Saturday, 31 March 2012

Milton's Epic Similes

This is a figure of speech particularly appropriate to epic poetry. Homer uses them extensively (they are sometimes called 'Homeric similes'), Virgil elaborated them further, and Virgil was subsequently the model for epic poetry in Western Europe. In English verse we find extended similes in Spenser's Faerie Queene (and allegory is itself a kind of ongoing simile), and they are brought to a peak of sustained sophistication by Milton. Epic similes appear throughout Paradise Lost and though each needs to be considered separately we can venture the following general remarks about them:
  • Because epic similes demand careful attention they slow down our reading; and by their nature they freeze the narrative. This helps to achieve the stately pace appropriate to the gravity of epic.
  • Epic similes usually describe actions rather than objects. Thus individual movements and gestures are given great emphasis and significance, again contributing to a solemn, ceremonial tone.
  • They are a baroque ornamental device, which extends the range of imagery vastly beyond the immediate setting of the narrative.
  • Epic similes are virtuosic, demonstrating the learning and imagination of the writer and appealing to the educated reader (indeed, they are an important part of the education of the reader: this is a traditional relation fo reader to text that we need to rememebr whenever we put ourselves in the position of analyst).
  • Epic similes relate to action, character and theme by amplifying significant aspects of what they describe. For example, Satan in Hell is like a sea monster not just because he is big, but also because he is destructive. By comparing events in the immediate narrative to later history Milton also collapses chronology and implies the universal relevance of his subject matter.
Here is a discussion of the epic simile at work in a passage from Book III (lines 430-441).

Here walked the Fiend at large in spacious field.
As when a vulture on Imaus bred,
Whose snowy ridge the roving Tartar bounds,
Dislodging from a region scarce of prey
To gorge the flesh of lambs or yeanling kids
On hills where flocks are fed, flies toward the springs
Of Ganges or Hydaspes, Indian streams;
But in his way lights on the barren plains
Of Sericana, where Chineses drive
With sails and wind their cany wagons light:
So on this windy sea of land, the Fiend
Walked up and down alone bent on his prey ...

As we know, a simile compares a to b. So we may begin by asking, what is being compared to what here? With an epic simile, we should look for an action rather than a thing. The action being described here is walked (line 1 of passage) - this is known as the control, or tenor of the simile. The action walked is compared to the journey of the vulture, which is the vehicle.

Characteristically, the action in the simile is extended, becoming a mini-narrative concentrically enfolded by the episode and the larger narrative schemes beyond: the vulture starts in a rugged, hostile place (Imaus) and leaves this place with little food ('scarce of prey') to seek prey in the more fertile lands of India; but on the way he comes to the barren Chinese desert. Each detail of this 'story' is a precisely chosen point of comparison, as we can see by thinking of it like this:

Vehicle: Tenor
Vulture is a bird of prey: Satan is destructive, a predatory enemy of man.
Vulture (V) is looking for prey: Satan (S) is actively seeking out man to corrupt him.
V starts in Imaus (hostile): S starts in Hell.
V bound in by Tartary (Siberia): S's Inferno -'Tartarus' means 'infernal region' in classical epic.
V scents its prey from a great distance (17th c. belief): Satan's evil intelligence leads him to man.
V flies: S has flown to earth
V wants to gorge lambs and kids: S wants to corrupt innocence (lamb symbolic of purity, Christ)
V seeks a mild, fertile place: S seeks Eden
V lands midway in the desert: S has arrived in a wilderness on his way to Eden.
Chinese desert is 'sea on land', the confusion of elements: Satan brings confusion to earth.

Each detail in the simile goes beyond visual vividness to tell us something about Satan. In the course of the epic simile, the physical world reveals its property as an infinite store of symbols, pointing us to the inner meaning of the cosmos. There is still another level of meaning achieved through the use of allusion (echoing another text). Walked seems a surprisingly everyday verb to build the whole simile on, but its force is greatly increased if we reflect on the reference to Job I.7:

And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down on it.

The first temptation of man is thus linked to the Old Testament testing of Job: by extension, Adam and Job are Everyman, in continual danger from his restless, roving enemy. There is a further possible allusion in the reference to Tartarus: it was Genghis Khan who broke Tartary's bounds to lead his destructive hordes westwards.

The pedagogical function of the lines depends for its efficacy on the pleasurable exercise it gives the reader's imagination: we have been taken on an exhilarating inner journey through the landscapes of Tartary, India and China (and, as with any epic simile, there is the demand to hold the story in our minds while we read the simile, and then return to it). Intellectually, the passage has taken us into areas such as the bible, history, higher learning and popular belief. The ornamental surface carries an abstract thematic depth.