In Book VI, Raphael, after discussing the threats posed by Satan, tells Adam to relay this counsel to Eve: “warn/ Thy weaker” (VI.908-909). This rather condescending word choice raises questions about other characters’ treatment of Eve, and I would like to investigate some potential connections between Raphael’s comment here and Eve’s own mindset immediately preceding the Fall in Book IX.
Importantly, Eve herself overhears these words. Raphael’s conversation with Adam occupies Books V-VIII, and Eve remains in their company until leaving to care for her flowers at the beginning of Book VIII. Considering, then, that he speaks it in front of Eve herself, Raphael’s comment becomes even more dismissive. He not only criticizes her abilities, but moreover does so to her face, as if she were not even there.
Such treatment seems likely to impact Eve, and her parting words to Adam before the Fall in Book IX suggest that it indeed does. Early in this book, Eve proposes that, instead of tending the garden together as they typically do, they might accomplish more by working separately. In disagreeing with her idea, Adam reopens the question of Eve’s supposed inferiority, telling her that they will be safer from Satan if they remain together, because “on us both at once/ The Enemy, though bold, will hardly dare,/ Or daring, first on mee th’ assault shall light” (IX.303-305). His words seem to suggest both that Eve is less capable on her own than when accompanied by him and that Satan would find him a more desirable target. Significantly, when Eve persists in her desire to work alone, she cites this very concept of her inferiority as evidence that she will be safe from Satan, assuring Adam that she does not “much expect/ A Foe so proud will first the weaker seek” (IX. 382-383). Eve’s self-description here both assimilates Adam’s judgment of himself as a more desirable prize for Satan to pursue and reflects Raphael’s earlier assessment of her as Adam’s “weaker.”
Yet, as we know, Satan does indeed target Eve, and he ultimately deceives her into eating the fruit. But are his deceitful words the only ones which contribute to her fall? Eve’s confidence in her safety seemed to rest on notions of her inferiority suggested to her by Raphael and Adam—can we say with certainty that their evaluations were correct? If Eve was perhaps only conditioned into believing in her weakness by hearing others suggest the idea, might Raphael and Adam also hold some responsibility for the events leading to the Fall?
During their discussion of Heaven and Earth in Book VIII, Raphael cautions Adam against asking to know too much: “be lowly wise:/ Think only what concerns thee and thy being; Dream not of other Worlds” (173-175), and Adam apparently assents, condemning humans’ overly inquisitive “Mind or Fancy” (188). I would like to examine the merits of Raphael’s counsel and the nature of Adam’s response, potentially questioning both.
Adam seems to appreciate Raphael’s admonition. In response, he praises the life God has given him—a life free from troubles “unless we ourselves/ Seek them with wand’ring thoughts, and notions vain” (186-187). As he then perceives, these “wand’ring thoughts” arise because “apt the Mind or Fancy is to rove/ Uncheckt, and of her roving is no end;/ Till warn’d, or by experience taught, she learn/ That…[t]hat which before us lies in daily life,/ Is the prime Wisdom” (188-194). His description of the mind’s “Uncheckt…roving” suggests that he sees it as an untrained faculty still in need of guidance, and he perhaps perceives and accepts Raphael’s words as that necessary guidance.
However, does Raphael’s counsel truly offer the benefits Adam apparently believes it does? The commands foreclose a multitude of seemingly reasonable questions which Adam and Eve might have. Would it be wrong for them to feel curious about circumstances outside of Eden? Adam seems to consent that it would, when he responds to Raphael that matters outside of everyday life are “emptiness” which leave him and Eve “Unpractic’d” and “unprepar’d” for dealing with the “things that most concern [us]” (195-197). But since the Garden is currently under threat from Satan (a force from outside their world) is “Dream not of other Worlds” really the best advice to offer Adam?
To further complicate matters, does Adam truly accept the command? His lengthy praise of Raphael’s doctrine would seem to imply that he does. But only a few lines later, he desires Raphael to continue their conversation because “while I sit with thee, I seem in Heav’n” (210). Considering that Raphael has just cautioned him against aspiring to know this place—“Heav’n is for thee too high/ To know what passes there” (172-173), Adam’s lingering desire for the sensations of Heaven casts some doubt over his acceptance. And not much later, he in fact continues to ask questions about the “heav’nly Spirits,” inquiring about the nature of “Love” in Heaven (615), further contradicting his assent.
With these complications, the passage presents two interrelated questions. First, how valid and helpful is Raphael’s advice for Adam? Second, does Adam intend to follow it? (And, depending on the answer to the first question, should he?)
In Book VII, prefacing his account of Earth’s creation, Raphael cautions Adam against asking for knowledge beyond the “bounds” (120) deemed appropriate for him by God. He warns Adam not to “let thine own inventions hope/ Things not reveal’d, which th’invisible King,/ Only Omniscient, hath supprest in Night” (VII.121-123). Since Night is both personified and portrayed as female in multiple parts of Paradise Lost, I would like to explore some possible implications of this comment.
The statement seems to say that God conceals certain knowledge of the most powerful or profound variety within “Night.” On the simplest level, the phrase could be merely a metaphorical way of saying that certain ideas are known only to God Himself, and thus shrouded in figurative darkness to everyone else.
However, since Book II, “Night” has been a personified female figure. In fact, Adam has just reinforced the idea, only a few lines before Raphael’s statement, by saying that “Night with her will bring/ Silence” (VII.105-106). If we consider the “Night” in which God suppresses these “Things not revealed” as the same female Night from previous sections, then a female figure occupies an intriguing role here, acting as the repository for some of God’s most profound knowledge—knowledge “To none communicable in Earth or Heaven” (VII.124).
If this second interpretation holds, then what exactly is Night’s role in the relationship? Does she have any agency, or is she merely a passive device under God’s authority, which He uses as a means or location to store “things not revealed”? Even if she is passive, though, she still seems to occupy a powerful role—If God is “suppres[sing]” these things “in” her, then she would appear to have possession of them. And how might this image relate to Eve’s story: considering that the Fall will result from a woman taking in profound (and forbidden) knowledge, why might Milton have included this earlier scene of God deliberately placing secret knowledge within a female figure?
In Raphael’s account of the War in Heaven (Books V and VI), we meet the angel Abdiel. For a character about whom we have previously heard nothing, Abdiel certainly seems important here, and I would like to investigate his significance.
When we first meet him in Book V, Abdiel is one of the “third part of Heav’n’s Host” (V.710) tricked into following Satan. However, as soon as he realizes Satan’s intent to rebel against God, he stands up and opposes the idea, before hastening back to warn God and the faithful angels. Then, as the battle is about to begin, he and Satan spar verbally, until Abdiel delivers a “noble stroke” with his sword (VI.189), which sends Satan reeling backwards. At this stroke, the archangel Michael “bid[s] sound/ Th’ Arch-Angel trumpet” (VI.202-203) and the battle commences.
While Michael commands the trumpet that ceremonially commences the war, Abdiel’s swordstroke has already commenced it on a practical level. His actions here seem almost more important than Michael’s—what sets this ordinary angel apart from a powerful archangel like Michael?
One unique aspect of Abdiel is his experience on both God’s and Satan’s sides. While he clearly never had any conscious intent of opposing God, he nevertheless did spend a brief stint of time in Satan’s camp. Michael and all of the other angels in Heaven have either never left God’s side, or else have fully aligned themselves with Satan, which places Abdiel in a curious middle ground.
However, this middle ground gives him a certain strength which no other angel possesses. Any of the faithful angels could, and doubtlessly would, defy Satan and profess obedience to God, as Abdiel does just before striking the blow: “Reign thou in Hell thy Kingdom, let mee serve/ In Heav’n God ever blest, and his Divine/ Behests obey” (VI.183-185). But coming from Abdiel, who has actually experienced—and rejected—the option to serve someone else and disobey God, the words are more than mere talk. His faith has been tested and proved not just in theory, but also in serious practice.
Milton actually addresses the role that exposure to evil plays in the development of virtue in Areopagitica: “He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian” (Areopagitica 728). This passage, in both theme and imagery, evokes the image of Abdiel in the moments leading up to the War in Heaven. However, Milton refers specifically to humans in the post-Fall world here; can the sentiment possibly extend to the angels in Paradise Lost? Might Abdiel’s exposure to and rejection of vice in Satan’s camp have contributed, in a way, to the development of his strength? If so, what complications arise when, in order to attain the greatest awareness and knowledge, even an angel must countenance vice?
Book IV offers us our first description of Adam and Eve: “for contemplation hee and valor form’d,/ For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace” (297-298). I would like to investigate this description of Eve, alongside her following, personal account of awakening in the Garden.
Eve recounts how, upon coming into existence, she found a lake and became fascinated with her reflection in it. Her story calls to mind the Greek myth of Narcissus (a beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection, ultimately leading to his death)—a rather ominous evocation, which may already hint at Eve’s failure.
Eve herself, however, seems rather less concerned with her physical appearance. In fact, while the earlier description evoked sensual aspects such as her “softness,” her own initial reaction does not. She first assesses herself, nondescriptly enough, as “A Shape” (461). Moreover, when she begins to find this “Shape” attractive, it is not because of its physical aspect, but rather its actions.
She focuses on the shape’s “answering looks/ Of sympathy and love” (464-465). At first glance, the word “answering” here seems to refer simply to her reflection’s mirroring of her own motions. But when we consider that Eve’s first action, upon awakening, was a series of four profound questions—“I first awak’t…much wond’ring where/ And what I was, whence thither brought, and how” (450-452)—the word may take on further significance. Since Eve’s inquisitive nature is already apparent, could her pleasure at these looks derive from a hope that, in this shape, she will somehow find the answers to her deep questions?
With such varied interpretations possible, I wonder what Eve’s following assessment of this pseudo-relationship as “vain desire” (466) means. Does she realize the flaws of a narcissistic self-love? Is she frustrated at losing the intellectually revealing relationship she sought to find in her reflection? What precisely does Eve lament to have lost?
Lines 722-725 of Book I describe the completion of the devils’ palace, Pandaemonium: “Th’ ascending pile/ Stood fixt her stately highth, and straight the doors/ Op’ning thir brazen folds discover wide/ Within, her ample spaces.” I would like to consider whether the feminine words in Pandaemonium’s description invite a comparison between her and Eve, and what such a comparison might imply.
Pandaemonium is “her,” and she provides the space within which the devils hold their council. This womanhood and role within the devils’ endeavors seems to evoke Eve’s story. Moreover, like Eve, this hall was created from a “rib.” In her case, the devils “dig…out ribs of Gold” (690) from a hill in Hell, using this ore to construct Pandaemonium. These similarities may locate her within a series of condemned female characters including Sin and Eve.
However, at the same time, Pandaemonium feels strangely uninvolved in the devils’ council, despite being the locale of their meeting. She “Stood fixt” (723) while they swarmed around her, an unmoving and unmoved presence amidst their evil. This aloof portrayal might lead us to ask how important she really was to the devils’ plans. Was her presence necessary for them to develop and realize their schemes? Perhaps not. And if not, then this female figure created from a rib becomes somewhat superfluous to the story of man’s Fall. The devils might have reached the exact same conclusions had they met on the shores of the burning lake, or on one of the hilltops, or anywhere else.
Like Pandaemonium, Eve is created from a rib, she is conspicuously female in a story with a predominantly male cast, and she seems to play a major role in Satan’s evil-doing. But beneath the surface of Pandaemonium’s story lurks a curious distance from the evil in which she seems to be implicated. Considering the other parallels between them, could we make any similar observations about Eve? Just how crucial was her role in the Fall?
After a year off, the Edifice Project returns with a course focusing on Milton’s presentation of women in his works. We’ll focus on the character of Eve, a central figure in Paradise Lost, and consider women through the lens of Milton’s texts.
The Spring 2015 semester sees Emma Annette Wilson join David Ainsworth as co-instructor of the course, with a focus on reason and on her specialty, early modern logic.
The class this semester will focus on the place of reason in Milton’s work, with a gradually increasing focus on the role of reason and logic in Milton’s understanding of Christian faith. The class project will take up this question by looking closely at the logical progression of some of the arguments in Milton’s poetry.
The Spring semester is winding down, and this year’s class, focusing on issues of fate and free will, has started what may be the seeds of something larger. Students selected four passages from Book 9 of Paradise Lost, then picked out specific sections of each passage for discussion. Four students recorded readings of each passage, to help others in working their way through it. The rest recorded brief podcast discussions of specific sections, discussing their meaning and significance in relation to the larger work and to our fate/free will course topic.
Clicking on a link in the text itself will open up one of these podcasts.
I’m not aware of podcast annotation prior to this point for this poem; we’re breaking new ground here, so I am very interested in getting feedback about the usefulness of the Podcast Project. I am also interested in potential expansions of the project. There’s a lot of poem left and a lot of room for people discussing meaning and significance from a variety of different contexts and foci.
Podcasts will be posted shortly. Until we sort out some glitches with our WordPress theme, the easiest way to get to them will be the side menu, on the right of your screen. I welcome feedback, be it in the form of suggestions for improvement, indications of utility, or volunteers for further work! Get in touch via my ua.edu address, found here: http://english.ua.edu/user/37
On Friday April 27th, the Spring 2012 Milton class will conduct a marathon reading of Paradise Lost in the Pearce lobby of Gorgas Library. We’ll begin reading at 8 AM and continue until we’re finished, most likely sometime around 5 PM. Everyone is welcome to join us, either to listen or to read.