I believe John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, offers us helpful words for most of life’s puzzles and quandaries. In his preface to that poem, C. S. Lewis said that anyone who sits down to read this work is a different person when they get up from their chair. For my part, I had never read a word of it before I was pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. I took a course in Milton from Y. Merritt Hughes, one of the major 20th century editors of Milton’s work. Because we were reading lots of the poetry and a good bit of the prose, we didn’t concentrate on the 12,000+ line poem. A few years later I was drafted to offer a second section of the required Milton course at the University of Minnesota where I was an assistant professor that I read it straight through. Since I expected the students to read all the twelve books, so I had to do that with added vigor. My initial response was to be amazed at how he could have written all those lines when he was entirely blind, no matter how faithful his daughters were as amanuenses, taking down his words day after day. What seemed impossible to me was his inability to look at one day’s work the next day. Even if he had his words read back to him, we all know oral review is very different from being able to see words on a piece of paper.
As I continued to teach Milton year after year, my experience with Paradise Lost became much more varied and subtle and profound. When feminist thought/criticism began to seep into the academy, I didn’t agree with those who protested against Milton’s blatant chauvinism and sexism that they thought permeated the poem. While I didn’t warm to the few lines in which he is sexist–“He for God only, she for God in him,” I kept seeing passages in which Milton was intent on rejecting conventional ideas about females and males. For instance, he gives the power of naming to both of them–Adam has animals while Eve had flowers in that ur garden. As an inveterate gardener myself, it seemed much nicer to think of names like “trillium” or “hibiscus” or just “daffodil” (though I did wish he’d called those early spring yellow beauties “jonquils”) than “lion” or “whale” or “eagle.” And I was so moved by lines in which Milton has Eve walk along paths every morning as tiny flowers each raised their heads to greet their loving tender.
I also didn’t think it was so bad that Eve left Adam and his albeit very bad teacher Raphael to their long abstract sessions, preferring to have Adam give her the gists when they were happily in bed each evening. Milton casts Eve as a prototypical experiential learner, something I could relate to because that was the way I learned fastest and most easily. But the clearest example of Milton’s not being the sexist writer some of my feminist colleagues felt him to be came for me in the late books after they’ve eaten the forbidden apple. When God comes to judge them, Adam is quick to be typically sexist by insisting to God that “Eve made me do it.” Eve offers no excuses as she awaits what judgment will come to her. God, however, stops Adam’s tirade by telling him that he is the superior intellect perhaps but that entails responsibilities. In essence, God says Adam can’t have it both ways–he can’t be “superior” and then too weak to resist the first temptation put on his path. I tried to get students to see the basic fairness inherent in Milton’s idea of an albeit sexist credo. Since men still try to exert superiority while blaming us women for overpowering them, I often think of those late books in Milton’s poem to find clarity about what patriarchy might actually entail for the patriarchs.
Since retiring from regular teaching in 2001, I’ve found marvelous ways to keep talking about books with splendid grown-ups. While people are happy to read Shakespeare or any contemporary writer with me, I have a very hard time roping folks into reading Milton. But on two occasions enough brave souls agreed and we read my beloved Paradise Lost together. It’s been marvelous for me and, I believe, quite good and even surprising for those working with me. Perhaps the most rewarding new insight for me has come in relation to the actual temptation scene in Book IX. The story line is simple: Once Adam and Eve stop weeding together, Satan is excited to approach Eve alone. His temptation is simple: he argues that she is too beautiful and smart just to be admired by her husband. Then he offers himself as proof that eating the forbidden fruit will not kill her since here he is in front of her and he’s eaten lots of apples. Finally and importantly for Milton who believed knowledge was what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom, Satan tells Eve she will gain fantastic new knowledge by biting the round red apple. When Adam meets her for lunch, dropping the rapidly wilting bouquet he’s brought her, he makes a decision to join her in disobeying and eating the apple because he can’t conceive of life without her. And, while Milton allows Eve to refuse Satan’s advances several times, he has Adam assent in the disobedience without any effort at all.
Eve’s sin is hubris–she puts knowledge above God–while Adam’s sin is uxoriousness–he puts Eve above God. Eve’s sin is vertical while Adam’s is horizontal. And while Milton’s God punishes them both by expelling them from Eden, Milton gives God lines that clearly place a more severe judgment on Adam than on his wife. I had not understood this before sitting with people in my own living room and gradually letting the words sink in and stay put. Maybe it took me that long to free myself completely of an inherited reading of this epic poem. Or just maybe it took those intrepid people who sat with me while I pondered.