[Milton-L] Final lines -- an observation

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Wed Feb 23 21:29:17 EST 2011

I have been thinking about the marvelous final line of the Iliad, a line of
great power even in translation:

And so the Trojans buried Hektor breaker of horses.

What first strikes me is the use of a formula in the final line of a long
epic. I'm not a classical scholar, and it is many years since I read
anything on the use of such formulae. But it seems to me that in the final
line it can't really be serving merely a metrical purpose: the bard surely
had plenty of time to compose the line without help of a formula. He must
have wanted it there! It is precisely, it seems, the commonplace, deliberate
commonplace, of this  last line that is so striking. And it raises for me an
interesting resemblance between the Iliad and PL. Both poems are stuffed as
it were with immortal actors; in both poems the immortal actors disappear as
we approach the close, and we are left not only with mere mortals, but  mere
mortals engaged in the most commonplace of activities: seeking shelter for
the night or burying the dead.

And these musings led me to Johnson's final 'summing up' of PL: It is second
to the Iliad among epics only because it was not the first. And why should
this matter in literary judgment? I think the answer is that this dramatic
commonplace of the endings of the two poems, however striking the second
time around may be, and Milton's ending is certainly striking, that it calls
up its great predecessor makes a difference.

Mere musing, but perhaps someone will also find it interesting.


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