Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Milton's Experienced Eve

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Milton's Experienced Eve

Article excerpt

WHEN JOHN MILTON'S FALLEN EVE CONVINCES Adam to share in the forbidden fruit, she declares, "On my experience, Adam, freely taste." (1) This brief phrase in Paradise Lost, spoken by the first woman as she brings death to her spouse and their universal progeny, bears the weight of a moment long deemed the first and greatest tragedy of biblical human history. Milton's passage also confronts a hermeneutic tradition stretching beyond the bounds of sacred text to implicate all daughters of Eve in the sins of their foremother. But Milton's emphasis on Eve's experience complicates misogynist interpretations by speaking to a seventeenth-century culture in which "experience... was everywhere exalted." (2) Moreover, Milton links Eve's experiential authority to that of the female medical practitioners central to the early modern health care industry' Paradise Lost paints Eve with the colors of a distaff healer by drawing from contemporary herbals (reference manuals on curative plants). These popular compendia of herbal remedies tempered the tragedy of the Fall with the promise of a recoverable Eden whose seeds hide in England's flora. (4) The frame of the herbal reveals that Eve's botanical experiments are part of the feminine labor to find in plants the medicines of Paradise. (5)

Despite the seventeenth-century Crown's drive to regulate the healthcare industry by placing it in the hands of university-trained (and therefore male) physics, distaff healers were still the prime caregivers for the majority of the English populace. (6) Mary Fissell explains, "Almost everyone in early modern Europe was brought into the world by women and ushered out of it by women." (7) Those we now categorize as midwives would also act as apothecary, nurse, physic, and surgeon. (8) Even the quintessential statist Thomas Hobbes asserted that he would rather "take physic from an experienced old woman" than be tended to by a licensed physician. (9) Milton likely relied on distaff healers while composing Paradise Lost, during which he lost his sight, suffered from chronic intestinal distress, and saw the deaths of two wives and two infant children. (10) Female medical practitioners relied predominantly on plant-based medicines, and their botanical remedies became the backbone of the printed herbals that likened their botanical acumen with the knowledge of how to bring back Paradise. (11)

Of course, to think about a recoverable Eden in Milton's epic is to confront one of the most tenacious recent critical assumptions about Paradise Lost: that there is a fundamental and unbridgeable divide separating the prelapsarian from the postlapsarian world. (12) For most, the Fall changes absolutely everything, and nothing can be carried over. However, Joanna Picciotto argues that this perspective "drives a wedge between fallen and Unfallen experience that baldly contradicts the poem's commitment to the work of bringing paradise to the world beyond the garden." (13) Katherine Calloway also posits a continuum of prelapsarian and postlapsarian modes of acquiring knowledge in Paradise Lost by showing that the two differ not in nature but in degree: before as after the Fall, "humans are obliged to engage in a distinctly sense-based natural theology reading the world before them for evidence of the divine presence, but always with the caveat that direct revelation is required to supplement that reading." (14) Humanity's aptitude in perceiving this revelatory insight simply becomes more difficult in the postlapsarian world. Leah Marcus observes the impermanence of the differences engendered by the Fall, as Milton "does not merely describe the human race's wrenching alienation from earth, but also proposes a trajectory for reclamation." (15)

In Paradise Lost, Eve drives this arc of loss and revival; and throughout the epic she defines her validity as an agent in this process by the extent of her experience. She awakens "unexperienced," proceeds to master the garden's bounty, and ultimately claims "experience" as her "best guide" when she eats the fruit. …

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