The Golden Compass
- 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
However, I with thee have fixed my lot,
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,
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.
Author: Ian Johnston
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve
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