My Ever New Delight: The Pleasures of Paradise Lost
To undergraduate eyes Dr. John Cooke looked older than he probably was. Ivory-haired, thin but potbellied, with thick glasses that magnified his eyes and a hearing aid that he was constantly adjusting, he had all the credentials of advanced years—but it was the cane that unmistakably broadcast elderliness. For three years at Rockhurst College in Kansas City I was his only student in ancient Greek, and “class” met in his office where he would sit in a straight-backed chair, leaning forward on his cane centered between his spread legs and peering intently at the desk where I sat, just a couple of feet away, reading and translating. Whenever I made a particularly egregious error in my translation, he would wince and thump the cane impatiently two or three times. Our one-hour tutorial often ran overtime as he would follow the recitation with an impromptu lecture on anything from Greek battle gear to ancient substitutes for toilet paper (shards of pottery!). At these extended sessions, Dr. Cooke sometimes grilled me on the larger, and often missing, dimensions of my education. Who were my favored composers? Had I been to see the Caravaggio at the Nelson Gallery? And once, while trying to illustrate classical rhetorical devices like chiasmus and aposiopesis, he cited examples in English from Milton. I must have had a conspicuously blank look on my face because he rapped that cane and growled, “You have read Paradise Lost, Mr. Crossley, have you not?” I confessed that I had tried twice to read selections, most recently in a course on Renaissance poetry, but that I had given up and found the poem impenetrable. “Mr. Crossley, there is only one way to read Paradise Lost. You must climb a mountain and read it all aloud, from morn to dewy eve.” A smile started to lift the corners of his pursed lips. There were, of course, no mountains convenient to Kansas City.
I left college still innocent of Miltonic knowledge. But in graduate school at the University of Virginia I decided to make one last try. In 1968 there was only one woman with a permanent position in the English department, but a visitor from Cambridge University was offering a Milton course with a daunting reading list: all of the major poems, most of the shorter poems, and a very large sampler of Milton’s prose writings. Mary Ann Radzinowicz was a far cry from John Cooke. Worldly, ironic, elegant, she would lean against the blackboard, pausing her lectures only to take a drag on her long ivory cigarette holder. (Virginia was a tobacco state, and in those days not only did faculty and students smoke in class, stamping out their butts on the floor, but graduate student carrels in the library, of all places, were outfitted with ashtrays.) It was evident from the first weeks of the course that Professor Radzinowicz had very high expectations and exacting standards for graduate students, and I knew I needed to prove myself. Each of the thirty or so students was required to make a 10-minute presentation on a critical approach to one of Milton’s works. My task was to speak about Rosemund Tuve’s commentary on “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” Having worked ferociously on that report, I imagined I was eloquent, with a vivid and incisive account of how Tuve had gotten nearly everything wrong about those two early poems of Milton. When I finished, Radzinowicz was silent, slowly inhaled some smoke, and then made a single observation on my talk. “Rosemund Tuve was a very distinguished scholar, and you are a very young man.” It was a defining moment in my education, a lesson in the ethics of criticism. Never again would I stand preening myself over the ruins of works or reputations I had trashed. But this shameful episode also represented the first cracking of the door into Paradise Lost, a door that had always been shut to me. I was suitably humbled and receptive by the time we began our six-week excursion into Milton’s masterwork.
We arrived at Paradise Lost after toiling through Milton’s scary but invigorating prose treatises, many of which he had composed as chief propagandist for Cromwell’s revolutionary government: his four iconoclastic pamphlets on divorce that began to outline the great theme of his literary and political career, freedom from bondage; Areopagitica, the resounding call for freedom of publication and the rejection of censorship; the risky Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and the even riskier First and Second Defense, which argued with increasing vociferousness for the people’s moral right to depose and to execute their king; and his last, desperate justification for the revolutionary Commonwealth, The Ready and Easy Way, published even as the restored King Charles II was sailing back to England from exile. For all these writings, but especially for those that justified regicide, Milton, blind by the time of the Restoration, was in danger of being drawn and quartered along with other enemies of the state. In the 1660s he was in defeat, a fallen pariah, when he composed, by dictation, the poem he had long postponed during his years of political activism.
With this understanding of Milton’s utopian commitments and his experience as a failed revolutionary, I was ready to read Paradise Lost as a poem less about theological doctrines than about liberty and loss, a poem with an intensely personal dimension. Even the note Milton’s anxious publisher required him to attach to the second edition of Paradise Lost as an explanation for why the poem didn’t rhyme exhibited the still smoldering fires of the old revolutionary resisting authority. “This neglect then of Rime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem’d an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming.” From that note a reader plunges (quite literally) into the dizzying account of a fall from the heights of heaven to the bottom of the universe. The leader of the rebel angels has been
Hurl’d headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire.
It will be nine days before Satan can so much as lift his head from the lake of fire and begin to undertake his campaign of vengeance against the Almighty.
One of the great mysteries of Paradise Lost—how could Milton write with apparent sympathy for the devil?—was about to be dissolved for me. It wasn’t that he thought Satan a hero (as some of the Romantic poets, Blake and Shelley in particular, liked to believe). Milton’s judgments about Satan are clear and unequivocal. But psychologically Milton had been there: he knew what it meant to rebel against an absolute monarch and to lose. Empathy isn’t the same as sympathy. Milton could put himself into the mind and the circumstances of the fallen angel, understanding a rebel’s seething hatred, despair, and fixed determination “never to submit or yield,” while also peeling back the layers of delusion, self-aggrandizement, and fabrication in Satan’s accounting of himself. Here were radicalism and fraudulence, freedom and its counterfeit fused in a single personality not easily pigeonholed.
As I began reading Paradise Lost in the fall of 1968, Mary Ann Radzinowicz would occasionally punctuate her lectures with brief asides about speeches and confrontations at the Democratic National Convention that had just concluded in August and on the national debates about policy and strategy in Vietnam. My marginal annotations to my old graduate school text of Milton tell part of the story. Much of Book II of the poem is devoted to a council on foreign policy in hell. Next to the hopeful but hollow speech of Belial, whose “Tongue / Dropt Manna” during the debate over the devils’ strategic attitude toward God in the aftermath of their downfall, I’ve penciled in “Hubert Humphrey rhetoric.” When Satan announces his expedition to Earth to avenge his defeat by destroying the Creator’s new human beings, his Seraphim celebrate “with pomp Supreme” their newly installed “dread Emperor.” My pencil note, reflecting the political conventions of the previous summer, reads: “A ‘spontaneous demonstration’ for the new standard bearer of the party of hell.” I hasten to say that Radzinowicz didn’t try to score cheap points or to turn Paradise Lost into a crowd-pleasing guidebook to American politics. Her notations to contemporary events were small change in the larger transactions of reading. She never lost sight of the epic poem we were traversing, but she made the politics and psychology of the epic as vital to us in 1968 as it had been for Milton’s first readers in 1668. For me, all the doors were flung wide open.
That was fifty years ago. I went on to an academic career in which I proudly wore the badge of “generalist” during an era of specialization, happy to teach Shakespeare and Chaucer and Brontë as well as apocalyptic literature, science fiction, and utopian narratives. What reputation I had as a scholar was as a biographer, an editor of World War I love letters, and a cultural historian of the planet Mars. But, as few of my colleagues seemed to be aware, the literary work I taught most often and with the most fervent enthusiasm and deepest satisfaction was Paradise Lost (a work with its own peculiar affinities to science fiction). From Mary Ann Radzinowicz I had absorbed the importance of slow and patient reading, always budgeting seven or eight weeks of the term for Milton’s epic, and I think that John Cooke would have been pleased to know that my undergraduates learned to read Paradise Lost aloud. After just a couple of weeks, even those students most hesitant about and intimidated by Milton could do it.
I scheduled forty-minute graded office conferences to which students came in pairs, each prepared to read a passage of their choice of at least 25 lines and then discuss it with me and with the other student present. Those conferences were revelations. Students who had difficulty writing papers about Paradise Lost arrived for the conferences excited by the passages they had chosen and ready to demonstrate, in convincing detail, a deep understanding of the text and of the thematic and structural relationships of their chosen passage to other parts of the poem. These three-way conversations about the students’ selections from the poem were the most engaged literary discussions with undergraduates of my career. Over the years, almost to a person, the students in my epic poetry course mastered the distinctive Miltonic rhythm of lines suspended over vast spaces, the rhetorical energy of the speeches, the thundering polysyllables colliding with brisk bursts of vernacular, the enjambments and the inversions and the heaping of adjectives that make Paradise Lost a tour de force for the human voice. For my students the greatest surprise of their encounter with Milton was the discovery of how much sheer pleasure they took in their reading and their full-throated engagement with the characters, issues, and verbal pyrotechnics of Paradise Lost.
Once while leading a graduate seminar on “The Teaching of Literature,” I chose a single book of Paradise Lost as one of our demonstration texts on issues of teaching and learning. The challenge was how to create in undergraduate audiences a sense of excitement about Milton (and I acknowledged that absence in my own college education). Among other problems we talked about overcoming one of the fundamental obstacles for new readers of the poem: the dread of having to deal with the most notoriously religious poem in English, especially in a classroom in which many students would not share Milton’s Christianity. I confided to the graduate students my own experience in deciding at what point in the teaching of Paradise Lost I should out myself as an atheist. The first two Satanic books, set in hell and with the Author of Evil at center stage, have enough glamor and dramatic pressure and ringing oratory that religion doesn’t get in the way of appreciation. Milton’s Satan is a mysterious figure, an endlessly absorbing mystery, but he isn’t really an obstacle for new readers. But when Book III takes us to heaven and Satan’s theatricality is supplanted by God’s professorial lectures on free will and predestination and moral responsibility, students often start to balk. It was then that I typically acknowledged that I was not Christian and not a believer of any kind and began to raise the question of how suspension of disbelief can work with a mythic work of art like Paradise Lost. At the end of that evening’s graduate seminar, one of the students stayed behind to talk with me. She had been an undergraduate in my epic course a couple of years earlier. A devout, older African American, she was one of the most adventuresome and accomplished students I had ever worked with, but now she was baffled. She remembered my speaking about how an atheist could read Milton with pleasure, but at the time, she told me, she thought that was just a persona I had adopted as a pedagogical expediency. “For an atheist,” she allowed, “you seem like such a nice person.”
There is no getting around the fact that Book III and Milton’s God generally present difficulties for many readers—even Christian readers. But to throw in the towel and refuse to read beyond this point would mean missing the bigger picture of “the ways of God to men” that Milton will later offer. I had a colleague who had a similar problem with Book IV when the human characters are first introduced. She told me that she had never been able to go on past the lines about Adam and Eve’s respective statuses:
For contemplation hee and valor form’d,
For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him.
But here the ways of Milton to men and women require some patience because there is also a larger picture about the sexes that remains to be discovered. The God-problem and the woman-problem in Paradise Lost have occasioned more critical commentary and more handwringing than almost anything else in Milton, but the poem itself complicates the issues of divinity and of gender as it grows. Reading Paradise Lost is a cumulative experience, and persistence in forging ahead often means that a reader will be rewarded with compensations and startlingly revisionist second thoughts as the various layers of the poem and the multiple perspectives of the poet build up. This is why introducing Milton to new readers in anthology selections is deadly. Among its other achievements, Paradise Lost is a feat of delicate engineering; to leave parts out is to risk the whole thing collapsing.
More than sixty years ago in The Hudson Review, Yvor Winters, perhaps the grumpiest of the major literary critics of the twentieth century, complained that reading Paradise Lost demanded not a suspension of disbelief but a suspension of intelligence. He was writing specifically about Milton’s representation of God. If Milton had given us no portrait of God other than the disembodied, pontificating voice of Book III, Winters and those who share his distaste for the God of Paradise Lost would have a case difficult to rebut. And they might equally find fault with the know-it-all God of Book VI who stage-manages the war in heaven between loyal and seditious angels before turning the battle over to his warrior-chieftain Son to execute the inevitable defeat of the rebels. But there is a third major portrait of God offered in Book VII—a book that does little to advance the plot of the fall of the human race but gives us the poem’s richest account of the relation of heaven to earth. Here we see God through his works in the seven days of creation. Embroidering the barebones account of the stages of creation in the opening verses of Genesis, Milton displays a luxuriantly creative, boundlessly exuberant God.
In Book VII we see more vividly than almost anywhere else in Paradise Lost the difference between doctrine and poetry. The God of Book III is a theologian and divine magistrate, articulating rules of free choice and justice and sacrifice. He is a God who brooks no argument and is defined by his omniscience and omnipotence. The God of Book VII is defined by a word Milton invented for the occasion: omnific. He makes all things; he is an artist. We see him at one point take
the golden Compasses, prepar’d
In God’s Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things:
One foot he centred, and the other turn’d
Round through the vast profundity obscure,
And said, Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World.
Some readers may immediately conjure William Blake’s Ancient of Days, the hunched old god with a windblown white beard who calculates the creation with a geometer’s fastidiousness. This caricature of God the Father Blake derided as Urizen (Your Reason) or Nobodaddy (Nobody’s daddy). But Milton had something quite different in mind. It is not God the Father but God the Son who creates in Book VII, and his compasses are merely a traditional prop that had a longstanding history in the imagery of creation. But it is what the Son says that causes the world to be made. He is “th’Omnific Word,” and he speaks the universe into being much as an epic poet speaks an imagined world into being.
The book of Genesis provides the naked facts of the world’s origins in a stark, simple, dignified, and symmetrical declaration. Paradise Lost takes those facts and puts them into motion, makes them beautiful, gives them an intensity of life, an energy that evokes wonder. Milton’s account of creation is alive with verbs. Everything is heaving, rolling, sinking, rising, ebbing, soaring, oozing, flourishing, spinning, spreading, shining, teeming. We think of Satan as a creature of colossal energy, but here in Book VII Milton depicts an entire planet overflowing with vitality. And as we read this account, we deduce the Creator from the creation. We cannot really know the God of Book III; he is abstract, invisible, monotonous. But in Book VII Milton asks, how do we really know God? and what do we really know about him? We know him through his works, and his works reveal that Milton’s God is a god of enormous imagination. Take the third day of creation as Genesis describes it: “And God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.” Milton repeats these words nearly verbatim as he opens the third day—and then he moves into a rhapsodic fantasia unlike anything in his Biblical source, though not unlike the time-lapse photography familiar to us from National Geographic Films:
He scarce had said, when the bare Earth, till then
Desert and bare, unsightly, unadorn’d,
Brought forth the tender Grass, whose verdure clad
Her Universal Face with pleasant green,
Then Herbs of every leaf, that sudden flow’r’d
Op’ning thir various colors, and made gay
Her bosom smelling sweet: and these scarce blown,
Forth flourish’d thick the clust’ring Vine, forth crept
The smelling Gourd, up stood the corny Reed
Embattl’d in her field: and th’ humble Shrub,
And Bush with frizzl’d hair implicit: last
Rose as in Dance the stately Trees, and spread
Thir branches hung with copious Fruit: or gemm’d
Thir Blossoms: with high Woods the Hills were crown’d,
With tufts the valleys and each fountain side,
With borders long the Rivers.
This single long sentence, heavily enjambed over sixteen lines, dresses the earth and represents it as a living, fragrant, colorful, dancing person, an earth already becoming humanized before the first human appears. Adverbs preceding verbs create the impression of plants bursting into life as a reader throws the accent forward (forth flourished, forth crept, up stood), while other markers (scarce had said, sudden, scarce blown) emphasize the instantaneousness of the creative word.
Genesis tells us that the Creator rested from his labors on the seventh day. But Milton’s “unwearied” Creator returns to heaven to measure with an artist’s critical eye how well the finished product realizes his design:
Thence to behold this new created World
Th’addition of his Empire, how it show’d
In prospect from his Throne, how good, how fair,
Answering his great Idea.
And this creator’s notion of rest is to throw a celestial party:
As resting on that day from all his work,
But not in silence holy kept; the Harp
Had work and rested not, the solemn Pipe,
And Dulcimer, all Organs of sweet stop,
All sounds on Fret by String or Golden Wire
Temper’d soft Tunings, intermixt with Voice
Choral or Unison; of incense Clouds
Fuming from Golden Censers hid the Mount.
As a reader (and teacher) of Paradise Lost, I often became impatient with those commentators who always wanted to decode the poem’s representation of God by referring back to principles Milton had enunciated in De Doctrina Christiana. But Milton wrote that treatise as a theologian, not as a poet. Genres matter. Milton’s art in Paradise Lost takes him places where theology and Genesis don’t go: to the psychological study of the rebel Satan, to God the cosmic artist, and—the last item of my inventory of the pleasures of the poem—to the domestic trials and heroisms of Eve and Adam.
“Hee for God only, shee for God in him” is only a first take on Adam and Eve’s relationship—and it is worth remembering that that first view of the original couple in Book IV is mediated by Satan, who is watching them while disguised as a cormorant perched atop the Tree of Life. Satan, so very much attuned to hierarchies and aggrieved by the knowledge that God the Son has proved himself his superior during the war in heaven, would want to figure out which of these two humans is in charge. Among his other traits, Satan is a snob; and when he finally bursts into speech after his long “gaze” at Adam and Eve, he bitterly complains that these material beings made from dirt are taking up the space he thinks should be reserved for him. The opening apostrophe is a reminder of the hell he carries within him:
O Hell! What do mine eyes with grief behold,
Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t
Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps,
But do Adam and Eve experience their relationship as hierarchical? Is that the way they live? One of the most absorbing and complicated pleasures of Paradise Lost is in observing what happens when an angel intrudes into their lives.
The indelible scenes of tempting and falling don’t occur until Book IX, but as early as Book V trouble is brewing in Paradise. Adam wakes Eve one morning, murmuring “My fairest, my espoused, my latest found, / Heav’n’s last best gift, my ever new delight.” Startled out of sleep, Eve recounts a troubling nightmare she has had in which a beautiful angel succeeds in getting her to taste the forbidden fruit. Both Eve and Adam are nonplussed by “this uncouth dream” and its origins. But readers know that the winged being who tempts Eve is in fact the devil. We saw Satan in the previous book, disguised as a toad, whispering into Eve’s ear as she slept. The most curious thing about this dream, though, is that it accurately foretells the role an angel will play in disturbing the tranquility of Eve’s life. God dispatches the “affable Archangel” Raphael to Earth to spend the day with Adam and Eve—eating lunch with them, conversing, answering questions, telling them the story of the angelic rebellion in heaven, and alerting them to the peril of a tempter on the loose. “Warn thy weaker,” Raphael strangely tells Adam, although Eve has been right there listening to the narrative of Satan’s downfall. Why would she need to be further warned? The hierarchically-minded angel’s gratuitous demeaning of Eve as “the weaker” is spoken in her presence. Although she does not reveal her irritation at the moment, it will become apparent in later books that she felt affronted and that the visitor’s condescension leads her directly into the path of temptation. The angel Raphael has a lot to answer for.
Raphael gets his commission to go to Eden about two hundred lines into Book V and does not return to heaven until the end of Book VIII. He is a major player in the poem, present for nearly a third of its length. During that time he hardly takes notice of Eve, apart from a brief “Hail Mother of Mankind” greeting on his arrival, but thereafter all his attention is focused on Adam. Eve might as well be an invisible woman. When she finally walks out of the bower in Book VIII, after Raphael and Adam start to discuss astronomy, Milton emphasizes that she leaves not because she is incapable of or uninterested in esoteric subjects but because she wants to be included in the conversation. She knows that once the angel is gone things will get better:
such pleasure she reserv’d,
Adam relating, she sole Auditress;
Her Husband the Relater she preferr’d
Before the Angel.
In Eve’s absence the colloquy between Raphael and Adam moves from the respective merits of the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the universe to the question of the plurality of inhabited worlds to Adam’s memories of the day of his creation to his naming of the creatures of the earth to his loneliness and his request to the Creator for “fellowship” and a companion with whom he can “well converse” to the surgery he witnessed “as in a trance” when God extracted a rib and shaped it into a person. At last Adam tells Raphael how he cried out loud for joy when he saw “Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self / Before me.” Eve’s creation takes Adam “to the sum of earthly bliss” in his first experience of sexual ecstasy. The effect, he says, is to leave him “transported.” Adam is literally beside himself with love, and his love leads him to a remarkable confession:
For well I understand in the prime end
Of Nature her th’ inferior, in the mind
And inward Faculties, which most excel
. . . yet when I approach
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems
And in herself complete, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say,
Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best.
Adam, caught in the age-old dilemma of authority versus experience, tells Raphael he knows perfectly well that he is supposed to think of himself as Eve’s superior both mentally (in “inward faculties”) and physically (as more closely aligned to the image of the masculinist Creator). But his experience of Eve trumps the authority of patriarchal doctrine. She is a perfect and complete person. She looks and behaves like an exemplary human being, in full possession of her own authority and reason, as if she had been intended from the start as Adam’s equal (“not after made / Occasionally”).
It is hard to know what Milton was thinking when he dictated this passage. He could have been folding in the alternative version of the simultaneous creation of the first man and woman (Genesis 1:27), so often overshadowed by the account in Genesis 2:21–23 in which Eve is a secondary creation fashioned from Adam’s rib. If Milton was reminding us that there is more than one way to understand the respective statuses of the sexes, there can be no doubt that the Adam Milton has imagined is here asserting Eve’s “greatness of mind” and natural nobility in the face of a doctrine of subordination. As if anticipating Raphael’s as-yet-unvoiced disapproval, he boldly likens the awe that surrounds Eve’s being to a “guard Angelic plac’t” about her. Raphael responds swiftly with a reprimand, the “affable Archangel” suddenly defaced with a “contracted brow”:
weigh with her thyself;
Then value: Oft times nothing profits more
Than self-esteem, grounded on just and right
Well manag’d; of that skill the more thou know’st,
The more she will acknowledge thee her Head,
And to realities yield all her shows.
Thus begins the angel’s effort to teach Adam to be a misogynist. He scolds Adam for being enslaved to the sense of touch; he must not be “sunk in carnal pleasure, for which cause / Among the Beasts no Mate for thee was found.” Adam, “half abash’t” but half defiant, resists what he takes to be Raphael’s sophistical dichotomy between Eve’s inside and outside and insists that he loves the whole person. The fundamental quality of their marriage is their “Union of Mind” that makes them both “one Soul.” “I to thee disclose / What inward thence I feel,” Adam tells his guest, unapologetically disputing authority with experience before turning the tables. In one of the most comic and mischievous moments in Paradise Lost, he questions Raphael about his sex life:
Love not the heav’nly Spirits, and how thir Love
Express they, by looks only, or do they mix
Irradiance, virtual or immediate touch?
Immediately the frowning Raphael becomes a flushed Raphael, glowing “celestial rosy red,” but Adam’s inquiry has so riled him that he responds in what sounds like angelic trash-talk, boasting that angels are sexier than humans. Angels enjoy sex “In eminence, and obstacle find none / Of membrane, joint, or limb.” With that final put-down he announces (you can almost hear his sigh of relief) that his time is up and he must return to heaven.
As Book VIII comes to a close, it is uncertain how successful Raphael has been in either his stated mission to warn the human couple about the danger they are in or a mission he seems to have undertaken on his own initiative: to turn the loving husband into a patriarchal boss. Part of the pleasure of this scene comes from the unexpected turns the conversation takes and the comeuppance the angel gets from his upstart pupil. But the deepest pleasures of this scene will only be apparent in retrospect. The poem jumps ahead one week to the crucial events of Book IX when we next see Adam and Eve. They are having a discussion about gardening, but the discussion gradually shifts into something we had not seen before in Paradise Lost: a marital argument.
Disagreements between spouses may have an overt and a hidden issue. Here what starts out as a discussion about efficiency turns into an argument over trust. Eve proposes that if she and Adam separate for the morning they will get more work done in the garden, but Adam worries that if they separate they will become more vulnerable to the enemy they have been warned about. He wants her to remain by “the faithful side / That gave thee being.” And he enforces that desire with an adage that sounds oddly anachronistic in a world with only one couple: “The Wife, where danger or dishonor lurks, / Safest and seemliest by her Husband stays.” Eve’s reaction to this reminder of the rib and the quasi-parental directive of her spouse is first exhibited in her body language. She speaks as “one who loves, and some unkindness meets, / With sweet austere composure.” What she reveals when she speaks is something that the poet concealed as he concluded Book VIII. Eve had actually returned to the bower before Raphael departed and stood in the shadows listening:
That such an Enemy we have, who seeks
Our ruin, both by thee inform’d I learn,
And from the parting Angel over-heard
As in a shady nook I stood behind,
Just then return’d at shut of Ev’ning Flow’rs.
But that thou shouldst my firmness therefore doubt
To God or thee, because we have a foe
May tempt it, I expected not to hear.
Just how much Eve heard is not stated, but one thing we know for certain: she didn’t overhear anything new about the enemy seeking their ruin because she had already heard that at the end of Raphael’s narrative of celestial warfare in Book VI—the time when Raphael told Adam in her presence to “warn thy weaker.” What she must have overheard at the end of the angel’s visit is some part of Raphael’s lecture on the sexes. His words had to do with her, not Satan, and they were words intended to undermine Adam’s experience of Eve as his equal, to warn him of women’s sexual dangerousness, and to inculcate the principle of female subjection. She has had a week to brood on those words, and her argument with Adam convinces her that he has learned Raphael’s lessons all too well. She already knows the answer to the question she puts to him: How did these thoughts find “harbor in thy breast, / Adam, misthought of her to thee so dear?” The more Eve thinks about it and the longer and more fervently she argues with Adam, the more resolute she becomes to go off by herself and assert her autonomy. What Milton has done here is surprising and exhilarating. Yes, the reader will shortly watch Eve, as she stands alone tending the rosebushes, succumb to the serpent’s temptation. But as he had done with Satan, Milton creates a psychological context for Eve’s revolt, and that context creates an even greater empathy for her fall than we feel for the proud angelic rebel’s. The poem outwits theology. Or, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it in his remarkable cultural history of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, “Adam and Eve had become so real in Milton’s imagination that they began to crack open the whole theological apparatus that brought them into being.”
We know the Genesis story, and we know Milton cannot alter its outcome. Eve will fall and Adam will face the choice of falling with her or remaining true to God but returning to his lonely state before Eve’s creation. He makes the doctrinally wrong choice but the psychologically heroic one in an interior monologue heard only by the reader and invoking the marriage vow he had described to Raphael:
How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly join’d,
To live again in these wild Woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart: no no, I feel
The Link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh,
Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.
The spondaic monosyllables—“no no”—that detonate amid the graceful iambs of Adam’s bewilderment announce a decision that is emphatic and resolute. Never was Adam, or Milton, more concise and unequivocal. He and Eve will remain together for better or for worse. Commentators have often accused Adam at this moment of uxoriousness—the sin of loving your wife too much. But that isn’t how Milton labels Adam’s decision. The same publisher who required him to write a preface explaining why Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme also insisted on prose headnotes to each book summarizing the action for readers who might find the poem too difficult to follow. We must feel grateful to the prosaic Samuel Simmons because in the headnote to Book IX the poet tells us that Adam “resolves through vehemence of love to perish with her.” Vehemence is a word Milton uses throughout his writings—in his prose tracts as well as his poems —to denote an utterness of experience or commitment. It is an intensifier, not a moral cue. It is a word he often applied to himself as a passionate defender of liberty and individual conscience. In the dramatic account of the falls of Adam and Eve, the deepest pleasure Milton offers his readers is this stunning extenuation of their sins. Each of them acts heroically as well as unwisely. Here especially we feel what we are often and increasingly conscious of in reading this epic: that its center, despite all its supernatural machinery, diabolical grandeur, and biblical baggage, is profoundly and recognizably human.
Each time I reread Paradise Lost (and I can no longer count the times), I come upon moments like the ones I have been writing about with a recovered sense of delight, as if being surprised by Milton for the first time. A world opens and invites me in. Yvor Winters was half right when he said that Paradise Lost does not require a willing suspension of disbelief. What it does require, though, is not a suspension of intelligence, as he claimed, but what other myths and fantasies from the Odyssey to The Lord of the Rings demand: a willing expansion of belief. It is an expansion that endures only as long as the reader is inside the pages of the fantastic creation. But it is a constantly renewable enlargement of experience. That’s how imagination works, and how a great literary achievement generates its ever new, ever delightful fascination.
All my quotations from Paradise Lost are taken from John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: The Odyssey Press, 1957).