Saturday, March 22, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 22

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today I reached Book 9, Line 1016.

Satan, in serpent guise, flatters Eve. He talks of how she is the most beautiful in all creation, but that she would be (L 541-548):

best beheld
Where universally admired; but here
In this enclosure wild, these beasts among,
Beholders rude, and shallow to discern
Half what in thee is fair, one man except,
Who sees thee? (and what is one?) who should’st be seen
A goddess among gods, adored and served
By angels numberless, thy daily train.

Eve is amazed the snake can talk and asks it how? Satan replies that he smelled the scent of a fruit, found the tree it grey on, and once eaten “such pleasure till that hour/ At feed or fountain never had I found” (L 595-597). He has speech, greater power of reason, and because of his superior nature, he can best appreciate Eve’s beauty.

Eve flirts with the serpent (L 615-16):

Serpent, thy overpraising leaves in doubt
The virtue of that fruit, in thee first proved

Already Eve has become a bit of a tease. She’s ripe for the Fall. She asks to see the tree, but when she gets there, she tells the snake that God had told her never to eat its fruit. Satan tells her she doesn’t need to worry. Never has his powers of persuasion been exerted to greater effect. He’s worked out his game-plan really well (L 687-92):

Look on me,
Me who have touched and tasted, yet both live,
And life more perfect have attained then fate
Meant me, by venturing higher then my lot.
Shall that be shut to man, which to the beast
Is open?

Satan says that Eve won’t die if she eats, that God may even reward their courage, and indeed that a firm knowledge of evil will actually help them to shun it (this is illogical, as not eating from the fruit means that evil won’t exist for them, but Satan makes it sound entirely reasonable). Satan continues saying that God wants to keep humans in their lowly place, but if they eat, they will be like gods. He then parodies the biblical injunction from Colossians 3 – “Set your affection on things above…for ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” – with a quite brilliant gloss (L713-17):

So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off
Human, to put on gods, death to be wished,
Though threatened, which no worse then this can bring
And what are gods that man may not become
As they, participating godlike food?

Satan works this god-imagery to the maximum. He finishes by saying of the fruit, “Goddess humane, reach them, and freely taste” (L 732). Eve look sat the fruit with desire. She addresses the tree with a stunning passage of poetry, entirely trusting the serpent’s story, and suggests of God that (L 753-60):

his forbidding
Commends thee more, while it infers the good
By thee communicated, and our want:
For good unknown, sure is not had, or had
And yet unknown, is as not had at all.
In plain then, what forbids he but to know,
Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise?
Such prohibitions bind not.

The snake hasn’t dies, she reasons. There can’t be any harm in trying the fruit, it will only make her wise. After all the build-up, Milton makes a bold decision in having the act take place suddenly – no taking the fruit, holding it, almost biting – she’s right in there. The starkness and awful simplicity works (L 780-84):

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

The snake slips away, but Eve doesn’t notice. All her attention is on the fruit. She takes great delight in it as if she had never tasted anything so delicious “or fancied so, through expectation high/ Of knowledge” (L 789-90). That word “fancied” being loaded with connotation of imagination and speculation, an immediate sign of the fall. And then in Line 793 she is “heightened as with wine”, recalling that fermented wine didn’t exist in pre-Fall paradise. The irrationality caused by it is the only “wisdom” Eve is tasting, although she thinks differently (as any drunk knows).

Eve promises to offer songs of praise to the tree each morning – songs she had previously offered to God. She resolves to persuade Adam to share in the fruit. She can’t bear to think of dying and then ‘another Eve’ being given to Adam in her place, so her first expression of love in Paradise Lost becomes a plan for her lover’s death (L 830-33):

Confirmed then I resolve,
Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe:
So dear I love him, that with him all deaths
I could endure; without him live no life.

She finds Adam and begs him persuasively to eat the fruit, so that they will be together. Adam, to say the least, is shocked. He’d been out collecting flowers for her, but now (L 892-95):

From his slack hand the garland wreathed for Eve
Down dropped, and all the faded roses shed:
Speechless he stood and pale, till thus at length
First to himself he inward silence broke.

That’s the first sign of decay in Paradise – those roses. He is aghast and knows that things have changed irrevocably, but he can’t bear to live without her. Even if God should give him a new woman, he’ll always love Eve, the flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. Then he calms down. He starts clutching at straws – maybe God won’t really destroy the pride of his own creation. Surely that would only hand victory to Satan. Eve senses his wavering and says she would never ask Adam to taste the fruit if she really thought he would die as a result – a complete lie, as we’ve already seen. She says she feels full of life and asks him to taste (L 989-90):

On my experience, Adam, freely taste,
And fear of death deliver to the winds.

This line may be connected with Death’s eerie sniffing from far away “the smell of mortal change on earth” (Book 10, L 272-73). Adam eats from the fruit, he and Eve “swim with mirth” (L 1009) and then (L 1013-15)

Carnal desire enflaming, he on Eve
Began to cast lascivious eyes, she him
As wantonly repaid; in lust they burn:

And we can guess what’s coming next.

2 comments:

Eshuneutics said...

Have you read Tom Paulin's new book on sound in poetry? His reading of Milton in terms of sound is quite intriguing.

Rob said...

I've seen the book but haven't read it yet. Looks well worth reading though.