THE EPIC TRADITION IN MODERN TIMES: MILTON
With Homer, Virgil and the rest in our minds let us now look at Paradise Lost; and let us begin, as we did in the case of Homer and Virgil, with the structure of the poem. Here we enjoy the advantage of having the arguments, that is to say summaries of the matters treated, composed for each book by the poet himself. We cannot do better than use as much of these as serves our purpose, which is no more than to expose the frame-work of Paradise Lost.
'This first Book proposes first in brief the whole Subject.' That is what is done at the beginning of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid. At the beginning of the two Homeric poems there is an invocation of the Muse, and here Milton follows Homer. Of Man's First Disobedience . . . Sing, Heav'nly Muse. Virgil begins otherwise, Arma virumque cano, 'I sing of arms and the man'. But in a later part of the Aeneid he invokes the Muse Erato. 'Then touches the prime cause of his fall, the Serpent or rather Satan in the Serpent . . . Which action past over, the Poem hasts into the midst of things.' Milton is translating in medias res and following the recommendation of Horace to follow Homer in this respect. The recommendation was further enforced by renaissance critics from the elder Scaliger to Ben Jonson; all of them known to Milton. 'The Poem,' he continues, 'hasts into the midst of things, presenting Satan with his Angels now fallen into Hell. . . . Satan awakens all his Legions. . . . They rise, thir Numbers, array of Battel, the chief Leaders nam'd.' That is to say we now have a catalogue. No epic poem, it had come to be felt, could dispense with a catalogue.
'To these'--the leaders enumerated in the catalogue--'Satan