Milton and Nature
The Worlds a Booke in Folio, printed all
With Gods great Workes in Letters Capitall:
Each Creature, is a Page, and each effect,
A faire Caracter, void of all defect.
-Du Bartas (Divine Weeks, I.i.173-6)
Who is wise? He will realize these things.
Who is discerning? He will understand them.
The ways of
the Lord are right;
the righteous walk in them,
but the rebellious stumble in them.
May 7, 2002
Milton Final Paper
The Book of the World
Nature has been called many things throughout history. It has been both deified and vilified, through idolatry of the created
and idolatry of ourselves. Scripture paints it as beautiful, saying "the heavens declare the glory of God," (Psalm 19:1) but
never ascribes unto it the powers of salvation. Romans 1 shows us that, though creation is delightful and able to point us
toward our creator, it is not sufficient in and of itself unto salvation. It is this concept that Milton had in mind in Paradise
Lost book eight lines 66 through 75:
To ask or search I blame thee not, for Heav'nBook of God before thee set,
Is as the
Wherein to read his wondrous Works, and learne
His Seasons, Hours, or Dayes, or Months,
This to attain, whether Heav'n move or Earth, 70Imports not, if thou reck'n right, the rest
From Man or Angel the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
secrets to be scann'd by them who ought
Rather admire; 75
As I approach the topic of Miltons view of nature I must turn my thoughts to the latter part of Psalm nineteen. It is truly
the prayer of my heart, that in this study He would "cleanse me from secret faults." (v. 12) "Let the words of my mouth and
the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer." (v. 14)
My personal favorite instance of Milton using nature as both plot device and metaphor is found in Book IX.
So said he, and forbore not glance or toy 1035
Of amorous intent, well understood
Of Eve, whose Eye darted contagious Fire.
Her hand he seisdd and to a shadie
Thick overhead with verdant roof imbowr'd
He led her nothing loath; Flours were the Couch, 1040
Pansies, and Violets, and Asphodel,
And Hyacinth, Earths freshest softest lap.
There they thir fill of Love and Loves
Took largely, of thir mutual guilt the Seale,
The solace of thir sin, till dewie sleep 1045
Oppress'd them, wearied with thir amorous play.
Soon as the force of that fallacious Fruit,
That with exhilerating
About thir spirits had plaid, and inmost powers
Made erre, was now exhal'd, and grosser sleep 1050
Bred of unkindly fumes, with concious dreams
Encumberd, now had left them, up they rose
As from unrest, and each
the other viewing,
Soon found thir Eyes how op'nd, and thir minds
How dark'nd; innocence, that as a veile 1055
Had shadow'd them from knowing ill, was gon,
Just confidence, and native righteousness
And honour from about them,
To guiltie shame hee coverd but his Robe
Uncover'd more, so rose the Danite strong 1060
Herculean Samson from the Harlot-lap
Of Philistean Dalilah, and wak'd
Shorn of his strength, They destitute
Of all thir vertue: silent,
In lines 1034 through 1063 Adam and Eve, having just eaten of the fruit now proceed to take "their fill of love," in this
case being better likened to lust. In order to truly glean the most from this passage we must compare it to their earlier
act of love making found in book IV lines 689-775. Right from the outset we see similarities and differences arise that point
us to their now fallen state. In book IV line 738, for instance, "into their inmost bower / Handed they went." When we compare
this to book IX 1037, "Her hand he seized," we see the obvious differences begin to reveal themselves. Where love was once
a mutual act in which each party succumbed to the other and never "love refused" (IV 743), now we see the forceful selfish
act of lust. Adam no longer sees Eve as a gift from God, looking to pleasure her and not only himself, but now seeks "with
ardour to enjoy [Eve]" (IX 1032).
These simple contrasts provide the stage for another comparison in which Milton utilizes nature as a metaphor to better
show us our fallen state. When we compare the "couch" of book IX lines 1039 through 1041 with that of book IV lines 690 through
711, we find many of the same flowers, but a few are also notably absent.
Thus talking hand in hand alone they pass'd 690
On to thir blissful Bower; it was a place
Chos'n by the sovran Planter, when he fram'd
All things to mans delightful
use; the roofe
Of thickest covert was inwoven shade
Laurel and Mirtle, and what higher grew 695
Of firm and fragrant leaf; on either side
Acanthus, and each odorous bushie shrub
Fenc'd up the verdant wall;
each beauteous flour,
Iris all hues, Roses, and Gessamin
Rear'd high thir flourisht heads between, and wrought
Mosaic; underfoot the Violet,
Crocus, and Hyacinth with rich inlay
Broiderd the ground, more colour'd then with stone
costliest Emblem: other Creature here
Beast, Bird, Insect, or Worm durst enter none; 705
Such was thir awe of Man. In shadie Bower
More sacred and sequesterd, though but feignd,
Pan or Silvanus
never slept, nor Nymph,
Nor Faunus haunted. Here in close recess
With Flowers, Garlands, and sweet-smelling Herbs
Espoused Eve deckt first her Nuptial Bed,
In book IV the walls of Adam and Eves bower are lined with iris, roses, and Gessamin (jessamine) (698). Underfoot are violet,
crocus, and hyacinth. At first glance this is nothing more than a poetic look at the marriage bed as a beautiful bouquet.
Each flower can symbolize a different virtue. Hyacinth can show prudence, jessamine amiability, and violet humility. This
would of course be the pre-lapsarian face value metaphorical reading of nature. As we see their fall, however we are given
the opportunity to read a little more into the first floral arrangement.
Book nines intercourse is upon "earths freshest softest lap," (1041) with a sexual pun on the last word of this line as
evidenced by line 1060. Lap is now the "harlot-lap" of Dalila from which Samson rises, an obvious sexual reference.
Puritanical Milton uses the paronomasia of the two laps to point us back to the line 1041 so we take a better look at the
lap from which they both rise. It is important to note here that in the simile of Samson, both Adam and Eve are being compared
to Samson as shown by the use of "they" in line 1062. In light of this, we see that they rise from the "harlot-lap" of earth
in line 1041. By making earth the harlot Milton is stressing the misuse of the very gifts that were meant for mans joy and
Gods glory. Now nature itself has been made a harlot through Adam and Eves sin, but more on this later.
This brings us to the lap itself. The lap of book nine consists of four flowers: pansies, violets, asphodel, and hyacinth.
Only two of these flowers are mentioned in book four, violets and hyacinth. In fact, both of these are mentioned together
with crocus as flowers that are trampled underfoot. None of the flowers that line the walls of book fours bower appear in
book nine. This points us to the flower underfoot of book four that is not mentioned in nine, crocus. Crocus is mentioned
in together with hyacinth in the Iliad. Homer mentions that these two grow as Hera seduces Zeus on Mount Ida (XIV 347-9).
On the second, post-lapsarian level, therefore, hyacinth and crocus are linked with lust and sexual immorality. Why then would
these two be mentioned in the pre-fall lovemaking scene? A key loaded word used in describing the flowers of the bower is
"underfoot." It could simply mean those flowers that are used to cover the floor of the bower, or it could mean that they
are trampled under. Consequently, if these flowers of immorality are being trampled underfoot, then the immorality they symbolize
is being triumphed over by the very love making of Adam and Eve. This of course agrees with Miltons diatribic defense of wedded
love in lines 744 though 770.
Of the eight flowers mentioned in both sections, four appear together in one other section of Milton. In an act of Irony
Milton would never have missed, the other passage is in Lycidas, used to mourn the death of Edward King. In Lycidas, lines
142 through 151 we find roses, jessamine, pansies, and violets.
Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies.
The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Gessamine,
The white Pink, and the Pansie
freakt with jeat,
The glowing Violet. 145
The Musk-rose, and the well attir'd Woodbine,
With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive hed,
every flower that sad embroidery wears:
Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears, 151
To strew the Laureat Herse where Lycid lies.
Here however, we find that while these flowers are thrown on Lycids hypothetical casket, they symbolize not only mourning
but a hope of his immortality. This is shown quite plainly trough Miltons inclusion of the fabled amaranthus which does not
fade or die, but lives on eternally in heaven as described in Paradise Lost book III lines 352 through 357. These flowers
then, when applied back to book fours bower, show hope and expectation of a race well run, but also carry with them the inevitable
mourning that will accompany the fall.
Returning now to book nines couch a progression becomes apparent that was until now obscure at best. The four flowers of
book nine, pansies, violets, asphodel, and hyacinth, can be seen not as a haphazard list of flowers Milton thought were pretty
and sounded nice together, but as a very purposeful sequence. The pansy is one of the flowers laid upon Lycids casket, symbolizing
both hope and mourning. The violet is mentioned in Lycidas, book four, and book nine. In all Lycidas it shows
hope and mourning. In book four it symbolizes hope and humility on the first level, and mourning of the coming fall, which
they are triumphing over temporarily through the act of wedded love. This connects finally to book nine where they mourn the
lost hope and humility they once symbolized as they are made the harlot. Asphodel in Greek mythology symbolized death, pointing
us to Romans 6:23 and the wages of sin being death. The progression culminates in hyacinth, a flower rich with double meanings.
When mentioned first in book four it is a reference to sexual immorality in Greek mythology. Now, in book nine, it nods once
again to Greek mythology, this time to the myth of Apollo. When Apollos companion, Hyacinthus, is murdered his blood brings
forth the flower, hyacinth. As the hyacinth grows it carries with it the words of grief to Apollo. In most cases the onomatopoeia
would be ignored, but in this case it is reported as, "Ai, Ai." This brings us to the crux of the symbolism. Ai is also the
second city to be attacked in the book of Joshua. Milton here is reminding us of the story of Achin. Achin brought sin into
the camp and it brought about far reaching consequences, including death of not just him, but his family and compatriots as
well. Adam and Eve would have felt sorely convicted through the story of Achin. They too committed sin that brought about
the death of family and nation, their consequences, of course, reaching further. Hyacinth as used here, therefore, symbolizes
grief at the state that has been lost. It includes allusion, once again to Romans 6:23, through the story of Achin and his
sing bringing forth death. However, all is not lost. The grief here also points us once again to hope. Grief over ones sin
is a righteous attitude when accompanied by righteousness. If sin is eliminated, redemption can occur. The city of Ai, in
the end, was conquered. Repentance and honesty, however must be integral to this process, and these are two attitudes which
Adam and Eve lack at this point.