Epic Simile: Leviathan
Satan “Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove…
Or that Sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbr’ring on the Norway foam
The pilot of some small night-foundered Skiff,
Deeming some Island . . .
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning Lake.” I, 196-210
Milton constructed extended or epic similes, of the kind he found in Homer and the classics, to lend weight to his grand style, and to create a cumulative image over several lines. Here Satan sleeping on the burning lake of hell is compared to the monstrous whale on the ocean, mistaken by a sailor for an island. As the image builds, so does the impression of horror, for one way to get across Satan’s threat is to make him appear huge in terms of human size. This gigantism of the angels and devils, and the dynamism of Milton’s energetic lines creates a Baroque style, similar to the visual art of Rubens or the music of Bach. These epic similes also allow the writer to bring together, through image and allusion, several dimensions at once—human history, the divine realms, and nature.
“The Sun was sunk, and after him the Star
Of Hesperus, whose Office is to bring
Twilight upon the Earth, short Arbiter
Twixt Day and Night, and now from end to end
Night’s Hemisphere had veil’d the Horizon round:
When Satan who late fled before the threats
Of Gabriel out of Eden, now improv’d
In meditated fraud and malice, bent
On Man’s destruction, maugre what might hap
Of heavier on himself, fearless return’d.” IX, 48-57
Milton uses the Evening Star, Hesperus, to foreshadow Satan’s attack on the earth. Earlier, Satan had entered Eden but was spotted by the angels and evicted. So, he bides his time, coming up with a better plan, and returns. Traditionally, day is associated with angelic power and nighttime with demonic power. Evil spirits are stronger at night. The evening star, or Venus at twilight, portends the coming night for Adam and Eve. Satan works by night, sneaking into Eden as a mist, creeping along the ground until he finds a snake and enters its form as a hiding place.
Images of virginity are applied in various passages to the land of Eden and to Adam and Eve, before the fall.
The angel Raphael descends from heaven and “. . . now is come
Into the blissful field, through Groves of Myrrh,
And flow’ring Odors, Cassia, Nard, and Balm;
A Wilderness of sweets; for Nature here
Wanton’d as in her prime, and play’d at will
Her Virgin Fancies, pouring forth more sweet,
Wild above Rule or Art, enormous bliss.” V, 291-97
The land is an example of plenitude, or God’s wild abundance, with no harmful creatures or herbs. The image contains a hint of opposites, however, with “virgin” and “wanton” juxtaposed. “Wanton” means unrestrained, like a spoiled child, but was also used of a lascivious or sensual person, foreshadowing the possibility of the fall.
“. . . like a Wood-Nymph light,
Oread or Dryad, or of Delia’s Train,
[Eve] Betook her to the Groves, but Delia’s self
In gait surpass’d and Goddess-like deport . . .
Likest she seem’d, Pomona when she fled
Vertumnus, or to Ceres in her Prime,
Yet Virgin of Proserpina from Jove.” IX, 386-396
Though Eve is a matron, she is compared here, and in the seduction scene with Satan, to a virgin because she knows no evil. She is like an innocent nature spirit, or like the virgin goddesses Delia (Diana), Pomona, the goddess of fruit, pursued by Vertumnus, the wood god; or Ceres before Jove made her the mother of Proserpina, another virgin, raped by the god of the underworld. These virgins are powerful goddesses, but contained with in their stories are attempts on their virtue. So, the virgin image once again contains a threat within it. The list of classical goddesses adds to the dignity of Eve and contrasts with her selfish, shrewish nature right after she eats the forbidden fruit.
Epic Simile: Leviathan