By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

8. Paradise Lost, by John Milton, pp. 163-201

PARADISE LOST by John Milton, edited by Merritt Y. HughesBooks VII and VIII
Milton invokes Urania, the muse of astronomy, again to help with Raphael's account of the creation of the universe, though of course he doesn't want to be caught calling on a pagan source of inspiration: "The meaning, not the Name I call." His "Urania" is "Heav'nly born, / Before the Hills appear'd," and is the sister of Wisdom. He needs her help because
Half yet remains unsung, but narrower bound
Within the visible Diurnal Sphere;
Standing on Earth, not rapt above the Pole,
More safe I Sing with mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fall'n on evil days,
On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compast round
He alludes here to both his political situation during the Restoration and his blindness, both of which put his life in some degree of danger. All he asks for is "fit audience, though few," and protection from "the barbarous dissonance" that some interpret as an allusion to the court of Charles II, but may simply reflect an aging man's desire for the contemplative life.
Raphael tells Adam and Eve about the Creation, engraving by Simon François Ravenet after Francis Hayman, 1749

Adam's curiosity is, naturally, unsated by what "The affable Arch-angel" has told them, "things to thir thought / So unimaginable as hate in Heav'n, so now he wants to know how all this got started. Raphael warns him that there are limits to what he can know, "Things not reveal'd, which th' invisible King, / Only Omniscient, hath supprest in Night, / To none communicable in Earth or Heaven." But he'll make a go at telling him what he can.

God, Raphael says, put the Son in charge of creating the universe:
My overshadowing Spirit and might with thee
I send along, ride forth, and bid the Deep
Within appointed bounds be Heav'n and Earth,
Boundless the Deep, because I am who fill
Infinitude, nor vacuous the space
Though I uncircumscrib'd myself retire,
And put not forth my goodness, which is free
To act or not, Necessity and Chance
Approach not mee, and what I will is Fate.
What that seems to mean is that God fills all space, but that he chooses to hold back some of himself to allow humankind free will. It's unorthodox and maybe heretical.
William Blake, The Ancient of Days

The creation of the world, by William Strang, 1896

So now the gates of Heaven open and the creator looks out on chaos, "the vast immeasurable Abyss / Outrageous as a Sea, dark, wasteful, wild, / Up from the bottom turn'd by furious winds / And surging waves." Using "the golden Compasses," he measures out a space for "This Universe, and all created things." And then
                                                   on the wat'ry calm
His brooding wings the Spirit of God outspread,
And vital virtue infus'd, and vital warmth
Throughout the fluid Mass, but downward purg'd
the black tartareous cold Infernal dregs
Adverse to life
The land appears from the waters, by Gustave Doré, 1866

So God says "Let there be Light," and creates the sun and moon on the first day. On the second he divides "The Waters from the Waters":  The concept here is that the universe is surrounded by water but separated from it by the firmament. On the third day the land emerges from the terrestrial waters, both the oceans and the rivers and streams which "With Serpent error wand'ring, found thir way." This seems to be descriptive of the motion of water through the land, but it's also a kind of anticipatory pun on what's to happen later when Satan tempts Eve. Next come the plants, and the fish
        that with thir Fins and shining Scales
Glide under the green Wave, in Sculls that oft
Bank the mid Sea; part single or with mate
Graze the Seaweed thir pasture, and through Groves
Of Coral stray, or sporting with quick glance
Show to the Sun thir wav'd coats dropt with Gold,
Or in thir Pearly shells at ease, attend
Moist nutriment
Creation of the birds and fish, by Gustave Doré, 1866

Then the birds, and here Milton takes sides in the old which-came-first debate: It was the egg.
Leviathan, by Gustave Doré, 1866
Creation of the birds, by Gustave Doré, 1866

Then on the sixth, the animals spring from the ground:
                      The Earth obey'd, and straight
Op'ning her fertile Womb teem'd at a Birth
Innumerous living Creatures, perfet forms,
Limb'd and full grown: out of the ground up rose
As from his Lair the wild Beast where he wons
In Forest wild, in Thicket, Brake, or Den;
Among the Trees in Pairs they rose, they walk'd:
The Cattle in the Fields and Meadows green:
Those rare and solitary, these in flocks
Pasturing at once, and in broad Herds upsprung.
The grassy Clods now Calv'd, now half appear'd
The Tawny Lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from Bonds,
And Rampant shakes his Brinded mane
Insects, too, appear, including "The Parsimonious Emmet," the proverbial busy ant. And of course, "The Serpent subtl'st Beast of all the field, / Of huge extent sometimes, with brazen Eyes / And hairy Mane terrific, though to thee / Not noxious, but obedient at thy call." Somehow Raphael feels it necessary to point out to the unfallen Adam and Eve that the serpent is "Not noxious." (The mane seems to have come from Virgil's description of the sea-serpents that attacked Laocoon and his sons. Earlier he has also given prelapsarian serpents wings.)
The evening of the sixth day, by Gustave Doré, 1866

And finally God tells the Son, "Let us make now Man in our image," and gives him "Dominion" over "every living thing." And he takes Adam and his "consort" to the Garden and shows them "the Tree / Which tasted works knowledge of Good and Evil" and tells them that "Death is the penalty impos'd" for tasting its fruit. And then "the Creator ... up return'd / Up to the Heav'n of Heav'ns his high abode" and saw "how it show'd / In prospect from this Throne, how good, how fair, / Answering his great Idea." This is the only appearance of the word "idea" in the poem, and it has the import of the Platonic "form." The angels spend the seventh day singing the praises of this new creation, "Of amplitude almost immense, with Stars / Numerous, and every Star perhaps a World / Of destin'd habitation." Once again, Milton doesn't rule out the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

So now Raphael asks Adam if he has any more questions: "if else thou seek'st / Aught, not surpassing human measure, say." Well, of course he does. He wants to understand celestial mechanics. But Eve has gotten tired of listening, and maybe a little resentful of the archangelic condescension: Back at the end of Book VI he referred to her as "Thy weaker," telling Adam to make sure she doesn't listen to Satan's temptations. So now, seeing that Adam "seem'd / Ent'ring on studious thoughts abstruse" excuses herself to go tend to her plants. (Come to think of it, isn't that Adam's job too, instead of sitting around listening to affable archangels?) If it weren't that Milton is so egregiously sexist elsewhere, we might be charmed by the observation that she knows Adam's account of what the archangel tells him will make for good pillow-talk later, that he "would intermix / Grateful digressions, and solve high dispute / With conjugal Caresses, from his Lip / Not Words alone pleas'd her."

To tell the truth, Eve doesn't really miss much in the archangel's account of the way the universe works, because Raphael pleads that a lot of it is known only to God, including whether it's geocentric or heliocentric -- once again Milton waffles between Ptolemy and Copernicus, even to the point of declaring that the debate is irrelevant:
God to remove his ways from human sense,
Plac'd Heav'n from Earth so far, that earthly sight,
If it presume, might err in things too high,
And no advantage gain. What if the Sun
Be Centre to the World, and other Stars
By his attractive virtue and their own
Incited, dance about him various round?
That's God's business, not man's, Raphael asserts: "Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid, / Leave them to God  above, him serve and fear."
                                Heav'n is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowly wise:
Think only what concerns thee and thy being;
Dream not of other Worlds, what Creatures there
Live, in what state, condition or degree,
Contented that ths far hath been reveal'd
Not of Earth only but of highest Heav'n.
Adam swallows this and admits that he is sometimes guilty of letting "the Mind or Fancy ... rove uncheckt," and that he'll remember that  "to know / That which before us lies in daily life, / Is the prime Wisdom." So he decides to talk about his own "daily life," and his experiences since the Creation. Raphael is willing to listen because on the day Adam was created he was busy elsewhere, checking on the Gates of Hell to make sure the devils were safely bound up there. He heard sound of "Torment, and loud lament, and furious rage" coming out of Hell, so he was satisfied.

Adam tells Raphael that he remembers waking up and seeing "the ample Sky, till ris'd / By quick instinctive motion up I sprung, / As thitherward endeavoring, and upright / Stood on my feet." (Eve's first sight, of course, was of her reflection in the pool.) He discovered that he had the power of speech and could give names to what he saw, but he wanted to know "how came I thus, how here?" He lay down to sleep again, thinking that he was reverting to his "former state / Insensible," but dreamed of a being that brought him "over Fields and Waters, as in Air / Smooth sliding without step" to the Garden, "whereat I wak'd, and found / Before mine Eyes all real, as the dream / Had lively shadow'd." The "Presence Divine" then explained about the Garden and warned him about "the Tree whose operation brings / Knowledge of good and ill.... Sternly he pronounc'd / The rigid interdiction, which resounds / Yet dreadful in mine ear." And then the animals passed by, and "I nam'd them, as they pass'd, and understood / Thir Nature."

But something was missing. "In solitude / What happiness, who can enjoy alone, / Or all enjoying, what contentment find?" The "vision" pointed out that he wasn't alone, that he had "various living creatures" to share the Garden with, but Adam wasn't satisfied: "Hast thou not made me here thy substitute, / And these inferiors far beneath me set? / Among unequals what society / Can sort, what harmony or true delight?" God replied that he was "alone / From all Eternity, for none I know / Second to mee or like, equal much less." (A reminder of Milton's anti-Trinitarianism.) But Adam argued that his job was to "beget / Like of his like, ... which requires / Collateral love, and dearest amity."
The creation of Eve, by William Blake, 1808
The creation of Eve, by William Strang, 1896

God admits that he was just fooling with Adam: "I, ere thou spak'st, / Knew it not good for Man to be alone." And he promises to deal with the problem. So Adam goes to sleep and dreams that a rib is taken from his side and fashioned into "a Creature ... Manlike, but different sex, so lovely fair, / That what seemed fair in all the World, seem'd now / Mean." He wakes to find her gone, but finally beholds her "not far off, / Such as I saw her in my dream." He tells Raphael that he knows Eve is his "inferior, in the mind / And inward Faculties, which most excel, / In outward also her resembling less / His Image who made both." But he loves her so much that this doesn't matter, "that what she wills to do or say / Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best."

The angel is bothered by this, and warns against becoming overinfatuated with Eve, especially sexually: "if the sense of touch whereby mankind / Is propagated seem such dear delight / Beyond all other, think the same voutsaf't / To Cattle and each Beast."
What higher in her society thou find'st
Attractive, human, rational, love still;
In loving thou dost well, in passion not,
Wherein true Love consists not; Love refines
The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat
In Reason, and is judicious, is the scale
By which to heav'nly Love thou may'st ascend,
Not sunk in carnal pleasure, for which cause
Among the Beasts no Mate for thee was found.
Adam assures Raphael that it's not just sex that binds him to Eve but "Those thousand decencies that daily flow / From all her words and actions." But he also asks about angelic sex: "Love not the heav'nly spirits, and how thir Love / Express they, by looks only, or do they mix / Irradiance, virtual or immediate touch?" Raphael blushes and says, "Let it suffice thee that thou know'st / Us happy." And he leaves Adam with a warning: "take heed lest Passion sway / Thy Judgment to do aught, which else free Will / Would not admit."
Engraving by Charles Grignon after Francis Hayman, 1749
Raphael departs, by Gustave Doré, 1866

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