Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Virgin in the Garden: Milton's Ovidian Eve

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Virgin in the Garden: Milton's Ovidian Eve

Article excerpt


Milton appropriates narrative structures from the Metamorphoses to amplify the elliptical account of Eve's creation in Genesis and to convey her sense of self or sexuality. Through the controlled use of such mythological patterning, Milton engages the reader in making complex responses to Eve. He deliberately fails to fix the meaning of such allusions, which thereby become a way of holding in solution unresolved, even contradictory, emphases in a situation where alternatives are not yet exclusive. In Paradise the apparently dissonant values of virginity and sexual love are held together in a harmony of exceptional grace and intensity, but Milton makes the reader aware that the threat of discord is always present.


Milton's early partiality for Ovid once noted, it has been customary to assume that his formal apprenticeship to the Latin poet concluded with Elegia septima, the last poem in his small collection of Latin elegies. Elizabeth Sauer has referred to this gesture of formal leave-taking as the point at which Milton 'publicly divorced himself' from Ovid, (1) after which, it has often been argued, he left the service of his first master to follow the more congenial example of Vergil the epic poet. 'Ovid leads at the start, but Virgil wins': E. K. Rand's summary comment is representative of those who have charted this alleged shift in allegiance, (2) and reflects the way in which, until comparatively recently, Ovid's reputation had suffered through being set against the example of Vergil. Beside Vergil, the poet of public duty and the cost in human terms of Rome's enduring greatness, Ovid was felt to be lightweight and frivolous, and dismissed accordingly. (3)

However, the comprehensive work of a succession of able editors whose easy familiarity with classical poetry make them authoritative guides (4) has confirmed the presence of frequent points of intersection between Paradise Lost and the Metamorphoses which Milton might have expected his 'fit audience' (VII. 31) to recognize. Moreover, the nature and extent of Milton's accommodation of distinctively Ovidian modes of narration in Paradise Lost received considerable critical attention in the 1980s, (5) reflecting the recent revaluation of the Metamorphoses and the recovery of its relationship to the epic tradition. (6) Ovid's substantial presence in Paradise Lost becomes less surprising in view of the testimony of Milton's youngest daughter Deborah. Dr Johnson reported that 'The books in which his daughter, who used to read to him, represented him as most delighting, afterHomer, which he could almost repeat, were Ovid's Metamorphoses and Euripides.' (7) DrWard's interview with Deborah offers a slightly different version of her father's preferred reading, but the Metamorphoses, like Homer, remains a constant in both accounts:

Isaiah, Homer, and Ovid's Metamorphoses were books which they were often called to read to their father; and at my desire she repeated a considerable number of verses from the beginning of both these poets with great readiness. (Quoted in Johnson, ed. by Hill, Appendix O, 1, 199)

Criticism of the last decade or so has sought to demonstrate how, during the Renaissance, Ovid's diverse narratives of love and desire in the Metamorphoses came to be especially valued as material for the construction of early modern representations of subjectivity and as vehicles for conveying the complexities and ambiguities of sexuality, the psychology of desire, and the instability of gender roles. (8) In this article I shall suggest how Milton's treatment of Eve can be fundamentally reinterpreted if we are attentive to its strong Ovidian cast. Milton appropriates narrative structures from the Metamorphoses both to amplify the elliptical account supplied in Genesis and to articulate Eve's developing experience, enabling an insight into her sense of self and sexuality. He extends and enriches his portrayal of Eve by presenting her through this strategy of deliberate allusion, endowing her with a mythic dimension that Adam almost entirely lacks. …

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