Sublimity is the only word that can truly characterise Milton's poetry. The constitutional sublimity of Paradise Lost is the grandest feature of the poem. Here Immensity communes with Infinity. It overwhelms us by the vastness of its conception. It transcends our imagination and experience. The subject-matter of this superhuman drama is the fate of man. The time is Eternity, the space is Infinity, and the actors are God, the Angels and the primitive parents of mankind. The poetry of Milton has the roaring of the ocean in it. Other poets have given us more beauty, more philosophy, and more romance but none has given us such sublime things as Milton.
Sublimity is the most distinguishing characteristic of Milton's poetry. Sublimity is the capacity to enlarge the imagination of the reader. Milton has surpassed both the ancient and modern poets in this respect. As John Dennis puts it "Where he has excelled all other poets, is in what he has expressed, which is the surest, and noblest mark the most transporting effect of sublimity."
The sublimity of Paradise Lost is constituted both by its theme and poetic style. The great epic deals with cosmic theme. It presents the fall of the rebel angels, the creation of man and the earth, man's disobedience of God's command and his consequent expulsion from earthy Paradise. It is a great theme, and perhaps no other epic of the world, whether ancient or modern has dealt with a theme equally great. Discussing the vast scope of Paradise Lost, Mr. F.E. Hutchinson says: "It ranges over all time and space and even beyond them both. It depicts Heaven and Earth and chaos, the imagined utterances of superhuman beings, events, before the emergence of man upon earth, the history of man from the creation and by prophecy, to the end of time, and his eternal destiny... Not all the mountain of theological speculation in the Christian centuries built upon a single chapter of Genesis is comparable with Milton's structure, heaven-high and hell-deep."
In Paradise Lost, Milton has brought a fine fusion of sublime thought and sublime expression; which has unobstrusively elevated the subject-matter of the poem. One finds lines of pure poetry which holds one spell bound by their loveliness. Dr. Johnson remarked on Milton's sublime theme and style." Milton considered creation in its whole extent, and his descriptions are therefore learned. He had accustomed his imagination to unrestrained indulgence, and his conceptions, therefore, were extensive. The charcteristic quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant, but his element is the great. He can occasionally invest himself with grace; but his natural part is gigantic loftiness. He can please when pleasure is required; but it is his peculiar power to astonish".
The characters of Milton's epic are no ordinary beings. They are God and His faithful angels, Satan and his followers and Adam and Eve. Human mind reels to think of the great number of angels who are actors in the vast drama of man's origin. Satan's followers form only a portion of the population of Heaven. But even they are countless, at least so far as human reckoning is concerned. The muster of devil in Hell surpasses all gatherings of men in human history.
In Book-I of Paradise Lost, we only come across Satan and the fallen angels.
has thrown around Satan a singularity of daring, a grandeur of sufferance and a ruined splendour which constitute the very height of poetic sublimity. The fallen angels are thus and otherwise made lofty and indefinable in person and power, thought and feeling, movement and demeanour. "Their deliberations are a ceremonial, their diversions a spectacle or adventure, their solace the pleasing sorcery of philosophy or a sublime concord of harp and voice" (Elmer Edgar Stoll). Milton
Man's Creation against the Background of Entire Space
This great story of man's creation and fall is presented against the background of entire space, and of regions which transcend space, The scenes of Paradise Lost lie in Heaven. Hell and Earth. Satan, while searching for the Earth traverses almost the entire space. Heaven, Hell and Earth combined, form a space of action which is as vast as Creation itself.
Sublime Poetic Style
The next factor which contributes to the sublimity of Milton's epic is the grandeur of his verse. In Paradise Lost Milton's blank verse reaches its perfection. He makes his first serious attempt with blank verse in Comus. In it he shows a tendency to fall back on the single-moulded line of Marlowe, accurately constructed in itself and correctly accumulated but not jointed, and continued and twined into a contrasted pattern of various but homogeneous design. "Yet even here the power of his own genius for verse, and his matchless daring in experiment, introduced variety. And when, some twenty years after, he perhaps began and some thirty years after definitely set to work on and completed Paradise Lost, he had become an absolute master of the blank verse line, single and combined." Milton's stately blank verse in Paradise Lost is in full accord with the grandeur of his epic's theme. Both the form and the subject-matter of the poem combine to make it a great epic. Dryden ascribed loftiness of mind to Homer, and "mygesty" to Virgil, and a combination of the two to Milton. The story goes that when Paradise Lost was published, the Earl of Dorset sent copy of it to Dryden, who in a short time returned it with the comment: "This man cuts us all out and the Ancients too. In sublimity of thought and majesty of expression both sustained at almost superhuman pitch, Milton has no superior, and no rival except Dante. "His subject may attract to repel: his temper may be repellent and can hardly be very attractive though it may have its admirers. But the magnificence of his poetical command of the language in which he writes has only to be perceived in order to carry all before it.
Milton's greatness lies in expressing even the inexpressible in the most convincing and the most impressive terms. "Nature," as Dr. Johnson says "had bestowed upon him the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy and the aggravating the dreadful. "The chief characteristics of the Miltonic sublime style are the avoidance of the uncommon place both in word and phrase and a preference for the common (e.g. archaism or Latinism) in each, full play of imagination, suggestiveness, conciseness, loftiness of tone, and free use of the author's learning. Its total effect is that of a mighty utterance, issuing forth from the lips of a (as Tennyson put it) "mighty- mouthed inventor of harmonies."