As early as his second year at Cambridge, John Milton had attempted to write an epic — a school exercise in Latin concerning the Gunpowder Plot. By his fourth year, he had expressed interest in composing an epic poem in English, possibly dealing with King Arthur. At this point in his life, Milton was certainly familiar with the classical Homeric epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as Virgil's Aeneid. Milton also knew Dante's Divine Comedy, which, while not technically an epic, has many epic characteristics. Finally, on his Grand Tour, Milton had met Giovanni Batista, the Marquis of Manso and biographer of Torquato Tasso, author of the epic Jerusalem Delivered.
From these sources, we can see the kind of poem that Milton had begun to envision. From Homer forward, the epic had been an extended narrative dealing with a hero or group of heroes attempting to achieve a specific goal. This goal frequently has to do with actions, events, or ideas that tend to define a culture either through history, values, or destiny, or, at times, all three. Any poem can be heroic, but the epic is separated from other heroic narratives through its magnitude and style. In simplest terms, epics are very long and written in a highly elevated style. The original Homeric epics, sometimes called primary epics, were orally recited by bards and involved ritualistic presentations.
Written, or secondary, epics made up for the lack of the bardic setting through heightened style and formal structures. These epics were always serious, involving important events, crucial to the culture of the author and his audience. Similarly, the poem dealt with public, even national, concerns rather than the private world of the artist. In terms of style, the epic was written in elevated, soaring language. For the Greeks and Romans, part of the elevated language was the use of hexameters. Moreover, the epic could contain a variety of forms such as narrative, lyric, elegy, satire, debate, and many others. The length of the poem allowed the author enormous leeway to present different types of poetry within the overall framework of the epic. The epic also was typified stylistically by beginning in medias res (in the middle of things) and using extended similes and metaphors, sometimes called epic similes. Generally, epics, before Milton, glorified warfare and heroism in warfare, focusing on heroes who distinguish themselves in battle.
Milton came to the epic form with these ideas, but he also had his own epic in mind. Originally, Milton's notion seems to have been to follow the pattern of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid closely. His impulse to write on King Arthur, to create the Arthuriad, lends itself readily to the epic pattern. Over time though, Milton changed his mind about this epic. In the Reason for Church Government, he wonders "what king or knight before the conquest might be chosen in whom to lay the pattern of the Christian hero." The first answer to this query is obviously Arthur, but the second answer, upon reflection, is no one. By the Restoration, Milton's ideas of Christian hero and British epic were in flux.
The reasons for Milton's changed attitude toward his epic poem seem apparent. The changes in Milton's life are ample reasons for artistic changes. In the years between his Latin poems in which the epic theme of King Arthur is raised, Milton had seen his political fortunes rise and fall, had lived in hiding, had been imprisoned and freed with loss of prestige and reputation, had seen his hopes for a Christian nation fall apart, had gone blind, and had suffered through the deaths of two wives and two children. The young man filled with idealistic enthusiasm and nationalistic pride had been replaced by a man who now looked for a Christian hero who might embody "the better fortitude / Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom," as he says in the prologue to Book IX of Paradise Lost. In the same prologue, he adds that he does not wish "to dissect / With long and tedious havoc fabl'd Knights / In Battles feign'd." None of such mainstays of earlier epics, he adds, give "Heroic name / To Person or to Poem."
Milton's whole concept of what an epic subject should be had changed. War, conquest, heroism in battle seemed like shams, and in Book VI of Paradise Lost, he wrote battle scenes that mock the epic convention. By the time he wrote his epic, Milton had found true heroism in obedience to God and in the patience to accept suffering without the loss of faith.
Exactly when Milton began Paradise Lost is open to question. Edward Phillips, Milton's nephew and early biographer, claimed to have heard parts of Paradise Lost as early as 1642. That Milton may have written poems and speeches that became a part of his epic well before the 1660s is not just possible but probable. In his Cambridge epic in Latin on the Gunpowder Plot, In Quintum Novembris, Satan appears as a character. In fact, in that early exercise, Satan calls a council of devils, and at the end of the poem, God laughs at the futility of the evildoers. Foreshadowings of Paradise Lost then occur as early as 1626. Further, in the Trinity manuscript of the 1640s, which contains a number of ideas for projects that Milton intended to pursue, there is an outline for a play called Adam Unparadised, containing a number of features that appear in Paradise Lost.
However, even though evidence exists that ideas for and sections of Paradise Lost existed well before the 1660s, strong evidence in the poem itself suggests that the main scenes and ideas of the epic occurred after 1660. That is, Milton had the idea for an epic poem while still in college. Over a period of close to 40 years, the plans for that epic developed and changed. Milton wrote many poems, songs, and speeches that seem now to be parts of Paradise Lost. But the one overriding fact remains that not until he was blind and finished with government work did Milton bring all that he had thought and worked on together into a complete epic structure.
In the end, Milton chose not to copy Homer and Virgil, but to create a Christian epic. His creation is still a work of great magnitude in an elevated style. Milton chose not to write in hexameters or in rhyme because of the natural limitations of English. Instead he wrote in unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse, the most natural of poetic techniques in English. He also chose a new kind of heroism to magnify and ultimately created a new sort of epic — a Christian epic that focuses not on the military actions that create a nation but on the moral actions that create a world.