Paradise Lost, Book 9, lines 192-225
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Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things, that breathe,
From the Earth's great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season prime for sweetest scents and airs:
Then commune, how that day they best may ply
Their growing work: for much their work out-grew
The hands' dispatch of two gardening so wide,
And Eve first to her husband thus began:
Adam, well may we labor still to dress
This garden, still to tend plant, herb, and flower,
Our pleasant task enjoined; but, till more hands
Aid us, the work under our labor grows,
Luxurious by restraint; what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides
Tending to wild. Thou therefore now advise,
Or bear what to my mind first thoughts present:
Let us divide our labors; thou, where choice
Leads thee, or where most needs, whether to wind
The woodbine round this arbor, or direct
The clasping ivy where to climb; while I,
In yonder spring of roses intermixed
With myrtle, find what to redress till noon:
For, while so near each other thus all day
Our task we choose, what wonder if so near
Looks intervene and smiles, or object new
Casual discourse draw on; which intermits
Our day's work, brought to little, though begun
Early, and the hour of supper comes unearned.
The yearly cycle of readings from the Five Books of Moses begins this week with the story of Creation, the Garden of Eden and the first family, which is an appropriate opportunity to revisit a classic – John Milton's "Paradise Lost", the 10,000-line epic that the poet, by then blind, dictated to his daughters and other helpers in 1667.
After Eve is created from Adam’s rib in Genesis II, all we are told about their life together is that “they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were unashamed.” Then the Bible cuts abruptly to the serpent brandishing the forbidden fruit.
The lacunae in the story leave room for the imagination. The poet’s avowed purpose was “to justify the ways of God to Man” – but he also had a fine time filling in blanks, providing an elaborate back story for the serpent and imagining life before the fall.
These lines begin a conversation in the Garden of Eden: – a large tract that required lots of work: Every time they “lop... or prune or prop or bind,” overnight the “luxurious” foliage requires attention again. This is a challenging task for just two humans (one of whom, at least in Milton’s version, is pregnant).
After morning prayers, Adam and Eve discuss the day ahead. She suggests that they each go off separately to tend different parts of the garden alone, because when they are constantly together, they talk and mess around a lot and don’t get much work done.
Eve makes sense but Adam dithers. On the one hand, down in line 248 he allows: “ to short absence I could yield; /For solitude sometimes is best society.”
However, back in Milton’s Book 5 the Angel Raphael had warned Adam of an enemy out there, and so, in lines 268-270 Adam says: “The wife, where danger or dishonor lurks, / Safest and seemliest by her husband stays, / Who guards her or with her the worst endures.”
In the end, though, after talk of free will, he caves, in line 373: “Go, for thy stay not free, absents thee more.” She goes, the serpent employs all his guile and the rest is history.
*Musing: Had Adam not let Eve out of his sight, on what could the world blame all its troubles?
*Bonus: Songwriters Jean Schwartz and William Jerome imagine Adam in a Haydn Quartet recording from 1904: “Stories Adam told to Eve”.