I first learned about Adam and Eve, and about Satan and the serpent, when I was scarcely old enough to walk, let alone talk. I know this because both my biblical and literary education were undertaken by Epp, the great-great-aunt who was also our landlady in our Scottish fishing-village home in the 1940s, and with whom I was left when my parents were working. Epp died when I was 3, and I was shown her in her coffin.
If Epp mentioned Milton I don’t remember it. Our first lesson on Eden was scriptural rather than literary – straight from Genesis, an account embellished by Epp with assurances that this very same Satan who had tempted Eve and precipitated the Fall of Man, was not averse to scooping up smaller fry such as myself. But Milton soon got his foot in the door. Epp had a sideboard whose doors and drawers I was not allowed to open. After she died my parents were given the task of gutting the house of its unwanted contents, even down to the chamber pot beneath her bed. And I got into the sideboard.
Among the few books in it was an edition of Paradise Lost illustrated by Gustave Doré. It was not a book as such but had been collected unbound by Epp in twelve large-size fortnightly parts (a magazine for each book of the poem) with all the illustrations intact, and with tipped-in coloured Edwardian adverts for Lux and Lifebuoy and other household products.
A picture is the literature of the illiterate, and I was transfixed by those cosmic scenes. But what made the profoundest impression on me were the pictures of Adam and Eve, so strangely vulnerable in their nakedness. There was something about the naked pair that seemed to say something about the human situation, something I couldn’t articulate, couldn’t even conceive, but even in my infancy, glimpsing Milton through Doré’s magic windows, I knew that I was staring at something rich and strange.
Paradise Lost was first published 350 years ago in 1667, and was still being hailed and even enjoyed as an epic achievement (literally) into the early twentieth century. Now it’s almost unread, except by the chosen academic few. Why? The real problem, says John Carey in his recent abridgement, is not its world picture but quite simply its length. Milton had just turned 20 when he first announced his epic intention, to compose a poem that would encompass all space and time: an ambitious aim, and, as it took another thirty years to accomplish, the resulting work was never going to be short. Even so, eleven and a half thousand lines of blank verse is quite a challenge. But it’s not only worth the read – not to experience it has been compared to cutting Shakespeare or Beethoven out of your life. Imagine.
For those who don’t know: the story of the poem is that of the creation of the universe, the rebellion against God by Satan and his fellow fallen angels, followed by the Genesis account of the Fall of Man after Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent (Satan in disguise) to disobey God by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, popularly an apple, and are evicted from the Garden of Eden and condemned to a life of hard labour (Adam) and childbearing (Eve). The poem acknowledges therefore the triumph of evil and the loss of innocence, the curse of work followed by the curse of death, all of us now doomed to return to the dust from whence we came.
Naturally Satan will be punished and humanity redeemed – if it chooses to be – but the ending of the poem stays intractably true to the title: Adam and Eve are unparadised; they are now refugees, and are turned out naked into the world. And yet – Milton may not have been the first to say it but he said it more movingly than anyone else – they have each other. And it was that picture of the disconsolate couple, evicted from their home, scantily clad and facing an unknown future, but still together, which all those years ago touched something in my infant mind:
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide;
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
My heart went out to them; I didn’t need to read the verse to feel it; I didn’t know it at the time but I was feeling sorry for myself. Milton’s poem is about all of us, and what has become of us, or what will become of us. Almost certainly.
Which is what makes it essential reading. It doesn’t matter if you are not a fundamentalist, not a creationist, if you don’t care for Hebrew mythology, or if you don’t even believe in God. Do you have to believe in Zeus to enjoy the Odyssey? Odysseus himself is no saint and in Paradise Lost there is a similar ambivalence about good and evil which may stem from the astonishing process of its poetic creation.
Because the curious thing about Paradise Lost is that Milton didn’t write it: Urania did. And who was Urania? She was his heavenly muse, who dictated the poem to him in sections while he was asleep, and when he awoke he in turn dictated the night-shift’s production to whomsoever happened to be on hand to take it down. A likely story? There were no witnesses to what went on in Milton’s unconscious mind, but no lack of them to testify to the ready-made blocks of blank verse that arrived each morning through the ethereal post, or to the incontestable fact that the poet couldn’t come up with a single line of poetry for this particular poem when he was awake.
If it still sounds far-fetched, it’s not the only instance among poets of unconscious creativity. ‘Kubla Khan’ is an iconic example, and William Blake’s house in London famously teemed with divine visitants: spirits who dictated poems, and angels who obligingly sat for their portraits. Milton’s Urania sounds like small fry by comparison, a bit like the tooth fairy – except of course for the sheer size of the sixpence.
Whether you argue, like John Carey, that the two different Miltons you encounter in Paradise Lost could be the result of this conscious-unconscious process of composition, or whether it stems from a split personality, or simply from opposing emotions, there is no doubt that Milton appears unconsciously opposed to the very God he consciously extols, with his secret self on the side of the rebel angels, and in particular Satan.
And the paradox deepens. At one point in the poem, while he hails the light which God brought into the darkness, Milton gives way to a passage of self-pity, regretting, even lamenting, his early blindness, and the darkness to which he feels he has been unjustly condemned. The fellowship felt with other blind poets is small consolation. Nature has its cycle, but the blind man knows no rotation, no rhythm, no soothing sequence:
Thus with the year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
And the blindness was not all of it. During the years he was planning and writing, or ‘receiving’, the great work, his life had been far from easy. He’d been unhappily married; had lost two children in infancy, including his only son; lost also his beloved second wife (‘my late espoused saint’) and their infant daughter within weeks of one another; Cromwell died in September of that year; and following the Restoration, when the anti-monarchists were being hunted down and disembowelled, Milton was arrested and imprisoned, escaping the threat of execution thanks to friends, but seeing his books instead face the common hangman, by whom they were publicly burned, while he himself was ridiculed and vilified: the republic was at an end, paradise had indeed been lost. It’s hard not to detect a note of unconscious hostility to God when he contemplates these bitter injustices; and while on the surface he accepts and extols, underneath there is this rankling, which is yet another of the poem’s dichotomies: it is no mere Puritan tract or statement of smug dogma.
Nor are Adam and Eve the cardboard cut-outs you might suppose; on the contrary they are interestingly differentiated. Eve is beguiled by the wily words of the serpent, appealing to her vanity, and she sins almost absentmindedly. Adam sins deliberately, declaring his devotion to her, for better or worse, to be stronger than his obedience to God, and so if she is to be cast out, if she is to die, so will he: he can’t live without her. Epp never told me this, and she never told me because it’s not in Genesis. Milton made it up, which meant it was not the word of God. But he made it up because he was a poet, and in doing so he penned one of the most moving passages in literature, of which I can only quote part here:
O fairest of creation, last and best
Of all God’s works . . . with thee
Certain my resolution is to die;
How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart; no no, I feel
The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.
Twenty lines in this vein, followed by another forty, and ending with the starkly moving: ‘to lose thee were to lose myself’. Its only equivalent in literature is Catherine Earnshaw’s ‘I am Heathcliff.’ Greatest sinner, then? Or greatest lover? Another imponderable paradox. There is more than one sacrifice at the heart of this poem: it’s an entirely new kind of epic.
And one other thing above all else: what happens in Paradise Lost needn’t have happened – it could have been avoided. At an astonishing moment in the poem Satan is depicted gazing at Eve and finding himself stunned by her beauty and innocence. So there was that moment when he could have pulled back. As could Eve. As could Adam. Here is Milton showing us more clearly than any other writer that life is ultimately about making choices. Satan is free to choose – as are we all – and he chooses the evil option, the one that suits his own ignoble ends. It’s a nakedly revealing moment and, with Adam and Eve’s, the most momentous in literature.
That freedom is vital and their ignorance is bliss so long as they obey God’s one explicit order; or disobey and face the music: the still sad music of humanity. I once had a chemistry teacher whom we nicknamed, ironically enough, the Lord God, and who used to say to us: ‘Lick this and you’ll be pushing up daisies.’ God doesn’t put it in quite those words but the message is the same: on pain of death. It doesn’t do to be too doctrinaire about the meaning of the message here, but there’s a Faustian one for sure: knowledge is power; power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely; and if you want to make the Faustian pact with life and listen to the insidious Mephistophelian whispering in your ear, And I said, ye shall be as gods, then you’ll end up in trouble – one way or another pushing up daisies.
You don’t have to be a Puritan to appreciate this poem; you don’t have to be a republican, or a monarchist; you don’t even have to be religious; you don’t have to be anything. The poem is deeply embedded in theology, but its emotional message is not dependent on it. And what is that message? Choice, yes, most certainly. But there is something else. All human beings know or have known what it is to be Adam and Eve; all of us have had our Edens, our lost paradises, whether they be love, prosperity, innocence, idealism, power, health and strength, childhood, youth, dreams. All unhappiness springs from loss. Sometimes it’s loss of what you want and can never have: mostly it’s the more haunting form of loss – loss of what you once had and can never have again. This has nothing to do with gods or devils or religious beliefs, it’s about human life. Paradise Lost is about ourselves.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 58 © Christopher Rush 2018
Christopher Rush has been writing for thirty-five years. His books include the memoirs To Travel Hopefully and Hellfire and Herring, and Will, a novel about Shakespeare. His latest novel, Penelope’s Web, was published in 2015.