How does Milton use generic systems in Paradise Lost?

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How does Milton use generic systems in Paradise Lost?

Paradise Lost is most obviously a long poem with Judeo-Christian subject matter, placing particular emphasis on the struggles and successes of individual characters. The size of these characters (Satan, God, Adam, Eve, Raphael) allows them all to be seen as heroes. This overriding concern with heroes and the nature of heroism categorises Paradise Lost firmly as epic, which, according to J. A. Cuddon, is at its simplest level ‘a long narrative poem, on a grand scale, about the deeds of warriors and heroes’ (264).

Milton’s poem can be further termed an epic because of its incorporation of a large number of different forms and modes within its primary narrative of ‘man’s first disobedience’. Rosalie Colie has mentioned that Homer’s epics were the source of all arts and sciences – philosophy, mathematics, history, geography, military art, religion, hymnic praise – and all literary forms (22 – 3). By including a wealth of references to other epics, a model of classical tragedy, several pastoral episodes, various lyric forms and a number of dramatic elements, Milton extends the range of his subject matter so that his poem becomes almost a master-epic, embodying a panoply of literary kinds and strengthening its affinity with Homeric epic. His inclusivist approach aligns him equally with Sidney and Spenser, his greatest English precedents, whose narratives, though in Sidney’s case perhaps not claiming epic status so self-consciously, comprised mixtures of romance, pastoral, allegory, song and epic. The references to past works not only called to mind in the learned reader the tradition inherited by Paradise Lost, it furthered the poem’s own status as epic, thereby doubling its position as such.

At the heart of the poem’s claim to epic status are its interest in individual heroism, its cross-references to other major texts and its use of varied literary forms. Each of these relates in some way to classical or Renaissance systems of genre. Barbara Lewalski (1999) explains the Renaissance concept of genre, or ‘kind’:

the term Genre … is reserved for the historical genres – epic, tragedy, sonnet, funeral elegy, hymn, epigram, and many more – which are identified in classical and Renaissance theory and poetic practice by specific formal and thematic elements, topics and conventions. (116)

Lewalski understands genre in the Miltonic landscape therefore as a product of literary custom and common interest in subject matter, with emphasis on stylistic constructions. She differentiates between ‘genre’ or ‘kind’ and ‘mode’, examples of which she lists as ‘pastoral, satiric, comedic, heroic, elegiac, and tragic’, and which she identifies by ‘attitude, tonality and motifs … which interpenetrate works or parts of works in several genres’ (117). There is hence a possibility in the literary climate of the 16th Century for a heroic epic, a pastoral epic, a tragic epic, and a single epic uniting all of these. The shifting tone of Paradise Lost, which ceaselessly runs a gauntlet of styles and forms, not only complies with the literary conventions of its age but by extending the possibility for modes within genres it pushes generic definitions further than they had gone before, so much so that, in Cuddon’s words, ‘It has become a commonplace that Milton wrote the last major epic’ (271).

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The treatment of heroism in Paradise Lost remains one of its most controversial critical themes. At more than one level of the poem, Satan is cast as the hero. He is firstly a brave and courageous leader of his army: after falling for ‘Nine times the space that measures day and night’ through darkness into Chaos he still manages to break free from his chains and command the building of Pandemonium. During his long speeches to galvanise and restore morale in his troops in Book II he reveals himself as a proud and unhumbled figure; his decision to travel ...

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