What would the experience of sexuality be like in a world designed by a beneficent God for the bliss of godlike human beings? And if this world and the godlike humans were both somehow corrupted, what would it tell us about human sexuality as we understand and experience it? In Paradise Lost, John Milton’s ambitious project (one of many) is to convincingly and consistently represent human sexuality in an unfallen and fallen world.
Jean Hagstrum describes Milton’s unfallen sexuality as a pleasurable union between equals freely coexisting in a God-ordained hierarchy; fallen sexuality is marked by lust and self-love, which subverts God’s hierarchy (26, 38, 41–2). Kristin McColgan argues that Milton’s universe is a humanist vision founded upon “reciprocity,” hierarchy, and an “idyllic, dynamic relationship” (76). Joseph Summers discusses human sexuality in Paradise Lost as previously occupying the “crown of mutual love” but is now “reduced to naked appetite” (106). C. S. Lewis notes Milton’s agreement with St. Augustine on comparing the fallen sexuality, which we currently possess evidenced by the “disobedience of our members,” and unfallen sexuality, a “hypothetical” type that only Adam and Eve experienced (118). Each critic contributes a nuanced understanding of Milton’s view of sexuality, but to their accounts, I would add a connection between sexuality and proper or improper usage in marital and hierarchal contexts. By “proper” I mean that which is “suitable for a specified or implicit purpose or requirement” (“proper, adj1”), and this suitability corresponds to God’s purpose for human sexuality; by “improper” I mean that which is discordant with God’s purpose for human sexuality. In this essay, I will compare and contrast Milton’s unfallen and fallen accounts of human sexuality and argue that Milton’s narrative indicates that proper usage of sexuality is dependent upon submission to marital and hierarchal relations between the sexes and God, and improper usage inverts hierarchal and marital relations, which results in pain, guilt, and alienation.
1. Unfallen Sexuality
Book IV contains the portent scene of Eve’s awakening in Paradise and her first glimpse of a desirable image in a “Smooth lake” (459). God’s voice warns Eve that the image is her own, and she is designed for Adam, “Whose image thou art” (472). Hierarchy is implicit in Eve’s relationship to Adam, and Eve recognizes this divine structure: “without whom am to no end, my Guide, And Head” (442–3). Eve occupies a unique role in creation as Adam’s intellectual equal and “other half” (488). Milton’s narrator describes Eve’s distinct position in hierarchal relation to Adam:
As the Vine curles her tendrils, which impli’d
Subjection, but requir’d with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best receivd,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay. (307–10)
While both Adam and Eve are matched in creative argumentation, ken, and royal status, Eve’s uniquely feminine attributes, which befits “coy submission,” matches God’s hierarchal design for the flourishing of differentiated godlike humans. When Eve enjoys Adam, blessings are promised: “multitudes like thy self,” and the title, “Mother of human race” (474–5). Hagstrum comments, “To us, hierarchy and order suggest slavery and repression, not freedom and release. To Milton it was the hierarchy that guaranteed those values” (37). Harmony between the sexes depended upon hierarchal relations. McColgan notes that Adam and Eve learn from one another thereby “evolving their capacity to participate in the other’s being” (77). Thus, their marriage represents the mysterious union of two bodies and one flesh that Paul teaches (see English Standard Version, Eph. 5:31–33).
Adam and Eve’s mysterious rites are likewise highly praised by Milton’s narrator:
Haile wedded Love, mysterious Law, true source
Of human ofspring, sole propriety,
In Paradise of all things common else.
By thee adulterous lust was driv’n from men
Among the bestial herds to raunge, by thee
Founded in Reason, Loyal, Just, and Pure,
Relations dear, and all the Charities
Of Father, Son, and Brother first were known. (IV.750–7)
Terminology interrelated with divinity, “Reason, Loyal, Just, and Pure,” is used to describe marital sex’s mutually beneficial effects for Adam and Eve. Summers explains Milton’s portrayal of human sexuality: “perfect sexual love represents both natural human fulfillment and the natural human imitation of divine love and fertility and joy” (111). In Milton’s Paradise, proper usage of sexuality enjoyed in marital and hierarchal contexts invites celebration, divine approval, fertility, and the absence of pain.
Mary Nyquist objects to Milton’s portrayal of marriage and hierarchal relations: “deeply masculinist assumptions [are] at work in Milton’s articulation of a radically bourgeois view of marriage” (qtd. McColgan 76). Nyquist’s objection seems misguided, considering Book IV consistently celebrates Adam and Eve’s “mutual help” and “mutual love” (727–8), surely a relevant dissimilarity between Milton’s portrayal and “a radically bourgeois view.” Moreover, contrary to what Nyquist asserts, McColgan argues that a reading of Paradise Lost cannot ignore the “couples’ reciprocity and the impressive portrayal of Eve’s dignity and freedom” (77). After assessing Milton’s depiction of Adam and Eve’s marriage, it is difficult to construe the text as suggesting anything other than what has been argued thus far: submission to God’s marital and hierarchal design plan ensures the proper usage of sexuality, which in turn produces human bliss and glorifies God.
2. Fallen Sexuality
Satan’s temptation of Eve in Book IX echoes the seductive flattery related in Eve’s dream: “Taste this, and be henceforth among the Gods / Thy self a Goddess, not to Earth confind” (V.77–8). Satan tempted Eve with aspirations to Godhead, and in Book IX, again, Satan flatters Eve’s pride by praising her beauty excessively and exciting comparisons to Godhead:
Half what in thee is fair, one man except,
Who sees thee? (and what is one?) who shouldst be seen
A Goddess among Gods, ador’d and serv’d
By Angels numberless, thy daily Train. (545–8)
Eve is persuaded by Satan’s sophisticated rhetoric and disobeys God. The divine hierarchy between God and the sexes is broken, which paves the way for disordered human sexuality. Eve has imitated Satan who, “sdeind subjection, and thought one step higher / Would set me highest” (IV.50–1). Eve too has disdained subjection to God and by implication, Adam:
And render me more equal, and perhaps,
A thing not undesireable, somtime
Superior: for inferior who is free? (IX.823–5)
Unfallen Eve enjoyed Adam in “coy submission,” but now she views this state as a form of intolerable slavery. Due to a complex variety of selfish reasons, Eve gives the fruit to Adam, who is initially distressed (IX.890). However, Adam admits via interior monologue that Eve and he “are one,” and if he lost Eve he would lose himself (958–9). Adam values his marriage to Eve more than his relationship with God, as Milton’s narrator explains, “Against his better knowledge, not deceav’d / But fondly overcome with Femal charm” Adam eats the fruit and falls with Eve (998–9).
Michael Bryson and Arpi Movesian celebrate Adam’s choice: “To choose the ruler over one’s own wife — that is the kind of choice that authoritarian regimes try to convince their subjects is good, right, and honorable” (489). God’s divine hierarchy and rule is considered equivalent to an authoritarian regime. And yet, Bryson and Movesian’s assertion is inconsistent with Milton’s portrayal of the divine hierarchy. In Book III, Milton’s narrator describes God watching over the earth:
Our two first Parents, yet the onely two
Of mankind, in the happie Garden plac’t,
Reaping immortal fruits of joy and love,
Uninterrupted joy, unrivald love
In blissful solitude . . . (III.65–8)
God placed Adam and Eve in the garden to reap “uninterrupted joy” and “unrivaled love,” provided that they obey God. Milton’s depiction of earth’s king, God the Son, is one of meekness who breathes immortal love, allows for free choice, and offers himself as atonement for rebellious, suffering humanity, so that humanity might one day re-enter paradise (III.266–70). God’s “authoritarian regime” is comprised of love, mercy, and peace. Bryson and Movesian mistakenly presuppose a malevolent regime where the text explicitly affirms the opposite.
Adam and Eve invert the hierarchal and marital relations between the sexes and God, and the destructive effects are immediately apparent in their sexuality:
Carnal desire enflaming, hee on Eve
Began to cast lascivious Eyes, she him
As wantonly repaid; in Lust they burne:
Till Adam thus ‘gan Eve to dalliance move (IX.1013–6).
“Lust” in Paradise Lost, Summers notes, “is always evil, but it is never identified with normal sexual love. It is opposed to love, for it inevitably implies an [sic] humiliation of its sexual object” (90). Power relations between the sexes emerge, and neither party willingly submits to the other. Raphael had warned Adam to not overly revere Eve for her beauty (VIII.561–6). After the Fall, Adam no longer heeds Raphael’s warning:
For never did thy Beautie since the day
I saw thee first and wedded thee, adorn’d
With all perfections, so enflame my sense
With ardor to enjoy thee . . . (IX.1029–1032)
Adam fetishizes Eve’s beauty, thus reducing Eve from Queen to sexual object. In addition, Adam “seis’d” Eve’s hand (IX.1037), an assertion of masculine power, which is in striking contrast to Book IV when they walked “hand in hand” to “thir blissful Bower” (690) Fallen sexuality, divorced from submission to God’s hierarchy, carries with it melancholy associations:
There they thir fill of Love and Loves disport
Took largely, of thir mutual guilt the Seale,
The solace of thir sin, till dewie sleep
Oppress’d them, wearied with thir amorous play. (IX.1042–5)
What was previously mutually good is now considered mutual guilt. Adam and Eve take “thir fill of love,” as though using one another for pleasure. Here “dewie sleep” oppresses them, but it was not so before in Book IV when they were “lulld by Nightingales imbraceing slept” (771). Upon waking, Adam and Eve imitate Satan by exchanging acrimonious words, and “in mutual accusation” they refuse to accept the blame for their actions (IX.1068–9, 1150, 1187). Alienated from each other and God, Adam and Eve sew leaves together to cover their guilt and shame (IX.1114–5). Improper usage of human sexuality inverts God’s hierarchal and marital design, which leads to pain, guilt, and alienation.
God the Son rebukes Adam for ceding his authority and yielding to Eve’s demands while God’s Paradise was temporarily threatened (X.148–151). The Son renders a two-fold merciful judgment on Adam and Eve’s disobedience: (1) suffering for Eve in child-bearing, and bitter toil for Adam in working the ground (X.193–5, 201–2), and (2) presently unbeknownst to Adam and Eve, God the Son will justify mankind through penal substitution (X.61). Adam laments his fallen life, wishes for death, and reviles Eve (X.845, 855, 867). Nevertheless, despite Adam’s despair, Eve initiates the restoration of God’s hierarchy by repenting and humbling herself before Adam: “Now at his feet submissive in distress” (X.935, 942). Adam follows her example by admitting his complicity in the Fall and prepares an appeal to God:
What better can we do, then to the place
Repairing where he judg’d us, prostrate fall
Before him reverent, and there confess
Humbly our faults . . . (X.1086–9)
With humility, repentance, and submission to God, Adam and Eve’s actions coupled with God’s “Prevenient Grace” lead humanity back to God’s hierarchal and marital design plan for creation (XI.3). The Angel Michael explains that humanity cannot fully recover what was lost in Paradise, but through obedience to God’s hierarchal and marital design, fallen humanity may still possess “A Paradise within thee, happier farr” (XII.587). By way of earthly lives led in submission to God’s hierarchal relations and marital confines, proper usage of sexuality can yield partial human flourishing, a shadow of the paradise still to come.
Unfallen sexuality is characterized by submission to God’s hierarchy in marital contexts and the subsequent blessings Adam and Eve enjoyed. Fallen sexuality reverses God’s intended purpose for human sexuality and thus shame, guilt, and power relations enter into human sexuality. Through humility, repentance and submission to God’s marital and hierarchal design plan for humanity, proper usage of sexuality may once again yield blessings and the glorification of God.
The Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway, 2002.
Bryson, Michael, and Arpi Movsesian. “Paradise Lost: Love in Eden, and the Critics Who Obey.” Love and Its Critics: From the Song of Songs to Shakespeare and Milton’s Eden, Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK, 2017, pp. 467–500, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1sq5vd6.14. Accessed 12 November 2018.
Hagstrum, Jean H. Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart. University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Lewis, C. S. A Preface to Paradise Lost: Being the Ballard Matthews Lectures, Delivered at University College, North Wales, 1941. Oxford University Press, 1942.
McColgan, Kristin Pruitt. “Abundant Gifts: Hierarchy and Reciprocity in ‘Paradise Lost.’” South Central Review, vol. 11, no. 1, 1994, pp. 75–86, www.jstor.org/stable/3190269. Accessed 12 November 2018.
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Milton Reading Room. Edited by Thomas H. Luxon, March, 2015, http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton. Accessed 19 November 2018.
“proper, adj1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/152660. Accessed 14 November 2018.
Summers, Joseph H. The Muse’s Method: An Introduction to Paradise Lost. Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1981.