Defense for the Allegory of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost
Milton claims his epic poem Paradise Lost exceeds the work of his accomplished predecessors. He argues that he tackles the most difficult task of recounting the history of not just one hero, but the entire human race. However, he does not appear to follow the conventional rules of an epic when he introduces an allegory into Paradise Lost through his portrayal of Sin and Death in Book II. Some readers denounce his work for this inconsistency, but others justify his action and uncover extremely important symbolism from this "forbidden" literal device.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines an epic "a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero" ("epic," def. 1) and allegory as "the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence" ("allegory," def. 1). Based on these definitions, it is unclear whether allegories fit into a true epic. From one perspective, such extended symbolism is not appropriate because it relies on "fictional figures" whereas an epic is based on a "historical hero". For this reason, some readers may dislike Milton’s extended symbolism of Sin and Death since it violates the traditional form of an epic. However From another point of view, an allegory is an acceptable literary component to an epic because it is considered an element of "elevated style". Therefore, other readers may see nothing wrong with Milton’s literary decision.
Milton’s poetic license entitles him to write as he pleases and therefore justifies his adaptation of an allegory into his epic. It is clearly apparent that Milton recognizes this privilege when he addresses the tradition of Rime before beginning Book I of Paradise Lost. In "The Verse" he denounces Rime as a "necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse" (4). His adverse opinion of Custom further emphasizes his contrary relationship to the classics. Therefore, it is no surprise that Milton challenges traditional epic form by including an allegory.
In addition, Milton was not the first epic poet to alter the customary form of an epic. Renowned authors preceding him, including Vergil and Ariosto, exercised their poetic licensee to variation and individuality as well. Vergil effectively combined Roman epic attributes with tragic, pastoral, satiric, and political sub genres in The Aeneid, and Ariosto combined romance with epic in Orlando Furioso. With this in mind, Milton merely exercised a preexisting practice of altering traditional epic form by integrating an allegory into his work. Even readers who are skeptical about the allegory’s valid placement must realize that without these accumulated variations in writing style, new, distinctive qualities in literature could not possibly evolve.
An allegory can be interpreted at two different levels: literally and interpretively. The literal...