In modern times, Milton's style first received general criticism from T. S. Eliot. Eliot praised Milton in "A Note on the Verse of John Milton" (Martz 12-18): "[W]hat he could do well he did better than anyone else has ever done." Then Eliot added, "Milton's poetry could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever." The general thrust of Eliot's criticism is that Milton's purposely adopted grand style is both so difficult to accomplish and so complicated (in places) to understand that it causes a deterioration in the poetic style of those who are influenced by it and cannot meet its demands. "In fact," said Eliot, "it was an influence against which we still have to struggle."
Eliot's prime example is from Book V as Satan addresses his followers concerning the Son:
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers,
If these magnific Titles yet remain
Not merely titular, since by Decree
Another now hath to himself ingross't
All Power, and us eclipst under the name
Of King anointed, for whom all this haste
Of midnight march, and hurried meeting here,
This only to consult how we may best
With what may be devis'd of honors new
Receive him coming to receive from us
Knee-tribute yet unpaid, prostration vile,
Too much to one, but double how endur'd,
To one and to his image now proclaim'd? (V, 772-784).
That Satan's point here is obscured by the language cannot be denied. Most readers are probably unaware that a question is being asked until they see the question mark at the end of the passage. The meaning here can be puzzled out, but it is difficult to call such writing good, let alone great. Many readers, from put-upon high schoolers to experienced scholars took Eliot's criticism to heart. Often, they overlooked the fact that Eliot did not suggest that Milton was a bad poet; rather he suggested that the grand style could lead to bad poetry, particularly by the many who used Milton's style as the paradigm of great English poetry.
Defenders of Milton quickly appeared to answer Eliot. C. S. Lewis, in his work A Preface to Paradise Lost, and Christopher Ricks in Milton's Grand Style both mounted vigorous defenses of Milton's style. Lewis in particular argued that Milton needed this particular style for a "secondary epic," his term for an epic meant to be read rather than the "primary epic," which was presented orally in a formal setting and meant to be heard. Lewis' basic point was that the grand style provided the formality of setting that the secondary epic, by the nature of its composition, lost.
Both Lewis and Ricks offered numerous counter examples to show that Milton's style was sublime. Certainly, aside from Shakespeare, no other writer in English could manipulate the language as Milton did. His justly famous description of Mulciber falling soars:
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summer's day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star (I, 742-745).
Or consider the pathos, poignancy, and hopefulness that fill the last few lines of the epic:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way. (XII, 645-650)
However, the questions about Milton's style cannot be answered by playing a game of bad line versus good line. The answer to the question posed by Eliot and opposed by Lewis and Ricks is of such a subjective nature that it can never be truly settled. Arguments about Milton's style will persist just as they do about the styles of Henry James, Jane Austen, even James Joyce. One man's sublimity is another's conundrum.
What can be accomplished is a clear description regarding what Milton's grand style consists of and how he made use of it in the poem. With this information, the reader can at least have an objective foundation on which to base his subjective opinion.
Allusions and Vocabulary
The first aspect of the grand style that most readers notice is the number of allusions and references, many of which seem obscure, along with the arcane and archaic vocabulary. In just the first few lines of the poem references to "Oreb" (7), "That Shepherd" (8), "chosen seed" (8), "Siloa's Brook" (10), and "Aonian Mount" (15) occur. The purpose of the references is to extend the reader's understanding through comparison. Most readers will know some of the references, but few will know all. The question thus arises whether Milton achieves his effect or its opposite. Further, words such as "Adamantine" (48), "durst" (49), "Compeer" (127), "Sovran" (246) and many others, both more and less familiar, add an imposing tone to the work. Paradise Lost was not written for an uneducated audience, but in many editions the explanatory notes are almost as long as the text.
Besides the references and vocabulary, Milton also tends to use Latinate constructions. English is a syntactical language using word order in sentences to produce sense. Latin, in contrast, is an inflected language in which endings on words indicate the words' functions within a sentence, thereby making word order less important. Latin verbs, for example, often come at the end of the sentence or a direct object may precede the subject. In Paradise Lost, Milton seems purposely to strive for atypical English syntactical patterns. He almost never writes in simple sentences. Partly, this type of inverted, at times convoluted, syntax is necessary for the poetics, to maintain the correct meter, but at other times the odd syntax itself seems to be Milton's stylistic goal.
In this passage from Book VIII, the exact meaning of the words is elusive because of the Latinate syntax:
soft oppression seis'd
My droused sense, untroubl'd though I thought
I then was passing to my former state
Insensible, and forthwith to dissolve (VIII, 291-296).
Lewis, and others who admire the grand style, argue that in passages such as this, the precise meaning matters less than the impressionistic effect, that the images of drowsing, insensibility, and dissolution occurring in order show the breakdown of a conscious mind, in this case Adam's, as God produces a dream vision for him. Certainly this passage, as difficult to understand literally as it is, is not bad writing. The reader understands what Adam is experiencing. However, in the hands of lesser talents than Milton, such writing becomes nonsense.
Another aspect of Milton's style is the extended simile. The use of epic similes goes back to Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey, but Milton uses more similes and with more detail. A Miltonic simile can easily become the subject of an essay, perhaps a book. Milton's similes run a gamut from those that seem forced (the comparison of Satan's arrival in Eden to the smell of fish [IV, 166]) to those that are perfect (Eden compared to the field where Proserpine gathered flowers [(IV, 268]). But, in all cases, a critical exploration of the simile reveals depths of unexpected meaning about the objects or persons being compared. Once again, Milton achieves a purpose with his highly involved language and similes. The ability to do this seems almost unique to Milton, a man of immense learning and great poetic ability.
Besides extended similes, Milton also traces a number of images throughout the poem. One of the most apparent is the image of the maze or labyrinth. Over and over in the poem, there are mentions of mazes — like the tangled curls of Eve's hair — which finally culminate with the serpent confronting Eve on a "Circular base of rising folds, that tow'r'd / Fold above fold a surging maze" (IX, 498-499). Other images also run throughout the poem as a kind of tour de force of imagination and organization. Each image opens up new possibilities for understanding Milton's ideas.
No doubt, particular aspects of Milton's style could be presented at great length, but these are sufficient. Milton intended to write in "a grand style." That style took the form of numerous references and allusions, complex vocabulary, complicated grammatical constructions, and extended similes and images. In consciously doing these things, Milton devised a means of giving the written epic the bardic grandeur of the original recited epic. In so doing, he created an artificial style that very few writers could hope to emulate though many tried. As with the unique styles of William Faulkner and James Joyce, Milton's style is inimitable, and those who try to copy it sometimes give the original a bad name.
Milton's style is certainly his own. Elements of it can be criticized, but in terms of his accomplishment in Paradise Lost, it is difficult to see how such a work could be better written in some other style. Milton defined the style of the English epic and, in a real sense, with that style, ended the genre. After Milton and Paradise Lost, the English epic ends.