Miranda-The Tempest, John William WaterhouseHis Dark Materials [an unofficial fansite]Miranda-The Tempest, John William Waterhouse

The Golden Compass

The Subtle Knife

The Amber Spyglass

Further Stories

Philip Pullman

Adapted Works

Influences

Resources

FAQ

Forum

Site

Main


Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -


Adam and Eve

The difficulties which the opening books of the poem establish reach a climax in the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. We can note here that there is the same tension between our human sympathies for Adam and Eve and the justice of the way God treats them. Simply put, the story, as Milton presents it, seems to be stressing the radically unjust treatment. The narrator tells us what happens in a way that calls that justice strongly into question and then insists that our reaction cannot be the appropriate one. So strong does this tension becomes, Waldock argues, that the poem breaks in half, and our sense of any unity disappears.

This is a large topic (and I refer you to Waldock's book Paradise Lost and Its Critics if you want more detail). But let me focus on a single speech which highlights the difficulties I have been talking about.

The key incident I refer to is Adam's eating the fruit from the tree. Before doing so, he gives a speech which is surely one of the most wonderful declarations of love in all English poetry:

O fairest of creation, last and best
Of all God's works, creature in whom excelled
Whatever can to sight or thought be formed,
Holy, divine, good, amiable, or sweet!
How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost,
Defaced, deflowered, and now to death devote!
Rather how hast thou yielded to transgress
The strict forbiddance, how to violate
The sacred fruit forbidden! Some cursed fraud
Of enemy hath beguiled thee, yet unknown,
And me with thee hath ruined, for with thee
Certain my resolution is to die
How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
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.

(9.896-916)

However, I with thee have fixed my lot,
Certain to undergo like doom: if death
Consort with thee, death is to me as life,
So forcible within my heart I feel
The bond of nature draw me to my own,
My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;
Our state cannot be severed; we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.

(9.952-959)

I defy anyone to read this passage without applauding Adam's selfless love for Eve. In making this declaration he is manifesting something most of us rank as one of the highest values of human life, the courage and honesty to act upon one's truest feelings of love for another person. And one will have to search for a long time in English poetry to discover a passage which expresses this feeling more eloquently than Adam does here.

And yet (and this is the crucial point Waldock makes) the narrator insists that Adam here is doing something very wrong:

. . . he scrupled not to eat,
Against his better knowledge, not deceived,
But fondly overcome with female charm.

(9.997-999)

But we know that phrase "fondly overcome with female charm" violates the values we feel are manifested in Adam's declaration of love. If that's what Adam's declaration of love really amounts to, then the story is asking us to repudiate our highest human values, to turn against the highest possibilities for significant human experience. If God's justice requires us to condemn Adam here for his love of Eve, then God's justice is, as Adam says later, "inexplicable."

This incident, like the earlier presentation of Satan and his followers, really brings out the point I stressed long ago at the start of this lecture: the conflict between the imagination of the poet and his conscious intention. Milton's imagination inspires him to his finest poetry (and thus to passages which most move the reader's imagination) in those places which violate the logic of the story; his will, his conscious intention, then tries to yank our responses back into line with the orthodox logic of Christian doctrine. But the tensions in the poet are transferred to the reader: how can one assent to Adam's actions and at the same time recognize them as evil, deserving the very harsh punishment which God now inflicts. My view, like that of a number of other critics, is that one cannot: the imaginative poet cannot be reconciled to the doctrinaire Protestant, and the poem, as Waldock observes, fall apart.


< Previous    Introduction to Paradise Lost    Next >


"Lecture on Milton's Paradise Lost"

Author: Ian Johnston

Site: johnstonia

Introduction

Paradise Lost As an Epic Poem

Milton as a Protestant

The Critical Debate over Paradise Lost: Some General Comments

Some Initial Interpretative Considerations: Will and Imagination

Some Narrative Considerations

Justification of God's Ways: Part I

A Digression: The Problem of "Philosophical" Poetry

Justification of God's Ways: Part 2

The Opening Drama

Satan

God

Adam and Eve

Some Final Observations

His Dark Materials, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass and all related characters, concepts, and commercial offspring are the property of Philip Pullman, Scholastic Books, Random House Inc, New Line Cinema and all other right-holders. This unofficial site is neither affiliated nor endorsed by any of the former parties. This site is not for profit and is not intended to infringe upon any commercial endeavors. E-mail: webmaster@darkmaterials.com