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Milton's Redemption of Epic Poetry

Wesley Callihan

Classicists, out-of-date liberal arts majors, the sort of people who belong to the Conservative Book Club, and even many Christians like to say that there are certain books or certain classes of books that are more valuable than others. They talk about "enduring values," "the condition of man," "timeless beauty," and "the common cultural consensus." They take the view that if one has only so much time in this life which may be devoted to reading, then a good portion of that time would be better spent with these "classics" than with just any old thing that comes to hand. I must confess that as a member of three out of these four groups of people (you may rest easy as to my position in the fourth), I agree with them.

Within the best class of books -- what most people would understand you to mean if you said the phrase "the classics" to them out of the blue at the drinking fountain -- we find a conscious dependence upon the preceding literary tradition. At one level, this dependence is evident in an author's familiarity with a literary tradition; the terms that he uses in his own works -- his "grammar"-- are those of the authors who have preceded him. They have communicated to him, and he has been receptive. So we see names from classical mythology (Achilles, Hercules, Apollo, Zeus) appearing over and over again throughout the history of Western literature as a kind of shorthand. The significance of each name is part of the "common cultural consensus," and because we agree on the meaning of those terms, they communicate far more, and better, in one word than the author might have with many paragraphs of faceless abstract words. For example, "Trojan horse" is a more lively, enduring mental image than "clever subterfuge" and may even carry far more useful connotations.

On a deeper level, authors within the literary tradition appropriate ideas and themes and even structures handed down to them by earlier authors, and they make them better, or even make something new using the old materials. The epic formula, the ode, the drama, the lyric -- all have been used, imitated, developed, matured, and added to in the twenty-five hundred to three thousand years since their first known use. Although most of the greatest authors were in fact "original" in this sense in that they made something new, originality per se has not been, until the last two hundred years, the dominant virtue for which an author felt he had to strive. When that notion began to thrive under the Romantics (who wrote some beautiful poetry but had terrible theories), it took the form of a deliberate attempt to shake off the past, while pretending to appreciate it, rather than building on it.

Finally, and most importantly here, we find within the "classic" literary stream a specific kind of adoption that matures the forms: authors in the Christian age have redeemed secular ideas, themes, and structures. Augustine reminds us that at the Exodus, the Hebrews "borrowed" from the Egyptians "jewels of silver, and jewels of gold," to illustrate how Christians ought to treat such things as pagan mythology. Many of the stories of the Greeks and Romans -- Achilles, Aeneas, Orpheus, the gods -- are wonderful jewels, and rather than abandoning them, subsequent Christian authors influenced by those stories have borrowed them, sprinkled blood on the posts, and run away with them in the night.

Redemption is possible for at least two reasons. First, since the old (pagan) terms are part of the Western literary tradition, Christians must possess some familiarity with them in order to communicate with others who operate within that tradition. Paul the Apostle used his knowledge of the pagan poets (Homer, Epimenides, Menander), dramatists (Aeschylus), and philosophers (Socrates) to communicate to the Greek world. Second, as C. S. Lewis argues in The Pilgrim's Regress,[1] there may be more to the story of the origin of the myths than simply depraved creativity on the part of the early Mediterranean people. We shouldn't find it unreasonable to suppose that God had his hand in the making of at least some of them, especially in light of the obvious grain of truth many of them carry. Gold and silver are not inherently evil, and neither (considered carefully) are the myths.

Classic literature provides some of the richest ground for a Christian to study if he is interested in understanding and appreciating the classics, if he is interested in demonstrating to his less intrigued brethren the value of immersing oneself in the classics, and especially if he is interested in discovering how Christian writers in the past have exercised the cultural mandate in literary history. One of the clearest and most fascinating examples of a Christian poet exercising redemptive stewardship over the classical literary tradition is John Milton in his use of the Roman poet Vergil.[2]

The high peaks of the Western literary tradition are the great epics, but the epics change according to the worldviews of the authors, and it is the result of that change, of the maturing of the epic form, which allowed

Milton to do what he did. Milton had a view of history which was preceded not by Homer, although Homer is the first in the epic line, but by Vergil. Homer, in his Iliad and Odyssey, reveals a view of history without design and without purpose. In the last book of the Iliad, Priam, king of the Trojans, and Achilles, hero of the Greeks, mourn together for their dead; then Achilles says, "Such is the way the gods spun life for unfortunate mortals, that we live in unhappiness, but the gods themselves have no sorrows."[3] He describes immediately afterwards the two urns at the threshold of Zeus from which the chief god bestows blessings and curses on men without any apparent order or goal. Throughout the epic, "Destiny" is mentioned often, but it is very clear that Destiny is not about the long-range future of mankind or a nation -- it is about the future of each man, and it is capricious, not teleological. In the Odyssey, Odysseus goes to Hades to receive a prophecy, and there meets Achilles, hero of the Iliad, who says,

O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying.
I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another man, one with no land alloted him, and not much to live
on, than be a king over the perished dead. [4]
Neither prior good deeds nor the well-being of one's descendants comforts a person in death. The Homeric worldview has only destiny without significance. Destiny, in Homer, is about "human and personal tragedy built up against this background of meaningless flux."[5]

Vergil's Aeneid, on the other hand, demonstrates just as clearly that the Romans had a radically different conception of history -- that it has a purpose and a direction. From the very beginning of the poem it is apparent that Vergil is "spreading out his story both in time and space." [6] In the opening we discover that, as in the Iliad, the gods are forces that drive events, but we also see that men think differently now about this driving of events. Aeneas, throughout the book, encourages his band to carry on in the face of hardships; not simply because, as in the Iliad, "the Destinies put in mortal men the heart of endurance"(24.49), so that they must carry on with whatever it is that the fates have spun out for them just because that's the way it is, but rather because, as the Aeneid says, the gods "shall raise your children to the stars and build an empire out of their city."[7] All through this work we are reminded of prophecies which must be fulfilled, we hear the constant call of Fate to a direction, to an end (the founding, eventually, of Rome), which the Trojans must obey over every desire of the present. The concept of duty to posterity, to the future, and to the outworking of prophesied events for the nation, though understandable to us, is a new one in the history of the epic attitude, or at least one that Homer's heroes would not have recognized.

Milton redeems this attitude toward history for his (Christian) purpose. Obviously, Milton participated in the epic tradition in a general way by using the forms and conventions of the epic. He writes his story of the Fall in twelve books, he invokes his Muse (the Holy Spirit) at the beginning, he uses epic similes that run on for so long one almost forgets what is being illustrated by the comparison, and so on. But Milton was able to do much more than simply imitate the structural conventions of the epic; he used for his own purposes that one feature of the Aeneid that could only have arisen from Vergil's teleological view of history and that lent itself admirably to telling the Christian story of the future.

In the last half of book six of the Aeneid, Aeneas is shown the future of his descendants by the spirit of his dead father, Anchises. We have already seen that in Homer, too, there is a visit to the land of the dead, but there the purpose is very different. The spirit of the blind prophet Tiresias is to reveal the future to Odysseus, but it has only to do with his own fate--"the way to go, the stages of your journey, and . . . how to make your way home" (10.539-40). Aeneas, on the other hand, hears from his father that "you will learn of all your race and of the [city] walls that have been given you" (5.971.1-2). This is a long range vision that is to inspire in Aeneas something more than the desire to survive and get home. In the last two books of Milton's Paradise Lost, the archangel Michael shows (book 11) and narrates (book 12) to Adam a vision of the future of mankind (Adam's descendants) through history to the end of the world, and this vision has the same teleological drive behind it, only on a greater scale.

Because of such elements as 1) the locations in which they receive the visions, 2) the purpose for which the men are shown the visions, 3) the roles of Aeneas and Adam as federal heads for races which partake of a common ethical quality, 4) the central element (the incarnate hope) of the visions themselves, and 5) the clear connection between teleological understanding and ethical behavior, the last section of Paradise Lost parallels marvelously the last half of book six of the Aeneid. The parallels are such that Milton, thoroughly versed in Vergil as he was from his school-days, must surely have had this section of the Aeneid in mind when he was writing his own vision of the future; and they are a clear illustration of the way in which Milton the Christian uses Vergil's teleological development in the epic to the advance of a new kingdom -- that of Christ.


Aeneas, in the Aeneid, book 6, is in the underworld -- that this is an extraordinary setting is beyond question, and all the narrative leading up to his entry into Pluto's realm is designed to make the audience feel that fact. However, Aeneas is no longer in the place of torment, but in Elysium, the happy half of Hades, and the action has calmed down (from the previous fevered description of souls in torment), so that Aeneas, Anchises, and the Sibyl, the priestess of Apollo, are in the midst of a crowd of the blessed souls moving on their way through peaceful fields toward the upper regions and eventually to reincarnation in the world of living men. In this quieter mood, some of the strangeness of the underworld has been lost. Vergil has a solution, but it comes in the guise of a plausible move. In order better to view the souls moving by, Anchises "gained a vantage from which he could scan / all of the long array that moved toward them" (6.996,997), and then he proceeds to interpret all the figures moving past in terms of the future of Rome. Although Vergil does not make much of Anchises finding a good spot from which to view the passing souls, it is important that Anchises does so, not simply to see better, but to set off what he is doing. He is no longer part of that passing crowd -- the phrasing, brief as it is, has separated him, and created (in a minor, understated, way) not the original mood of strangeness but at least an image of separateness fitting for the prophetic role Anchises is about to undertake.

In the analogous portion of Paradise Lost, after Michael tells Adam and Eve that they must leave Paradise, he commands Adam to "Ascend / This hill" (11.366,67);[8] Adam responds,"Ascend, I follow thee, safe guide" (11.371), and then the narrator says, "So both ascend / In the visions of God" (11.376,77). This repetition of "ascend" emphasizes that something extraordinary is happening; we understand that Adam and Michael are going not just to a different location, but, like Aeneas, to a special one. And that place is

. . . a hill

Of Paradise the highest, from whose top
The hemisphere of earth in clearest ken
Stretched out to amplest reach of prospect lay.


This is a vantage point from which Michael can do most appropriately what he has been sent to do. It shows Adam the world geographically, but it also gives the feel of a separated -- "consecrated" -- place fitting for a supernatural occurrence.

A vision of the future is not an ordinary event, and it does not occur in ordinary ways or places. Not only must the recipient be placed in a special condition physically and spiritually, but the audience must be made to realize that an extraordinary event is taking place. Epic poets are not above giving their audiences clues to the action in their poetry. Not only epic conventions, but any device which the reader can interpret, consciously or not, is useful to the poet in conveying what he wishes to in his art. That is what happens here. Whereas in Vergil, Anchises' simply stated act is our clue, in Milton, it is the repetition that tells us to pay attention, that something unusual is afoot; and the ascent is a movement away from the scene of the previous action and to a separated place.


Vergil's purpose for Aeneas' s visit to the underworld is for him to learn what future races and people depend on his continued struggle against the forces Juno throws against him in her hatred of the Trojans and to encourage him in that struggle by a vision of the greatness of some of his descendants. This sort of encouragement could never have happened in Homer, because of the difference in worldviews. Time was no inducement to the Greek heroes. But here in the Aeneid, the old household gods that Aeneas brought with him out of burning Troy have appeared to him in a night dream and told him that "we shall raise / your children to the stars" (3.210,211), and the god Apollo himself had given Aeneas hope that a land would be given him in which to settle (3.120-30), so that by now Aeneas knows there is a future and a reason to continue his journey, although up to this point his understanding has been vague. What is necessary now is for him to see more clearly what is to come, and that is father Anchises' job. At each setback Aeneas receives throughout the Aeneid, he receives a fresh word from a prophet or a god in order to keep him going. Just when the Trojans' hopes (that the land they were in was the fulfillment of Apollo's prophecy) were being crushed by a plague sweeping through the camp, the household gods had appeared with a reaffirmation of Apollo's message. Later, in book 5, after the Trojan women have burnt their ships in their desperation for a permanent site, Anchises' spirit appears to Aeneas and tells him to come to the underworld to seek him out so that he can "learn of all your race / and of the walls that have been given you" (5.971,72).

When the Sibyl is overcome by Apollo in her cave at Cumae, she tells Aeneas, "Do not relent before distress, but be / far bolder than your fortune would permit" (6.132,33). This is prefatory to Aeneas' journey to Hades and is part of the message of the trip. All of these passages illustrate the fact that Aeneas' s visit to Elysium is designed for his encouragement. Even the Elysian Fields come as a relief to Aeneas after the blow of seeing the infernal side of Hades. There he sees many reminders of his own failures -- Dido, who had committed suicide when Aeneas left her at Carthage, and warriors from the Trojan War.

The vagueness of the prophecies to this point is removed when Anchises shows Aeneas exactly what will happen and who his descendants are to be. Every preceding prophecy is elucidated by the Elysium display, and this shows the importance of the event to Aeneas' future endeavors. Furthermore, one of Aeneas' descendants will be the author of a return to a golden age for a war-torn Rome, and were Aeneas to refuse to go on, his descendants would lose the hope of this man. Not only is Aeneas encouraged, therefore, by the hope of descendants, but his knowledge that one in particular will be great is a spur to his courage.

When we turn to Milton, we see a similar purpose of encouragement at work. In Paradise Lost, Michael says Adam is to see the future

. . . thereby to learn

True patience, and to temper joy with fear
And pious sorrow, equally inured
By moderation either state to bear,
Prosperous or adverse: so shalt thou lead
Safest thy life, and best prepared endure
Thy mortal passage when it comes.


Michael has already told Adam that he has been sent "To show thee what shall come in future days / To thee and to thy offspring" (11.357,58). Thus Michael's purpose is similar to Anchises', in that he is showing the future to encourage Adam to persevere and not to give up in the face of adversity, because there are future generations depending on him, but also because man's entire hope rests on one of Adam's descendants. If Adam does not carry on in spite of the trouble he has brought upon himself, he will prevent the eventual salvation of men. Adam must carry on in his struggle just as Aeneas must. His life will now be both a battle and a journey.

Furthermore, this passage is similar to the above passages from the Aeneid in that Michael's appearance with a vision comes after a major setback -- the Fall. Adam desperately needs encouragement, for he has experienced the same despair that Aeneas has, wishing for death, although his reaction to that discouragement has, of necessity, been different from Aeneas', because the cause of it is different. Aeneas is buffeted by fate, but Adam is buffeted by his own sin. Nevertheless, Michael tells Adam that he and Eve should go on their way "yet much more cheered / With meditation on the happy end" (12.604-605). The teleological perspective he is giving them is to be an encouragement; they are to locate themselves in creation and (especially here) time in order to live out the remainder of their days aright.


Milton's Adam and Vergil's Aeneas are very similar in the roles they play as federal heads of their races. Aeneas is the father of the entire Roman race -- the gods had said, "we shall raise / your children to the stars" (3.210-211). He is the first Roman man. Adam is the father of a race, too -- the entire human race (including Aeneas!). He is the very first man.

In more general ways as well, Milton's description of the future through Michael follows the pattern set by Vergil. For example, Aeneas and Anchises see among their descendants not only good men and leaders, but many who are not what Aeneas might wish in his offspring. Boastful Ancus, the cruel Tarquins, haughty Brutus (1081-1084) -- these are in the line of Aeneas' descendants. Worse (in Vergil's eyes), are Caesar and Pompey, descendants of Aeneas and near relatives of each other, who get along so well as mere spirits in the underworld, but will bring war against each other in their day on earth (1095-1104).

Milton has even more material to work after this fashion, for all of Adam's offspring will be tainted by the Fall, and thus evil to some extent. Not only so, but since Milton is not merely concerned with social or political good or evil, as is Vergil, but rather with absolute, spiritual good and evil, everyone, with few exceptions, will fall under the indictment of evil. Thus, whereas in the train of men that Aeneas sees there are few bad men, now in Michael's display of future men to Adam there are few good men: Abel, Enoch, Noah, the Patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, David, and after Christ, the disciples. From another perspective, Vergil gives us a roll call of many of the great men in Roman history, with only the occasional attack on some bad ruler. Milton also gives a roll call of great men of history, but he emphasizes heavily the predominant evil that will pervade history.

The Incarnate Hope

In both epics, there is a vision of the fulfillment of a promise concerning a great man to come, who will bring his people into a golden age. As Anchises and Aeneas observe the souls passing, they see
the man you heard so often promised --
Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who will
renew a golden age in Latium,
in fields where Saturn once was king, and stretch
his rule beyond the Garamantes and
the Indians -- a land beyond the paths
of year and sun, beyond the constellations,
where on his shoulders heaven-holding Atlas
revolves the axis set with blazing stars.


Here is a description of a man bringing in a golden age, a man who has been promised for a long time. We know that Vergil was very much the conservative, and as such wished wholeheartedly for the restoration of peace and order that Augustus seemed to promise after the civil wars that had racked the Italian peninsula prior to his reign. But Vergil felt so strongly about this that in his Fourth Eclogue he becomes messianic:
The last age, told by heralds in Cymaean song,
Is come! the march of the centuries swings along.
Returns the Virgin, Saturn is king again,
A new and better race descends for men.
But only do, Lucina, deign to smile
Upon the newborn babe, whose grace shall guile
Our iron breed at last to cease its pains;
The age of gold will dawn while Apollo reigns!
The Eclogue speaks in terms of the Golden Age, written about also by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, wherein the earth, under the reign of Saturn before Jove overthrew him, yielded its bounty to man without being plowed or seeded; the animals were tame which now are vicious, and men were peaceable. To all this, Vergil prophesied, the world was returning. Of the subject of the Eclogue, he says, "the world's ponderous sphere bows before thee -- earth and the tracts of ocean and the empyreal vault!" The educated medieval and Renaissance world was so taken by this Eclogue that Vergil was widely considered to be a proto-Christian prophet, even though he was a pagan, and Dante chose him for his guide through Hell and Purgatory because of his standing as a prophet.[9]

Milton uses the basic idea of the promised man in his treatment of the Scriptural theme of Messiah, who would come to put an end to strife in a way that even Augustus himself never could. The messianic theme is the most critical element of Michael's prophecy of the future. The promised man in Paradise Lost is of course the "Woman's Seed"(12.327), the Son of God. Michael refers to the prophecies several times; the first follows the appearance of Moses' successor, Joshua, in the wilderness, when he speaks of

. . . Joshua whom the Gentiles Jesus call,
His name and office bearing, who shall quell
The adversary Serpent, and bring back
Through the world's wilderness long-wandered man
Safe to eternal paradise of rest.


This sums up not only the fulfillment of the promised adversary of Satan but also his millennial plans -- the restoration of Paradise. Later, when he has foretold the birth of Messiah, Michael says that he shall "bound his reign / With earth's wide bounds, his glory with the heav'ns" (12.370-71); then, in his exposition of the end of all things, he speaks of "him so lately promised to thy aid, / The Woman's Seed, obscurely then foretold" (12.542-43). The promised man is obviously Jesus Christ, the Saviour who has been promised for the deliverance of mankind from the evil effects of the fall of Adam and Eve. He will usher in "ages of endless date / Founded in righteousness and peace and love" (12.549-550). This language is not unlike that used for Augustus, but Milton makes the connection between Vergil's terms and his own Christian ones even clearer in his ode, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." There he says that if man could but hear the music of the spheres, "Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold" (stanza xiv); in stanzas xvii and xviii we are told that it cannot be so until after the Judgment Day, but it "now begins." [10] This is not only reminiscent of Vergil, but it would be a mistake for the reader not to have Vergil in mind and to be summoning up the sort of images that Vergil and Ovid had when they used the phrase "age of gold." It is that kind of eschatological imagery that is operative for Milton; the truth can be grasped through the images of the poets.

This promise is the key to the vision of the future. If it were not that Someone would come and restore the world and man, there would be no point in showing Adam the vision. The reason for the vision is to show Adam that even in spite of the Fall, not only should he keep living and battling with the Nature that now is turned against him, but God himself will send an answer to the problem that the first couple created. God's answer will be a restoration, through one great man promised from the beginning, of the Paradise they had lost.

Ethical Teleology

We find a marked structural similarity between Aeneas' exit from Elysium and Adam's exit from Paradise. Vergil describes the gates through which Aeneas and the Sibyl must pass out of Hades thus:
There are two gates of sleep: the one is said
to be of horn, through it an easy exit
is given to true Shades; the other is made
of polished ivory, perfect, glittering,
but through that way the Spirits send false dreams
into the world above.


And Aeneas and the Sibyl leave through that ivory gate, so that Aeneas can reenter the world of the living and press on to found his city.

The description of the great eastern gate of Paradise in Paradise Lost is of

a rock
Of alabaster, piled up to the clouds,
Conspicuous far, winding with one ascent
Accessible from earth, one entrance high;


And it is through this gate that Adam and Eve must exit: Michael grabs their hands "and to th' eastern gate / Led them direct, and down the cliff" (12.638,39).

There is only one gate to (or from) Paradise; there are two gates from Hades. Nevertheless, there are strong similarities in the two accounts. First, and least important, the color of the gates is similar -- Vergil's is ivory, and Milton's is "alabaster" (white). Second, the gates from Hades are restricted, as is Paradise's. Third, in both cases the leave-taking through the gates comes immediately after the vision of the future, so there is no further revelation, no more questions, no dawdling.

In both stories, the protagonist (Adam and Aeneas) must go out into the world and struggle. The vision of the future -- foreknowledge -- does not obviate the necessity for the struggle; indeed, it is given in order to hearten them for it, which implies that the struggle is necessary -- there is no element of fatalism, or determinism apart from means, here; they each see the future, and must now go and bring it to pass. The vision of the direction of the future, the revelation of design and purpose, is to provoke action -- teleological understanding must be ethical, must be acted upon, and cannot be merely intellectual, or it becomes disobedience.

Milton redeems this teleological drive in his epic, given to him by Vergil, in a manner not open to Vergil's ultimately futile outlook. What Vergil's epic, great as it is, could never have consistently supported -- true obedience, self-denial, and long-term ethical behavior encouraged by a consideration of future generations -- Milton's could, because the One Man who is the center of the vision is the same who in the Gospel removes the obstacles to obedience.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), pp. 147-48.

2. The Latin is "Vergillus", Most English writers spell it "Virgil", but I prefer "Vergil" out of stubborn contrariness. Either is acceptable.

3. Homer, The Illiad, trans, Richmond Lattimore, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951) 24.525-26.

4. Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Richmond Lattimore, (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 11.488-92.

5. C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961), p. 31.

6. Ibid., p. 34.

7. Vergil, The Aeneid, trans. Allen Mandelbaum, (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1971), 3.210-12.

8. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Scott Elledge, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975).

9. "Virgil", The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th ed., Margaret Drabble, ed., (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), p. 1031.

10. "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity", Milton: Complete Shorter Poems, ed. John Carey, (London: Longman, 1971), pp. 107-8.

Wesley Callihan is the Academic Dean and a Fellow of Literature at New St. Andrews College, instructor of Literature and History at Logos School, author of numerous published literary reviews, short stories, and poetry, and, with this issue, a new Contributing Editor of Antithesis.
Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991
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