Paradise Lost, 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary

By Earl Miner; William Moeck et al. | Go to book overview

Excursus 2.967

PERSONIFICATION,
RELATIONSHIP, AND ALLEGORY

Adam sounds a life-weary note in Book 10 as he contemplates his future after the Fall:

how gladly would I meet Mortalitie my sentence, and be Earth Insensible, how glad would lay me down As in my Mothers lap? (10.775–78)

It is a simile, but the chief presumption here is the decidedly odd one that he has a mother. And yet there is the shade of something stranger still in the possibility that a human being has no mother. This concern might unduly strain a simile if it were not the case that in Book 11 Michael uses the same figure less figuratively, as he advises Adam to lead a temperate life in order to have a peaceful death:

So maist thou live, till like ripe Fruit thou drop Into thy Mothers lap, or be with ease Gatherd, not harshly pluckt. (535–37)

Adam's “Mothers lap” now seems more literal. The simile shifts from “As in my Mothers lap” (which we now see can be read literally, providing he has a mother) to “till like ripe Fruit.” Yet the conceptions of degrees, or of more and less literal, are also odd.

In the earlier quotation there is a phrase not very clear itself but a clarifying agent: “be Earth / Insensible.” Milton may have had in mind a fable in one of his favorite poems, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and in it (1.318ff.) counterparts of Adam and Eve whom, in fact, he mentions, toward the beginning of Book 11,

th'ancient Pair In Fables old, less ancient yet than these, Deucalion and chaste Pyrrha[who] to restore The Race of Mankind drownd, before the Shrine Of Themis stood devout. (11.10–14)

The oracle bids them “throw behind you as you go the bones of your great mother” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.383), which they come correctly to interpret as referring to the stones of the earth.

The idea of the earth as mother is by no means rare, especially in languages where the noun is gendered feminine (terra). And if there were doubt, the description of bounteous paradise would remove it. Adam and Eve have in the happy garden “Whatever Earth all-bearing Mother yields” (5.338). Yet we need not move far to discover that earth does not give birth to all things. Among the explanations, or complications, of that is that “Adam (ah)” may mean not only “man” and “red” but also “earth, ” the very dust from which he was formed, as we learn from Genesis 3.19 and numerous passages in the poem (e.g., 9.149).

There are also other mothers, and of course principally Eve. One of her first memories is being told that she will “be call'd / Mother of human Race” (4.474– 75). The words following the speech in which she says that are “So spake our general Mother” (492). Moreover, Raphael's first address to her is, “Haile Mother of Mankind” (5.388). Mother of so many, she seems to have a degree of paternity corresponding to Adam's maternity in strangeness: she is twice called “Daughter of God and Man” (in 4.660 and 9.291). Eve's double daughterhood is to be understood in terms of the second Creation story, in Genesis 2, involving Adam's rib but God's creation.

These central concepts of identity have a range and richness inclusive of yet another mother—and daughter—who also find place in Book 10. They appear as Milton is considering the turbulent winds that arise after the Fall:

Thus began Outrage from liveless things; but Discord first Daughter of Sin, among th'irrational, Death introduc'd through fierce antipathie: Beast now with Beast gan war, and Fowle with Fowle. (10.706–10)

Unlike Adam and Eve, Discord has a mother, Sin. We recall her clearly enough from Book 2.

These are matters about which it is difficult to know how far to be earnest, how far to go or how not to stop too soon. How many questions are we entitled to ask? If Discord is Sin's first daughter, how many others

-439-

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Paradise Lost, 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Preface 9
  • Acknowledgments 11
  • Introduction 15
  • Early Comment 31
  • Book 1 - The Rebel Angels Awaken to Hell's Flames 51
  • Book 2 - Sin Opens the Doors of Hell 97
  • Book 3 - Satan's Hypocrisy Deceives Even Uriel 135
  • Book 4 - God Creates Adam and Eve 165
  • Book 5 - Adam Rids Eve of Satan's Dream 203
  • Book 6 - The Son Expels the Rebel Angels 237
  • Book 7 - Adam and Eve Listen Intently to Raphael 269
  • Book 8 - Raphael Departs After Warning Adam 287
  • Book 9 - The Fall 305
  • Book 10 - The Son Judges and Clothes the Human Pair 335
  • Book 11 - The Vision of Cain Slaying Abel 367
  • Book 12 - The Expulsion 393
  • The Illustrations 421
  • Excursus 1.50 427
  • Excursus 2.921 435
  • Excursus 2.967 439
  • Excursus 3.19 447
  • Excursus 5.791 451
  • Excursus 6.327 457
  • Excursus 6.616 461
  • Excursus 7.126 467
  • Excursus 7.594 471
  • Excursus 8.136 479
  • Excursus 9.512 489
  • Excursus 10.425 495
  • Excursus 11.385 499
  • Excursus 12.553 501
  • Bibliography 505
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