Epic Traditions: the Hero--Homer to Virgil to Dante to Milton
Epics can be known by their formal characteristics, but great epics participate in a tradition by which each new epic refers consciously to the epics which came before it. To even have a chance to be recognized in this tradition, epics have to meet the basic criteria for such great poems. M.H. Abrams' shorter literary term dictionary at the back of the Norton sums up the typical attributes of the epic: a large work about heroes who are capable of larger deeds than ordinary mortal characters, whose actions are described beginning in the middle of the plot (in medias res, L. "in the middle of things") so that the narrative appears to hurtle forward from great events (narrated in flashbacks) toward even greater events (often foretold in prophecies). The poems' style is always elevated by the use of extended similes, comparisons which incorporate long descriptions of natural phenomena to explain the otherwise inexplicable aspects of the epic hero's character or world. (An often-cited example is Milton's extended simile describing the appearance of the Fallen Angels on the surface of Hell's lake of fire [Paradise Lost I.301-13].) In addition to these formal characteristics, the epic hero and the hero's struggles must connect with some great task, great enough to involve even the gods, and the task's outcome will affect the destinies of whole cities, kingdoms, empires, or humanity, itself.
Our earliest historical examples of epic heroes and their tasks are Homer's great Achilles and Odysseus, and the Greeks' war against the Trojans. Achilles, known in the Iliad by the epithets (nicknames) "the Man Breaker" or "the Great Runner," is heroic in the sense that he fights triumphantly against all his enemies and takes no thought for his own safety, defending rather the honor and duties that a warrior must insist are due to him. He seeks fame, obeying only the immortal gods. Even by the end of the Iliad's hundreds of years of composition, however, revisionism seems to have found its way into the poem, repeatedly posing criticisms of the hero for his titanic rage which nearly destroys the Greek army when Achilles refuses to fight in his quarrel with Agamemnon. This costs him the life of his best friend, Patroclos, who goes into battle to replace him and dies fighting Hector, who was Achilles' destined opponent. Finally, even Zeus sends Hermes to tell Achilles that he has exceeded the bounds of propriety. Of course, by that time, he has been dragging Hector's corpse behind his chariot around and around Troy's walls for three days to demonstrate how completely he has defeated the man who took Patroclos from him.
The Odyssey, which most scholars think comes later in order of composition, appears to be one of a suite of similar epics depicting the "homecoming of the Greek heroes from Troy." The poem's extraordinary challenge to the Iliad is that it has a cautious, self-controlled man for its hero. Odysseus certainly is capable of the white-hot wrath of an Achilles, but he also is capable of containing it behind impenetrable disguises erected by his self-control (sophrosyne <so-fro-si-nay>). His most common epithet is some form of polutropos, many-turning, strategically thinking, devious, or just wise. That complexity in his thought gives Odysseus the capacity to contain his heroic rage within mazes woven of strategic language. In the most famous instance of this, when captured with his men in the cave of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, he denies his own identity and claims to be Outis, a nonsense word that sounds like the Greek "Nobody." For a Mycenean warrior who values personal fame, this is nearly the lowest to which he can sink. But after he has rallied his terrified men to poke out the Cyclops' eye and engineered their escape from the cave, the only person the Cyclops can blame for his injury is "Nobody"! However, Odysseus lets that rage slip out in one tragic instant when the ships are pulling away from the island and the blinded monster roars out pathetically from the beach. The hero tells this mutant son of Poseidon his true name and kinship and home island (and ZIP code and URL!). Therefore, the son can pray to his father and Poseidon becomes Odysseus' implacable enemy, delaying his homecoming for another 9 years. Odysseus appears to learn from that, though (becoming a "round" character?), and when he encounters future chances to betray his identity, he tells no one his true name until he has tested them. Those he tests in Ithaca include his son, his childhood nurse, his own wife, and his father. He is a hero who survives tests, and who learns to test others, and his reward is that he regains his kingdom of Ithaca and is reunited with his son, Telemachus, and his wife, Penelope.
Virgil's Aeneas (typical epithet "pius" or godly, god-fearing) is tested from first to last as part of the Aeneid's plot. From the start, Virgil intends to displace the violent and deceptive Greek epic heroes with a godly man who keeps his promises and fights not for personal gain, but for the destiny of his people and of Rome. The testing often involves forcing the warrior to refrain from taking up arms (as when Hector's shade warns him in a dream that the Greeks have invaded the city). Finally, though, his test turns to his capacity to kill when his enemy, Turnus, has yielded absolutely. What he does in this test is one of the poem's tests of the reader, as well, since Virgil has set us up to see restraint as the paramount value. By the end, Jupiter, himself, tells Juno that she (like Achilles!) has exceeded her proper authority in delaying Destiny and orders that she abandon her Poseidon-like delays of Aeneas' progress. That raises the question that Book 1's invocation asked about whether the gods could be capable of pettiness and injustice, a critique of his own religious system which made Virgil very important to Dante and later Christian writers.
Dante's La Divina commedia strives to outdo Virgil by putting the poet at the center of the poem and making an ordinary mortal's struggles to understand divine justice a suitable subject for epic. For Dante, the political struggles of Rome or his native Florence are no longer worthy of the effort Virgil put into his poem, and the only fit subject for epic now is the Christian meta-drama of Divine Justice seen in all its forms, the damned in the Inferno, those awaiting purification in the Purgatorio, and the saved in the Paradiso. This shift of emphasis results in a curious deferral of the invocation of the Muse, which occurs in the first verses of classical pagan epic poems. Dante asks for divine poetic assistance in Canto 2, after Canto 1's meditation on the mid-life crisis of the soul which brought the poet to this great effort. The introduction of Virgil as his guide sets up a pagan literary framework for his attempt, but when he turns toward the Divine Mystery of explaining the Inferno, he then invokes the Muse, specifically the Holy Spirit that animated the Apostle Paul. The pilgrim, "Dante," is tested like Aeneas as he confronts the souls of the Underworld. Will he sympathize with their plight, or will he admit God's justice when he has heard of their crimes? Dante-the-poet raises the stakes on "Dante"-the-pilgrim's response because the poem shows the damned souls tested and judged in ways that are wildly inventive, proof of "God"'s artistic sense when constructing punishments. (Do you see Milton's warrant for telling us what God thinks here, and Chaucer's "Chaucer-the-Pilgrim" character in another setting? Both poets learned from Dante as Dante had from Virgil.) However, the deferred invocation remains central to Dante's skill, since he returns to the act of invoking the Muse whenever he confronts a particularly daunting task, reminding the audience of his mortal nature and the immortal topic he has chosen to make the subject of his epic. Interestingly, Dante's poem ends with Dante-the-pilgrim's vision of God in the Paradiso, whereas Milton locates God's presence in Book III, and ends with Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden into "our world," the fallen Creation now beset by Sin and Death.
Though Milton picked the Homeric and Virgilian direct style to begin his own epic in Book 1's invocation of the Muse, he thereby deferred his use of Dante's humble involvement of the audience in his act of poesis. First, Milton calls upon the Holy Spirit, the invisible agency of the Christian God which animates all Divine mortal thoughts, including the Apostle's gift of tongues to spread the Gospel, Jerome's translation of the Bible into the Vulgate Latin, and saints' power to defy their tormentors in staunch speech. However, if you look at Book 3's invocation, just as Milton turns from the odious task of describing Satan's flight from Hell through Chaos and toward the task of describing Heaven, Milton summons the Muse again in the great celebratory invocation, "Hail, holy Light..." (III.1-56). This praise of light leads directly to Milton's meditation on his blindness, and the paradox that he now tries to serve God by offering us visions though God has taken his own sight away. The verse echoes Chaucer's invocation to Light and Love in Book 3 of the Troilus, so it's also something of an homage to that English predecessor, but it's also a wrenching moment of anguish, humility, incipient rebellion on the poet's part, and resignation that turns to joy at what Milton realizes he's going to get to do with words--describe God. (Do you hear George Herbert's influence here?)
This is how he turns the corner upon his quarrel with God concerning his blindness which has left him composing these very lines, "as the wakeful bird / Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid / Tunes her nocturnal note" (III.38-40):
Do you also hear an echo of Surrey's "The Soote Season" in the return of spring, which brings joy and renewal to all things except the poet? Thus Milton turns his blindness into God's opportunity to choose a mortal vessel into which He may ingraft those "eyes" which see within Milton's mind, and from which God can command performance of the unseen and previously unimaginable cosmic past and future, precisely because the singer is blind to things seen by mere "mortal sight." Like many works, Paradise Lost contains deliberate evidence of its process of composition, the stages the poet went through coming to terms with the evolving work. This one, so reminiscent of Dante's trepidation on the brink of the Mystery, is (for me anyway) the greatest of them in the poem. I think it even beats Dante seeing "God."