Monday, September 27, 2010

John Milton: Eve as 'Serpent' in Paradise Lost

Serpent with Eve
Terrance Lindall

I'm still considering Milton's portrayal of Eve in the temptation scene of Paradise Lost, specifically, the moment in Book 9 when 'Death' is introduced through the fact of Eve's eating of the fruit of knowledge. But before focusing on that, I need to consider another passage first. In Paradise Lost 10.867f, Adam curses Eve as a "Serpent":
Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name best
Befits thee with him leagu'd, thy self as false
And hateful; nothing wants, but that thy shape,
Like his, and colour Serpentine may shew [ 870 ]
Thy inward fraud, to warn all Creatures from thee
Henceforth; least that too heav'nly form, pretended
To hellish falshood, snare them. But for thee
I had persisted happie, had not thy pride
And wandring vanitie, when lest was safe, [ 875 ]
Rejected my forewarning, and disdain'd
Not to be trusted, longing to be seen
Though by the Devil himself, him overweening
To over-reach, but with the Serpent meeting
Fool'd and beguil'd, by him thou, I by thee . . . (PL 10.867-880)

(Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, September, 2010.)
In this typically Miltonic passage, a thicket of clauses and allusions, Adam calls Eve a serpent in "heav'nly form" who is "pretended / To hellish falshood," which is puzzling until one remembers an earlier meaning of "pretended" as "stretched in front as a covering (OED 1)," as Alastair Fowler notes in his 1998 annotated edition of Paradise Lost (London and New York: Longman, page 587, line 872). In other words, her "heav'nly form" hides "hellish falshood." She's really just another serpent like Satan, the Devil himself, with whom she pridefully sought to vie in wandering from Adam's side, disdaining Adam's prelapsarian warning about temptation.

Is Adam right? Fowler notes that "[s]ome commentators interpreted 'Eve' as 'serpent,'" a linguistic point perhaps worthy of a blog post of its own. What's Milton's own view? Is he speaking through Adam? Paula Harms Payne, in A search for Meaning: Critical Essays on Early Modern Literature (Peter Lang, 2004), notes that this "misogynous speech" is made by the fallen Adam, implying that Milton does not agree with Adam shifting of blame onto Eve (pages 134-135). But does Milton let Eve off so easily? Like Adam, he portrays Eve as serpent-like. Recall my argument of August 4th (2010), on Eve eating 'Death':
Greedily she ingorg'd without restraint,
And knew not eating Death: Satiate at length,
And hight'nd as with Wine, jocond and boon,
Thus to her self she pleasingly began. (PL 9.791-4)

(Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, September, 2010.)
After quoting this passage, I went on to not that the line "And knew not eating Death: Satiate at length" has a caesura, with an implication:
After that break, after that pause, Eve becomes evil, Satanic, "satiate at length," as though serpentine in sound and shape -- if one might draw out the length to which Milton goes to emphasize Eve's radical alteration. Think on the description of Satan "stretcht out huge in length" (PL 1.209), or even more clearly in Satan's own description of being "sated at length" (PL 9.598; emphasis again mine) in his deceptive claim to have himself eaten the forbidden fruit, an unmistakable verbal parallel that conforms Eve to Satan's image.
We might then think that Milton entirely agrees with Adam . . . except that Milton also portrays Adam as serpentine. Early in the passage where Eve is being tempted by Satan, she is told by the 'Serpent':
Amid the Tree now got, where plenty hung
Tempting so nigh, to pluck and eat my fill [ 595 ]
I spar'd not, for such pleasure till that hour
At Feed or Fountain never had I found. (PL 9.594-597)

(Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, September, 2010.)
Now in fact, the 'Serpent' possessed by Satan never did take even a single bite from the Tree of Knowledge, but note the Devil's claim: "I spar'd not" to "eat my fill." As with the verbal parallel between the 'Serpent' being "sated at length" and Eve being "satiate at length," a verbal parallel links "eat my fill" with Adam in his own temptation scene, specifically, when he is described as eating:
. . . Adam took no thought,
Eating his fill . . . (PL 9.1004-1005)

(Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, September, 2010.)
Adam is thus precisely as 'serpentine' as Eve, for this verbal parallel from PL 9.595 comes just in advance of the verbal parallel to Eve in PL 9.598. Milton is implicating both Adam and Eve as Satanic in the same foreshadowing passage of PL 9.594-601, for the Fall has parallel effects upon both of them, as the second eating of the fruit 'iterates' the first (cf. PL 9.1005-1006) and thereby 'completes' the original, deadly sin (cf. PL 9.1003-1004).

Adam is thus correct that Eve has become a 'Serpent,' but so has Adam himself, unbeknownst to him, for the fruit of knowledge has left him ignorant of self-knowledge, and he projects onto Eve his own fallen nature, though he happens to be right since she is also fallen.

More on this another time . . .

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