Monday, March 10, 2008

Paradise Lost - Day 10

More Paradise Lost in one month. Today, I reached Book 4, Line 689.

Milton describes the smooth rivers and fragrant trees of Eden, with occasional hints of what’s to come e.g. “with mazy error under pendant shades/ Ran nectar” (L 239-40), the “error” here not connoting anything devious and the “shades” meaning only leaves and braches, not the approaching shadows. Everything is perfect, even the roses are without thorns. Adam and Eve live contentedly, in God’s image, described in ways that may have earned Milton a few anachronistic pot-shots from feminist critics (L 295-299):

though both
Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace,
He for God only, she for God in him

They walk hand in hand (L 321), just as they will leave Eden hand in hand after the fall (the final lines in Paradise Lost are, “They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their solitary way”). Animals play in the garden – lions, tigers, goats all together. The serpent slides through the grass unheeded – another premonition.

Satan looks on in pity. He can’t help but admire the creation, but his pity doesn’t result in action. He knows exactly what he’s doing. The union with humankind that Satan seeks is to sow the seeds of their corruption and to drag them into his internal and external hell. His lines, which could in other contexts have been spoken by a lover, exude only irony (L 375-77):

League with you I seek,
And mutual amity so strait, so close,
That I with you must dwell, or you with me

There’s a strong tradition dating back to the third century that Satan wasn’t permitted to use any animal other than the serpent for his purposes, but in this scene from Paradise Lost, he takes the form of various animals to avoid detection. However, while the other animals live in peace and harmony together, Satan appears fierce and predatory. Of course, in the Bible, Satan is depicted as a “roaring lion” (1 Peter 5: 8).

Adam chats to Eve about how wonderful Eden is, and how great God is to make such a gift to them when they can give nothing in return. They have been asked only to tend the garden, which they enjoy, and not to eat of the tree of knowledge, which doesn’t seem too hard a task. They’ve been told that eating from the tree will bring death, “what e’er death is” (L 428). Adam says that it’s hardly worth disobeying the command, as they couldn’t be any happier.

Eve replies. She remembers waking up on her first day of life, seeing her reflection in the river, and falling in love with it (not realising she was seeing herself) – a touch of the Narcissus there. She finds Adam. At first she is reluctant to enter into relationship with him as she doesn’t think he’s as beautiful as she is, but eventually realises that “beauty is excelled by manly grace/ And wisdom, which alone is truly fair” (L 490-91). Milton is emphasising her free will. She had the choice to reject Adam, but decided not to.

Satan sees their happiness and love and is understandably envious, but envy is quickly superseded by euphoria when their discussion hatches his plan to tempt them through the tree of knowledge (L 517-522):

can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? and do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?
O fair foundation laid whereon to build
Their ruin!

Satan shoots off, hoping to find more weaknesses to exploit. Meanwhile, at the east gate of Eden, the angel Gabriel sits guard. Uriel arrives and tells him the story of how Satan deceived him and may already have entered Eden. Gabriel assures him that no bad angel has entered by the gate and that if he has entered in some other way, he’ll be found very soon.

Night is falling. Adam tells Eve that, unlike the animals who just laze about, they need to rest to be fresh for the next morning. Eve agrees, again in terms that might engender a few sharp intakes of breath (L 635-638):

My author and disposer, what thou bid’st
Unargued I obey; so God ordains,
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.

Adam goes on to explain that night falls because the sun must warm and give light to many other lands in preparation for their habitation, to ward off the attempts of night to bring total darkness, and to help out “the millions of spiritual creatures” who populate these zones and “lift our thoughts to heaven” (L 688).

1 comment:

Andrew Philip said...

Of course, in making it the tree of knowledge, Milton is departing from the Genesis narrative in a subtle but significant way: there it's the tree of the knoweldge of good and evil. Making it the tree of knowledge full stop doesn't really work: if Adam and Eve aren't allowed knowledge, how come they know anything, at least anything outside their experience, such as what the sun does at night?