An Analysis of a Literary Device – The Epic Simile in Milton’s Paradise Lost

13 December 2012

Milton’s Epic Similes in Paradise Lost

Elle Irwin

Epic similes are used in literary works to create elaborate comparisons beyond the original point of similarity (OED). Milton uses a number of epic similes in his poem Paradise Lost. As Harding suggests in his article “Milton’s Bee-Simile,” Milton could have used epic similes in order raise his poetry to the level of his Greek predecessors. I would like to argue that instead of superficial inflation, Milton’s use of this literary device is essential to his poetic project of aligning humanity with the fallen angels and making Satan and the fallen angels more relatable. While the typical purpose of an epic simile is aggrandizement, many of Milton’s comparisons work to diminish Satan and the Fallen Angels. The similes create sympathy for the characters by comparing Satan and the fallen angels to objects and creatures that reduce their severity. As Paradise Lost progresses, Milton’s use of epic similes gradually diminishes those that they describe, making the reader more sympathetic to Satan and the Fallen Angels as well as aligning humanity to the fallen characters.

The Greek poet Homer is thought to have originated the epic simile in his poem The Iliad, to which we can make connections to Milton. Milton’s bee-simile is an excellent example of a “shared” epic simile between Homer and Milton. Homer uses his bee simile to describe Achaian warriors who are swarming to hear the decisions of their council (Harding 664). Assumingly Homer’s epic simile in The Iliad inspired Milton to create one of his own. There are many similarities between the two epic similes. In Milton’s epic simile in Book one of Paradise Lost, the fallen angels in Pandaemonium are also called to assembly. Both similes mention troops which suggests the presence of many warriors. Both similes suggest an extremely dense cluster of bees. The bees are in constant movement and spring flowers are also referred to in each passage. In his article entitled “Milton’s Bee-Simile”, Harding notes a crucial difference between the two poets. “The main point of the Homeric comparison is to express the numbers of the Greek warriors and the manner in which they advance. On the other hand, although Milton is making the same point, his simile engages the ear fully as much as it does the eye”(Harding 665). What Harding is suggesting is that Milton brings both sight and sound into his description of the bees. Milton writes, “brushed with the hiss of rustling wings” which brings to life not just the massive size of the swarm, but also their wildness. Milton’s imitation of Homer’s bee simile could suggest that Milton includes epic similes to inflate his work to the profoundness of the Greek and Roman poets before him but the differences show he is doing something more. As Harding writes, “Milton wanted his readers to recognize the source of his allusion so that they could compare his version with the original and then judge for themselves how skillfully, and with what new creative insights, he had reworked it”(Harding 665). However, I would like to argue that Milton instead uses his epic similes in an ironic fashion. Some might think Milton wants to inflate the fallen angels to the heroic level of the Achaian warriors, but it seems clear that Milton actually deflates both Satan and the Fallen Angels through his use of this literary device.

The importance of epic similes to Milton’s poetic project is pertinent to my discussion because in my argument that follows I will discuss how Milton’s epic similes play an essential role in deflating the Fallen Angels and Satan, therefore making them more sympathetic to the reader. Martinsek’s paper entitled “Milton’s Use of Epic Similes in Paradise Lost” lists the functions of Milton’s epic similes: foreshadow, aggrandizement, emotion/intellectual functions, aesthetic, relief, illustrative (Martinsek 12). All of these functions prove that Milton’s inclusion of epic similes was for a greater purpose than just inflation. Perhaps Milton wanted to create this connection so the reader at first glance would see this inflation and write Milton off as his own, unique poet. It isn’t until further inspection that it becomes apparent that Milton has a greater purpose. The first simile in which I recognize something greater happening is when Satan is compared to the sun. In Homer’s bee simile, he compared a large throng of warriors to a swarm of bees. This makes logical sense. However, Milton’s comparison of Satan to the sun is not as straightforward. A “sun new risen” often represents light, life, and all that is good. If the sun represents good and Satan embodies evil, then why does Milton align the two? This is the first instance where Satan appears sympathetic to me. As readers we become entranced with Satan’s character as something alike the goodness of the sun, causing us to create sympathy for him, his angels, and his mission.

Milton often uses epic similes in his descriptions of the Fallen Angels that create sympathy for these sunken characters. The first example of an epic simile that instills sympathy in the fallen angels is when Milton compares them to fallen leaves. The image Milton creates with this simile is extremely depressing and shows just how far the angels have fallen from their previous glory. Like the leaves from the trees, the angels too have fallen and are strewn about in hell; they are lifeless and piled on top of each other. Satan is taken aback by the Angels’ drastic change in appearance. Milton writes, “Under amazement of their hideous change/he (Satan) called so loud that all the hollow deep/of hell resounded”(Milton 1.313-14). Along with comparing the angels to dead leaves, Milton uses nature in this simile to create sympathy. Fallen leaves have no purpose in nature other than to decompose. As James suggested in his course site post, perhaps God wishes the Fallen Angels to take a similar path as fallen leaves; to decompose into something beneficial for the Earth (Murphy).

Just lines after the fallen leaves simile, Milton then compares the Fallen Angels to a swarm of locusts, further instilling the reader’s sympathy in the fallen characters. It is interesting that Milton places this simile so soon after the leaves simile. The leaves simile portrays the Fallen Angels as pathetic, fallen beings who are strewn on top of the Earth. The locust simile is unsettling and creates sympathy in a different way than the leaves simile. The reader’s initial impulse could be that locusts are evil due to various biblical implications. For example we see locusts mentioned in Revelation when it says, “Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth”(Revelation 9.7-10). However, another interpretation is that the locusts are trapped. Milton writes, “Hovering on wing under the cope of hell/’Twixt upper, nether, and surrounding fires” as well as, “Their course, in even balance down they light/on the first brimstone and fill all the plain”(Milton 1.346-50). Milton’s language of light inspired me to envision a large swarm of locusts surrounding a massive fire. Like how light charms moths, the angels’ “great sultan” entrances them and they become trapped like moths to a flame (Milton 1.348). Satan has become their light and their hope. The angels are “warping on the Eastern wing” and “hovering on wing” which suggests they are in constant movement (Milton 1.341-45). This is unlike their previous depiction as stagnant leaves. The movement in the locust simile suggests that the angels have become restless in anticipation for Satan’s plan of action. This image of the angels swarming their leader, trapped in unfamiliar bodies, creates a great deal of sympathy.

The Fallen Angels as a group appear extremely sympathetic in Milton’s similes. The loyalty and courage of the angels is apparent in Satan’s many speeches. The angels build Pandemonium and they rise from their fallen state into warriors. Reading these characteristics of the angels might lead the reader to depict them as heroic. However, as Harding writes in his article, “Confronted by this awesome display of heroic energy, the unreflective reader may succumb to the fallacy of seeing the Fallen Angels as they see themselves”(Harding 669). I find it extremely depressing to picture the Fallen Angels assessing themselves as courageous warriors while Milton instead invokes sympathy for these characters by comparing them to creatures that reduce their heroics. By creating this discrepancy, Milton makes the fallen angels even more sympathetic and vulnerable.

Milton also uses epic similes to compare Satan to various creatures and with each comparison Satan becomes further diminished. The first epic simile of Satan is found in book one and compares Satan to a large sea monster known as the Leviathan. The Leviathan is referenced many times in the bible. Isaiah 27:1 says, “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1). The Leviathan, like Satan, also takes form as a giant serpent. This comparison foreshadows Satan’s last state of existence in Paradise Lost when he appears as a serpent in books nine and ten. Satan as the Levitation is a disturbing image. In the bible, the Leviathan is large, has many heads, and dwells in the sea. This simile implies Satan’s power and fury as the angels awaken to find they have fallen into hell. Milton does not create any sympathy for Satan in this first simile. Milton offers another simile of Satan in book one that describes him as a sympathetic leader. Although this simile comes not far after the Leviathan simile, there is a drastic difference in how Satan is described. Milton writes,

He, above the rest

In shape and gesture proudly eminent

Stood like a tower; his form had not yet lost

All her original brightness nor appeared

Less than archangel ruined and the excess

Of glory obscured, as when the sun new arisen (Milton 1.589-594).

This is the first simile in which I see Milton’s attempt to create sympathy for the fallen characters. Where before he was compared to a giant sea monster, here Satan is likened to solar eclipse. Milton writes that Satan is “shorn of his beams/or from the behind the moon/in dim eclipse”(Milton 1.596-97) Satan is compared to the sun trapped behind the moon. In a solar eclipse, you can only see the outer rays of the sun protruding from behind the moon’s shadow. This creates sympathy for me as a reader because it seems as though Satan’s light was blocked by God’s power when God banished him and the other angels to hell. Although you can’t see the sun in a solar eclipse, you know it is still there, in all its glory. Satan must lead the angels with an eclipsed power; a power continuously obstructed by the shadow of God’s might.

Satan’s digression from a bird to a serpent makes Satan more concrete and relatable; the reader is able to understand his character more through his diminishment. Satan’s digression takes place in book four where he comes to Earth to find and enter Paradise. The first simile is of Satan as a wolf:

At one slight bound high overleaped all bound

Of hill or highest wall, and sheer within

Lights on his feet. As when a prowling wolf,

Whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for pretty,

Watching where shepherds pen their flocks at eve

Leaps over the fence with ease into the fold

Or as a theif bent to unheard the cash

Of some rich burgler…So clomb the first grand their into God’s fold (Milton IV181-92).

Satan appears the strongest and most terrifying at this moment when he easily leaps over the wall into Paradise. Milton’s sympathy for Satan has not yet explicitly begun to build. However, in this simile we get foreshadowing that Satan is going to “steal” something from humanity because he not only appears as a wolf, but also as a thief. This idea could create sympathy because of Satan’s overarching goal to corrupt humankind. Satan results to theft of those he envies. It is a pathetic plan coming from someone who used to reside as an angel in heaven. This simile shows just how far Satan has fallen.

Satan appears next in book four as a bird perched on the top of the tree of life. Milton writes, “Thence up he flew and on the Tree of Life/The middle tree and highest there that grew/Sat like a cormorant, yet not true life/Thereby regained but say devising death”(Milton IV.194-97). What I find most sympathetic about this comparison of Satan is Milton’s mentioning of a “cormorant.” A cormorant is defined both as “a large and voracious sea-bird, about three feet in length, and of a lustrous black color” and “an insatiably greedy or rapacious person”(OED). Satan’s greed and his envy of Adam and Eve has taken over his impulses and actions. At this moment, Satan has become obsessed with the demise of humankind. Satan ignores “true life” to “devise death on those who live”(Milton IV.196-97).  I find this notion extremely depressing. Satan has just entered Paradise, a natural wonderland, with porous earth, fresh fountains, flowers worth of Paradise, and nectar on each tree. Eden is described as a “happy rural seat” (Milton IV.247). So why would someone enter such a haven, and then seek to destroy it? Satan has fallen from heaven to hell, and now he finds heaven on Earth, where he could potentially dwell, and he instead wants to destroy the beauty of it all. Arguably this comparison of Satan could show Satan’s evilness because of his ruthless plot to deceive Adam and Eve, but is also shows sympathy because the reader wonders how one man could so easily ignore Paradise.

Satan descends from the Tree of Life and transforms into a tiger. Milton writes, “Then from his lofty stand on that high tree down he alights among the sportful heard of those four footed kinds, himself now one”(Milton IV.396-398). Through this transformation, Satan becomes a predator. Satan also becomes exceedingly more envious. While in the form of a tiger, Satan overhears a romantic retelling of how Adam and Eve first met and then reacts thus, “For envy, yet with jealous leer malign/Eyed them askance”(Milton IV.503-504). Satan then says aloud, “Sight hateful, sight tormenting!/…The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill/of bliss on bliss, while I to hell am thrust”(Milton IV.505-8). Here Satan creates sympathy for himself. Satan is envious of Adam and Eve’s love and their ability to live blissfully while he dwells in hell. Of course the counter argument here would be that Satan was banished to hell for a reason and God’s actions are always justified. Yet, we know that later on humankind falls. So how different is humankind from Satan if we can also fall?  Here we begin to identify with Satan and we see his raw humanity exuding from his tiger disguise.

Satan’s degeneration continues when he is likened to toad while tempting Eve in her dreams. With this simile, it becomes clear that Satan is gradually deteriorating. We see that the angels who find Satan cannot even recognize him as the leader of the fallen angles. Instead on of the angels says, “Which of those rebel spirits adjudged to hell/ com’st thou, escaped thy prison and transformed?”(Milton IV.823-24). What makes Satan so sympathetic in this simile is that the angel Ithuriel, when coming across Satan, touches him with his spear and causes Satan to “return of force to (his) own likeness”(Milton IV.812-13). Even in his own likeness without the disguise of the toad, Satan cannot be recognized. Satan has become unrecognizable because he is gradually disfigured by his sins.

We then see an arguably purposeful absence of comparisons involving the fallen angels until books nine and ten where Satan is likened to a serpent. The density of epic similes is greatest in the books directly before and after the fall of Adam and Eve. This could be to highlight both the prelapsarian and postlapsarian behaviors of the fallen angels. From analyzing Satan as a serpent, it is clear that Satan has not gained anything from succeeding in his temptation and that his degeneration continues. Perhaps Milton wanted to emphasize how postlapsarian Satan is extremely similar, if not more horrific, than the prelapsarian Satan.

A foreshadowing of Satan’s future disfigurement as a serpent comes in book four and then his transforms into a serpent in book nine. When describing how beasts first roamed the Earth Milton writes, “close the serpent sly/Insinuating, wove with Gordian twine/His braided train and of his fatal guile”(Milton IV. 347-49). In book nine, back in Paradise, we see Satan’s transformation. Satan says, “O foul descent, that I who erst contended/With gods to sit the highest, am now constrained/Into a beast and mixed with bestial slime/This essence to incarnate and imbrute/…But what will not ambition and revenge/ Descend to?”(Milton IX.163-69). We see that Satan has become aware of his “imbrutement.” What makes this transformation sympathetic is how little Satan has learned after his fall. To end his speech Satan says, “spite when with spite is best repaid”(Milton IX.177). Satan’s disfigurement has only convinced him further that “Who aspires must down as low as high he soared”(Milton IX169-70).  Milton wonders why he is being punished for his ambition rather than recognizing his own evils.

A similar speech is made in Milton’s Comus where the elder brother discusses what will happen to his sister if she cannot resist temptation. He says, “The soul grows clotted by contagion/Embodies and imbrutes”(Milton 467-68). In this second example of “imbrutement”, the brother speaks of the woman who is being tempted whereas in Paradise Lost the person sinking to the level of a brute is the one doing the tempting. The main difference between these two scenarios is that the Lady understands what she must do to keep her chastity, but Satan does not understand how to rise from his fallen state. Instead, Satan continues to fall and fall until he is unrecognizable.

The height of our sympathy for Satan comes in book ten when Satan returns to Pandaemonium. Satan begins a speech to the angels exclaiming his victory over humankind. Even at this moment Satan still believes in his cause. He ends his speech by saying, “Ye have the account/Of my performance. What remains, ye gods/But up and enter now into full bliss?”(Milton X.501-03). At this moment, all the angels including Satan himself descend into shapes of serpents. Milton writes,

So having said, awhile he stood, expecting

Their universal shout and high applause

To fill his ear, when contrary he hears

On all side, from innumerable tongues,

A dismal universal hiss, the sound

Of public scorn (Milton X.504-09).

At first I felt sympathy for Satan after reading this passage because of his ignorance. However, this moment also ended the intense sympathy I felt for Satan throughout the entire poem. In this moment we see clearly that Satan does not understand God. This moment is not a simile. The angels have actually turned into beasts: scorpions, dragons, pythons, and other types of snakes. No longer do the angels support their leader. Milton makes it clear with this passage that Satan has not only caused himself to fall deeper, but also all those who support him.

Milton’s similes bring sympathy and understanding to those characters that they describe and also align the characters within the comparisons to humankind. In her article “Milton’s Kinesthetic Vision in Paradise Lost” Elizabeth Ely Fuller says, “Satan’s physical being has no integrity: he repeatedly changes shape and substance (Fuller 52). ” It could be that Satan’s physical representation is what makes him relatable.  Maybe Satan’s lack of integrity is what makes the reader sensitive towards him. Satan begins his journey as an angel in heaven, and ends his journey as a tormenting serpent. As Satan digresses, he becomes more concrete. We see Adam and Eve follow a similar path. Before the fall, man and woman are unfamiliar because their lives are surrounded by perfection and bliss. Once they have fallen, they experience emotions that are easier for us to understand: lust, jealously, revenge. The further Satan falls from heaven, the closer he becomes to humankind and the further Adam and Eve fall, the closer they become to Satan. It is alarming that Milton aligns Satan not closely with God, but with humankind. We can never truly comprehend God; we can only understand our own sins. Milton wants us to understand evil clearly; he wants to make evil tangible so we can see it, feel it, smell it, and recreate it in our minds. We do not get this same treatment of God because God is not used in any of Milton’s similes. Therefore, Milton is treating heaven supremely.  Milton is in some sense playing the role that assumingly God did in Paradise Lost. God wants us to understand evil so we can know and appreciate good. We wouldn’t see this point as effectively without Milton’s similes. I couldn’t picture Satan atop a tree, perched as a large bird or Satan whispering temptation into Eve’s ear as a toad. These comparisons are what make Satan relatable; they make Satan more than an angel dispelled from heaven. Satan becomes earthly, sympathetic, and arguably more human.

Works Cited

Coogan, Michael D. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with

Apocrypha. Fourth ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. College Edition.

“Discover the Story of English More than 600,000 Words, over a Thousand Years.”

Home: Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Fuller, Elizabeth Ely.,   and John Milton. Milton’s Kinesthetic Vision in Paradise Lost. Lewisburg:

Bucknell UP, 1983.

Harding, James P. “Milton’s Bee-Simile.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 60.4

(1961): 664-69.

Homer. “Iliad.” Johnstonia. Ian Johnston, Apr. 2012.

Martinsek, Francis L. Milton’s Use of the Epic Simile in Paradise Lost. Thesis. Loyola

University Chicago, 1941. Chicago: Loyola ECommons, n.d.

Milton, John. “A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle.” Milton’s Selected Poetry and Prose. New

York: W.W.Norton, n.d. 52.

Milton, John, David Scott. Kastan, and Merritt Y. Hughes. Paradise Lost. Indianapolis:

Hackett Pub., 2005.

Murphy, James. “Fallen Angels – Fallen Leaves.” (2012): Course Site. 17 Oct. 2012


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