Literary Analogues: Epic Themes and Invocations

The opening lines of other major epics that formed the central tradition Milton inherited are quoted here: Homer's Iliad , Virgil's Aeneid, and Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered. Many others could be cited — Ariosto, Dante, Camoens — but the four here offer some sense of how Milton positions himself in and against the epic tradition in his own opening lines to Paradise Lost (NAEL 8, 1.1832–33) and in his defense of his choice of subject (NAEL 8, 1.1973–74).


Homer, from The Iliad >> note 1

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus' son >> note 2 the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.
What god was it then set them together in bitter collision?
Zeus' son and Leto's, Apollo, who in anger at the king drove
the foul pestilence along the host, and the people perished,
since Atreus' son had dishonored Chryses, priest of Apollo.


Virgil, from The Aeneid >> note 3

I sing of arms and of a man: his fate
had made him fugitive; he was the first
to journey from the coasts of Troy as far
as Italy and the Lavinian shores.
Across the lands and waters he was battered
beneath the violence of High Ones, for
the savage Juno's unforgetting anger;
and many sufferings were his in war —
until he brought a city into being
and carried in his gods to Latium;
from this have come the Latin race, the lords
of Alba, and the ramparts of high Rome.


Torquato Tasso, from Jerusalem Delivered [Gerusalemme Liberata] (1600) >> note 4

The sacred armies and the godly knight
      That the great sepulchre of Christ did free
I sing; much wrought his valor and foresight,
      And in that glorious war much suffer'd he:
In vain 'gainst him did hell oppose her might,
      In vain the Turk and Morians armed be;
His soldiers wild, to brawls and mutines prest;
Reduced he to peace; so heaven him blest.

O heavenly muse, that not with fading bays
      Deckest thy brow by the Heliconian spring,
But sittest, crown'd with stars' immortal rays,
      In heaven, where legions of bright angels sing,
Inspire life in my wit, my thoughts upraise,
      My verse ennoble, and forgive the thing,
If fictions light I mix with truth divine,
And fill these lines with others' praise than thine.

Thither thou know'st the world is best inclined
      Where luring Parnass most his sweet imparts,
And truth convey'd in verse of gentle kind,
      To read perhaps will move the dullest hearts;
So we, if children young diseas'd we find,
      Anoint with sweets the vessel's foremost parts,
To make them taste the potions sharp we give;
They drink deceived; and so deceiv'd they live.

Ye noble princes, that protect and save
      The pilgrim muses, and their ship defend
From rock of ignorance and error's wave,
      Your gracious eyes upon this labor bend;
To you these tales of love and conquests brave
      I dedicate, to you this work I send,
My muse hereafter shall perhaps unfold
Your fights, your battles, and your combats bold.

For if the Christian princes ever strive
      To win fair Greece out of the tyrant's hands,
And those usurping Ismaelites deprive
      Of woeful Thrace, which now captived stands,
You must from realms and seas the Turks forth drive,
      As Godfrey chased them from Judah's lands,
And in this legend, all that glorious deed
Read, whilst you arm you: arm you, whilst you read.

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