ENGL 220: Milton

Lecture 18

 - Paradise Lost, Books IX-X


This second lecture on the Fall traces Milton’s use of the word < em>wander, in all of its forms, across the poem. The transformation of wander from its pre-fallen sense to its more nefarious incarnation following the transgression is examined closely. The wider literary context of the concept of wandering, with particular emphasis placed on its importance to the romance genre, is briefly discussed. The reductive forces of Book Nine – particularly its tendency to transform the moral ambivalence, disputed sexual hierarchy, and general poetic ambiguity of earlier books into more definitive representations – are considered, with the lecture ultimately suggesting that the poem begins to turn away in Book Nine from many of its proto-feminist elements.

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ENGL 220 - Lecture 18 - Paradise Lost, Books IX-X

Chapter 1. Introduction: The Fall, Language and Literature [00:00:00]

Professor John Rogers: So the first thing I want you to do is turn to page 378. This is the beginning of Book Nine. It’s a curious feature, I think, of Book Nine that it begins with a consideration of talk. The narrator is lamenting the fact that Raphael has just departed the garden and that soon, not long after Raphael’s departure, Adam and Eve will fall, and this fall is going to have an impact – and this is something that the narrator is really emphasizing here – on the way they talk. For example, it’s going to be impossible after this point for human beings to enjoy a friendly conversation with an angel. So this is how Book Nine begins:

No more of talk where God or Angel Guest
With Man, as with his Friend, familiar us’d
To sit indulgent, and with him partake
Rural repast, permitting him the while
Venial discourse unblam’d.

With the departure now of Raphael, man will never again be permitted to enjoy “venial discourse unblam’d,” and “venial” here has a special meaning. It means “allowable” or “permissible.” Milton’s suggesting that the Fall brings with it certain restrictions, specifically restrictions of language, and there start to arise constraints on speech or what Milton calls here “talk.” When you read the last two books of Paradise Lost, which we’ll be doing for the next week, you’ll begin to see just what kinds of restrictions Adam’s speech will be subjected to. The angel Michael will continually criticize and correct Adam’s talk, and the general feeling, I think, of the last two books can be quite uncomfortable for just this reason: after the Fall, Adam and Eve live in a world in which mere speech itself can be blamed or, in some cases, it can be prohibited altogether. The Fall is imagined in Books Nine and Ten to have, as you can – of course, this is the event heralded in the title, so it’s a big deal – it’s imagined to have an enormous range of consequences, and Milton divides these consequences in to essentially two categories. First, you have the mythic consequences that take place or are imagined to take place in the physical world; and then there are also the psychic, the psychological, consequences that take place somewhere within the consciousnesses of Adam and Eve. It’s with a great amount of imaginative literary gusto that Milton enumerates the mythic consequences, which he does at some length in Book Ten.

So you’ll remember that after the Fall, Adam and Eve are punished with bad weather. It’s wonderful when Milton does this kind of thing: he tries to represent this punishment with as much scientific specificity as he possibly can. So the angels are instructed by God to shift the sun around and to tilt the poles of the earth some twenty degrees from the sun’s axis, and these mythically imagined astronomical alterations will bring with them the four seasons, new to earth, and of course, the inclement winds – the biting cold that will plague forever and forever the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Needless to say, these are enormous changes. But when you consider the sheer magnitude of these cosmic shifts, it’s all the more interesting, I think, and all the more noteworthy that the effect of the Fall that Milton laments first in Book Nine is the effect on consciousness and the effect specifically on speech.

It’s here in Book Nine that Milton signals that his own talk, his own speech, has been affected by this new subject – the subject that he has no choice but to deal with now, which is that of the Fall. Milton will have to alter, this is how the argument goes, the style of this poem in order to suit the subject matter of the Fall, and so this is what he’s doing at line five, or what he tells us he’s doing: “I must now change / these notes to Tragic.” The change in Milton’s poetic notes, these musical notes that are, of course, his poetic verses or the nature of his literary representation – the change in these notes is manifest in a lot of ways throughout the final books of Paradise Lost. For one thing, it’s here that we have the last invocation of the poem. And it’s not coincidental, I think, that this last invocation in Paradise Lost is not actually an invocation at all. Milton does not directly address Urania, the muse. He can only speak of her in the third person. This is line twenty: “if answerable style I can obtain / of my Celestial Patroness…” Milton isn’t able, it seems, to address the muse directly anymore.

How big that “if” is – “if answerable style I can obtain” – we don’t actually know. We don’t know whether he’ll be able to obtain the answerable style. There’s been a huge fall-off in the poet’s poetic self-confidence. He can’t express himself “unblam’d” as he had tried to do in the invocation to holy light in Book Three. You’ll remember that question: “may I express thee unblam’d?” He’s failed here to clear the lines of communication between himself and this heavenly being, and of course, in this failure Milton the narrator, the persona of the poet, resembles Adam and Eve. He’s no longer permitted this kind of direct-dial access to Urania just as Adam and Eve are no longer permitted their friendly conversations with a friendly angel like Raphael. They will have conversations with an angel, or Adam will, but as you will see, Michael’s stern tutelage can hardly be described as friendly. It’s certainly instructive but Milton would never be able to bring himself to use the adjective “affable” in characterizing Michael as, of course, he did so charmingly with Raphael.

Chapter 2. Milton’s Motivations for Writing about the Fall [00:06:33]

So for Milton, the Fall is inextricably connected to problems of language and specifically the problems of literature, and so this is one of the things that we’ll be looking at. This is why – and I know I’m always beginning lectures with, “Can you believe it that we don’t find out in Paradise Lost until now that this incredibly important thing happens?” I’ll be doing it yet one more time. It’s not until now – and this seems as big a postponement as any of the postponements that I’ve mentioned: it’s not until now in Book Nine that Milton finally gets around to explaining why it is he decided to write his epic about the Fall, the fall of man. Look at line twenty-five:

Since first this Subject for Heroic Song
Pleas’d me long choosing, and beginning late;
Not sedulous by Nature to indite
Wars, hitherto the onely Argument
Heroic deem’d, chief maistry to dissect
With long and tedious havoc fabl’d Knights
In Battels feign’d…

Milton had intended for quite some time, as we know, to write his epic poem on the subject of a fabled knight. He actually wanted to have his great English epic be something like a continuation of the legend of King Arthur, and his epic was going to be a chivalric romance epic like the poems by the great Renaissance poets Ariosto and Tasso, or of course, like The Faerie Queene by his own countryman, Edmund Spenser. In fact, one of the central figures, or you could say the central figure, in The Faerie Queene is just that legendary Arthur that Milton had as a young man wanted to write about.

But Milton now insists that it was on moral grounds that he finally chose not to write his poem in the form of a heroic, chivalric romance. This is line thirty-two of Book Nine: Milton decided not to devote or invest his poetic talent in all of those meaningless features of romance literature that he’s now saying improperly go under the title of “heroic,” so he refuses, this is line thirty-two, to describe:

Races and Games,
Or tilting Furniture, emblazon’d Shields,
Impreses quaint, Caparisons and Steeds;
Bases and tinsel Trappings, gorgious Knights
At Joust and Tornament…

And this list is something like – these are the common elements of the romance tradition. It’s kind of like a Cliff Notes summary of all of the conventional features of a romance like Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia or Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. In some cases, Milton is actually lifting entire phrases, such as “tinsel Trappings,” which appears a few times in The Faerie Queene, out of the pages of Spenser.

But Milton knows perfectly well that this is a disservice to his favorite poet, Spenser, and the romances of The Faerie Queene the romance that is The Faerie Queene is clearly a lot more than merely a depiction of battles and games, although that certainly is a feature of it. The most characteristic feature of the romance genre – not just in Spenser’s hands but in the hands of all Renaissance writers of romance – the most characteristic feature is the hero or the heroine who travels the countryside in search of a venture, in search of an opportunity to prove his or her virtue or an opportunity to prove his or her courage. The principal means by which the romance plot advances is almost always by the wandering of its heroes. Heroes and heroines wander the landscapes of romance, and there’s a lot of ideological significance attached to this wandering. They rarely have set out before them some kind of specific map or guide that will allow them to proceed along their narrowly defined goals.

The demons that romance heroes battle and the serpents that they fend off nearly always come as a surprise. They’re not discovered with the help of a map. They’re almost always – and this is certainly the case in The Faerie Queene – they’re almost always happened upon. The fact that romance heroes have simply wandered into an adventure only proves their virtue and their courage all the more, once of course, they have prevailed.

It’s important that Milton has waited so long to explain his rejection of the genre of the romance as the form that his great poem would take, and that’s because the rejection of romance, I think, has everything to do, as he’s imagining it, with the consequence of the Fall in Paradise Lost. One of the most convincing elements, I think, of Satan’s temptation of Eve is his attempt to turn her act of disobedience into an act of romance chivalry. So look at Book Nine, line 694. Satan suggests to Eve at 694 that God won’t incense his ire for such a petty trespass as eating the fruit. Then he continues: God will “praise / rather your dauntless virtue…”

In the world of romance, the idea of obedience isn’t nearly as important as the idea of courage, or what Satan calls here in perfect chivalric language “dauntless virtue.” Satan is essentially tempting Eve to think of herself as a heroine of a romance, as if he were saying, “Listen, Eve, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but you’re not a character in a biblical tragedy. You’re not a character even in a biblical epic. You’re a wandering knight in a chivalric romance, and your only job, actually, is to prove your courage, to prove your virtue.” Of course, Eve is dead wrong to apply the assumptions of romance to this decidedly unromantic test of her obedience, but for this moment of Satan’s temptation, he gives us a little glimpse into a possible alternative to the story of Eve told in the Book of Genesis. If the story of Eve had been framed in the genre of romance rather than in the genre of tragedy, then Eve might have been rewarded rather than punished for her eating of the fruit. Her courage would have been praised rather than her disobedience blamed.

So Milton rejects the genre of romance – of course, he has no choice but to – as a viable literary mode in the description of the Fall in Book Nine; but he does so only after he’s made ample use – and he’s exploited it to an extraordinary degree, I think – ample use of the principal movement of romance, and that’s the movement of wandering. This poem is filled with images of wandering as if the poem shows traces or some kind of literary residue of the genre that Milton decided not to write this epic in, the romance – as if somewhere inside of this biblical epic there’s a romance epic, a chivalric epic, struggling to get out. When Milton rejects the romance genre in this invocation, he begins to alter the poem’s sense of the meaning and the poem’s sense of the significance of the very activity of wandering.

Chapter 3. Tracing the History of the Word “Wandering” as it Progresses through the Poem [00:14:41]

So Adam and Eve – and it’s incredibly depressing if you, as most people have, have grown up listening to your parents [laughs] argue. They begin bickering about the causes of the Fall, and they lapse in to a depressing cycle of mutual recrimination. Adam insists that Eve fell because of the tendency she had to wander. Look what happened! He let her wander off yesterday morning and – you know the story. That’s essentially his argument, and the subject of Eve’s wandering becomes the focal point of the first marital argument after the Fall. So Adam rejects Eve’s wandering just as Milton is rejecting the whole genre of wandering, the literary form of the romance.

I think there is a way in which these two forms of rejection are closely related. What’s at stake with both of these forms of rejection, these acts of rejection, is a problem of language. So when Milton writes in line twenty of the invocation that he’s struggling to find an answerable style, a style that will answer to this new occasion, the tragic occasion of the Fall, he needs to change his style in a way that can actually answer to the tragedy that he’s about to describe. As a literary event, the Fall makes its biggest impact, I think, through a change in the style of the poem, and by that I mean there’s something like a systematic alteration of the use of certain key words.

So I’m going to be focusing for a moment on the changes undergone by a particular word – and you’ve probably already guessed what it will be – a particular word in Paradise Lost, although there are a number of words that seem to undergo similar or at least closely related changes over the course of the poem – but here I’ll be looking at the word wander. The word wander or wandering or some version of that word appears no fewer than thirty-two times in Paradise Lost. Without question, I think, every appearance of the word is loaded. The energy charging the word wander comes from the fact, I think, that it has embedded within it or attached to it in some way the entire genre of the chivalric romance that, of course, Milton has rejected. It’s almost as if the word wander is a code word for romance. When Milton uses the word wandering, it’s almost as if he’s alluding to the Spenserian type of poem that he rejected when he decided to write Paradise Lost. It’s a reminder of the kind of poem that this could have been if it hadn’t been a biblical epic.

You can see a way in which the word wandering in Paradise Lost seems to range somewhere or move perhaps back and forth between two distinct meanings. It’s a little confusing, but I’ve given us something like a schematic version of the semantic spectrum that the word wander inhabits in Paradise Lost. So I guess you could think of the pure or the innocent meaning of wander as purely spatial. It is purely a spatial description of a kind of directionless or unforced motion. Then, the further you move to the right of the spectrum, you get its figurative and therefore its moral meaning, which is error: the pejorative sense of error, error not simply as wandering, and straying from the law, but wandering as a divergence from that which God wants you to do – so from a kind of pure and uncontaminated meaning to the right of the spectrum to something much more morally pejorative. You can actually think of the word wander as something like a chivalric knight that undergoes its own set of adventures and challenges and transformations over the course of this poem.

So let’s look at an early instance of the word wander. This is Book Two, line 146. This is Belial in the consult, the great debate in hell, when Belial in Book Two ponders the possibility of the annihilation of the angels. It’s a horrible possibility for him. The consequence that he imagines as most painful and most absolutely unbearable is the possibility that his mind will no longer be able to wander, so Belial asks this question, this is line 146 of Book Two: “for who would lose, / Though full of pain, This intellectual being,/ Those thoughts that wander through Eternity…” Sure, Belial is a fallen angel, and Milton goes out of his way to provide a kind of doctrinal condemnation of everything in Belial’s speech; but there’s no sense, actually, that there’s anything wrong with the general concept of intellectual wandering. In fact, Belial seems to be quoting Milton himself from Areopagitica, in which Milton celebrates, above all things, the right to wander – the right to wander through literature, through all of one’s reading and all of one’s cultural exposure without a guide. Milton writes in Areopagitica that God gives us minds – and he loves this fact – “God… gives us minds that can wander beyond all limit and satiety.” The whole principle of human wandering is given a powerful divine sanction in Areopagitica.

And so initially in Paradise Lost we have just that kind of innocent meaning to the word wandering as it appears early in the poem. Look at another early instance. This is Book Four, line 233, page 283 of the Hughes. Milton’s describing here how the four rivers of paradise spread out and travel through the earth, how the river “divided into four main Streams, Runs divers, wand’ring many a famous Realm / And Country.” So the river divides “into four main Streams, /Runs divers, wandring many a famous Realm / And Country.” Here it’s a river that’s been actually cast in the role of the hero of a chivalric romance. Typically, of course, it’s the knight, a chivalric knight who wanders “many a famous Realm and Country.”

Now, we may be tempted to assume that because the rivers of Eden are wandering through the countryside that there’s already a tendency toward something like moral error or straying from the law built somehow into the landscape of the garden. We may assume that Adam and Eve will naturally – how could they not? – stray from the proper path of obedience if they live in a natural world that is itself continually straying and wandering. Milton invites us to make that connection but then slaps our wrists for even entertaining it for a moment. He uses wandering here in these early passages in an almost aggressively innocent sense. He simply wants to describe a nonlinear motion, a direction that hasn’t been dictated or directed by a higher power. I’ve made this point before, but one of the labors of reading Paradise Lost is knowing when to recover, and then actually trying to recover, the purely innocent significance of some of the poem’s key words.

So the idea that innocent wandering is central to Milton’s poem because the activity of wandering and the principle of free will are so absolutely intimately connected – think about it. If wandering is a motion that doesn’t follow a predetermined or predestined path, then the wanderer is necessarily always free from the constraints of an external force, or you could say that the wanderer is always free, on some level, from the constraints or the guidance even of an omnipotent God. The very ability to wander, the right to wander, is something like a guarantee or a strong proof of one’s freedom.

In Book Nine though – this is one of the reasons this book can be so hard to read – the very notion of wandering starts to come under suspicion, and there’s a sense that Milton can’t afford any longer to be so free in his talk about wandering. “No more talk of innocent wandering,” he might have begun this book. With the Fall, wandering is no longer “unblam’d” or “venial,” to use those words from the opening quasi-invocation. It comes under a new set of ethical constraints. It’s almost as if wandering, by the time you get to Book Nine, no longer has an opportunity or the liberty to occupy the innocent or the left-hand side of the semantic spectrum, but it’s almost entirely forced to occupy the figurative, the moral, and specifically the morally pejorative side of that word’s meaning.

So let’s take a look at how that happens. This is page 393 in the Hughes, Book Nine, line 634. Milton’s describing Satan’s leading of Eve to the Tree of Knowledge, obviously a consequential event. Eve is compared to an amazed knight-wanderer, a knight-wanderer who has been deluded and misled by a “wand’ring Fire.” (“Wand’ring Fire” is a meteor moving across the sky.) At the moment of the Fall, all of those wonderfully liberating significances that had been attached to the notion of wandering suddenly seem to just drop out of the equation altogether, and the evil that we have no choice but to associate with Satan starts to absorb and suck up all of those innocent, those beautiful, associations that the word wandering had had. So instead of a capacious semantic spectrum, you get something like a rigid and much more fixed sense of the meaning of this word wandering by the time we get to the Fall.

Let’s look on. This is page 404 in the Hughes, line 1134 of Book Nine. By the time Adam gets around to blaming Eve for the Fall, and of course he does that, the word wander has been entirely confined to the morally pejorative part of its semantic range. So for Adam – and this is remarkable – the point at which Eve falls isn’t what we know to be the point at which Eve falls, which is the moment that she eats the fruit. The point at which Eve falls according to Adam here is that moment in which she wandered away. She wandered away after their argument or their conversation about their separation. And so he says to Eve at line 1134:

Would thou hadst heark’n’d to my words, and stay’d
With me, as I besought thee, when that strange
Desire of wand’ring, this unhappy Morn,
I know not whence possess’d thee…

“That strange / Desire of wandering”: I think it’s painful almost to hear Adam use that phrase, “that strange desire of wandering,” as if wandering were a concept so alien and so foreign in the world of paradise. Milton tells us just above this passage at line 1132 that Adam is speaking in an altered style. This alteration of style is surely, on the one hand, just the angry tone of voice that he’s using as he’s speaking to his wife, but it’s also, I think, a certain restriction of semantic possibility, the possibility of the significances of the words that he’s using. Here the word wandering can only have its morally pejorative meaning, and there’s a sense in which Adam is condemning not just Eve but the whole range of freedoms that Milton had been working so hard to establish as important, actually crucial components of his liberal universe.

Well, Eve hears this and she’s right to be perfectly aghast. She’s aghast not simply because Adam is, as he is, exhibiting a kind of surprisingly unbecoming capacity for rudeness. It’s not just the tone of voice that appalls her. She’s also appalled by the altered style of Adam’s speech, by which I mean the powerfully reductive force of his talk. Look at line 1144. This is Eve: “What words have passed thy lips, Adam severe, Imputest thou that to my default, or” – and you can see the kind of quotation marks that Eve is putting in the air right now – “will / Of wand’ring, as thou call’st it.” Eve is right, I think, to be surprised that this altered, this fallen use of the word wandering has passed Adam’s lips. You can almost hear her say, “Listen: what’s going on? I always thought wandering was a good thing. Wandering is, of course, what the rivers in paradise do, Adam, and I thought that the right to wander is a right that we possess as creatures of free will in a free place. How dare you blame the Fall on wandering?”

One thing I think we can say for Eve is that she’s an excellent reader of poetry, and like a good reader, she’s bristling here at the suggestion that a word as capacious as wandering is capable only of one type of significance. There’s a sense that before the Fall, words in Milton’s poems had a kind of nimbleness. There was a flexibility to them, and Milton, as you remember, imagined his verse style as something like the verbal equivalent of an angel’s body. His poem was a body of verse that was free of restrictive joints and limbs of the traditional rhymed couplet, and there was a suppleness that allowed words and phrases and whole sentences to assume a huge array of meanings just as angels can “either sex assume” in heaven.

But there’s a sense in which words seem to lose a lot of their suppleness after the Fall, and this depressing loss of a kind of linguistic mobility is for Milton, I think, one of the central crises of the poem. A word like wander suddenly begins to assume joints and limbs. It becomes arthritic, and its meanings become restricted and reduced to a black-and-white world of good and bad – and it’s not just wander: there are other key words that undergo similar transformations, slightly different transformations, of course, because they are different persons or different characters; but I’m thinking of words such as fruit or error or taste. Any of these would make an excellent paper topic, a tracing of the history of the word as it progresses through the poem.

So words that had been so polyvalent, so multifaceted, are beginning suddenly to be concretized as moral error. The words are becoming polarized. They’re pushed to the opposite poles of good and evil. This move to reductive signification is seen to have, I think – and Milton wants us to see it as having – some disastrous consequences for his poem, and one of the most disastrous consequences of the new altered style of Paradise Lost involves the poem’s new understanding of Eve.

Chapter 4. A New Understanding of Eve [00:31:31]

For a while it seemed possible that the official line on sexual hierarchy was just one of the possible readings of paradisal government. There were at least some suggestions – I thought there were at least some suggestions that there was actually a kind of natural equality between Adam and Eve and that the matter of hierarchy was like a cultural imposition of an arbitrary order onto the naturally egalitarian status of their relationship, a cultural imposition that God himself had imposed. As you know very well, at least I have found myself over the last couple of weeks trying to make a case for a certain open-endedness to human relations, to the relations between the sexes in Milton’s Eden, and I’m willing now to confess – I will confess here and now that maybe I pushed that case a little too far. I pushed that case of this open-endedness to the relation between Adam and Eve a little further than the poem would actually allow me to push it. If I have had gone too far in that particular interpretative direction over the course of these last, let’s say, three or four lectures, the poem now is correcting me. My wrist is being slapped.

By the time we get to the end of Book Nine, it becomes impossible and it becomes even impossible for me – and I can push this stuff pretty hard! – to maintain the case for the gray areas or the blurred edges that surround the poem’s sexism. So no more of talk, no more of Rogers’ talk, of Milton’s infinitely feel-good, flexible feminism. Your professor can now be seen to have strayed beyond the bounds of responsible pedagogy, and perhaps you would be well advised – I don’t know. It’s up to you whether you should just throw away your notes from the last three or four lectures, or I will advise Dan, the cameraman, simply to erase the last three tapes, because maybe I was entirely wrong. After the Fall there’s less and less of an alternative to Raphael’s insistence on sexual hierarchy. Everything is much more black and white now, and any ambivalence that may have been expressed about the justice of Eve’s subjection to Adam seems simply in some way to just disappear after the Fall.

One of the divine punishments – and it always strikes students as kind of odd that one of the punishments that follows the Fall is the official subjection of woman to man. The Son in Paradise Lost passes judgment on Eve, and he declares – this is in Book Ten: “to thy Husband’s will / Thine shall submit, hee over thee shall rule.” Often we ask, “Well, what’s the big deal? How is this different from their situation before?” But it is a big deal and this is a punishment. You’ll remember that Eve before the Fall had always been in a position to choose to yield to Adam, and here she no longer has a choice. She just gets seized, and she’s never given the opportunity to yield. Maybe the distinction strikes some of us as a little specious, but it’s a meaningful one, I think, to Milton.

But there’s more to the Fall than just this official laying down of a new law, a newly rigorous and newly enforced law of sexual subordination and of involuntary sexual subjection. Look at page 427 in the Hughes. This is Book Ten, line 867. There’s a new subjection of language, the subjection of language to a new altered style. In this passage we have Adam really at his most misogynist. Eve comes to Adam to try to make amends after the Fall, and Adam just lets loose with this powerful antifeminist invective. So this is line 867 of Book Ten:

Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name best
Befits thee with him leagu’d, thyself as false
And hateful; nothing wants, but that thy shape,
Like his, and color Serpentine, may show
Thy inward fraud; to warn all creatures from thee

The Fall brings with it a new name for Eve, Serpent, and Milton’s actually thinking of one of the incredibly mean-spirited – I think it was actually mistaken, but it was a traditional etymology for the name Eve which had at various points over the history of biblical interpretation, actually in the Hebrew, was believed to have meant “serpent.” Adam here identifies Eve with the serpent, and he’s providing a significance for Eve, the word Eve, that drastically constricts the enormous range of meanings that we may have associated with her up to this point, that we were right, presumably, to associate with her up to this point. You’ll remember that in Book Four, the waving motions of Eve’s hair had been juxtaposed implicitly with the waving, winding motions of the serpent, and one of the points of that juxtaposition was to come to understand that the waving, wandering motion was entirely innocent before the Fall. It only comes to be associated with moral error, the right-hand side of the semantic spectrum, after the Fall.

But once again Adam suddenly reveals himself to be an abominable reader of poetry and absolutely incapable of nuance and suggestiveness. He reinterprets all of the innocent similarities between the wandering, waviness of Eve and the serpent into something like an absolute identification with evil. The name Eve suddenly takes on the force of something like a morally pejorative word, and Adam only makes his case stronger by reiterating this new black-and-white understanding of the concept of wandering. Get this! This is line 873 of Book Ten:

But for thee [he tells Eve]
I had persisted happy, had not thy pride
And wand’ring vanity, when least was safe,
Rejected my forewarning…

“Pride / and wand’ring vanity”: wandering has practically taken on the force of a curse word in this sentence. It’s lodged contemptuously between “pride” and “vanity” as if out of nowhere Milton is elevating the notion of wandering to something like the eighth deadly sin. The very idea of wandering, of course we know this, insists upon the importance of ambiguity and ambivalence, and I think it’s just this ambiguity and ambivalence that Adam is really lashing out at. He’s struggling to align the concept of wandering with some of the most hateful and some of the most misogynous impulses of the poem.

It’s important though to understand that it’s not just – and it’s depressing also – it’s not just Adam who is responsible for the reduction of Eve and the reduction of Eve’s wandering to the status of moral error. The poem itself seems to be lending a kind of disconcerting authority to this misinterpretation of Eve. I think it’s a misinterpretation of Eve. When Adam falls, the text makes clear that it’s for a very different reason from Eve’s fall. Eve had fallen out of deception and Adam had fallen out of love. He knew precisely what he was doing. This is what the narrator tells us at line – and you don’t need to turn there – line 997 at Book Nine: Adam “scrupl’d not to eat, / against Against his better knowledge, not deceiv’d, / but But fondly overcome with Female charm.”

“Fondly overcome with Female charm”: what sense does that make? That’s the narrator’s interpolation. The narrator is giving a new authoritative interpretation of the event of the Fall, and I think it’s entirely unfair and it’s not just unfair: this is wrong. Adam falls, we know this, because of his sense of his marital bond. I think he’s wrong to fall, actually, but it’s not that he was overcome with Eve’s female charm. He says, “Our State cannot be sever’d, we are one, / One Flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.” He falls out of his sense of connectedness with Eve, but he doesn’t fall because he’s been seduced by his wife. The narrator has interpreted Adam’s fall in a way that, I think, the text itself simply can’t support. It’s a central example of how reductive interpretations aren’t just to be attributed to Adam but they’re beginning actually to insinuate themselves in to the authoritative voice of the narrator.

Chapter 5. Paradise Lost Book X: The Consequences of The Fall [00:41:07]

Book Ten of Paradise Lost is the book given to the representation of the consequences of the Fall. Given that one of the effects of the Fall, as I’ve been describing, is something like the imaginative shrinkage that language suffers, we shouldn’t really be at all surprised by one of the early and very strange actions in Book Ten. It’s here that we’re forced to witness the reappearance of the debased and what I think is for this poem the entirely inappropriate genre of allegory. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, Milton re-injects into his otherwise realistic poem the decidedly unreal figures of Sin and Death. So look at Book Ten, line 229. This is page 411 in the Hughes. Milton describes the Son’s descent to earth to pass judgment on Adam and Eve, and at line 229 he gives us a description of a set of events that’s been happening simultaneously. He uses this “meanwhile”-structure a few times in Paradise Lost: “Meanwhile, ere thus was sinn’d and judg’d on Earth, / Within the Gates of Hell sat Sin and Death.”

With this use of the “meanwhile”-structure of the narrative, Milton’s allowing us to see the activity of Sin and Death not happening at a later point in the story of the Fall: it’s happening at the same time as the Fall and, in fact, it’s the same event. It’s simply the same event told from a different perspective, a different point of view, and of course it’s told within an entirely different literary mode. One of the consequences of the Fall has been a certain reduction of meaning, as I’ve been describing, undergone by some of the poem’s key words. And here in Book Ten, Milton constructs an entire scene out of that literary mode traditionally most given to reductive meanings, and that’s the mode of allegory. It’s in allegory that, when performed ham-fistedly, you have a one-to-one correspondence between an image and its meaning. There isn’t traditionally in allegorical writing the same kind of proliferation of meanings that you can have in other literary modes.

The Fall is the moment, of course, at which Adam and Eve sin and the moment at which they are consigned to suffer the penalty of death. That much we accept and is perfectly reasonable; but here after the Fall, Milton chooses to represent this new introduction of Sin and Death within the mode of allegory, and the result has to be one of the most bathetic, one of the most preposterous scenes in all of Paradise Lost. It’s an embarrassment. Turn to the top of page 413 in the Hughes, line 282. This is the argument: since there will presumably be, after the Fall, a greater deal of communication between earth and hell, the allegorical monsters Sin and Death find themselves in the position [laughs] of constructing an actual bridge that will connect the earth with the home of the fallen angels, the hell. So Milton represents the building of this bridge as some massive public works project, and I think there’s every indication here that he’s intending this representation to strike us as perfectly absurd.

Sin and Death begin to build the bridge; this is line 282:

Then Both from out Hell Gates into the waste
Wide anarchy of Chaos damp and dark,
Flew diverse, and with Power (thir Power was great)
Hovering upon the Waters…

You’ll notice here that we have a parody of God’s creation where the Holy Spirit had hovered upon the waters of chaos and made it pregnant. I’ll continue:

[W]hat they met
Solid or slimy, as in raging Sea
Tost up and down, together crowded drove
From each side shoaling towards the mouth of Hell.
As when two Polar Winds blowing adverse [and I’m skipping around here]
… [T]ogether drive
Mountains of ice…

It’s a brilliant but a grotesque travesty, a parody, of God’s vitalist creation of the universe, the process whereby impregnated matter begins organically to organize itself into the beautiful creation. Sin and Death – they’re ham-fisted creators here. They can’t impregnate chaos, of course, and so they build a bridge over chaos by manhandling chaos. They force together all of the solid and all of the slimy stuff into one huge pile.

It’s a grotesque image but its grotesquery, I think, serves an important point. It serves as Milton’s emblem for, among other things, the process undergone by language after the Fall. It’s as if he’s representing the shoaling together into one concrete block all of the diverse and all of the various meanings associated with some of the poem’s most resonant, most beautiful and most suggestive words. Look at how Death gets all of the slippery stuff of chaos – it’s wonderfully slippery! – to hold together in the form of a bridge, line 293:

The aggregated Soil
Death with his mace petrific, cold and dry,
As with a Trident smote, and fix’t as firm
As Delos [the floating island] floating once; the rest his look
Bound with Gorgonian rigour not to move,
And with Asphaltick slime…

This preposterous allegorical character, Death, has the ability to fix something fluid and flexible into something firm and asphaltic, and I think you have here one of the most powerful images of the aesthetic disaster that is fallen language. The extraordinary matter of chaos is being concretized here. It’s subjected to a process exactly like the linguistic concretization undergone by a word like wander or the words fruit or error. These words begin to succumb to a kind of linguistic rigor mortis. They ossify into a moral rigidity that, I think, would have seemed perfectly unthinkable to us at an earlier stage in the poem.

Okay. I have another second. We have time, I think, for one more example: this is the punishment of Satan. When God punishes Satan for tempting Eve, he does so in a way that makes literal and actual Satan’s association with the serpent, and it’s really quite vulgar. Satan had, of course, just temporarily inhabited the body of the serpent, and God punishes Satan by turning this temporary association into something like an actual condition. Look at Book Ten, line fifty-five. This is page 419. Satan is metamorphosed, you’ll remember, into a huge and hideous serpent at the gigantic public assembly in hell, but Milton doesn’t stop at that vulgar, quasi-allegorical representation. After that, Milton metamorphoses all of the fallen angels into serpents, and he places before them a grove of trees, all of them containing the forbidden fruit, so the fallen angels who are now serpents are all so thirsty and so hungry that they can’t help but climb the trees and try to taste the fruit. This is line 555:

Yet parcht with scalding thirst and hunger fierce,
Though to delude them sent, could not abstain,
But on they roll’d in heaps, and up the Trees
Climbing, sat thicker than the snaky locks
That curled Megæra…

was one of the Furies, the feminine figures in classical mythology who punish sin, and like Medusa, Megæra has serpents for locks of hair. I think it’s impossible to read these lines and not see in them an incredibly unfair and ugly but embedded image of Eve. The beautiful, waving, wandering tresses of Eve have been identified now categorically and unrepentantly with the serpent who was her downfall. The poem seems to go about as far as it can go in the absolute ossification of a character into a kind of empty embodiment of moral evil. The actual image of metamorphosis here is merely a narrative version of a process that we’ve seen occur in the language of Paradise Lost for some time now. Moral ambivalence and poetic ambiguity has been transmogrified into something like moral definitiveness, and literary ambivalence has become literal-mindedness.

Well, happily the poem isn’t over yet, and the grotesque reduction of Eve to evil is by no means the poem’s last words. So as you read books Eleven and Twelve for next time, think about the literary texture of those books as you compare it to the earlier books of the poem. It used to be argued, and it’s an incredibly stupid argument, that Milton was simply getting old and tired by the time he got around to writing books Eleven and Twelve – but of course, he went on to write Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained, magnificent works of art. There is nonetheless a marked change in the verbal character of the last two books of Paradise Lost. So think about the implications of the altered style of the book’s conclusion. Okay.

[end of transcript]

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