John Milton’s Grand Style
In his Oxford lecture ‘On Translating Homer: Last Words’, Mathew Arnold used this now famous phrase. ‘Such a style, he maintained, arises when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject’. Arnold refers to Homer, Pindar, Virgil, Dante, and Milton as exponents of grand style. It was a lofty or elevated style suitable for epic, a style Arnold himself attempted in, for instance in ‘Sohrab and Rustum’.
Now, we discuss the devices used in ‘Paradise Lost’ by Milton which have caused his style to be characterized as the Grand Style.
Erudite Style, Full of Allusions
The language of ‘Paradise Lost’ is that of a scholar writing for scholars. A beautiful illustration of the poet’s fondness for allusions is provided by his description of Satan’s forces, which dwarfed the mightiest armies known to history or legend:
the giant brood mentioned by Hesiod
the heroic race that fought at Thebes and Troy mentioned by Homer
the knights of king Arthur mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth
the Crusaders who fought the Saracens mentioned in history, and
the warriors of Charlemagne mentioned in the Italian epics.
The whole treasury of poetry and the whole storehouse of learning are at his command.
Suggestive Quality in Style
In Milton’s poetry more is meant than meets the ear. He means more than what he says. As the poet’s difficulty throughout the poem is to describe what cannot be exactly described– Heaven, Chaos, Hell, God, Angels, Devils– he throws out a broad hint or two of their intended shapes and appearance and asks the reader to imagine the rest. Thus Satan’s huge figure, which nobody can have an idea of, is described with a few suggestive strokes: ‘head uplift above the wave’, ‘eyes that sparkling blazed’, and other parts in bulk as large ‘as whom the fables name of monstrous size’. Hell is described
As one great furnace flam’d: yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible……..
Oh how unlike the place from whence they fell.
We have to suggest a lot to form a whole picture of the Hell.
Unusual Structure of Sentences
Milton’s common practice is to place a noun between its two qualifying adjectives, though the English grammar requires both to be placed before the noun: the upright heart and pure’, ‘the dismal situation waste and wild’, ‘ever burning sulpher unconsumed’. Sometimes he uses one part of speech for another, such as verb as noun in ‘the great consult began‘; adjective as noun ‘the palpable obscure’ etc. In spite of the violation of the accepted rules of grammar, one cannot deny that ‘Paradise Lost’ is a poem for scholarly readers. The violation of grammar is not so much criticized as the beauty of his style is appreciated.
Use of Similes
A striking feature in ‘Paradise Lost’ is Milton’s use of similes. These are expanded to draw complete pictures. They had dignity of the narrative, and do not merely illustrate but also decorate the epic theme and character
The lofty tone is maintained in the speeches of Satan, as for instance in the speech to Beelzebub. One cannot help noting the rhetorical eloquence with which Satan encourages the fallen angels.
So Milton maintains a constant elevation and dignity of style corresponding to the greatness of theme, and Mathew Arnold is absolutely right when he refers to Milton as a poet of grand style.
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