'I sing'? Narrative Technique in Epic Potry

  • Liam Haydon

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines the genre of epic, and particularly Milton's Paradise Lost. It argues that it is only in attending to the contextual interactions within Paradise Lost that its full meaning can be comprehended. It demonstrates that the poem not only narrates the Fall, but actively performs its consequences in its thematic and linguistic structures, which continually stress the impossibility of approaching perfect (divine) totality.Chapter one outlines the theoretical response to epic, read as a petrified genre in contrast to the newness, openness and linguistic flexibility of the novel. It then challenges these assumptions through a reading of the invocation to book III of Paradise Lost. The chapter closes by examining seventeenth-century writings on epic, demonstrating that Milton's contemporaries saw the epic as defined by the possibility of didactic intervention into its context.Chapter two examines the forms of the epic metaphor, which serve as a temporal link between the 'mythic' past of epic and contemporary events. It then shows that the nationalistic impulse of epic was a method by which the mythic past of a country was deployed as an exemplary narrative for the present. The chapter closes by considering the ways in which shifts in national conception were mapped onto the epic.Chapter three outlines Paradise Lost's thematic engagement with the concept of representation. It focuses on the twin images of the music of the spheres and the Tower of Babel, used in Paradise Lost to represent man's relationship with God. It argues that the poem uses these tropes to explore the linguistic effects of the Fall. Both these images are deployed to suggest that postlapsarian expression is too open and ambiguous to properly portray divinity.Chapter four moves that discussion to a linguistic level, arguing that the poem is characterised by indeterminacy. It argues that Paradise Lost calls into question the possibility of expressing perfect truth in fractured, postlapsarian language. It shows that punning is the mark of fallen creatures in the poem, and suggests that the poem's own puns exploit this category to linguistically question its own status as representation through performances of ambiguity. The conclusion synthesises these local readings of Paradise Lost into a reading of the poem as a whole. It argues that these individual instances demonstrate the poem's continual reflexive concern over its theodicean project. By continually expressing ambiguity, at the level of imagery and language, Paradise Lost draws attention to its status as postlapsarian art, and the consequent impossibility of approaching the divine perfection exemplified by the celestial music or prelapsarian language.
Date of Award31 Dec 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJerome De Groot (Supervisor) & Naomi Baker (Supervisor)


  • Spenser
  • Dante
  • Trade
  • Bakhtin
  • Epic Poetry
  • John Milton
  • Music

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