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Paradise Lost by John Milton - Barron's Booknotes
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LINES 192-375. THE EPIC SIMILES.

As Satan prepares to rise, Milton gives us the first physical description we have of the Archenemy. To do this, he makes use of another classical device, the epic simile.

NOTE: EPIC SIMILES A simile is a comparison of one thing or idea to another; an epic simile is an extended comparison, often taking up several lines, in which the epic poet elaborates so much that additional ideas are brought in. Epic similes often occur in clusters, as they do here. Satan is so big that his trunk covers "many a rood," a rood being about a quarter acre. He is as big as the Titans and Giants who rebelled against Jove (Zeus), the supreme god of classical mythology. But it isn't a simple comparison of size-like Satan, the Titans and Giants were rebels against authority.

Giants and Titans aren't enough to emphasize Satan's size; he's also like a whale. Again this isn't a simple statement. This whale, like Satan, is a deceiver, because he seems to be an island and attracts a lost sailor to anchor in his hide. We can imagine what happens when the whale goes down. This story would have been well known to Milton's first readers, who had been brought up on "bestiaries," descriptions of animals in terms of the moral lessons they provide for mankind.



As Satan raises his huge head, Milton explains that he can move because God grants him free will: "Left him at large to his own dark designs." This is an important theme throughout Paradise Lost. (In Book III, God explains the doctrine of free will in his first speech.) God created all beings capable of action-angels and men-with free will, so that they can choose what to do. However-and this is the difficult part for us to accept-God knows their choices in advance, as he knows everything. You will have to make up your mind as you read the poem whether you find this a plausible explanation.

What Milton explains here is that God could have made it impossible for Satan ever to lift his head from the burning lake's surface, but instead he allowed Satan to follow his own course of action. Because Satan chooses to continue the battle through deceit, God has a chance to shower "infinite goodness, grace, and mercy" on man when Satan has ruined him.

Satan raises himself from the lake and with Beelzebub begins a flight to solid ground. The landscape of Hell looks like the devastation caused by an earthquake or volcanic eruption. More important than its physical appearance is Satan's reaction to the scene. He doesn't waste much time bemoaning the horrors of his kingdom. Hell may be miserable, but it is Satan's realm, where he is second to no one, not even God.

In any case, Hell and Heaven are mental states: "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." This is a familiar psychological truth. We all know someone who retains self- confidence and serenity in spite of failure and bad luck, while others are never happy despite all kinds of advantages.

Satan is beginning to emerge as a complex character. He has a rational understanding of his situation, for he certainly brought about his own Hell. He is apparently quite determined to think of it as his own personal Heaven. It's interesting to think about Satan as a reverse God, especially when you see him acting responsibly, as he does now, leading his unhappy followers to the shore. His physical stature is impressive: how do you feel about his moral qualities? Can evil have aspects of good?

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