Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Miltonian Contradiction?

Read the two passages below from the 1674 edition of Paradise Lost, and see if Milton contradicts himself in the lines that I've darkened. In the first passage, Adam and Eve are praising God through their evening prayer:

. . . Thou also mad'st the Night,
Maker Omnipotent, and thou the Day,
Which we in our appointed work imployd
Have finisht happie in our mutual help
And mutual love, the Crown of all our bliss
Ordaind by thee, and this delicious place
For us too large, where thy abundance wants
Partakers, and uncropt falls to the ground.
But thou hast promis'd from us two a Race
To fill the Earth, who shall with us extoll
Thy goodness infinite, both when we wake,
And when we seek, as now, thy gift of sleep. (4.724-735)

In the second passage, Eve is requesting the serpent to lead her to the tree of which he speaks so highly, though she first wittily suggests that his undue flattery of her puts in doubt the tree's supposed effect of granting wisdom:

Serpent, thy overpraising leaves in doubt
The vertue of that Fruit, in thee first prov'd:
But say, where grows the Tree, from hence how far?
For many are the Trees of God that grow
In Paradise, and various, yet unknown
To us, in such abundance lies our choice,
As leaves a greater store of Fruit untoucht,
Still hanging incorruptible, till men
Grow up to thir provision, and more hands
Help to disburden Nature of her Bearth. (9.615-624)

I call attention to 4.730-731 and 9.621-624. The former implies that the garden's abundance falls to the ground uncropt, i.e., unplucked, until Adam and Eve produce enough offspring to pluck it first. The latter implies that the garden's fruit hangs incorruptible until Adam and Eve produce enough offspring to pluck it.

Whether this merits the charge of an outright contradiction, I'm unsure, but the two passages certainly stand in tension on this point. Does the fruit fall to the ground, or does it continue hanging on the trees?

The issue is an interesting one because death has not yet entered the world, for the world has not yet fallen through sin. Nothing can die. Nothing can undergo corruption (and note in passing the possible pun on "uncropt"/"uncorrupt").

Such would pose a problem in the case where fruit can ripen and fall from trees, as the first passage entails, for the earth beneath the trees would soon lie covered with fruit piled high.

The solution? Leave the fruit hanging "incorruptible" on the boughs, as Milton seems to do in the latter passage.

So . . . has Milton contradicted himself? Or is Eve at fault?


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