton started writing this poem in 1658. In 1652 he went blind; the reason behind this is unknown; however, some of the students of literature are of the view that Milton’s blindness was the result of reading a lot of books. He gained knowledge from Greek epic poems to give tough competition to them. John Milton started writing this poem after his blindness, hence, it was a deliberate attempt at a time when he mostly remained ill. The poem was ultimately published in 1667.

It is also a matter of fact that John Milton did not want to write an epic poem, especially with reference to the bible; however, subsequently, he changed his mind and wrote a poem that is based on most of the biblical allusions. Almost everyone knows the history of the Fall of Man and his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. John Milton took that story as a subject matter of his poem and wrote a classical epic which he gave the title “Paradise Lost”. It is highly recommended that one should have knowledge of classical epic, Greek epics and the characteristics of an epic poem in order to understand and discuss Paradise Lost as a classical epic.

What is a Classical Epic?

Odyssey and Iliad are two good examples of classical epic poems in which the author Homer talks about the gods and their good deeds. Drama, action, dialogue and fantasy are there in his poems. Narrations of the poems are longer than usual. Greek literature survived; people translated it into their native languages and when it was translated into English, it really drew people’s attention. The majority liked the epic, hence, the definition of an epic was extracted from the structure, style and subject matter of the Odyssey and Iliad.

A classical epic is not entirely different from poetry. In an epic poem, a poet illustrates events from the distant past in detail, hence, it becomes a long narrative poem due to the detailed description of every fact and incident. It also has a grand style, dramatic dialogues and situations as well as remarkable themes. The poet creates heroic figures along with the characters and exaggerates the situations. Greeks used to write epos (poem) on gods; however, John Milton changed the trend and wrote a classical epic while indulging Satan and Adam in it.

Characteristics of Classical Epic

From reading the aforementioned two best Greek Epic poems, we have defined an epic poem; however, there are certain characteristics that are obligatory to be there in an epic poem. Those are:

  • Long narrative poem
  • Undertaking the Muse
  • Heroic Figures (Mostly Supernatural)
  • Grand Themes
  • Lofty Setting and Complete Action
  • Grand Style
Discuss Paradise Lost as a Classical Epic | John Milton

Discuss Paradise Lost as a Classical Epic

Paradise Lost is a poem that fulfils each and every requirement of a classical epic if we discuss it in view of the aforementioned requirements. In order to prove it, we must gather evidence from the book. It seems that John Milton deeply acknowledged the fundamentals of a classical epic, hence, he very skillfully wrote a poem to be remembered even after his death. The poem is the result of hard work of more than 40 years; thus, there is no chance of slackness on the part of the poet to skip any aforementioned requirements. Let’s discuss John Milton’s Paradise Lost as a classical epic.

Long Narrative Poem

The first and foremost element of a classical epic is its length; the reason behind writing such a long poem is yet unknown but it is certainly one of the most questioned requirements of classical epic. Perhaps, the reason behind it is to create a complete action as Aristotle mentions in his book Poetics; however, he writes this about a tragedy and not about an epic poem. Aristotle is of the view that tragedy is far superior to an epic poem because of the uncertainty of dialogues. In his eyes, the narration does not cause catharsis or evoke feelings of piety and fear.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost was initially contained in ten books but subsequently, it was published with 12 books. So, the poem is long enough to get the attention of the readers. Further, although the poem is in narration and it is Milton who tells us the story of the Fall of Man yet action is certainly there in the poem. Besides, there are certain speeches of Satan that create a dramatic atmosphere. It seems that John Milton has changed the rules of an epic poem. He has made it dramatic with the help of energetic dialogues.

In addition, due to the prolonged narration, the poem has a beginning, middle and an end but it does not have a proper beginning like traditional epic poems. The poet starts the poem when Satan has already been defeated. He starts telling the story from the middle but it is not a drawback; rather it is the unique structure of the poem that creates suspense and compels the readers to read it with interest. At the end of the poem, the poet completes the story. There is no objection from any critic with respect to the completion of the plot and story of the poem. Hence, if we discuss Paradise Lost as a long narrative poem then it certainly fulfils this requirement of a classical epic.

Undertaking and Invocation to the Muse

At the very start of the poem, John Milton addresses the Muse. Since the Greeks, Muse has been known as the goddess of literature, art and science. Invocation is the name of an appeal that a poet makes to the Muse in which he asks for help in writing a poem. Greeks were used to doing that and they asked for Muse’s help in poetry specifically while writing an epic poem. The convention never ended. Many other writers, even the writers of the renaissance and neoclassical periods ask for Muse’s help before starting their poems.

So, it is admitted that every epic poem starts with the invocation of Muse. Many writers practised it. In fact, every epic poem starts while mentioning its theme and then invocation the Muse; John Milton in his book Paradise Lost too, asks for inspiration from the god of poetry. He mentions “Man’s fall” as the theme of the poem and invocation to the Muse and to the Holy Spirit. Thus, we can discuss Paradise Lost along with other epic poems as it fulfil this requirement of classical epic.

Heroic Figures

Epic poems contain characters of heroic figures. Paradise Lost contains the same. John Milton sketches two great characters in this poem; Satan and Adam. It is one of the most important characteristics of an epic poem that the poet creates extraordinary personalities. Most of the time, poets write epic poems involving gods. Homer’s epics are referable in this regard; however, John Milton has not involved any god in his poetry; rather he moulds the biblical story and selects characters from the bible.

If we talk about the first main character of the poem i.e. Satan to prove that he has indeed created heroic figures in his poem Paradise Lost then it is obvious that Stan is a supernatural character. Certain ingredients are there through which we can prove that he is not an ordinary person. He is the most dominant personality. His ride, energy and motivation to achieve his goals have been very skillfully presented by the poet. Satan leaves a striking impression on the minds of the readers to discuss and make Paradise Lost a classical epic.

It is not wrong to say that he is the most heroic character ever created in an epic poem. No epic poem has ever been written with his involvement. His courage and unconquerable will make him different from other characters in the poem. At the start of the poem we see him fallen and defeated yet mentally he is ready to fight back. He is a true leader with the capability of fighting back despite the fact that he is a villain. Book 1 and Book 2 of Paradise Lost best describe his personality. He is not ready to accept his defeat nor does he accept someone else’s domination. It is, therefore, he says:

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven

Satan in Paradise Lost

Discuss Paradise Lost as a Classical Epic

From all these things we can discuss how minutely the poet has sketched characters in his classical epic Paradise Lost. The second heroic figure in Paradise Lost is Adam but no direct action has been associated with him. He is merely a victim of circumstances. There is no denying the fact that Adam cannot match Achilles or Ullyses in heroic deeds but he is a hero of a noble kind.

Paradise Lost faces criticism because of the limited characters. John Milton paints only two main characters in this poem; Satan and Adam. Critics argue that an epic poem must contain more character to create action in the poem but that may not be true. Previous epic poems contain many mortal and immortal characters. Character richness makes them different from other epic poems. Nonetheless, Milton’s Paradise Lost has unique characters due to which it gained fame. As far as action is concerned, it has also been very beautifully presented though the limit of main characters is only two. 

Grand Themes

In order to discuss Paradise Lost as a classical epic, we must ensure the portrayal of magnificent themes in this poem. In the very beginning, as a tradition, the poet describes the theme of the poem. He mentions “Fall of Man” as its main theme. It is a unique theme as no poet has ever written on this subject. It is the story of the father of mankind that almost every human knows; however, Milton creates action while adding spice to the story. It is a functional requirement of a classical epic that it must illustrate universal themes. “Fall of Man” is a subject of universal interest. John Milton decided to write a poem with a universal theme, which he achieved while writing Paradise Lost. 

Disobedience is also another major theme of this book. John Milton sketches it to justify his story. Adam disobeys the order of the Almighty and suffers. He is not the only one who suffers but the whole of mankind suffers due to his disobedience. The theme of “God’s pity on mankind” is interlinked with this theme. Christ arrives and saves mankind from disasters. Similarly, “Justification of God” is also another theme that Milton portrays in this poem. Undoubtedly, Paradise Lost contains grand universal themes.

Coleridge comments on the theme of the “Fall of Man” in Paradise Lost:

It represents origin of evil and the combat of evil and good, it contains matter of deep interest to all mankind, as forming the basis of all religion and true occasion of all philosophy whatsoever.”


The poem may have limited characters but it contains vast themes. Paradise Lost deals with themes that are not particular to a nation or group. It contains much wider themes. The characters of the poem are those that everyone is well familiar with. Thus, the poet tries his best to discuss universal themes with a wider scope in Paradise Lost which makes it a classical epic.

Lofty Setting and Complete Action

Most of the action in this poem takes place in hell. There is a concept of hell and heaven for the believers. The subsequent setting of the poem is on earth. Initially, the poet creates an impression of hell in the minds of readers as a vast dark place. The poet describes hell as a place filled with horrible flames. There are lakes of flames in this place. The fallen angels are there.

After falling from heaven, Satan along with his fallen angels becomes unconscious. When Satan becomes conscious he sees hell as a gloomy and dreary place. Milton uses the “dungeon horrible” place for hell. It is like a huge furnace but the flames do not give light. Nothing was visible but the darkness. He also demonstrates the distance between heaven and earth. It is three times the distance between the earth, the centre of the universe and the northernmost limit of the universe.

Similarly, before falling the angels were in heaven. Thereafter, again Satan goes to heaven and the disobedience was the result of his provocation. Later on, the action takes place on earth; however, the description of these places is very limited. As most of the action is associated with Satan, who remains in hell most of the time; therefore, mostly the setting of the poem is hell. Critics discuss action along with lofty setting as one of the major characteristics of classical epic that is certainly there in Paradise Lost.

As far as the action of the poem is concerned, Satan’s speeches are mentionable in this regard. Book 1 of Paradise Lost is full of Satan’s speeches. He first tells his angels who they are and then he describes their miserable condition. He tells them not to give up and accept defeat. Satan assures them that they have not lost everything. Revenge and hate are in their hearts. He is not ready to kneel or ask forgiveness from the Almighty. He asks his fellow angels to make good use of their powers. He seems motivated from his first speech.

In the second speech, Satan tells his fellow angels their purpose. He tells them the two choices that they have right now; first is to suffer and second is to act. According to him, their purpose is to invent evil out of good and it is one of the ways through which they can succeed.

In the third speech, he compares him to God. He says that he is equal to God in power except for the power of thunder and knowledge. Satan does not feel hopeless from any angle. He makes hell his base from where he would act. At least, he is free in hell and none is there to disturb him.

From these three speeches, we see Satan as a person full of actions. The setting of the poem is also giant. The poet rightly creates these settings and does discuss the actions of his characters in order to fulfil the requirements of a classical epic so that we can compare Paradise Lost with the epics of Homer.

Grand Style

The style of an epic poem should also be different from others. Apart from other elements of the poem, the writing style and structure of the poem are also different. John Milton read other epic poems and also studied the bible in detail and depth; therefore, he reformed the style of writing an epic poem. Milton’s style in Paradise Lost is rich and full of splendour. Numerous poetic devices are there in it due to which it gained an emotional response. There is no artificiality in it. In fact, he tries his best not to add artificial words in his poem. 

There is artistic perfection in Paradise Lost. The poet’s imagination is noteworthy. There is no limitation to it. He talks about the universe, hell, the earth and heaven. He may not be the pioneer of free verse but he is the one who reforms this style of writing poetry. Besides, he makes allusions to Greek myths and to the bible. He has vast knowledge and he perfectly uses it to create allusions. Similes are also there in the poem but those are not ordinary ones. He goes far beyond the limits in the description of a thing. For instance, when he discusses Satan’s shield he writes; “Hung on his shoulders like the Moon”. Similarly, about his spear he writes; “His spear, to equal which the tallest pine”

Hence, indeed John Milton uses similes, and tries to discuss far-fetched metaphors and such a style in his poem which make Paradise Lost a classical epic that can never be surpassed.

Conclusion to Discuss Paradise Lost a Classical Epic

Critics mention that Paradise Lost is rich in classical elements of an epic poem when they discuss this poem in view of the definition of an epic poem. The poet writes this poem after researching and gathering knowledge from Greek myths, poems and epics, hence, there is no element that is missing in this poem. We cannot underestimate the poet’s contribution in this regard. John Milton creates heroic figures, undertakes the Muse, tries to discuss grand themes, creates lofty settings, and writes a long narrative poem with a grand style that make Paradise Lost a classical epic.

F.R. Leavis comments on Paradise Lost as an epic:

It is an epic, classical and monumental: a strong traditional suggestion of qualities goes with those words. Actually, the undertaking to treat the chosen theme in an epic on the classical model is illustrated very strikingly by the peculiarities of the Miltonic genius that made strongly against clarity and outline and made for inconsistency, muddle and vagueness. To put it in a positive way, it illustrates the peculiarities that lead us to say that the world for Milton is “character” rather than “intelligences”. On the one hand, there was his heroic self-confidence,, his massive egotism and his conviction that nothing but the highest enterprise was worthy of him; for the Renaissance poet and scholar the form must be the epic, for the dedicated voice of the chosen English people the theme must be the greatest of all themes. On the other hand, only a great capacity for unawareness – the implicit criticism incurred by his intentions in the attempt to realise them – could have permitted him, after pondering over such an undertaking to persist in it.

F.R. Leavis on Paradise Lost as a classical epic

In the end, Paradise Lost is a classical epic as it is a long narrative poem, has a grand style, heroic figures, and may discuss grand themes and lofty settings.