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"The name of Milton", says Raleigh, "is become the mark, not of a biography nor of a
theme, but of a style - the most distinguished in our poetry." In all that he has written he has
impressed his indomitable personality and irrepressible originality. John Milton is not only in
every line of Paradise Lost but in every line of poetry that he has written. As Macaulay has
said: "There is not a square inch of his poetry from first to last of which one could not
confidently say." "This is Milton and no one else." His accent and speech alike in Ode to
Nativity and inParadise Lost are his own and in marked contrast to any other English poet.

Essentials of Miltonic Style

Since style is the expression of personality, we have to find the peculiar quality of Milton's
style in his personality and character. In the first place, Milton's mind was "nourished upon the
best thoughts and finest words of all ages", and that is the language, says Pattison, of one
"who lives in the companionship of the great and the wise of the past." Secondly, Milton was a
man of lofty character, whose "soul was like a star that dwelt apart, and who in all that is
known about him, his life, his character, and his power of poetry, shows something for which
the only fit words is Sublime." Thirdly, Milton was a supreme artist. "Poetry", says Bailey, "has
been by far our greatest artistic achievement, and he ( Milton) is by far our greatest poetic
artist. Tennyson truly called him "God gifted organ-voice of England." "To live with Milton,"
says Bailey, "is necessarily to learn that the art ofpoetry is no triviality, no mere amusement,
but a high and grave thing, a thing of the choicest discipline of phrase, the finest
craftsmanship of structure, the most nobly ordered music of sound. So, in Milton's poetic style
we inevitably find the imprint of a cultured mind, a lofty soul and an artistic conscience. "In
the sure and flawless perfection of his rhythm and diction, he (Milton) is as admirable as Virgil
or Dante, and in this respect, he is unique amongst us. No one else in English literature
possess the like distinction.... Shakespeare is divinely strong, rich and attractive; but
sureness, of perfect style Shakespeare himself does not possess. Milton from one end
of Paradise Lost to the other is in his diction and rhythm constantly a great artist in the great
style." (Mathew Arnold). "The study of his verse is one that never exhausts itself, so that the
appreciation of it has been called the last reward of consummate scholarship." Above all, there
is a certain loftiness about the style of Milton, which is found alike in his Ode to Nativity and
in Paradise Lost, and so Bailey says that it is precisely 'majesty' which is the unique and
essential Miltonic quality." Milton achieves this loftiness as much by words as by the sonority,
dignity and weight of the words themselves.
Artistic Perfection
In reply to the observation that Shakespeare never blotted a line, Ben Jonson said, 'would
he had blotted a thousand': No one has ever uttered such a wish with regard to Milton's
poetry. Milton as a poetic artist is never careless or slipshod. There is hardly a line in his
poetic work which is unpoetical - hardly a word which is superfluous. All the words used by
him are deliberately chosen for fulfilling these functions: the exact expression of thought, their
power for suggestion, and the musical effects for the verse. And this artistic perfection
characterises his poetry from his first important poem Ode to Nativity to his last one, Samson
Agonistes. Milton has written all types of poetry - lyric, epic and dramatic - and his style in
each reaches the high water-mark of poetic art.
According to Dr. Pearce, Milton's grand style originates from the formalities of classical
prose. "Prosaic virtues of clarity, order, strict definition, working from line to line, adjusting
clause to clause, word to word, are the real source of that classic "finish" a clear hardness of
texture which everywhere distinguishes the Miltonic line from any other."
Grand style of "Paradise Lost"
The greatest work of Milton is Paradise Lost, and when we speak of the style of Milton, we
usually think of the majestic style of this great epic. When Wordsworth wrote: "Thou hadst a
voice whose sound was like the sea, "he had in his mind the grand style of Paradise Lost.
When Tennyson spoke of Milton as being the "God-gifted organ-voice of England," he was no
doubt referring to the majestic blank verse of Paradise Lost.
Miltonic style of "Paradise Lost"
The style of the epic is always great. On the whole, it is greatest in the whole range of
English poetry. Fullness of sound, weight of march, compactness of finish, fitness of words to
things, fitness of pauses to thought, a strong grasp of the main idea while other ideas play
around it, equality of power over vast spaces of imagination, sustained splendour when he
With plume so strong, so equal and so soft, majesty in the conduct of thought, and a
music in the majesty which fills it with solemn beauty belong one and all to the style; and it
gains its highest influence on us, and fulfills the ultimate need of a grand style in being the
easy and necessary expression of the very character and nature of man. It reveals Milton, as
much, sometimes more than his thought." (Stopford A. Brooke).
Milton's style Paradise Lost is rich and full of splendour; it is replete with numerous
deliberate devices that heighten dignity and govern imaginative and emotional response.
Milton's style is not totally artificial. Inspite of the numerous passages that are thickly inlaid
with allusions and references, inspite of the elevated and heightened character of its style, the
basic structure has an element of plainness. "Plain familiar words, in their natural order, form
the bedrock of his style."
Style in Conformity with Theme
The theme of Paradise Lost is stupendous, "The horizon of Paradise Lost is not narrower
than all space; its chronology not shorter than eternity; the globe of our earth becomes a
mere spot in the physical universe, and that universe itself a drop suspended in the infinite
empyrean" (Pattison). Its characters are God and His creatures, and it concerns itself with the
fortunes of the whole human race. Such a great theme required a great style for adequate
The style of Paradise Lost fully sees to the height of the theme. It is the solitary instance
of sustained grandeur in English poetry (though Professor Saintsbury has instances of grand
style in Shakespeare). It rises to a lofty place by virtue of the poet's imaginative power,
passionate emotion and moral earnestness. Everything inParadise Lost is conceived in a
mighty way. When the poet describes Satan, he calls up the picture of the huge Leviathan,
whom, "the pilot of some night-foundered skiff" deemed "some island". The shield of Satan is
Like the moon, whose orb,
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening from the top Fesole
The fallen angels floating on the lake of Hell
Lay entranced
Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks:
In Vallombrosa
When they spring upon the wing, they look like a cloud of locusts:
As when the potent rod
Of Amram's son, in Egypt's evil day
Waved round the coast, up-called a pitchy cloud
Of locusts, warping on the eastern wind.
So numberless were those bad angels seen
Hovering on wing under the cope of Hell.
The solemn and sonorous quality of the verse-music brings out in an abundant measure
the grandeur of the style in Paradise Lost. There is a cunning variety in the rhythm of his
verses, secured by a skilful variation of his pauses, a freedom of movement and an apt use
of allusion with the right type of long and short syllables.
The Poet's Imagination
The poet's imagination does not submit to any limitation of space and time; the whole
history of the human race and the geography of the entire globe are brought within its
compass. When the poet seeks to convey the idea of the vastness of the multitude of the
fallen angels his imagination goes back to the past, and passes over the entire continent of
A multitude like which the populous North
Poured never from her frozen loins to pass
Rhene or the Danaw when her barbarous sons
Came like a deluge on the South and spread
Beneath Gibraltor the Lybian sands.
Satan's throne in Pandemonium calls up the vision of the whole of "gorgeous East."
High on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshone the wealth of Onnus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbatic pearl and gold
Satan exalted sat.
"No one," says Raleigh, "has known so well how to portray in a few strokes effects of
multitude and vastness." The warrior host of Hell is thus described:
He spoke; and to confirm his words, outflow
Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze
Far round illumined Hell.
The ruin and prostration of the rebel angels is made vivid in two lines:
Cherub and Seraph rolling in the flood
with scattered arms and ensigns.
In his descriptions, Milton studies "large decorum and majesty." He is never tempted into
detail, and never loses the whole in the part. This is the description of chaos, and as the king
of Glory, from the verge of his heavenly domain beholds it:
On Heavenly ground they stood, and from the shore
They viewed the vast immeasurable Abyss,
Outrageous as a sea, dark wasteful wild
Up from the bottom turned by furious winds
And surging waves, as mountains to assault
Heaven's height, and with the centre mix the pole.
There is no minute detail to interfere with the view of the whole.
Milton often uses abstract terms for concrete realities, and by so doing he achieves a
wonderful majesty. He "describes the concrete, the specific, the individual, using general and
abstract terms for the sake of the dignity and scope that they lend." The wind instrument
blown by the heralds in Hell is called "the sounding alchemy." Death is called "the grisly
Milton's avoidance of familiar realistic details was necessitated by his lofty theme, which
precluded everything having a mean or vulgar association. He deliberately creates an effect of
vagueness where concrete details would be out of place. This vagueness is created by such
phrases as "the vast abrupt", "the palpable obscure", "the void immense", the "wasteful
deep", "where by the use of an adjective in place of a noun, the danger of a definite and
inadequate conception is avoided." (This practice of Milton, necessary in his great epic, was
abused by the poets in the eighteenth century, and led to artificial poetic diction).
A minor device which Milton again uses effectively is to add the second adjective to an
already modified noun. He speaks of the "upright heart and pure", "a sad task and hard," Here
Milton is following the common usage in the Italian poetry of Dante and Petrarch.
Suggestive and Compact
"Of all English styles," says Raleigh, "Milton's is best entitled to the name of classic." In
Milton's style we have the compactness, force and reserve and the unity of emotional
impression, which are the distinctive characteristics of the true classical style. Milton was a
conscientious artist; he weighed every word he used for its meaning, weight and sound. "He
taxes every line to its fullest capacity, and wring the last drop of value from each word. " "His
poetry," says Macaulay, "acts like an incantation". Its merit lies less in its obvious meaning
than in its occult power. There would seem at first sight to be no more in his words than in
other words. But they are words of enchantment. No sooner are they pronounced than the
past is present and the distant near. Change the structure of the sentence, substitute a
synonym for another and the whole effect is destroyed. "Milton is often not satisfied with one
meaning from a word, but will make it do double duty. Words derived from Latin served this
double purpose. To the ordinary reader they convey one meaning and to the scholar they
suggest another. This gives a suggestive power to Milton's language. "The most striking
characteristic of the poetry of Milton is the extreme remoteness of the associations by which it
acts on the reader. It effect is produced, not so much by what it expresses, as by what it
suggests, not so much by the ideas which it directly conveys by other ideas which are
connected with them. He electrifies the mind through conductors... The works of Milton cannot
be comprehend or enjoyed unless the mind of the reader cooperates with that of the writer.
He does not paint a finished picture, or play for a mere passive listener. He sketches and
leaves other to fill up the outline. He strikes the key-note and expects his hearers to make out
the melody." (Macaulay).
An essential quality of Milton's poetic style is its allusiveness. He, no doubt pressed to the
service of his poetry all that he observed in life and nature; but his vision was often coloured
by his knowledge. The whole treasury of poetry, ancient and modern, and the whole
storehouse of learning were at his command; and he seemed to assume that they were also at
the command of his readers and so he loaded every rift of his verse with myth and legend,
historical, literary, and scientific fact. Classical and Biblical allusions are most abundant, and
are woven into the very texture of his language. Hence Pattison remarks: "The appreciation of
Milton is the last reward of consummate scholarship. "His scholarly habit of mind is illustrated
in the comparison of the army of Satan to various military assemblage mentioned, in legend
and history at the close of Book I of Paradise Lost
............for never since created man
Met such embodied force, as named with these
Epic Similes
A striking feature of Milton's style in Paradise Lost is his use of epic similes. These go far
beyond the limits of comparison, and are expanded to draw complete pictures. Satan's huge
bulk is compared to the huge Leviathan, who may be mistaken for an island:
Him, haply slumbering on the Norway foam
The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff.
Milton uses these expanded similes to ennoble his narrative rather than merely to
illustrate it.
By all these devices and many more, "he attained to a finished style of perhaps a more
consistent andunflagging elevation than is to be found elsewhere in literature... No poet, since
Milton's day has recaptured the solemnity and beauty of the large utterance of Gabriel or
Belial or Satan" (Raleigh). In the epic similes the use of alliteration produces strange musical
Did Milton "Corrupt our Language"?
Dr. Johnson called attention to the peculiarity of Miltonic diction saying that it is so far
removed from common use that an unlearned reader when he first opens the book, finds
himself surprised by a new language "Our language". Addison had said before, "sunk under
him." Milton's is a personal style, which T.S. Eliot points out, is "not based upon common
speech or common prose, or direct communication of meaning. It violates the accepted rules
of English grammar and syntax, so much so that Dr. Johnson said that he "wrote no
language". Milton had a preference for the unusual and recondite in vocabulary and
construction, which led him to archaism, on the one hand, and to the substitution of foreign
idiom particularly Latin, for English idiom, on the other. We have frequent uses of ablative
absolute with preposition, irregular pronouns, ellipses, constructions changed by changes of
thought, interchange of parts of speech, transposition and inventions and unusual compound
epithets similar to those in Homer. We also find sentences with gnarled and involved
structure, inversions of the natural order of words and phrases and grammatical superfluities.
These devices impart a classical tone of Milton's style but at the same time they are out-
landish and inconsistent with the normal use of English language.
In general, Milton's style may be described as almost uniquely literary and intellectual.
But, fraught as it is with learning and bookish phrase, and elaborate as it is in construction
and alien in vocabulary, it achieves uniform effect of dignity and becomes a means for
expressing the elevated and intensely passionate personality of its author.
Modern literary critics like Ezra Pound, Herbert Read, Middleton Murry, F.R. Leavis and
above all T.S. Eliot have condemned Milton's style for the following reasons:
(i) Apart from its intrinsic difficulties, it is harmful in its extrinsic effects.
(ii) Modern critics point out the artificiality of the inflated and Latinised diction, idiom and
syntactical structure of Milton's style.
(iii) The fabrication of heavy, inflexible and unnantural speech rhythms.
(iv) The reliance on pompous and meaningless sound.
(v) The baneful influence of his verse, strangled the metaphysical style.
However, there are many critics who defend Milton against these charges. C.S. Lewis
maintains that the essential requirement of an epic style is continuity. Milton produces this
stylistic continuity and in order to do this the idiom and rhythm of normal speech have to be
altered. Also that a ritualistic and incantatory effect is inevitable in the best of epic verse.
Moreover, Milton chose blank verse as the medium of his expression, one hitherto unused in
the epic field.
According to Prof. Bush, Milton's style is ideally suited to the sustained narrative of the
epic action. An epic style is narrative, didactic, rhetorical and continuously elevated and
directly exemplary. It cannot become colloquial, witty or intimate without ceasing to be epic.
It cannot have flexible rhythms nor can it modulate the tones without causing disharmony.
All the characteristics of Milton's style may be found in English literature before Milton,
but in Milton they become habitual features of style. Spenser, for instance, uses archaisms
much more persistently than Milton. The use of the Latinisms was common enough in English
prose in the seventeenth century. But no other poet before Milton has resorted to Latinised
diction as a means of removing his speech from the sphere of daily life, and he, therefore,
employed style, corresponding to the dignity of his subject. And this style, which has been
called 'grand style', was something personal to Milton, with his classical training and vast
intellectual equipment. This style was quite suitable for Milton, dealing with a subject
'unattempted in prose and rhyme', but when the pseudo-classical poets of the eighteenth
century employed the devices of Miltonic style, the result was the artificial poetic diction,
which was vehemently condemned by Wordsworth.
Mathew Arnold remarked: "Milton, of all our English race, is by his diction and rhythm the
one artist of the highest rank in the great style whom we have; this I take as requiring no
discussion this I take as certain."