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 be
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