No poet compares to Milton in his intensity of self-consciousness as an artist and in his ability to overcome all negative consequences of such concern. Milton's highly deliberate and knowingly ambitious program necessarily involved him in direct competition with Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Dante, and Tasso, among other major precursors. More anxiously, it brought him very close to Spenser, whose actual influence on Paradise Lost is deeper, subtler and more extensive than scholarship so far has recognized. Most anxiously, the ultimate ambitions of Paradise Lost gave Milton the problem of expanding scripture without distorting the Word of God.
A reader, thinking of Milton's style, is very likely to recognize that style's most distinctive characteristics as being the density of its allusiveness. Perhaps only Gray compares to Milton in this regard, and Gray is only a footnote, though an important and valuable one, to the Miltonic splendor. Milton's allusiveness has a distinct design, which is to enhance both the quality and the extent of his inventiveness. His handling of allusion is his highly individual and original defense against poetic tradition, his revisionary stance in writing what is in effect a tertiary epic, following after Homer in primary epic and Virgil, Ovid, and Dante in secondary epic. Most vitally, Miltonic allusion is the crucial revisionary ratio by which Paradise Lost distances itself from its most dangerous precursor, The Faerie Queene, for Spenser had achieved a national romance of epic greatness in the vernacular, and in the____________________