Milton’s Epic Poem – Paradise Lost Essay
In any scriptural account, the description of the setting and personal details of the characters are shallow at best; the physical portrayal of the prophets and an account of the loveliness of the forests and deserts are seldom necessary and are even less frequently included. There are many good reasons for this—one, of course, is the space-saving advantage of brevity.
Additionally, the scriptures often function as templates. We are told the necessary information for our spiritual enlightenment and assigning things such as hair color, jungle temperature, clothing style, and social disposition is left to our disposal. Many of the less aesthetically relative features of scriptural accounts such as the rationale behind many historically impacting decisions are also our responsibility. Milton, in his epic poem Paradise Lost, takes advantage of the generality of the scriptural account of Genesis 3 to compose his Book IX and give a more realistic and detailed account—making the account much more tangible to the reader, and showing that it is through the weakness of Eve that she partakes of the fruit and that it is through her carnal and bestial nature that she convinces Adam to do likewise.
The inferiority of Eve as a woman is a theme set up almost the moment we meet her walking in the garden in Book IV. She is given to vanity and a sense of pride as she looks at her own reflection in the lake. She has dreams of eating the fruit of the Tree and ascending into heaven as a goddess. And, most recently, Adam admits her inferiority while talking to Raphael in Book VIII, “For well I understand in the prime end / Of nature her th’ inferior…” (194). It is in this conversation that he continues to tell the angel of Eve’s physical beauty and carnal nature, and even mentions that “what she wills to do or say, / Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetst, best;” (194). Adam is basically admitting that although Eve is definitely inferior to him, sometimes her beauty and loveliness almost convinces him that she is wiser and superior. The angel then reminds him that true love is rational and of God, and Adam should not fall to the carnality that Eve sometimes represents.
It is this understanding of the inferior spiritual nature of Eve that allows us to comprehend Milton’s rationale of our first mother succumbing to the temptations of Satan. From the Bible, we know nothing of Eve’s conversation with Satan except that she first regurgitates the commandment given by God that they should not partake of the fruit, but then after being tempted with godlike knowledge as given by the fruit, she eats. The account given by Milton is much more detailed; Book IX is 1189 lines, while chapter 3 of Genesis is a little over 100, half of which do not even describe the events of Book IX. In the encounter with the serpent in Paradise Lost, Milton’s setup of Eve as a weaker individual comes to a culmination. Not only does her vanity and desire to be as a god cause her to “greedily…engorge” the fruit “without restraint” (219), it is her pride and jealousy that causes her to desire Adam to partake of it. She says, “Adam wedded to another Eve, / Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct; / A death to think” (220). She certainly does not want this, and goes to get Adam to eat.
Now, in all fairness, Eve also mentions her love for Adam as a motivation for wanting him to stay with her in her sin. Here is another theme brought up by Milton that was not included in the Bible. If nothing else, this concept of the couple’s love makes the whole story much more tangible and real to the reader than do the other alterations. It is mentioned nowhere in Genesis 3 that the couple had any feelings for each other. Of course, it is generally assumed that their desire to stay together and Adam’s compliance in eating the fruit indicates their love for each other, but this is not specifically mentioned in the Bible. Milton does certainly mention it, and quite often. It is indeed love that convinces Adam to partake of the fruit, but not the selfless love championed by God and the visiting angels—this “love” is basically lust-filled, and brought about by the pleading seduction of Eve. In order to make the whole account real and easily visualized by the reader, Milton details the passion that the couple has for one another. However, he contrasts the first kind of love, the rational and godlike love, with the second that follows the Fall—the sexual union brought about by physical desire. Before the Fall, the two were naked and innocent—and their implied lovemaking was just as innocent; it was what Raphael calls “collateral love” (191). They were gentle and guiltless. However, after they ate of the fruit, Adam, “Of amorous intent, well understood / … [Eve’s] hand he seized…” (225). And the couple has sex right there on the shady bank. The much coarser and violent verb “seized” indicates much less selfless love, but desire-driven passion.
In order to explain the cause of evil in the world, John Milton proposed the account of this epic poem. The extensive expansion of what was originally a few short chapters in the Old Testament can be explained much in the way that modern motion picture adaptations of books are created. Many directors and screenwriters that adapt classic books to the screen are motivated by the desire to make the experience of the book much more tangible to the general public. How much more real now is Moses’ story after the contribution of Cecil B. DeMilles and his Ten Commandments? Milton wanted to be a great epic poet and to do so, he needed to write a great epic (and by definition extensive) poem. However, like the movie makers of today, he too felt inspired and wanted the public to feel the reality of the Fall, so he took advantage of the lack of mechanistic details in the short account of our first parents’ Fall and painted a grand descriptive picture of the settings, heroes and villains involved; any reader experiencing this epic without any real preconceptions of what the Garden of Eden looked like or without any notion of the personality of Eve would be highly induced to adapt Milton’s description. Indeed, from the effect this poem had on the people of Darwin’s day to its sway on modern Christian views, Paradise Lost is arguably the most influential tale on the implications of the nature of Adam and Eve ever written.