Many elements enter into the magnificence readers associate with Paradise Lost. There are the great reach of the poem, the rejection of all that belittles and, more importantly, the embrace of the indisputably elevated that is associated with the Miltonic sublime. Another feature, one related to the sublime, is style, by which Milton is perhaps more immediately recognizable than any other English poet. A general feature of “Milton's grand style” is continuous magnification, the “amplificatio” (“auxesis”) of the rhetoricians. There are, however, numerous varieties of amplification: Excursus 6.327 deals in part with one version of the superlative, the prime or first. The comparative also has its uses, and every reader recalls Milton's saying that one thing is great but another is greater, or that some great thing is smaller than that which is yet greater. There is constant stylistic insistence on the elevated, the special, and that which is heard of nowhere else. In all this, a necessary distinction must be drawn. Versions of the first, of the prime, may often involve allusions and similar references (two of Milton's most common kinds are biblical quotation and close paraphrase). Not allusion but a field of topoi concerns us here.
Milton recurrently uses two amplifying variations of comparison. The first of them, the incomparability topos, is frequently used in the Renaissance. In his handling (and that of some others), this may be termed his “beyond compare” version. The close or literal examples follow.
Paradise Lost 1.587–88 Thus far these beyond Compare of mortal prowess [The militant strength of the fallen angels]
Beyond compare the Son of God was seen Most glorious [On hearing God speak of mercy]
Sole Eve, Associate sole, to me beyond Compare above all living Creature deare [Adam, when she proposes they garden separately]
Samson Agonistes 556
His [God's] mighty Champion, strong above compare [Comment by the Chorus]
The Miltonic accents in those versions of the incomparability topos will concern us again later. But most readers would think that the distinctive Miltonic idiom emerges in his use of another topos. Everybody who has studied him will recall his signaling heightening with a phrase like “to compare great things with small” or (only once) “to compare small things with greatest.” This version of magnification by comparison is special not only because his usages are striking. It is also unusual in being associated (if wrongly) with no other poet in English. Since topoi are by definition “places” used by many writers, we need to search for predecessors in classical languages. Given the surprising absence of study of the matter, it may be useful to follow the actual steps taken in arriving at the rest of this account.
“To compare great things with small …” Initial discovery came in the course of reading Greek historians. Two passages in Herodotus could not fail to catch the attention of a reader of Milton. The first appears rather early on (2.10):
just as the country about Ilion and Teuthrania and Ephesus and the plain of the Maeander, to compare these small things with great [i.e., the large area between the mountain ranges above Memphis].
A comparison for Sunium is the reason for the second (4.99): “insofar as one may compare small things with great.” If the topos appears in Herodotus, we would expect it to appear also in the more sophisticated Thucydides, and it does (4.36.3): “The Lacedaemonians were now assailed on both sides and—to compare a small affair with a great one—were in the same evil case as they had been at Thermopylae.” Of course for classical literatures we are rigorously restricted to what is extant. These few uses in all Greek prose do not constitute a topos. On the other hand, the examples in prose suggested that there would be others in the measured conduct of verse. There are no known examples in Greek poetry. But the evidence of Latin literature confirms that Milton was using a topos.