Source: William Blake Temptation and Fall of Eve, commons.wikimedia.org
Last summer one of the academic members of Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, Wendy Weise PhD, offered a class on the topics of the Garden of Eden, sex, and lost innocence. Her material included several excerpts from Milton’s Paradise Lost. I was intrigued and decided to use Milton’s poetry to fill one of the squares in the Books on the Nightstand summer Bingo card, the square set aside for a selection from the Harvard Classics Five Foot Shelf of Books. I had never read Milton’s poetry, although I was familiar with the names of his major works. It was a revelation to read Paradise Lost with its vivid imagery. Why no one has made a graphic novel out of this work is beyond me.
One surprising element Milton added to the familiar story was the effect that the beauty and innocence of Eve had on the Serpent:
Such pleasure took the Serpent to behold
This flowery plat, the sweet recess of Eve
Thus early, thus alone. Her heavenly form
Angelic, but more soft and feminine,
Her graceful innocence, her every air
Of gesture or least action, overawed
His malice and with rapine sweet bereaved
His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought.
That space the Evil One abstracted stood
From his own evil, and for the time remained
Stupidly good, of enmity disarmed,
Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge.
But the hot hell that always in him burns,
Though in mid Heaven, soon ended his delight,
And tortures him now more, the more he sees
Of pleasure not for him ordained. Then soon
Fierce hate he recollects, and all his thoughts
Of mischief . . .
Although I think of Milton in terms of the majesty of his major works, he could be playful and humorous in his early, small works, especially those written for joyful occasions. His was a turbulent age, torn by civil war, broken friendships, and personal tragedy. His work soon took on the profundity and gravitas I associate with it. From Sonnet to the Nightingale to Samson Agoniste is an extreme trajectory.
It is a joy to have all the poems collected in one place and to his life from youth to old age reflected in his work.