Milton Criticism: Selections from Four Centuries

By James B. Thorpe | Go to book overview

C. S. LEWIS


THE STYLE OF SECONDARY EPIC
AND DEFENCE OF THIS STYLE ( 1942)*

FORMS AND FIGURES OF SPEECH ORIGINALLY THE OFFSPRING OF PASSION, BUT NOW THE ADOPTED CHILDREN OF POWER.

COLERIDGE.

THE style of Virgil and Milton arises as the solution of a very definite problem. The Secondary epic aims at an even higher solemnity than the Primary; but it has lost all those external aids to solemnity which the Primary enjoyed. There is no robed and garlanded aoidos, no altar, not even a feast in a hall--only a private person reading a book in an armchair. Yet somehow or other, that private person must be made to feel that he is assisting at an august ritual, for if he does not, he will not be receptive of the true epic exhilaration. The sheer writing of the poem, therefore, must now do, of itself, what the whole occasion helped to do for Homer. The Virgilian and Miltonic style is there to compensate for--to counteract--the privacy and informality of silent reading in a man's own study. Every judgment on it which does not realize this will be inept.

____________________
*
From A Preface to Paradise Lost, London, Oxford University Press, 1942, Chaps. VI-VII. Reprinted by permission of the Oxford University Press. The distinction made in earlier chapters between Primary Epic (the Homeric poems and Beowulf) and Secondary Epic (Virgil and Milton) is one of chronology only. Primary Epic is described as "the loftiest and gravest among the kinds of court poetry in the oral period," with the most obvious characteristic of its oral technique being "its continual use of stock words, phrases, or even whole lines."

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