The Use of Epic Simile in Milton's "Paradise Lost" Book II
IN MILTON’S “PARADISE LOST” BOOK II
Universitas Islam Sumatera Utara, Medan
This paper will discuss Milton’s employment of epic simile in “Paradise Lost” Book II. Like his predecessors, Milton also uses epic simile to make the main idea in the comparison clearer but at the same time each simile presents vivid picture to the minds of the readers that produces certain sense effects. His employment of epic simile often refers to everyday occurrence, history or even classical mythology.
Keywords: epic simile, comparison, natural, effect, picture
Simile is an expression of the comparison of two unlike objects, usually by using the word like or as such as in: Tom is as ugly as Tony which gives a simple comparison, and Tom is as ugly as Sin is also a simile. Epic simile is an extended simile in which one or both of the objects compared are elaborately described (Beckson and Ganz: 1993). The following is an example of epic simile:
Incensed with indignation, Satan
Stood unterrified, and like a comet burned,
That fires the length of Ophiucus huge
In the arctic sly, and from his horried hair
Shakes pestilence and war
(“Paradise Lost”, Book II, Lines 706-11)
Epic simile is also called Homeric simile. It is generally used in epic poem but it may appear in other forms of literature.
Some critics of epic simile point out that similes are expanded beyond the point of comparison into independent pictures irrelevant to the purpose and that they are therefore excursions of the imagination beyond the needs of the narrative.
In the case of Milton’s use of epic similes in “Paradise Lost”, some critics justify them. Addison, for instance, commented on Milton’s use of epic simile in Paradise Lost:
“There are several nobel similes and allusions in “Paradise Lost”. And here I must observe that when Milton alludes either to things on persons, he never quits his simile till it rises to some very great idea, which is often foreign to the occasion that gave birth to it. The resemblance does not, perhaps, lost above a line or two, but the poem runs on with the hint, till he has raised out of it some glorious images or sentiments, proper to inflame the mind of the readers, and to give it that sublime kind of entertainment which is suitable to the nature of heroic poem.” (Addison, 1710:64)
Boileau, a French author, wrote:
“Comparison in epic poems are not introduced only to illustrate and embellish the discourse, but to amuse and relax the mind of the readers, by frequently disengaging him from too painful an attention to the principal subject, and by leading him into other agreeable images…” (Boileau, 1708:36)
The critics are of the opinion that digressions are justified, firstly because they enhance the poetry by glorious images and sentiments; secondly because they supply variety and relief by introducing scenes outside the proper scope of the story; and thirdly because poetical analogy differs from a prosaic or theatrical one.
There can be no doubt that the variety of scenes and incidents introduced through these similes is of great charm. Milton’s predecessors have also used them for the beauty of independent pictures. But Milton’s similes answer the demands of the narrative. They are images used to portray the scenes, characters and events that compose the poem. They are pictures of ideas and sentiments. They are what may be called transposed description; in order to be effective they have to be detailed.
1. The Murmur of Applause is compared to Natural Sound
The first simile occurs in “Paradise Lost” Book II is the one at the end of Mammon’s speech. Fallen angels gave applause to Mammon’s speech. This murmur of applause is compared to the sound of raging winds which has subsided.
He scarce had finisht, when such murmur filled
The Assembly, as when hollow rocks retain
The sound of blustering winds, which all night long
Had roused the sea, now with hoarse cadence lull
Sea-faring men overwatcht, whose bark by chance
Or pinnace anchors in a craggy bay
After the tempest:
This simile leads us to imagine hollow rocks which continue to reverberate with the sound of a storm blowing furiously over the ocean all night but the storm has slowed down in the morning, with its low rhythm, lulls to sleep the tired sailors who had kept a watch all night because of the danger faced by their ship. The boat now lies anchored in a rocky bay.
Here we have a very elaborate nature picture, though the phenomenon described is a very unusual kind which would not be visualized by common readers. This simile is exquisitely adjusted to the mood of the applause given by fallen angels to Mammon. The fallen angels express their approval in a low murmur and the subdued approval expresses a sense of relief like that of the sailors who have survived the worst of the storm and have been able to shelter comparative safety.
2. The Exultation of the Fallen Angels is Compared to Joyous Natural Sounds
In the second epic simile, the sounds of exultation of the fallen angels are compared to joyous sounds heard in a valley when the clouds have dissolved and the sun begins to shine again.
Thus they their doubtful consultations dark
Ended rejoicing in their matchless Chief:
As when from mountain tops the dusky clouds
Ascending, while the North wind sleeps, overspread
Heaven’s cheerful face, the louring element
Scowls over the darkened lantskip snow, or shower:
If chance the radiant sun with farewell sweet
Extend his evening beam, the fields revive,
The birds their notes renew, and bleating herds
Attest their joy, that hill and valley rings
The smiling sky had become overcast and thus appeared to be frowning. In this sullen mood, the sky had driven the snow of the vain over the landscape. If at this time the bright sun, which had been hidden by the clouds, were to reappear, the fields would come back to life. The birds would begin to sing again and the sheep would begin to bleed joyfully again.
Equally joyful is the reaction of the fallen angels to their leader’s announcement that he himself would undertake the hazardous journey and that nobody else needs accompanying him. Here again an elaborate nature-picture is presented to our minds, but this picture is of a familiar kind and would easily be visualized by the readers. In other words, the joy felt by the fallen angels provides an occasion for Milton to bring before our minds a most pleasing scene of nature.
3. The Mood of the Fallen Angels is Compared to the Mood of the Airy Knights.
In the next epic simile, the mood of the fallen angels is compared to the mood of airy knights who fight in the clouds.
Part curb their fiery steeds, or shun the goal
With rapid wheels, or fronted brigades form
As when to warn proud cities war appears
Waged in the troubled sky, and armies rush
To battle in the clouds, before each van
Prick forth the aery knights, and couch their spears
Till thickest legions close; with feats of arms
From either end of Heaven the welkin burns
Here supernatural image is presented to our minds. We are to imagine that a battle is raging in the sky and that armies are involved in a fight among the clouds.
The fallen angels too have formed fronts to fight against each other in a friendly contest, in the same manner in which the regiments form themselves in the sky.
This simile puts us in the mind of those strange sights which are sometimes seen in the sky and which are supposed to portend misfortune and disasters to human beings on Earth.
4. The Fury of Fallen Angels is Compared to that of Hercules
Then some of the fallen angels are furious and begin to up-root rocks and hill. Their fury at this time is compared to that of Hercules.
Hell scarce holds the wild uproar,
As when Alcides from Occhalia crowned
With conquest, felt the envonemed robe and tore
Through pain up by the roots Thessalian pines,
And Lichas from the top of Oeta threw
Into the Euboic sea
Hercules, who was in state of agony, had begun to up root the Thesassian pine trees and flung his servant Lichas into the sea.
This comparison takes us back to one of the most important episodes of ancient mythology. An error was made by the wife of Hercules. Hercules was very angry and he could not control his emotion. As a result, Lichas met the most painful death, he was flung by Hercules to Euboic sea.
5. Satan’s Flight is Compared to a Fleet of Ships.
In the next simile, Milton compares Satan’s flight towards the gates of Hell with the movement of a fleet of ships seen far off at sea.
As when far off at sea a fleet descried
Hangs in the clouds, by Aequinoctial winds
Close sailing from Bengala, or the Isles
Of Ternate and Tibre, whence merchants bring
Their spicy drugs: they on the trading flood
Through the wide Ethiopian to the Cape
Ply stemming nightly toward the Pole. So seemed
Far off the flying Fiend
Here again Milton builds up an elaborate picture, and in this case, we are taken to distant places. This simile shows Milton’s love of exotic scenes and associations. We are here to imagine a fleet of ships coming from Bengal or from the spicy Island of Ternate and Tidore and pushing toward the Cape of Good Hope. This fleet of ship would seem to a distant observer to be floating above the water and hanging in the clouds. Thus, here we have a close analogy to the shadowy appearance of Satan’s out stretched figure. The mass of ships would appear indistinct at a distance, just as Satan at this time appeared.
6. Comparison Producing Supernatural Terror
The next epic simile in the poem is not of a delightful kind.
Far less abhorred than these,
Vexed Scylla bathing in the sea that parts
Calabria from the hoarse Trinacrian shore:
Nor uglier follow the Night-Hag, when called
In secret, riding through the air she comes
Lured with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland witches, while the labouring moon
Eclipses at their charms
Here dogs, which surround the figure of sin at the waist, are compared to the dogs which tormented monster Scylla and then to the dogs which attended upon Hecate, the queen of witches. Here we have a reference to ancient classical mythology and a reference to folklore. The figure of sin as described by Milton suggests the nymph Scylla after she had been transformed by the witch Circe into a monster. Circe had transformed the body of Scylla from the waist downward into a mass of yelping hounds.
Another comparison brought to the minds of the readers is a terrible picture of the night-hag, a goddess of the under world, thought to be the queen of witches who is fond of infant blood. Thus the two comparisons here are the most frightening and disgusting kind.
7. Satan is Compared to a Comet
When Satan is insulted by the monster Death who utters threats to him and bids him go back to his place of punishment, Satan feels indignant and burns with the fire of rage.
Incens’t with indignation Satan stood
Unterrified, and like a comet burned,
That fires the length of Ophiucus huge
In the Artic sky, and from his horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war.
At this time Satan looks like Comet which stretches bright along the whole length of the constellation of the snake holder in the Arctic sky, with its horrid tail portending pestilence and war. This simile again brings before our minds an unusual nature-picture of an exciting and thrilling kind.
8. Comparison of Two Black Clouds, Standing Front to Front
In the next epic simile, Milton compares encounter between Satan and Death to two black clouds.
And such a frown
Each cast at the other, as when two black clouds
With Heaven’s artillery fraught, come rattling on
Over the Caspian, then stand from to front
Hovering a space, till winds the signal blow
To join their dark encounter in mid air:
So frowned the mighty combatants….
The two combatants come rattling over the Caspian sea and then stand face to face, hovering for a little while, till the winds give a signal to them to clash each other in mid-air. Satan and the monster Death stood facing each other, both equally strong in the same way as those two clouds. Here again, we have an unusual nature-picture which conveys to us potential horror of situation.
9. Satan is Compared to a Monstrous Animal
Another striking simile occurs when Satan is flying through the air. He is compared to the monster Gryphon (half eagle and half lion) flying through the wilderness, over hills and valleys chased the one-eyed Arimaspian who had stolen the gold kept in the custody of Gryphon.
As when a Gryfon through the wilderness
With winged course ore hill or moory dale,
Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stealth
Had from his wakeful custody purloined
The guarded gold: so eagerly the Fiend
Ore bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet pursues his way
The point of the comparison is that Satan was traveling with the same energy and the same keenness with Gryphon who flew in the pursuit of the thief. Here we have another classical allusion. The simile has suggested the animal like movement of Satan. Satan is half-flying and half running like an animal which can run or fly at will. The animal alluded by certain ancient writers is Gryphon. Of course the simile brings to the minds of the readers an unusual picture which is far beyond our personal experience or knowledge. Such similes have supernatural effects producing feeling of wonder and awe.
10. Dangerous Voyage is Compared to Two Classical Allusions
The next epic simile contains two classical allusions. One is to the ship called Argo in which Jason and his fifty companions had sailed from Greece in order to obtain the Golden Fleece and the other is compared to the ship by which Ulysses was going.
And more endangered, than when Argo passed
Through Bosporus betwixt the jostling rocks:
Or when Ulysses on the larboard shunned
Charybdis, and by the other whirlpool steered
So he with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on, with difficulty and labour hee
Both the voyages mentioned are among the feats of epic seamanship in classical poetry. The point of comparison is the danger which Satan was facing in the course of the last stage of his journey. The danger which he faced was greater than that faced by Argo as it passed between two clashing rocks, and also greater than that faced by Ulysses’ ship which had to pass between a dangerous rock and a dangerous whirlpool. This simile again produces feeling of awe and terror in the minds of the readers. Though it serves its basic purpose of impressing the readers on the danger which Satan faced, it also indicates the fortitude and bravery which Satan displayed.
Milton uses a large number of epic similes in “Paradise Lost”. In Book II we find a large variety of the use of epic smile. It is noteworthy that each simile shows Milton’s art of comparison and his care of the effects of the similes he employs.
Of course, every simile is intended to make the main idea in the comparison clearer, but at the same time each simile presents a vivid picture to the minds. More often the picture presented is the picture of some natural occurrence or phenomenon. But at a time a simile refers to classical allusion or mythology.
The simile employed by Milton may be realistic or marvelous, natural or supernatural, something pertaining to an everyday occurrence or something unusual or seldom observed. But the important effect of these similes is to contribute to the grandeur of the poem and thus to heighten its epic character.
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