- Writing Epic in the Aftermath of Civil War:Paradise Lost, the Aeneid, and the Politics of Contemporary History
What are the implications of thinking about Milton and Virgil together as post–civil war epic poets? After all, this is not the usual way of comparing and contrasting the two poets. Rather, in attempting to assess the Virgilian features of Paradise Lost, critics usually observe the self-conscious way Milton shapes his poetic career after Virgil's by moving from lesser genres to writing his great epic; or they examine the texture of allusions, literary similes, verbal formulations, imitations, and stress the twelve-book Virgilian structure of the 1674 edition of Paradise Lost as evidence that Milton is criticizing and reclaiming the Virgilian tradition for his own purposes.1 For instance, David Quint's Inside "Paradise Lost" offers an eloquent example of a study that, in the midst of illuminating the rich textual layers and structural patterns of the poem, illuminates Virgilian allusions, similes, analogies, echoes, and models in Paradise Lost.2 In this essay, however, I consider the [End Page 165] two poets from a very different perspective, one that focuses less on the intertextuality of allusion or imitation. I wish to explore a crucial but little studied parallel between the poets: the significance of Virgil and Milton as writers who lived through traumatic periods of civil war and political upheaval and yet chose, later in their careers, to compose epics that treat more or less obliquely the politics of contemporary history by writing primarily about the distant, mythic past. Although the Aeneid and Paradise Lost are both written in the aftermath of civil war, scholarship examining Milton's poem in relation to Virgil's has yet to consider the two poems from this perspective.3
One reason for this has to do with the methodology of comparative and intertextual criticism, especially scholarship aiming to illuminate the complexities of the epic tradition from antiquity to the early modern period. This intertextual scholarship has tended to focus primarily on revealing textual allusions, echoes, and literary techniques and models, and on considering the ways early modern epics, including Milton's, revise or subvert the conventions and martial heroic values of epics that precede them.4 And where such intertextual scholarship addresses politics or matters of imperial ideology, it tends not to focus on the pressures of contemporary historical contexts that shape epic poems, including making comparisons between the political upheavals and civil conflicts that shaped epics like the Aeneid and Paradise Lost, prompting their authors to focus primarily on legendary history rather than on the more recent political events of their times. Yet there is no reason why comparative, intertextual criticism, whether of the epic tradition or other kinds of poetry, should not broaden its methodological perspective so that it also engages with questions or issues that take comparative analysis beyond the intertextuality of allusion and imitation. That is one of my aims as I explore the political and creative implications of Paradise Lost and the Aeneid as epics written in the recent aftermath of civil war. The result, I hope, will be (1) to provide a fresh explanation for some of the resourceful ways Milton's post–civil war epic responded to Virgil's handling of history and politics, and (2) to explain why Milton's [End Page 166] poem, by following and revising Virgil's strategy for addressing contemporary and recent history, was able to appeal early on to an ideologically diverse readership and soon achieve a unique cultural authority.
Virgil and Milton as Post–Civil War Epic Poets
We need, consequently, to rethink the relation of Paradise Lost to the Aeneid when it comes to politics and the upheavals of civil war and the creative strategies their poets employ to engage with contemporary and recent history. In The Reason of Church-Government (1642)—published when England was on edge, as religious and political tensions were escalating, but before civil war itself broke out5—Milton allowed himself to digress from the immediate pressures of polemical controversy and reflect on his literary ambitions as an aspiring national poet, highlighting the Aeneid as one of the chief ancient epic...