paradise lost as an epic

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John Milton’s Paradise Lost, considered the greatest achievement in English epic, is a poem which seeks to do the impossible: to provide an account of the book of Genesis through the medium of epic, a genre depicting, among other things, the religious practices and theological imperatives of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. For all that we know about Milton’s classical education, his early training in ancient languages and later mastery of classical genres, many mysteries, nevertheless, remain. None perhaps looms as large as the question of Milton’s political and religious affiliations in England in the turbulent seventeenth century, where issues of Church, State, were at the forefront of religious and political debate. Questions surrounding Milton’s classicism, his theology, and his politics have traditionally been considered as separate areas of inquiry. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s magnum opus, however, these debates arise together in the context of the genre he chooses, and the history of its reception in the ancient world, chiefly in the development of Greek thought. The
Neoplatonist philosopher Hermias remarked that ‘mythology is a kind of theology’, recognizing the role of stories in reflecting the history of religious thought in the
Greek world, from Homer and Hesiod up until the early Christian period. 1 At the same time, questions relating to a chiefly Christian theology cannot justifiably be ignored in discussing the work of a poet who unequivocally claimed divine inspiration in his undertaking to ‘justify the ways of God to men’ (PL.1.26).
Milton’s account of nightly visitations of the Holy Spirit may sound ridiculous to the modern reader, a self-aggrandizement best left aside from serious Miltonic criticism and textual analysis. The attempt to avoid these questions has resulted in attempts to read the poem as a political allegory by a poet who, by the Restoration, had found an uneasy peace in a ‘Horatian’

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