Perverted Ends: John Milton and the Reformation of Marriage


Michael Q. Abraham

There is a certain scale of Duties, there is a certain Hierarchy of upper and lower commands, which for want of studying in right order, all the world is in confusion.

The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Book I, Ch. VIII

If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil.

—Satan in Paradise Lost, Book I, 162-165

John Milton’s published thoughts on divorce, beginning with The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce in the late summer of 1643 and culminating in the caustic Colasterion in early 1645, began to appear just as his first wife’s “summer visit” to her parents’ home entered its second year. Though Mary Powell would eventually bear Milton three daughters and one son, the marriage seemed to have “‘burst like a rotten thread’ in the first month” [Turner 188] and it would be another year before she returned to him in London. Knowing that Milton’s prolific output during his wife’s lengthy sojourn is wholly occupied with the subject of divorce, it is understandably tempting to approach Milton’s evolving argument as self-serving and opportunistic, rather than one meant to “restore” a civil and moral right “to the good of both sexes,” as declared on the title page of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce [DDD 221].

But Milton’s argument is no whining diatribe against the institution that disappointed him or the woman who deserted him. As John Halkett points out in Milton and the Idea of Matrimony : “If he had really been more interested in divorcing Mary Powell than in arguing the cause of divorce generally, it is unlikely that he would have rested his argument—and rested it long after he might have modified it to his advantage—on the idiosyncratic ground he chose” [3]. Indeed, Ernest Sirluck’s tepid assertion that “there is some reason to believe that, in a not very urgent way, Milton had had a favorable opinion of divorce before he was deserted” [“Milton’s Pamphlets” in Complete Prose 138] and Arthur E. Barker’s reluctant admission of “some earlier evidences of a superficial interest in the subject” [Barker 63] unfairly trivialize the courage and complexity of Milton’s thought. While Barker characterizes the divorce tracts’ purpose to be to shift the focus of the debate away “from the revealed will of God to the rights of the particular believer” [Barker 67], Milton’s polemic actually moves in the opposite direction. In fact, Milton’s argument seeks to “differentiate the doctrine of God from the fallacies of human reasoning” [Miller 9], to move emphasis away from the base physical inclinations of the individual toward the very essence of God’s grace, the “Christian Freedom, guided by the Rule of Charity” invoked on the title page of the first edition of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce [Complete Prose Works 220]. As Milton would later write, it was never his intention to “oppose the authority of Scripture, which [he] considers unviolably sacred,” but, in true Socratic fashion, he viewed his “duty as a man” to be “to refute human interpretations as often as the occasion requires” [De Doctrina Christiana 932].

Close readings of the five divorce tracts together with Paradise Lost, reveal that, whatever the parallels to his own life, Milton’s professed and literal role was as “an exegete—a ‘leader out’ from perplexity or bondage” [Turner 189]. In championing the cause of divorce, Milton believed his purpose to be nothing less noble than the rescue of a sacred institution from “the policy of the devill” [DDD 236], to return “many places of Scripture” to their “long-lost meaning” [Complete Prose Works 220]. Indeed, Milton believed that the true ends of marriage had been perverted almost beyond recognition, leaving it “unworthily expos’d to sadnes and mistake” [DDD 240]. Milton’s argument goes much further than pressing for the reforms necessary to release him from Mary Powell. Making ample and imaginative use of the rhetoric of resistance employed by Luther, Calvin, Martin Bucer, Theodore Beza, and Peter Martyr, among many others, Milton argues for a complete rethinking of acceptable reasons for both marriage and its severing, thereby exposing himself—needlessly, if divorce from Mary was his primary goal—to the rancour and ridicule of all manner of religious and political critics.

Put simply, Milton believed that the perversion of matrimony could only be remedied through the complete overthrow of its accepted aims: namely procreation—“that the world might be increased”—and the controlling of lust—“that men might avoid fornication” [Halkett 15]. But for Milton, the pure and uncorrupted end was a compatibility of mind and spirit that, once established, would produce the unsullied marital fruits that God originally intended. Indeed, “it had been better that man had never known Law or matrimony” than to deny the gift of divorce that God himself had granted. Such a denial would be “such a peece of folly as Belzebub would not commit, to divide against himself and pervert his own ends” [DDD 290]. To that end, rather than writing a direct advocation of the ideal marriage, Milton chose rather to undermine its corrupted contemporary definition.

Milton’s divorce tracts, then, are not so much an endorsement of divorce, as they are an indictment against wedlock in its contemporary form, a form that had left all matrimony “much wrong’d and over-sorrow’d” [DDD 240]. In this, Milton’s ostensible restoration is in fact a reformation: an heroic attempt to rescue a blessed institution from the thrall of custom and return it “to the solace and delight of man” [DDD 235].

As we shall soon see, this aspect of Milton’s argument is perfected over twenty years later with the publication of Paradise Lost. From the outset of the poem, Milton’s Satan, mired in the bitterness of his own self-destruction, states his aim to be the corruption of God’s most beloved creation—“out of good still to find means of evil” [I, 165]. Conversely, Milton’s purpose in the divorce tracts is to deliver marriage from the evils resulting from “the unfitnes and defectivenes of an unconjugal mind” [DDD 242]. Like Christ before him, Milton sets out to “bow things the contrary way, to make them come to thir naturall straitness” [DDD 283] for, as Milton’s translation of Martin Bucer eloquently attests “unlesse that first and holiest society of man and woman be purely constituted, that houshold discipline may be upheld by them according to God’s law, how can wee expect a race of good men” [JMB 442]. From the beginning, then, it is clear that Milton views marriage not as an institution to be undercut, but the very basis of a moral and civilized society.

It is clear that Milton regarded himself as a pioneer in divorce reform, even after his discovery of Martin Bucer’s very similar argument, which was written nearly a century earlier. While Milton graciously acknowledges his debt to Bucer in the preface to The Judgement of Martin Bucer, he also characterizes his discovery of “the forgott’n Writings of this faithfull Evangelist” as one directed by God “to be [Milton’s] defence and warrant against…the prostrate worshippers of Custom” [JMB 438-439]. In the opening lines of Colasterion, the last and most acerbic of the divorce tracts, Milton refers to his subject as one that is “new to this age” even as he invokes prior thinkers to defend his views, pointedly referring to “all the volumes which for this purpose [he] had visited” [C 724]. And yet there is no contradiction between Milton’s claims of originality and his reliance on his philosophic ancestors. To be sure, Milton’s erudition is nowhere so evident as in his Sciptural exigeses, but it is in his persuasive and innovative use of seminal reformation and resistance arguments that his abilities shine most brightly.

The Resistance of Custom and Customary Resistance

Therefore, since custom is the principal magistrate of man’s life, let men by all means endeavour to obtain good customs.

—Francis Bacon, “Of Custom and Education” in Essayes or Counsels (1625)

When The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce first appeared in 1643, most of its readers were unacquainted with its author. Although Milton had already published several pamphlets, Of Reformation (1641) and The Reason of Church Government (1642) among them, it was the thirty-five year old’s thoughts on marriage and divorce that first caught the public’s attention. While William Riley Parker is correct in writing that the pamphlet “succeeded in giving [Milton] a measure of notoriety which was extremely distasteful,” it is unfair to suggest that Milton’s argument “completely failed to accomplish any of its avowed purposes” [Parker, Milton’s Contemporary Reputation 17] unless one assumes, as Parker appears to, that Milton’s purpose was to win himself a public. On the contrary, a man who launches a very public argument by grouping Canon Law with “other mistakes” hardly seems like a writer expecting to win new friends. Moreover, the first proper sentence of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, and much of the lengthy introduction that follows, takes unabashed aim at the “glib and easie” acceptance of “Custome” [DDD 222] in the commonwealth. From his very first strike, it becomes clear that one of Milton’s “avowed”—perhaps even primary— purposes is to constantly rouse, persuade, and reprove both parliament and the populace. More simply, Milton applies reformist precepts of resistance—acquired through an astonishing amount of reading on a vast variety of subjects—to the prickly subject of divorce. In the process, Milton in many cases uses the thoughts of great thinkers against them.

Threatening accepted customs is, of course, a potentially dangerous proposition in any age. Beginning with Socrates, the list of those executed or assassinated for their unorthodox or untimely views stretches beyond comprehension. Clearly undaunted, however, Milton launches his divorce argument by immediately attacking the very core of custom:

Custome being but a meer face, as Eccho is a meer voice, rests not in her unaccomplishment, until by secret inclination, shee accorporate her selfe with error, who being a blind and Serpentine body without a head, willingly accepts what he wants, and supplies what her incompleatnesse went seeking. Hence it is, that Error supports Custome, Custome count’nances Error. And these two betweene them would persecute and chase away all truth and solid wisdom out of humane life. [DDD 223]

Milton’s exposing of custom effectively gives the lie to closely guarded and, in this case, sacred societal practices and mores. Custom, considered by most as evidence in itself of an eternal plan, is here “but a meer face,” a deceptive and potentially dangerous deviation from God’s word. In keeping with this theme, Milton appended this pointed quotation from Proverbs to the title page of the second edition of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him” [18:13, Complete Prose Works 220]. While the epigraph was certainly a reaction to the volatile reception of its predecessor, it points to Milton’s determination in his cause. Knowing that the blind followers of custom would not be won over easily, if at all, Milton nonetheless pushes his argument well past the point of pure self-interest. Moreover, Milton begins his Judgement of Martin Bucer by providing several pages of “Testimonies of high approbation which learned men have given of Martin Bucer” before submitting any thoughts of his own. This seemingly defensive maneuver is deceptive, however, for Milton is not trying to strengthen his argument by invoking authorities such as Calvin, Beza, Martyr, or even Bucer himself, but is rather attempting to undermine some of the invective that the faithful had uttered against him.

Such was the confidence of the young Milton that, in his Preface to Martin Bucer, he declares his thoughts on divorce to be “not…opinion, but…knowledge” and neatly disavows any augmentation of that confidence through the “addition of these great Authors to my party” [JMB 439]. Rather, Milton’s citing of such authors is intentionally ironic, for none of them would have knowingly sanctioned his views on divorce. Indeed, Milton would later describe Beza as “one of the strictest against divorce” [Tetrachordon 713]. Perhaps more significantly, Milton refers to Peter Martyr as being “in word our easy adversary, but is in deed for us” [T 710]. It is a telling statement, for when Milton rides Bucer’s coattails into enemy territory, he has far more than his own divorce in mind. In much the same fashion as he enlists Bucer’s proponents in his own defence, Milton goes about using their arguments in support of his cause.

Milton’s attack on marriage as societal custom was a particularly daring one. Then as now, customs—marriage chief among them—generally rely on their mere existence for validity. Although perhaps not immediately apparent, there must good reasons at custom’s root, or why would so many follow them? No less an authority than St. Augustine, writing on the illegality of marriage between family members in his City of God, asserts:

[C]ustom is the most effective agent in soothing or shocking human sensibilities. And in this case custom acts as a deterrent to unbridled lust, and therefore men are right in judging it criminal to cancel or transgress the custom. [624]

John Calvin maintains in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that custom, by its very existence, is “ordained by God,” and therefore evidence of the divine right of kings: “it has not come about by human perversity that the authority over all things on earth is in the hands of kings and other rulers” [1489]. Francis Bacon, writing in 1625, characterized custom as “the principal magistrate of man’s life” and there can therefore be “no trusting to the force of nature nor to the bravery of words, except it be corroborate by custom” [“Of Custom and Education” in Selections 148-149]. Even Blaise Pascal, Milton’s contemporary, makes custom its own witness in his Pensées (circa 1650): “Custom is the whole of equity for the sole reason that it is accepted,” cautioning against any questioning of what has become accepted lest its integrity be undermined:

the truth about the usurpation (by custom) must not be made apparent; it came about unreasonably and has become reasonable. We must see that it is regarded as authentic and eternal, and its origins must be hidden if we do not want it soon to end. [“Wretchedness”, v. 60 47]

In stark contrast to such assertions, however, Milton begins the second edition of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce by placing custom squarely at the heart of mankind’s woes. Custom then, traditionally seen as deserving complete obedience solely on the basis of its existence, is redefined as not only the possible victim, but also the potential cause of grievous error.

While Milton may have been the first to so solidly league custom with error—and perhaps also the first to do so in the context of marriage and divorce—the revelation that the two could keep company was certainly not his alone. Calvin’s political stance, which was “firmly anchored in the Pauline doctrine of non-resistance” [Skinner 193] was hesitantly, then aggressively, challenged by his contemporaries. While Calvin was adamant that “we are ‘not allowed to resist’” kings and other rulers, be they just or unjust , but must turn the other cheek, recognizing that “no command has been given” to us except “to obey and suffer” [194], others in his circle were less convinced. Bucer accepted Calvin’s essential passivity in principal, but allowed for those “with the ius gladii or power of the sword” [205] to resist unlawful kings and rulers. The notion of an “unlawful” ruler remained anathema to Calvin (despite a growing number of inconsistencies on the subject in his Institutes), but Bucer’s theory was furthered by Theodore Beza and John Knox, who argued for the duty of distinguishing between “the office and the person of the magistrate” [212]. To be lawful, in other words, the person must fulfill the requirements of the office; the office should not enable the unjust actions of the person. The implicit assertion is that a magistrate who does not fulfill his duties is not a magistrate at all.

Peter Martyr, another of the learned men whom Milton invokes in the introduction to Martin Bucer, took the stipulations of Knox and Beza further still. In his Commentaries on Romans, Martyr writes that, in unjust kingdoms, “laws are perverted…[so] it cannot be that such powers should be of God” (qtd. in Skinner 226, italics added). The statement is a telling one, and is particularly useful for our purposes here. Contradicting Calvin’s assertion that “human perversity” has nothing to do with the good or bad nature of kings, Martyr unwittingly lays the groundwork for Milton’s reformation of marriage.

Throughout the divorce tracts, Milton’s dominant theme is the exposing and refutation of unlawful or unjust marriages. The learned men that preceded him argued, to a greater or lesser extent, for the right to resist and against blind obedience to unlawful kings and magistrates. In the same way, Milton argues that the same set of rules should apply to matrimony.[1] Just as a dishonest ruler can be no ruler and is therefore to be resisted, so “a mariage can be no mariage, whereto the most honest end [of compatibility] is wanting” (DDD 247) and must be dissolved. Unless a magistrate fulfills his higher obligation “not to allow anything against God,” how can he be obeyed? Unless marriage fulfills God’s promise of “a remedy of lonelines, which if it bring not a sociable mind as well as a conjunctive body, leaves us no less alone than before” (T 598), then the marriage cannot sustain itself, and:

unless it last how can the best and sweetest purposes of marriage be attain’d, and they not attain’d, which are the chief ends, and with a lawful love constitute the formal cause it self of mariage, how can the essence thereof subsist, how can it bee indeed what it goes for? Conclude therfore by all the power of reason, that where this essence of mariage is not, there can bee no true mariage; and the parties either one of them, or both are free, and without fault rather by a nullity than by a divorce, may betake them to a second choys, if thir present condition be not tolerable to them. [T 613]

In this, Milton indirectly links good government to good marriage and his argument makes the significant shift from passivity to action. In both government and marriage, Milton’s reformation inverts the customary hierarchy: divine right is supplanted by human duty, the duty of man to mankind becomes a divinely ordained right.

For this aspect of his argument, Milton calls the most learned being of all to his defense. Invoking Christ’s assertion in Mark 2:27—that “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath”—Milton draws an ideal parallel to his thoughts on the matrimonial bond:

Thou shalt doe no manner of worke, saith the commandment of the Sabbath. Yes saith Christ works of Charity. And shall we be more severe in paraphrasing the considerat and tender Gospel, then he was in expounding the rigid and peremptory Law? What was ever in all appearance lesse made for man, and more for God alone then the Sabbath? yet when the good of man comes into the scales, we hear that voice of infinite goodness and benignity, that Sabbath was made for man, not man for Sabbath. What thing ever was more made for man alone and lesse for God than mariage? And shall we load it with a cruel and senceles bondage utterly against both the good of man and the glory of God?…I pronounce, the Man who shall bind so cruelly a good and gracious ordinance of God, hath not in that the spirit of Christ. [DDD 281-2]

In short, Milton’s challenge to the accepted hierarchy of reasons for marriage goes straight to the heart of the political landscape that surrounded him. What had been accepted as the inviolable plan and ordination of God is revealed as the simple and petty perversion of man: “for if man be Lord of the Sabbath…can he be lesse than Lord of mariage in such important causes as these?” (DDD 274). It is with no less authority than this that Milton sets about redefining contemporary marriage.

Fornication, Procreation and Reformation

Because mariage is not a meer carnall coition, but a human Society, where that cannot reasonably be had, there can be no true Matrimony.

The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Book I, Chapter 13 (275)

We were all younger then

We all had lifetimes

And the sins of the flesh could be forgiven

At least they could sometimes.

—Jerry Jerry

In Milton’s day, the foundation of marriage rested upon two interdependent pillars. A man was expected to marry to father children and to control his lust. The begetting of children had obvious motives: “the propagation of the human race; the foundation of the family, upon which the state was based; and the spread of the church” [Halkett 14]. The second, supplementary cause required that man discipline his sexual impulses: “That men might avoid fornication [1 Cor. 7.2.] and posess their vessels in holinesse and honour….this end addeth much to the honour of mariage.” [William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties, qtd. in Halkett 14].

In effect, the second end was accepted as a corollary of the first: a man required the sexual act to father children, but by restricting himself to one woman, his carnal impulses might be curtailed. The achieving of both ends might be more pleasant if compatibility were present, but this element was rarely considered a justifiable cause in and of itself. Divorce, therefore, was tolerated only in two cases: impotence, in which the first end could not be fulfilled, and adultery, in which the secondary end had not been. As is so often the case, Augustine succinctly articulated this relationship, writing in his City of God:

Now surely any friend of wisdom and holy joys who lives a married life….would prefer, if possible, to beget children without lust of this kind. For then the parts created for this task would be the servants of his mind, even in their function of procreation, just as the other members are its servants in the various tasks to which they are assigned. They would begin their activity at the bidding of the will, instead of being stirred up by the ferment of lust [City of God 577].

In his ideal scheme, then, Augustine has the mind controlling the body in all aspects, be they carnal or otherwise. Implicit in Augustine’s reasoning, however, is the assumption that the healthy mind recognizes the primacy of procreation. Indeed, to argue otherwise would constitute “a manifest absurdity,” since the physical structures of the sexes prove incontrovertibly that “male and female were created for the purpose of begetting children” [584]

Augustine is quick (and not altogether unenthusiastic), however, to point out that acquiring control of one’s lust is unlikely, if not wholly unattainable. Speaking from personal experience, Augustine fairly marvels at the power—albeit evil—of lust: “So intense is the pleasure that when it reaches its climax, there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness; the intellectual sentries, as it were, are overwhelmed” [577]. Indeed, this inevitable loss of intellectual control is perhaps the most evident consequence of man’s fall. Unable to unite the power of his body with that of his will, man is doomed never to know true happiness, and marriage never to achieve its originally intended purpose.

Although subsequent scholars, theologians, even saints attempted to define the meaning of marriage in post-lapsarian terms, fornication and its control through monogamous procreation remained dominant in the hierarchy of reasons. St. Thomas Aquinas, writing “A Moral Consideration of Fornication” in his Summa Against the Gentiles (1259-1264) identifies lust as a sin second only to murder in its severity:

Hence, after the sin of murder, whereby a human nature already in existence is destroyed, this sort of sin seems to hold the second place, whereby the generation of human nature is precluded. [222]
In what amounts to an argument against the wasting of semen, Aquinas characterizes marriage as the result of “the father’s concurrence [being] requisite for the bringing up of the progeny” making it “natural for man to be tied to one fixed woman for a long period, not a short one” [221]. In each case, both procreation and monogamy are advanced as methods for the control of lust. True conjugal happiness, already deemed unattainable, never enters the equation.

Even Erasmus, the great satirist who irreverently praised folly in his book of the same name, nonetheless defined marriage according to these rigid terms. Indeed, while Aquinas declares sterility “an accident” (220) and therefore not a bar to true marriage, Erasmus is not so charitable in his Christiani Matrimonii Institutio (1526), writing solemnly that:

The end [of true matrimony] is the begetting of offspring, for which reason true marriage does not unite those enfeebled by age or those incurably sterile according to the proper or exact aim of marriage. [qtd in Halkett 10]

And, closer still to Milton’s own era, John King writes in Vitis Palatina (1614) that:

The end of marriage is proles, issue. Therefore it is called matrimonium, because they who are married pater & mater esse mediatantur, propose to themselves to become father and mother. [qtd. in Halkett 18]

In each case, procreation is not argued to be, but merely accepted as, the primary end of marriage.

Like Augustine, Milton felt strongly that, in all respects, the mind should be given primacy over the body. Indeed, his queasiness on the subject of “an undelighted and servile copulation” [DDD 258] and the “prone and savage necessity” [C 733] of carnal relations is quite legendary. Unlike the “crabbed” and “rustic” Augustine, however, Milton furiously denounced the assumption that procreation—and therefore sex—was the primary end of marriage, “as the canon law had done, de facto, by recognizing adultery and impotence as causes of annulment but refusing to grant that privilege to incompatibility” [Turner 197]. While Augustine effectively equates the fall with sexual arousal, and laments the eternal loss of paradise and a world where “Between man and wife there was a faithful partnership based on love and mutual respect” [City of God 590], Milton believes not only that such partnership is possible, but that it is the most dire of necessities; not only is post-lapsarian marriage not simply a reminder of our damnation, it is the only possible way to regain pre-lapsarian happiness.

What is more, Milton argues that by failing to allow divorce to an incompatible couple “for feare of disquieting the secure falsity of an old opinion” [DDD 341], canon law actually increased the temptations it was seeking to curtail:

He who affirms adultery to be the highest breach, affirms the bed to be the highest of mariage, which is in truth a grosse and borish opinion, how common soever; as farre from the countnance of Scripture, as from the light of all clean philosophy, or civill nature….it drives many to transgress the conjugall bed, while the soule wanders after that satisfaction which it had hope to find at home, but hath mis’t. Or else it sits repining even to Atheism; finding itself hardly dealt with, but misdeeming the cause to be in Gods Law, which is in mans unrighteous ignorance. [DDD 269]

It was Milton’s ultimate contention that marital custom had gradually inverted the proper hierarchy of spirit and flesh. He was adamant that compatibility was the prime end of marriage, that “in God’s intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of mariage” [DDD 246] and, more specifically, “that in Matrimony there must be first a mutual help to Piety, next to civil fellowship of Love and Amity, then to Generation, so to houshold Affairs, lastly the remedy of Incontinence” [T 599]. In all five divorce tracts, and later in Paradise Lost, Milton’s reaction to traditional and contemporary opinion was to seize on the lines of Genesis 2:18: “And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”

Until Milton, emphasis in the passage had been placed squarely on the created “help meet,” or God’s gift of one partner for each man. The choice of focus was a convenient one, providing both a validation of the principle of monogamy and a premise to the conclusion in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother: and they shall be one flesh.” That the couple should be “one flesh” was also taken to support both the inextricable nature of the union, and its primary purpose of procreation: two people coming together to create a third, or one flesh. Consequently, the “putting asunder” of what God had brought together was considered an ungrateful blasphemy and the endorsement of sin.

But Milton would shift the accepted emphasis to the beginning of Genesis 2:18, arguing that the scriptural ordering was of greatest importance. Reacting to the opinion of Puritan theologian William Ames, Milton states his case most succinctly: “Dr. Ames defines [marriage] an individual conjunction of one man and one woman, to communion of body and mutual society of life; But this perverts the order of God, who in the institution places meet help and society of life before communion of body” [T 610]. Once again, Milton claims to “recovers ” the “long-lost meaning” of Scripture by inverting its contemporary interpretation.

It is important, here, to reiterate the fact that Milton was abundantly aware of the reaction his views would provoke. Milton anticipated superficial readings of his argument, and he was not disappointed, as Tetrachordon’s epigraph from Euripides’ Medea makes especially clear: “For if thou bring strange wisdom unto dullards / Useless thou shalt be counted and not wise / And, if thy fame outshine those heretofore / Held wise, thou shalt be odious in men’s eyes” [298-301]. It was just such shallow readings of the first edition of Doctrine and Discipline that prompted Milton to publish a second “revis’d and much augmented” edition in 1644. Indeed, Milton’s first foray onto the public stage “brought him nothing but grief” [Parker 17], and his work was roundly denounced “in the pulpit and the press, as an ‘impudent’ exponent of licentious doctrines perfectly representative of ‘the late dangerous increase of anabaptistical, antinomian, heretical, atheistical opinions” [Barker 68]. He was attacked as “a ‘libertine’ author [who] seemed to be advocating “divorce at pleasure” [Parker 17]. Indeed, it was to the latter charge that Milton responded when he wrote Colasterion in 1645. In the introduction to the second edition of Doctrine and Discipline, Milton seems disgusted by his readers; with his critics for a “waterish and queasy conscience” (DDD 225) that denies them the courage “to answer solidly, or to be convinc’d” (233), and with his supporters for using his argument to endorse their debaucheries (Sirluck 139). Reacting to both groups, Milton decries the hypocrisy and ignorance of a society in which the pretenses of custom were “still silently receiv’d for the best instructer” (DDD 222-3), a society where the good and noble purposes of matrimony had become horribly skewed.

First, Milton reduces lust to a trifling annoyance better handled through means other than marriage. Far from being the sin that “after…murder….seems to hold the second place” [Aquinas 222], lust is a distasteful, but relatively innocuous, physical ailment or disease, all-too-often the consequence of an unhappy marriage: “As for that other burning, which is but as it were the venom of a lusty and over-abounding concoction, strict life and labour with the abatement of a full diet may keep that low and obedient anough” [DDD 251]. With a remarkably innovative interpretation of Scripture, Milton posits that when St. Paul claimed that “it is better to marry than to burn,” it was “[c]ertainly not the meer motion of carnall lust, not the meer goad of a sensitive desire” to which he was referring, for “God does not principally take care for such Cattle” [DDD 251]. Rather, Milton utterly redefines desire, claiming the “burning” that St. Paul seeks to alleviate is precisely what Augustine claims man lost in Eden: “that desire which God saw that it was not good that man should be left alone to burn in; the desire and longing to put off an unkindly solitarines by uniting another body, but not without a fit soule to his in the cheerfull society of wedlock” [251].

More significantly, Milton discounts the begetting of children as the primary, or even a particularly important, reason for marriage. Rather, the former supremacy of “generation” is relegated to the status of “but a secondary end in dignity, though not in necessity” [DDD 235], making it a conceivably pleasant eventuality of, but decidedly not a reason for marriage. Indeed, Milton’s diminishment of procreation’s primacy is perhaps most conspicuous in the relative absence of the question of children in the divorce tracts themselves. Not only is the sacred concept of one flesh removed from the sphere of procreation but, ironically, is all but removed from the world of flesh:

For one flesh is not the formal essence of wedloc, but one end, or one effect of a meet help; …Els many aged and holy matrimonies, and more eminently that of Joseph and Mary, would be no true Marriage. And that maxim generally receiv’d, would be false, that consent alone, though copulation never follow, makes the mariage. Therfore to consent lawfully into one flesh, is not the formal cause of Matrimony, but only one of the effects…Therfore where conjunction is said…conjunction of minde is by the Law meant, not necessarily conjunction of body. [T 610-611]

From this, it is abundantly clear that Milton is not seeking merely to elevate compatibility to being equal to procreation and the control of lust in the marriage hierarchy. Rather, he wants to set that hierarchy on its head, making “mutuall solace and help” the prime, if not the sole, priority of the marriage ordinance. Ironically, it is by presenting carnal lust in a distinctly Augustinian fashion that Milton is able to diminish its importance. As for the issue of procreation, James Grantham Turner correctly observes “Milton’s remarkable indifference to the question of children, whether as a goal of marriage or as a problem for divorcees” [199]. David Aers and Bob Hodge forward a more caustic vision of Milton’s “indifference” toward the subject of children: “[Milton] hardly mentions children…as a possible complication [in divorce], and in Colasterion he jeers at this objection” [Aers and Hodge 12]. At any rate, if Milton deliberately ignores the question of children and procreation in the divorce tract, the same cannot be said of Paradise Lost, in which both subjects receive more attention and acquire a decidedly ominous resonance.

Breeding Chaos: Satan and the Uncreative Womb

Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first

Wast present, and with might wings outspread

Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss

And mad’st it pregnant.

Paradise Lost, Book I, 19-22.

It is not an overstatement to characterize Paradise Lost as a story about the corruption of marriage. That this corruption ultimately extends far beyond the limits of the monogamous union of two individuals is simply further testament to Milton’s estimation of the matrimonial bond. While the title of his first divorce tract inevitably leagued him with the heresies of a rumoured “sect of ‘Divorcers’” [Parker 21], Milton’s opinion of marriage is one of reverence, his hope for its rescue nothing less than fervent.

That the bearing of children is of particular interest to Milton is evidenced by the decidedly “parental” flavour of the beginnings of Paradise Lost. The introductory lines of Book I are rife with allusions to parenthood and childbirth. Even in Milton’s invocation to the Muse (as can be seen from the epigraph to this section), her power is characterized as simultaneously “brooding” [21]—or “producing young” [Shawcross 251]—and impregnating [22]. More significant, however, is the fact that so many of the other early references to birth are decidedly negative in their descriptions.

Indeed, it is not until the tail end of Book IV and Milton’s definitive—and, I would argue, deeply heartfelt—celebration of matrimony that some, albeit peripheral, confidence is accorded to the practice of bearing children:

Hail wedded Love, mysterious Law, true sourse

Of human ofspring, sole proprietie,

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, 750-757]

Even in such a glowing account of the union, however, Milton is careful to place the concept of “human ofspring” in its proper place. The hailed “wedded love” (italics mine) is the “true sourse” of procreation, not the inverse. In many ways, Milton’s acclamation of matrimony—and tentative acknowledgment of procreation’s role therein— in Book IV is a conclusion to the decidedly negative representation it receives in the earlier stages of Paradise Lost.

What is ultimately fascinating about the opening of Paradise Lost is the astonishing speed with which Milton redefines the meaning of “in the beginning,” and thus marks Adam and Eve’s fall as both a cause and an effect. While the poem opens with Milton promising a tale “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast / Brought Death into the World” [1-3], the poet is less than thirty-five lines into his epic before blame is tacitly expanded to include Satan:

say first what cause

Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,

Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off

From thir Creator, and transgress his Will

For one restraint, Lords of the World besides?

Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?

Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile

Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d

The Mother of Mankind [I, 27-36]

Earlier still, the poet prays for the same insight that allowed Moses, “That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed” [8], to describe “In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth / Rose out of Chaos” [9-10]. In this, as John Shawcross notes, Milton partakes of “the myth that Chaos and Night were the parents of Day” [Shawcross 252], and foreshadows the corruption lying in wait for the as-yet-uncreated humans. Even here, while obviously “enamoured of [the] perfection” [Lewis 81] of the paradise that is now lost, Milton appears intent on reminding us of our inherent imperfection, not of our eternal damnation. While blame for the fall is certainly not removed from the shoulders of our “Grand Parents,” it is sufficiently relieved to enable God’s mercy. From the outset, then, Milton determines not just to tell the story “Of Mans First Disobedience” but also that of its causes.

Revealing that Chaos preceded creation is, in itself, unremarkable. One does not have to read further than the second verse of Genesis to discover that “the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep” [Genesis 1:2]. What is remarkable, however, is Milton’s decidedly sinister description of the darkness. Far from the neutral vacancy that a phrase such as “without form, and void” implies, the Abyss is already negatively active and threatening. As Michael Lieb notes in his The Dialectics of Creation, Milton’s abyss holds the potential to be creative or destructive, depending on its controller:

Chaos embodies two possibilities: one productive and one destructive. The Abyss is not inherently evil, although it can be put to evil use. Nor is it inherently good, although it can be put to fruitful use….It becomes the original medium out of which fruition is effected, in the case of God; and it becomes the resulting medium into which fruition may be reduced, in the case of Satan. It remains with God to cause the elements to become the means of future offspring…, and it remains with Satan to defile and debase that which has already been divinely created in the aboriginal “dark materials” from whence creation came. [17]

Unlike the “void” so briefly described in Genesis, Milton’s Abyss is defined solely in terms of its negative relationship to God. While the earth is as yet “without form”—as Milton’s initial “Argument” makes clear, stating that “Heaven and Earth may be suppos’d as yet not made”[I, “The Argument”]—“the deep” is certainly not so. On the contrary, Milton’s abyss is replete with the conspiring casualties of the war in Heaven, led by Satan and plotting vengeance from within their unfamiliar confinement. Unlike Heaven—the untainted goodness of which is evidenced by the abyss itself—the deep, the torment into which evil has been thrown, is therefore essentially characterized by its potential for evil. This, together with the persistent characterization of the dark forces of Chaos as simultaneously proliferative and destructive, reveals present influence on the abyss to be not God’s, but Satan’s. Chaos is a place of “unbeing” in which the perverse product of “creativity” is destruction; a world of annihilation whose inhabitants, as Belial so viscerally describes, are: “swallowed up and lost / In the wide womb of uncreated night / Devoid of sense and motion” [II, 149-151].

Though existing only as negative representations to their former selves, however, the rebel angels exist nonetheless. Milton’s characterization of uncreation implicitly contains a distinctively “generative” function, albeit one that is heavily ironic. As Michael Lieb succinctly puts it:

If there are vast differences between the Satanic and deific attitudes toward Chaos, these attitudes converge in a single means of expression: the idea of birth…Milton draws upon a language of birth to formulate with overwhelming irony the position of Satan… “Womb” ironically suggests the causing of life to be without “sense and motion.” [21-22, italics mine]

Satan, then, begins “to defile and debase” not just “that which has already been divinely created” [Lieb 17], but plans his sabotage of creation before it has occurred. Prior to God’s conception of a “creative” womb out of which humankind will emerge, Satan has already sabotaged it, constructing, through his transgression, an “uncreative womb” into which they will fall. Moreover, God’s subsequent creation of the earth emerges not as an arbitrary action precipitated merely by the “abundance of [His] own goodness” (Augustine, Confessions, Book XIII 313), but a conscious attempt to impose that goodness on the universe. As such, God’s creation of earth is portrayed as a preemptive—even political—action, primarily motivated by a desire to rescue the procreative act and, ultimately Heaven itself, from Satan’s world of Chaos, or that which has already fallen.

All the way back to Augustine, theological and philosophical opinion held that God’s perfection would preclude such seeming self-interest in creation. Even Augustine, however, was unable to deny the preemptive results of God’s action:

The angels fell; man’s soul fell; and their fall shows what a deep chasm of darkness would still have engulfed the whole spiritual creation if you had not said at the beginning ‘Let there be light’; and the light began. The darkness would have closed over your heavenly city, unless every obedient mind in it had adhered to you and remained at rest in your Spirit, who moves all over the changing world, himself immutable. If you had not created light, even the Heaven of Heavens, left to itself, would have been a dark abyss. [Confessions 316]

Here, Augustine admits of a palpable and threatening evil existing prior to “the beginning” or the creation of the earth. In Paradise Lost, however, “the beginning” is the creation, not of earth, but of evil, and it is strictly Satan’s domain.

Through his transgression, Satan—formerly the revered Lucifer or “son of the morning” [Shawcross 253]—is literally transformed into “the adversary” [253], God’s evil counterpart and “Arch-Enemy” [I, 81]. Indeed, Satan is instantaneously aware of the nature and implications of this transformation, telling Beëlzebub:

To do aught good never will be our task,

But ever to do ill our sole delight,

As being the contrary to his high will

Whom we resist. If then his Providence

Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,

Our labour must be to pervert that end,

And out of good still to find means of evil. [I, 159-165]

It is here that Satan is first revealed as the creator and purveyour of perverted ends, the originator of those arguments to “the contrary of his high will” and against God’s omniscient truth. Certain though he is of his role, however, Satan is unsure of God’s reaction, although he speculates correctly that God will attempt to create good out of their evil. Indeed, the timely appearance of Adam and Eve in Paradise seems designed to draw Satan out; to seduce him, as it were, further into his own damnation:

That with reiterated crimes he might

Heap on himself damnation, while he sought

Evil to others, and enrag’d might see

How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth

Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn

On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself

Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d. [I, 214-220]

The notion that Satan’s pride—the same pride that allows him the preposterous delusion that it is “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n” [I, 263]—is the source of an uncreating opposition to which God must react is made clear in the torment of Book I. The introduction of the damned is an introduction to the concept of Satan’s negative influence. That it is his pride that causes Satan first to fall, then to actively and repeatedly participate in his own uncreation, is borne out more explicitly at the end of Book II.

Convincing his followers not to despair even in the face of their devastation, Satan (just as Book I prophesies) picks up where Belial (literally, and significantly, “the liar”) leaves off, determining to commit a crime similar to the one that has caused their fall, to:

drive as we were driv’n,

The punie habitants, or if not drive,

Seduce them to our party, that thir God

May prove thir foe, and with repenting hand

Abolish his own works. This would surpass

Common revenge, and interrupt his joy

In our Confusion, and our Joy upraise

In his disturbance [II, 366-373]

In defying God, Satan— “the Author of all ill” (II, 381) has effectively invented deception, corruption, and with them, the confusion and uncertainty of Hell. Knowing from experience that God cannot be conquered through the “open Warr” prescribed by Moloc [II, 51], Satan seeks rather to deceive and disappoint Him through His own creation, proposing:

to confound the race

Of mankind in one root, and Earth with Hell

To mingle and involve, done all to spite

The great Creatour [II, 382-385]

In so doing, Satan hopes to introduce confusion into the minds of Adam and Eve, and thereby impose Chaos on God’s perfect world. This confusion is Satan’s greatest weapon, since he knows that the host of Heaven cannot be overthrown, that he and his followers are to forever “remain / In strictest bondage” [II, 320-321]. His only hope is to force God into an uncreative act, thus transforming his own opposition, however briefly, into a perverse and ironic “creativity.”

Departing for Eden, Satan travels through a horrifying landscape that fittingly symbolizes the manipulation he wishes to perpetrate. It is:

A Universe of death, which God by curse

Created evil, for evil only good,

Where all life dies, death lives, and nature breeds,

Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things. [II, 622-625]

It is this contrary world that Satan wishes to “mingle and involve” with earth, but it also foreshadows his grisly encounter with the single, repulsive figure of his sister, daughter and lover, and with their mutual offspring. It is in meeting these two that Satan’s role as the literal “father” of evil, and Milton’s indictment of the role of procreation in the marriage hierarchy, is well and truly established.

While Milton’s ironic use of the word “womb” to describe the “abortive” (II, 441) or “uncreating” forces of Hell seems purely metaphorical in Book I, that usage becomes quite literal in Book II. On his way to exact his malicious revenge on God through the newly-created Man, Satan is barred from leaving Hell by two execrable entities guarding its gates. While Book I has already revealed Satan and the rebel angels’ fall from grace to be the result of sinful pride, the true nature of this “proud” sin is not explicitly revealed until the foul physical shape of Sin is revealed:

The one seem’d Woman to the waste, and fair,

But ended foul in many a scaly fould

Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm’d

With mortal sting: about her middle round

A cry of Hell Hounds never ceasing bark’d

With wide Cerberean mouths full loud, and rung

A hideous Peal: yet when list, would creep,

If aught disturb’d thir noyse, into her woomb,

And kennel there [II, 650-658]

If there was any doubt that Milton views the holiness of the womb—and with it, the concept of human procreation—as less than guaranteed, it must surely be removed with this description. Ironically punning on Sin’s midriff as the demarcation line between the temptation and revulsion, Milton places the potential for deception and corruption squarely within the procreative organs: waist becomes “waste,” just as “fair” becomes “foul.” And as Sin herself “seem’d” fair but “ended” foul, so the rapacious and ravenous products of her womb are able to conceal their vileness by returning from whence they came. As such, Milton’s first physical representation of the womb is anything but creative. Rather, its inaugural image is, significantly, one of concealed corruption.

Milton’s indictment of the womb, however, does not stop with its powers of deception. Echoing the words of James 1:15—“Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (Shawcross 287)—Sin explains her own origins, and those of her progeny, in distinctly procreative terms:

Out of thy head I sprung: amazement seis’d

All th’ Host of Heav’n; back they recoild affraid

At first, and call’d me Sin, and for a Sign

Portentous held me; but familiar grown,

I pleas’d, and with attractive graces won

The most averse, thee chiefly, who full oft

Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing

Becam’st enamour’d, and such joy thou took’st

With me in secret, that my womb conceiv’d

A growing burden [II, 758-768]

Having firmly established the corruptive, as well as the creative, potential of the womb, Milton makes a quite astonishing leap of logic. By having Satan produce a “daughter” out of his own head, Milton draws a undeterred connection between the mind and the body. What is more, Milton reveals the first womb as not a “womb” at all. Rather, the first physical impregnation is of Satan’s mind, not of Sin’s body. In this, Milton is reasserting one of the central themes of his divorce tracts, the importance of mind over body:

[To the argument that] mariage is more then human, the covnant of God, Pro. 2.17, therfore man cannot dissolve it. I answer, if it be more than human so much the more it argues the chief society therof to be in the soul rather then in the body, and the greatest breach therof to be unfitnes of mind rather than defect of body; for the body can have lest affinity in a covnant more then human, so that the reason holds good the rather. [DDD 275-276]

Overly “enamour’d” with his own image, Satan breaks his covenant with God. In so doing, Satan simultaneously reveals the first “defective” or “unconjugal” mind and commits the first procreative act. The fundamental imperfection of procreation— and thus the primary reason it should not be considered the “chiefest and noblest end of marriage,”—lies in the potential uniting and subsequent proliferation of defective minds. That it is the grim figure of Death that burdens Sin’s womb only strengthens this phase of Milton’s argument. Standing “black…as Night / Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell” [II, 670-671], yet without any definable shape, Death is stayed from killing Satan by Sin’s perverse appeal to their familial bond: “What fury O Son, / Possesses thee to bend that mortal Dart / Against thy Fathers head?” [II, 728-730]. In this, the ultimate issue of defective minds is defective. Birth, in this case, equals nothing but Death.

The attempt to overthrow the Almighty Father is the direct result of Satan’s desire to equal Him. God created the angels, and later man, in his own image. Satan, wishing to emulate God, fosters a desire to perpetuate his own image in the same fashion. Admiring his “perfect image” in Sin, Satan’s self-adulation is quickly transformed into a literal lust for his own image. The resulting unholy union provides proles or issue not only in the form of Sin from the mind of Satan, and Death from the womb of Sin but, due to Death’s repeated rape of his mother, in the perpetuity of both. As Sin explains her fate:

These yelling monsters that with ceaseless cry

Surround me, as thou saws’t, hourly conceiv’d

And hourly born, with sorrow infinite

To me, for when they list into the womb

That bred them they return, and howl and gnaw

My Bowels, their repast; then bursting forth

Afresh with conscious terrors vex me round

That rest or intermission none I find. [II, 795-802]

In this, the genesis of Sin and Death emerges as not only the cause of Satan’s damnation, but their never-ending re-creation symbolizes his eternal, self-perpetrated torment. Unable to rectify his transgression, to effectively dissolve the union he initiated with Sin, Satan and his followers are condemned to “utter darkness, and thir portion set / As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n / As from the Center thrice to the utmost Pole” [I, 71-73]. As we shall soon see, however, the “portion” of the arch-fiend is—fittingly—the opposite of that which humankind will receive. As Milton puts it, again in Doctrine and Discipline: “If Salomons advice be not over-frolic, Live joyfully, saith he, with the wife whom thou lovest, all thy dayes, for that is thy portion” [DDD 256].

What is ultimately fascinating about Milton’s characterization Satan and Sin’s relationship is that, despite its wretchedness—and excluding its incestuous implications— their union fulfills all the contemporary requirements of marriage. Born out of lust, their union is now wholly indissoluble, even though Sin’s formerly perfect image is now foul and hateful. More significantly, this unholy “marriage” has proved fatally fruitful, yielding horrid children to feed on the bodies of mankind.

Satan’s first transgression is, by definition, the first disobedience, the first perversion of God’s immutable will. Not only does his hubris convince him of his superiority to God, his silver tongue convinces others to follow his lead. Now, attempting again to distort God’s plan, Satan speeds toward earth with the same intentions, but a decidedly different method. This time, Satan confuses the natural compatibility of the married mind by imposing the notion of power and regeneration into a union meant primarily for the alleviation of loneliness. As he promised his demonic army [II, 622-625], Satan manages to inextricably link birth with death, love with lust, and creation with destruction.

Paradise Lost, then, emerges as a battle for the sanctity of the first human nature. Countering the accepted hierarchy of reasons for marriage, Milton deliberately uses images of procreation and birth to represent the creation of evil. Ironically, the first “conjugal” birth brings forth not a new life, but the grim figure of Death. Almost without exception, birth is a harbinger of doom in Paradise Lost: most of what is born is shortly perverted or corrupted. In the end, it is the purity of two souls, committed to and loving one another through God, that enables the perpetuation—and therefore salvation—of humankind.

Fitting the Crime: The Susceptible Eve

Death is the penaltie impos’d, beware,

And govern well thy appetite, least sin

Surprise thee, and her black attendant Death

Paradise Lost, Book VII, 545-547

Following closely on Satan’s discovery of Sin and Death, Milton opens Book III with God prophesying “the success of Satan in perverting mankind” [III, “The Argument” 298], and the deserving punishment that will shortly ensue :

For man will heark’n to his glozing lyes,

And easily transgress the sole Command,

Sole pledge of his obedience: So will fall

Hee and his faithless Progenie: whose fault?

Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of mee

All he could have; I made him just and right,

Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall. [III, 93-99]

Before going any further with his argument, however, Milton is careful to disabuse his readers of the notion that Adam and Eve will merely be dupes of the great deceiver. It is abundantly clear from God’s prophecy that the uncreated Adam and Eve, though “Sufficient to have stood” will nonetheless actively participate in their own fall and will consequently be deserving of their punishment. Since it is Satan’s “glozing lyes” to which they will ultimately succumb, the logical punishment—and Satan’s greatest hope—would be that of their annihilation : “Man hath offended the majesty of God by aspiring to Godhead, and therefore with all his Progeny devoted to death must dye” [III, “The Argument” 298].

From God’s harsh words, it would appear that Satan will shortly achieve the very ends he is seeking. Man will heed his words, descend into a hell of confusion, and ultimately perish, taking his seed and God’s hope with him. That, it seems, would be the end of the experiment, were it not for the fact that God tempers the severity of his verdict concerning the future of humankind:

The first sort by their own suggestion fell,

Self-tempted, self-deprav’d: Man falls deceiv’d

By the other first: Man therefore shall find grace

The other none: in Mercy and Justice both,

Through Heav’n and Earth, so shall my glory excel,

But Mercy first and last shall brightest shine. [III, 129-134]

It is these six lines, perhaps more than any others in Paradise Lost, that speak most directly to Milton’s divorce argument. As we have seen in the first two books, the effect of Satan’s damnation is the same as its cause. Having both sired and impregnated Sin through his “own suggestion,” he is never to have recourse; once committed, Satan’s crime cannot be stopped. In effect, Satan’s misery lies in his inability to atone for his own weakness. His hope that Man will meet a similar fate, however, is frustrated by the fact that God finds someone else—and a volunteer at that—to punish in man’s stead.

While it appears that Satan may be victorious in his quest to destroy humanity and wreak his revenge on God, his plans are undone by a remarkable ruse perpetrated by Christ, God’s only son and the poem’s only example of uncorrupted progeny. Stepping up “to answer for [Man’s] offence, and undergo his Punishment” [III, “The Argument” 298], Christ’s becomes both a substitute and a decoy for mankind’s transgression. Much to Satan’s dismay, Christ fashions a nepotistic loophole to salvage his Father’s beloved experiment. While selflessly sacrificing himself to punishment for the sins of Man:

Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life

I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;

Account mee man; I for his sake will leave

Thy bosom, and this glorie next to thee

Freely put off, and for him lastly die

Well pleas’d, on mee let Death wreck all his rage. [III, 236-241]

Christ remains comfortably aware that his fate will not be the same as Satan’s:

Though now to Death I yield, and am his due

All that of me can die, yet that debt paid,

Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsom grave

His prey, nor suffer my unspotted Soul

Forever with corruption there to dwell. [III, 245-249]

In so doing, Christ promises to perform the uncreating act Satan expected of God. Satan’s successful perversion of Adam and Eve is evidenced by Christ’s apparent need to provide them with a way out of their predicament. God’s Son sacrifices himself to Satan’s but, in accepting Death, Christ fends off annihilation. Following his Son’s lead, God is able to avoid the uncreating action that would transform Satan from annihilator to creator. What is more, God is able to envision, through Christ, at least partial redemption for the procreative act that has been so soiled by Satan and will be, through Satan’s instruction, by Adam and Eve. As God promises Christ:

Thou therefore whom thou only canst redeem,

Thir Nature also to thy Nature joyn;

And be thy self Man among men on Earth

Made flesh, when time shall be, of Virgin seed,

By wondrous birth: Be thou in Adams room

The Head of all mankind, though Adams Son.

As in him perish all men, so in thee

As from a second root shall be restor’d,

As many as are restor’d, without thee none. [III, 281-289]

Birth, therefore, to which Milton has so far referred only in negative terms, is to be rescued through Christ, though only for those who believe in His divinity.

Though soon-to-be corrupted, then, Adam and Eve are not altogether lost, thanks to a well-positioned and merciful ally. While Satan will fail to effect his ultimate purpose, however, he will succeed with all his other plans. Indeed, it is Satan’s nearly total success that precipitates Christ’s rather drastic, but ultimately retributive, promise. When speaking of the success of Satan’s plans, however, it is important to ascertain the nature of those plans. In Paradise Lost, it is significant that Milton describes the fall of Adam and Eve not simply in terms of their individual transgressions, but in their sins as a married couple. Satan effects his perversion of humankind through a fundamental obscuring of the marriage contract and, according to both the divorce tracts and Paradise Lost, it is this perversion that is the source of all our subsequent woe.

That the primary “end” that Satan wishes to “pervert” is that of marriage is further evidenced by his first, envious observation of Adam and Eve in Book IV. To this world of perfection and self-sufficient purity of spirit—which “By owing owes not, but still pays, at once / Indebted and discharg’d” [IV, 55-57]—Satan gleefully plans his introduction of power and greed, sneering: “Ah gentle pair, ye little think how nigh / Your change approaches when all these delights / Will vanish and deliver ye to woe” [IV, 366-368]. Although not yet delineating his plan for the first couple, as God and Christ did in Book III, Satan does describe his vision of their punishment:

Hell shall unfold,

To entertain you two, her widest Gates,

And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,

Not like these narrow limits, to receive

Your numerous ofspring; [IV, 381-385]

It is interesting to note that Satan is the first to mention “offspring” in relation to the first couple and, once again, the reference to children is negative. Indeed, it is logical to think that the perfect, immortal world of Paradise would have little need of many children. How significant is it, then, that Satan’s first thoughts of the fallen couple include “numerous ofspring”? The answer lies in Milton’s repeated and deliberate linking of the concept of “pregnancy” with that of vanity and pride.

With Satan watching closely, the point-of-view shifts sharply from the arch fiend to Adam and Eve. In thanking God for their blissful state, Eve helpfully recounts her origins to Adam. Though created for Adam, Eve awakes alone and in confusion. Hearing the murmur of flowing water, an obvious symbol of fertility, she finds a nearby lake, into which she gazes:

As I bent down to look, just opposite,

A Shape within the watry gleam appeerd

Bending to look on me, I started back,

It started back, but pleas’d I soon returnd,

Pleas’d it returned as soon with answering looks

Of sympathie and love; there I had fixt

Mine eyes till now, and pin’d with vain desire. [IV, 460-466]

Aside from the obvious allusions to Narcissus, what is most striking about Eve’s description of her origins are the pointed similarities to those of Sin. Just as “th’ Host of Heav’n…recoil’d affraid / At first” sight of Sin [II, 759-760], so Eve “started back” upon first seeing her own image. Just as Sin recounts that “familiar grown, / I pleas’d, and with attractive graces won / The most averse” [II, 761-762] so Eve reveals that “pleas’d I soon returnd” to her reflected, and therefore opposite or “most averse,” image. The image, also “Pleas’d” returns Eve’s admiration “with answering looks,” just as Satan, his “perfect image viewing” [II, 764] in the form of Sin, returns “full oft” to her attentions. It is this preference for her own image over that of God that immediately marks Eve as the inferior creature that Adam later describes in Book VIII. Acknowledging her weaknesses even as he praises her obvious charms, Adam tells the angel Raphael:

For well I understand in the prime end

Of Nature he th’ inferiour, in the mind

And inward Faculties, which most excell,

In outward also her resembling less

His image who made both [VIII, 540-544]

More significant to our purposes, however, is that Adam makes no mention of propagating his own image with children, but speaks only of their partnership. As Adam explains to Raphael in Book VIII:

Neither her outside formd so fair, nor aught

In procreation common to all kinds

Though higher of the genial Bed by far,

And with mysterious reverence I deem)

So much delights me as those grateful acts,

Those thousand decencies that daily flow

From all her words and actions mixt with Love

And sweet compliance, which declare unfeign’d

Union of Mind, or in us both one Soul. [VIII, 596-604]

Here, in disabusing Raphael of the angel’s suspicions of simple physical desire, Adam forcefully asserts what he deems most important in his marriage to Eve. Despite her loyalty to her husband—whom she, again significantly, prefers to Raphael, an image closer still to God [VIII, 52-53]—however, Eve has already revealed what she considers most important. It is not a union of mind and soul that she seeks in Adam, but rather the opportunity of bearing “Multitudes like [her]self” [IV, 474]. From her less perfect beginnings, then, Eve believes she is more perfect than her husband.

It is only after heeding Adam’s call that Eve accepts her inferiority: “I yielded, and from that time see / How beauty is excelld by manly grace / And wisdom, which alone is truly fair” [IV, 489-491]. Until she meets Adam, however, the prospective “Mother of human race” reveals a mind pregnant with narcissism and therefore more susceptible to Satan’s appeal. Just as Satan’s insatiable desire for his own “perfect image” occasions the literal creation of both Sin and Death, so Eve’s abiding desire to view her reflection is indicative of her eventual vulnerability. Even in Milton’s prelapsarian Eden, pregnancy and procreation remain leagued with vanity, not with marriage. As we shall see, it will require much explanation (and eight more books) to restore a semblance of procreation’s positive potential.

At the beginning of Book V, Eve again awakes in confusion: troubled, but admitting to the strong attraction of her night vision. Despite God’s warning, Eve dreams of a “Tree / of interdicted Knowledge” made “Much fairer to my Fancie then by day” [V, 51-53] by the revealed prospect of Godhead for both her and her children:

O Fruit Divine,

Sweet of thy self, but much more sweet thus cropt,

Forbidd’n here, it seems, as onely fit

For Gods, yet able to make Gods of Men:

And why not Gods of Men, since good, the more

Communicated, more abundant grows,

The Author not impair’d, but honourd more?

Here, happie Creature, fair Angelic Eve,

Partake thou also; happie though thou art,

Happier thou mayst be, worthier canst not be:

Taste this, and be henceforth among the Gods

Thy self a Goddess, not to Earth confind,

But sometimes in the Air, as wee, somtimes

Ascend to Heav’n, by merit thine, and see

What life the Gods live there, and such live thou. [V, 67-81]

Eve’s recounting of her dream, coming hard upon her narration of her own creation, confirms the ominous foreshadowing of her initial narcissism. That narcissism Eve’s uneasy response to the sweet promises of her dream reveals her awareness that evil, and therefore Satan, is influencing her. The tone of encouragement, the prospect of still greater glory than she presently enjoys, however, is strikingly similar to the voice she earlier took to be God’s. Just as Satan began to fall by simply overloving his own image, then aspired to Godhead, so Eve begins by adoring herself, but is soon confronted with a more ambitious vision. Happy with her reflection, she is promised that she will be happier with Adam. Happier with Adam, she is promised that she will be happiest when she is recognized as a Goddess. Despite the fact that she has been created to ease Adam’s loneliness, Eve is only moved by the prospect of improving and perpetuating the image she so adores. It is by appealing to this familiar predilection in Eve that Satan is able to fundamentally obscure the terms of this original and perfect marriage and, in so doing, spells out the terms of its demise.

Adam is understandably troubled by Eve’s evil dream, but is also mystified by its occurrence: “This uncouth dream, of evil sprung I fear; / Yet evil whence? in thee can harbour none, / Created pure” [V, 98-100]. This is the first of many mistakes that Adam will make in the course of this marriage: by assuming Eve’s purity and faith to be as unshakeable as his own, Adam has already implicated himself in her coming crime. Indeed, despite repeated warnings from both God and his angel Raphael, Adam places his faith in Eve above his faith in God and thereby damns himself to Satan’s fate. Steadfastly adhering to the notion that:

Evil into the mind of God or Man

May come and go, so unapprov’d, and leave

No spot or blame behind: Which gives me hope

That what in sleep thou didst abhor to dream,

Waking thou never will consent to do. [V, 117-121]

Adam commits a fateful error. This is, of course, evidenced not only by the foreshadowing inherent in Eve’s creation and evil dream, but by her eventual seduction.

Thanking Adam: Original Man, Original Sin

for he in vain makes a vaunt of liberty in the senate or in the forum, who languishes under the vilest servitude, to an inferior at home.

Second Defense of the English People

While it may be true that Eve was “Created pure,” it is just as evident that, contrary to Adam’s assumption, she has begun to “harbour” evil from the moment she viewed her own image. Although Satan’s plan is to seduce both Adam and Eve, to “excite their minds / With more desire to know” (IV, 522-523, italics mine), it is significant that he chooses to seduce Eve alone. Moreover, Satan’s seduction of Eve hinges not only the prospect of Godhead for herself, but on the promise that her disobedience will result in making “Gods of Men.” The fiend’s dual promise of Godhead is not only offered to Eve, but to the “Men” the “Mother of Mankind” has yet to bear. In Satan’s fallacious proposal, the “Author” of men becomes Eve herself, “not impair’d” as God has promised she will be, but “honourd more” as the true creator of mankind. From this, it is clear that Eve’s as-yet-unused womb will enable Satan “at once to ruin all mankind” [V, 228] not “By violence, no, for that shall be withstood, / But by deceit and lies” [V, 242-243]. As the poem progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the Satan’s “deceit and lies” are to be directed squarely at the hailed perfection of wedded love and the parental narcissism of procreation.

During the war in Heaven, we witness the meeting of Satan and Michael. The already widespread nature of Satan’s perversions are then revealed through the archangel:

how hast thou disturb’d

Heav’ns blessed peace, and into Nature brought

Miserie, uncreated till the crime

Of thy Rebellion? How hast thou instill’d

Thy malice into thousands, once upright

And faithful, now prov’d false.[VI, 30-37]

What was once unthinkable and completely illogical has become the customary mode of thought, the accepted way of thinking among the “thousands who err” (VI, 148) and are therefore beyond redemption.

Satan’s fundamental illogic is evidenced by his resilient egotism, even in the face of his own defeat. Lying in pain, utterly beaten but, sadly, not completely destroyed, Satan remains sufficiently vain to think himself victorious, in that he has refused to recommit to the way of God:

What Heavens Lord had powerfullest to send

Against us from about his Throne, and judg’d

Sufficient to subdue us to his will

But proves not so: then fallible, it seems,

Of future we may deem him, though till now

Omniscient thought. [VI, 425-430]

Of all Satan’s mistakes, this is likely the most serious. By misconstruing God’s mercy as weakness, Satan persists in the delusion that, though fallen, he can make Hell as powerful as Heaven. Able to accept his fall, but not his fate, Satan determines to wreak his revenge on God through Man. As Raphael describes the situation to Adam at the end of Book VI:

Satan, hee who envies now thy state

Who now is plotting how he may seduce

Thee also from obedience, that with him

Bereav’d of happiness, thou maist partake

His punishment, Eternal miserie

Which would be all his solace and revenge

As a despit don against the most High

Thee once to gain Companion of his woe [VI, 425-430]

Satan does not wish to regain favour in the eyes of God, but is nonetheless jealous of the attentions being paid to Adam. Just as Adam wished for like company in Paradise, Satan aims to have Adam’s company in Hell. To accomplish his task, Satan attempts to replicate the figure of Sin in Eve.

God’s admitted purpose at the start of Book VII is to populate the earth and, after testing his new beings through “long obedience” to turn “Earth to Heav’n, Heav’n to Earth” [VII, 159]. This is not, however, his primary reason for creating and marrying Adam and Eve. God does not need Adam and Eve to populate the earth. If He wills it, God “in a moment will create / Another World, out of one man a Race / Of men innumerable, there to dwell” [VII, 154-156]. While distinctly ironic images of birth attended the discovery of Hell in Book I, the creation of the Earth in Book VII is decidedly more positive in its depiction. On the “Birth-day of Heav’n and Earth” [VII, 256], elemental waters urge “the great Mother to conceave” [VII, 281].

While this prevalence of birth imagery is certainly not surprising—creation and conception are not exactly divergent concepts—using images of childbirth to describe the creation, first, of all things evil and, second, of all things good imbues the concept of birth and procreation with a significant duality. That both good and evil are depicted as things born, childbearing is relegated to a neither essential, nor necessarily good, practice. As we have seen from the example of Satan and Sin, and will soon see in Michael’s description of the ill-joined in Book XI, the issue of an evil marriage will be evil; the product of misery can only be further misery.

As Book VIII begins, Adam detains Raphael, wishing to learn more about his creation and Creator. Eve is less interested in the recountings of Raphael, choosing rather to let Adam repeat it to her at some later time:

Her Husband the Relater she preferr’d

Before the Angel, and of him to ask

Chose rather; hee, she knew would intermix

Grateful digressions, and solve high dispute

With conjugal caresses, from his Lip

Not words alone pleas’d her. O when meet now

Such pairs, in Love and mutual Honour joyn’d?

With Goddess-like demeanour forth she went; [VIII, 52-59]

As if declining the attentions of God’s chosen representative weren’t enough, Eve departs the meeting place with “Goddess-like demeanour” (59). Significantly, it is the dreamed title of “Goddess” that simultaneously tempts and frightens Eve at the beginning of Book V. Milton’s decision to repeat this characterization seems to again foreshadow Eve’s subsequent behaviour. Now Eve, and very soon Adam, will reveal the assumptions and presumptions that are to bring about their fall.

After Eve’s departure, Adam begins to ask Raphael about the “celestial Motions” of the Heavens. Raphael quickly rebukes him for asking about things that should not concern him. Admonishing Adam’s apparently presumptuous questioning of God’s omniscience, Raphael warns Adam to “Sollicit not thy thoughts with matters hid, / Leave them to God above, him serve and fear” [VIII, 167-168]. While appearing to concur and comply with Raphael’s advice, Adam again detains the angel with a story of his own creation and, more importantly, of his own questioning of God’s plan, the very sort of questioning that Raphael has just warned him against.

In relating the story of his origins, Adam reveals that, despite God’s assurances that he should “fear here no dearth” [VIII, 322], he nonetheless feared and articulated a deficiency:

I found not what me thought I wanted still;

And to the Heav’nly vision thus presumed.

O by what Name, for thou above all these,

Above mankind, or aught then mankind higher,

Surpassest farr my naming, how may I

Adore thee, Author of this Universe,

And all this good to man, for whose well being

So amply, and with hands so liberal

Thou hast provided all things: but with mee

I see not who partakes. In solitude

What happiness, who can enjoy alone,

Or all enjoying, what contentment find?

Thus I presumptuous; [VIII, 354-356, 364-366]

What makes Adam’s request “presumptuous” is its apparent lack of necessity in a place of such felicity. As we have seen in Book VII, God tells Adam and his creatures is to “Be fruitful, multiplie, and fill the Earth” [VII, 531]. At the same time, however, it is imperative to note that procreation is envisioned even prior to Eve’s creation and is therefore not necessarily part of God’s marriage plan. That plan is left to Adam to initiate.

Until this point, omniscient and omnipotent God has provided Adam with all that he requires. With the tentative detachment of a new parent, God uses the concept of marriage both to test Adam’s will and to educate his judgment. Since it would be abundantly clear to Adam that God is capable of populating the earth without his help, he chooses to relieve the loneliness he feels among inferior beings. God is quick to reveal His foreknowledge of Adam’s desire and, more significantly, His approval of Adam’s acknowledgment of his own superiority:

I, ere thou spak’st,

Knew it not good for Man to be alone,

And no such companie as then thou saw’st

Intended thee, for trial onely brought,

To see how thou coulds’t judge of fit and meet:

What next I bring shall please thee, be assur’d,

Thy likeness, thy fit help, thy other self,

Thy wish exactly to thy hearts desire. [VIII, 444-451]

That Adam has shown sound judgement in asserting his own superiority is clear from God’s reaction. Adam’s request for a compatible mate emerges as the first use of “the spirit within [him] free” [VIII, 440] and holds an implicit acceptance of his responsibility as a higher being. Blithely rewarding Adam’s “presumptuous” request, God creates Eve, of whom Adam promptly declares:

I now see

Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self

Before me; Woman is her Name, of Man

Extracted; for this cause he shall forgoe

Father and Mother, and to his Wife adhere;

And they shall be one Flesh, one Heart, one Soul [VIII, 494-499, italics mine]

The “cause” for a man to adhere to his wife is clearly not, as Milton’s contemporary critics would have argued, so she can bear his children and populate the earth, but so she can share his life. Ironically, however, it is ultimately Adam’s dogged constancy to his mate—his willed, but altogether unnecessary binding to Eve when he ought to know better—that ultimately causes their fall and seals the fate of their subsequent progeny; it is through Adam’s deferral of his patriarchal responsibility that Satan manages “at once to ruin all mankind.” Denying his own judgement in indulging Eve’s, Adam misuses the free will accorded him by God.

That Adam’s overestimation of his mate becomes more pronounced—even as it becomes more conscious—can be seen from his conversation with Raphael. While he respects and performs all the duties assigned to him by God, remaining “in all enjoyments else / Superiour and unmov’d” [VIII, 530-531], Adam is almost prophetically rueful of his attraction to Eve:

here onely weak

Against the charm of Beauties powerful glance.

Or Nature faild in mee, and left some part

Not proof enough such Object to sustain,

More than enough; at least on her bestow’d

Too much of Ornament, in outward shew

Of inward less exact [VIII, 532-539]

If Adam is not immediately aware of the danger of his admitted worship of Eve, one in which “All higher knowledge in her presence falls / Degraded” [VIII, 551-552], Raphael is quick to point the serious implications of elevating anyone or anything over himself and, in so doing, over God’s will. Identifying what Adam has himself admitted, Raphael warns specifically against “attributing overmuch to things / Less excellent, as thou thy self perceavs’t” [VIII, 565-566] and removes all doubt that Adam’s eloquent estimation for Eve is prompted not by love, but lust:

In loving thou dost well, in passion not,

Wherein true Love consists not; love refines

The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat

In Reason, and is judicious, is the scale

By which to heav’nly Love thou maist ascend,

Not sunk in carnal pleasure, for which cause

Among the Beasts no Mate for thee was found. [VIII, 588-594]

Although Adam strongly denies that neither Eve’s beauty, nor her fruitful womb, are at the heart of his mysterious reverence, but rather in their “unfeign’d / Union of Mind, or in us both one Soul” [VIII, 603-604], his earlier description of Eve makes his sanctified depiction of their marriage seem more defensive than genuine. Similarly, Adam’s protestation to Raphael bears the same tone of willful denial as his earlier refusal of Eve’s apparent corruption. Far from the “refined thoughts” of Raphael’s description of love, Adam’s mind is, by his own admission, much distracted. Moreover, Book IX quickly puts the lie to the union of mind that Adam claims to share with Eve.

In typical fashion, Milton introduces Book IX with an ominous vision of what is about to transpire. Satan has obviously had some success in planting the seed of corruption into the heads of Adam and Eve and, thus encouraged, has become much “improv’d / In meditated fraud and malice” [IX, 54-55], talents he will shortly use to further that success with Eve. In the midst of their gardening duties, Eve suggests to Adam that they divide their labours, at least until they are provided with “more hands” [IX, 207] to aid them in their chores. The addition of hands is clearly a reference to their unfallen offspring, of children like themselves to perform God’s work. This expectation of children reiterates the fact that procreation, for all its negative depictions in Paradise Lost, should not be considered as fundamental evil. Once born, the unfallen children resulting from Adam and Eve’s union will undoubtedly “cultivate” God’s love and beauty. Eve’s mention of offspring, however, is ironically used, not in reference to their union, but to their separation. In his response, Adam reveals both his uneasiness and his willingness to let her will rule.

In what amounts to tacit, albeit reluctant, obedience, Adam admits the practicality of Eve’s idea of separation even as he recalls Raphael’s warning, insisting that “The Wife, where danger or dishonour lurks, / Safest and seemliest by Husband staies” [IX, 267-268]. With clear and delicious foreshadowing of the perverted ends that Satan wishes to effect, Eve takes great umbrage at her husband’s evident—and ultimately, tragically warranted—lack of trust:

But that thou shouldst my firmness therfore doubt

To God or thee, because we have a foe

May tempt it, I expected not to hear.


His fraud is then thy fear, which plain inferrs

Thy equal fear that my firm Faith and Love

Can by his fraud be shak’n or seduc’t;

Thoughts, which how formd they harbour in thy brest,

Adam, misthought of her to thee so dear? [IX, 285-289]

In initiating what amounts to history’s first guilt-trip, Eve exposes Adam’s belief in their essential “Union of Mind” to be once again in error. With strong overtones of Milton’s argument for divorce on the grounds of “unlike” or “unconjugal” minds, Adam, against his better judgement, relents and allows Eve to have her way. It is only at this point, only when the couple are parted of both physical company and in their intentions, only when they are no longer of like minds, that Satan is able to get between them. Left to herself, Eve’s role in the fateful fall of her progeny is all but sealed.

After Eve eats from the “Tree / Of interdicted Knowledge” [V, 51-52] of which she earlier dreamed, the foreshadowed perversion of God’s intended marriage plan gets well and truly underway. Eve’s first truly fallen thoughts after eating the forbidden apple are strikingly similar to those she had upon first seeing her own reflection. Even though she was created so Adam would not be alone, she once again harbours an aspiration of independence from him. Just as she initially turns from Adam’s (and therefore God’s) image in favour of her own, so she here wonders about keeping:

the odds of Knowledge in my power

Without Copartner? so to add what wants

In Femal Sex, the more to draw his Love

And render me more equal, and perhaps,

A thing not undesirable, somtime

Superior; for inferior who is free? [IX, 820-825]

For all of her now fully revealed hubris and desire for independence, however, Eve is ultimately too frightened to face her fate alone, determining instead to bring her beloved Adam down with her. Despite her protestations that she will do so out of love, it is abundantly clear that jealousy and fear are her motivators: “Adam wedded to another Eve, / Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct; / A death to think. Confirm’d then I resolve, / Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe” [IX, 828-831].

But ultimately more amazing than Eve’s betrayal is Adam’s easy collaboration with her—and therefore Satan’s—plan. Although fully cognizant of Eve’s transgression—and no doubt remembering God and Raphael’s prophetic warnings—Adam raises next to no resistance in following her to their mutual doom:

And mee with thee hath mind, for with thee

Certain my resolution is to Die;

How can I live without thee, how forgoe

Thy sweet Converse and Love dearly joyn’d,

To live again in these wild Woods forlorn? [IX, 906-910]

Despite the numerous warnings of God and Raphael, Adam continues “attributing overmuch / To things less excellent” [VIII, 565-566]. Indeed, so reluctant is Adam to assume his own responsibility, so resistant to any final admission of her less excellent qualities, that he is capable of reducing nothing less than paradise to a wild and lonely wilderness. More exceptional still is Adam’s baffling and blasphemous idea that God—who created everything—would somehow be incapable of creating a satisfactory replacement for Eve:

Should God create another Eve, and I

Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee

Would never from my heart; no, no, I feel

The Link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh

Bone of my Bone thou art, and from my State

Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe. [IX, 911-916]

While Adam’s loyalty to his wife seems admirable, it is important to remember that he is simultaneously betraying his loyalty to God. God created Eve for Adam as a meet help, not a millstone. Eloquent and romantic though it may be, Adam’s vain profession of love for the fallen Eve is at best foolish and at worst sinful.

Once again, Adam’s obviously skewed logic flies in the face of the “refined thoughts” of the love that “hath his seat / In Reason” [VIII, 588-590]. Indeed, Adam’s rhetoric becomes strikingly similar to that of Satan. With rationalizations very similar to those used by Satan to tempt Eve, Adam convinces himself that Eve was somehow brave to disobey God’s edict—“Bold deed thou hast presum’d, adventrous Eve” [IX, 921]. More perversely—and just as Satan before him—Adam does not believe that God will act on his promised punishment for their crime. In this, it is ultimately Adam’s decision to stay with Eve that not only completes the fall, but provides its essence. Effectively elevating the less excellent Eve above himself, and therefore above God, Adam once again, and this time fatally, commits his initial error. It is this singular, though repeated, error of judgement that will ultimately condemn Adam, and with him all his progeny, to the same fate as Satan. As Adam prophetically says to God in Book VIII:

Man by number is to manifest

His single imperfection, and beget

Like of his like, his Image multipli’d

In unitie defective. [VIII, 422-426]

The “single imperfection” to which Adam alludes could well be the sort of obsessive, vainglorious, stubborn binding to a mate already corrupted that he himself will show. Such obstinate denial of corruption allows it to fester, to continue and strengthen itself. Adam cannot see past Eve’s “perfect” beauty, just as Satan could not separate himself from his own perfect image in Sin. Compare Adam’s reasons for staying with Eve with Satan’s twisted logic in Books I and II: “However I with thee have fixt my Lot, / Certain to undergoe like doom, if Death / Consort with thee, Death is to mee as Life” [IX, 952-954]. In remaining with Eve, Adam equates death with life, just as Satan has attempted to reinterpret Hell into Heaven [I, 255], bondage into freedom [I, 263] and evil into good.

With neither sufficient authority nor God’s required permission, Adam declares his marriage to be inseparable: “Our State cannot be severd, we are one, / One Flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself” [IX, 958-959]. In this, Adam effectively abuses his free will by refusing to exercise it. Right up until his last unfallen moments, Adam knows that God will not approve, yet is too weak to resist: “he scrupl’d not to eat / Against his better knowledge, not deceav’d, / But fondly overcome with Femal charm” [IX, 997-999]. With Adam’s bite then, though not simply because of it, Eve witnesses the completion, though not the commission, of the original sin that has been evolving since her own awakening: “Shie lowr’d, and muttering Thunder, som sad drops / Wept at compleating of the mortal Sin Original” [IX, 1002-1004]. Though Eve has already eaten of the forbidden fruit, the commission of original sin is placed squarely on Adam. What is more, and just as it is written in Genesis 3:17[2], Adam’s sin lies more in his needless, indeed damning, obedience to a faithless partner than in his disobedience to God.

Once fallen and full of guilt, Adam finally admits the wisdom of Raphael’s warning, telling Eve: “I also err’d in overmuch admiring / What seem’d in thee so perfect” [IX, 1178-1179], and reaches a decidedly mean-spirited conclusion:

Thus it shall befall

Him who to worth in Woman overtrusting

Lets her will rule; restraint she will not brook,

And left t’ her self, if evil thence ensue,

She first his weak indulgence will accuse. [IX, 1182-1186]

While the bitter, accusational tone of Adam’s words is offensive, his palpable regret over his decision to remain with Eve is certainly warranted. While it is Eve, not Satan, who directly “perverts” Adam “to taste the fatall fruit” [X, 3-4], it is Adam’s overadmiration, his overtrust and, perhaps above all, his “weak indulgence” that ultimately seals their fate and ours. When Adam effectively chooses Eve over God, he is undoubtedly of an unconjugal mind. Acknowledging and lamenting her sin, Adam nonetheless accepts and participates in it. Adam’s sin, therefore, is manifested in his acceptance of an unconjugal, and therefore unholy, state. It is by failing to renounce Eve’s transgression that Adam commits his original sin.

Crime and Punishment: Aftermath and Final Issue

Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.


Milton’s argument in favour of divorce sought to purify the contemporary state of marriage by “restoring” it to its original, untainted state. Throughout the divorce tracts and Paradise Lost, Milton accomplishes his objective by presenting rigourous arguments, replete with specific scriptural citations and allusions, that are contrary versions of contemporary opinion. To reiterate, Milton declares his purpose in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce to be to “bow things the contrary way, to make them come to thir naturall straitness” [DDD 283]. It is this same strategy that Milton brings to his depiction of marriage and procreation in Paradise Lost. Put simply, Milton exposes the essential purity of marriage by focusing on its present corrupted state. To this end, his decidedly negative representation of procreation is not meant to imply that the bearing of children is unremittingly evil, but rather that the essential blessedness of that practice is dependent on other, more important factors. For this reason, it is imperative that procreation be dislodged from its position of primacy in the marriage hierarchy. It is this concept to which Milton addresses the concluding books of Paradise Lost.

Even before the specifics of their punishment have been revealed, the first couple’s torment is already apparent at the opening of Book X. Despite Adam’s pre-lapsarian vows of love and devotion, there is no post-lapsarian evidence of such sentiments when they emerge to face the Son:

Love was not in their looks, either to God

Or to each other, but apparent guilt

And shame, and perturbation, and despair,

Anger, and obstinacie, and hate, and guile. [X, 111-114]

Still more significant, however, than the hatred now apparent between the world’s first couple is their striking resemblance to Satan and Sin.

The punishment for the initial, or original, figure of Sin is the eternal torment of her offspring: not only through repeated rapes by her son Death, but by the “yelling monsters” give her no “rest or intermission” [II, 802]. Similarly, God’s instruction that Adam and Eve “Be fruitful, multiplie, and fill the earth” [VII, 531] has been transformed from covenant into curse. Eve’s transgression is clearly the same as that of Sin: created “out of” her mate, she has emerged as his eventual—though not malicious—undoing. What is more, Eve’s similarity to Sin is further exemplified by the punishment meted out by God:

Thy sorrow I will greatly multiplie

By thy Conception; Children thou shalt bring

In sorrow forth, and to thy Husbands will

Thine shall submit, hee over thee shall rule. [X, 193-196]

Throughout Paradise Lost, punishment is consistently rendered as a perverted version of the sin committed. Sin, being a fertile womb for Satan’s vanity, is condemned to that painful fate for all eternity. Similarly, punishment for Eve is the degradation of her uppermost desire. Wishing to perpetuate her own image, Eve’s punishment bears a painful resemblance to her wish. Bearing children is now Eve’s curse, not her blessing.

Similar to the transgressions of Sin and Eve are those of Satan and Adam. Satan actively conceives and copulates with Sin. So enamoured is Satan of his own image that he, figuratively and literally, elevates Sin above God. Similarly, Adam, discovering Eve’s sin, responds not by denouncing—or divorcing—her, but by committing, albeit more eloquently, the same sin as Satan:

However I with thee have fixt my Lot,

Certain to undergo like doom, if Death

Consort with thee, Death is to mee as Life;

So forcible within my heart I feel

The Bond of Nature draw me to my own

My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;

Our state cannot be severed, we are one,

One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself. [IX, 952-957]

Falsely believing that “The Bond of Nature” tying him to Eve is both stronger and more important than his connection and duty to God, Adam (like Satan before him) willfully defies his creator. Still more striking in the lines, however, is their voicing of contemporary marriage dogma.

In his Second Defense of the English People (1654), Milton defends his adoption of the divorce argument in admirably succinct fashion:

I perceived that there were three species of liberty which are essential to the happiness of social life—religious, domestic, and civil; and as I had already written concerning the first, and the magistrates were strenuously active in obtaining the third, I determined to turn my attention to the second, or the domestic species…for he in vain makes a vaunt of liberty in the senate or in the forum, who languishes under the vilest servitude, to an inferior at home. [831]

Similarly, it is Adam’s decision to relinquish his superior judgement to an inferior one that precipitates the fall. Uneasy in his mind, already repentant at Eve’s actions, Adam is nevertheless unwilling to terminate their relationship and, thereby, rescue the felicitous liberty God has given him . Faced with Eve’s “uncleanness,” Adam’s misguided devotion ultimately elevates her—to his doom and ours—above himself and above God. At this point in Milton’s poem, the formerly perfect and natural practices of marriage and procreation have become utterly defiled. The cause of such debasement is clear from Christ’s rhetorical rebuke following their discovery:

Was shee thy God, that her thou didst obey

Before his voice, or was shee made thy guide,

Superior, or but equal, that to her

Thou did’st resigne thy Manhood, and the Place

Wherein God set thee above her made of thee

And for thee, whose perfection far excell’d

Hers in all real dignitie. [X, 145-151]

The consequently-debased practice of procreation, and true tragedy of Paradise Lost, is firmly articulated by Adam as the earth begins to fall:

All that I eat or drink, or shall beget

Is propagated curse. O voice once heard

Delightfully, Encrease and multiply

Now death to hear! For what can I encrease

Or multiplie, but curses on my head? [X, 725-729]

In Book XI, the corruptive mingling of Heaven and Hell successfully perpetrated by Satan is manifested by the now-debased procreative act, as the warning of “ill-joyned Sons and Daughters” [III, 463] becomes a reality. As the Archangel Michael describes the corrupted progeny that will result from the fall of Adam and Eve:

These are the product

Of those ill-mated Marriages thou saws’t;

Where good with bad were matcht, who of themselves

Abhor to join; and by imprudence mixt,

Produce prodigious Births of body or mind.

Such were these Giants, men of high renown;


Of triumph, to be styl’d great Conquerors,

Patrons of Mankind, Gods, and Sons of Gods,

Destroyers rightlier call’d and Plagues of me.. [XI, 683-688, 695-697]

In perhaps his most forceful statement against procreation, Milton confirms that childbirth has been relegated from promise to punishment. Perpetuating the physical and mental torment of Adam and Eve—greatly multiplied pain and sorrow for Eve and her mothering descendants, and the creation of potential enemies for Adam—the multiplication of the human race now promises to accentuate and elevate the evil among them. Even before Adam and Eve are thrown out of Paradise, Milton introduces the concept of unconjugal marriages, and once again attacks procreation, so fraught with potential error, as the primary purpose for marriage.

For Milton, divorce was a remedy for a wrong erroneously, often unwittingly, committed. His argument for the liberalization of the divorce laws stems both from man’s inherent fallibility and from God’s mercy. Together with descriptions of the bleak future of mankind, Adam delineates the now-dim prospects of the marital bond. The matrimonial legacy of Adam’s error in judgement is described as eternal and inevitable frustration:

He never shall find out fit Mate but such

As some misfortune brings him, or mistake,

Or whom he wishes most shall seldom gain

Through her perverseness, but shall see her gaind

By a farr worse, or if she love, witheld

By parents, or his happiest choice too late

Shall meet, alreadie linkt and Wedlock-bound

To a fell Adversarie, his hate or shame:

Which infinite calamitie shall cause

To human life, and houshold peace confound. [X, 898-908]

But Milton would be quick to assert that the “infinite calamity” of a mistaken marriage is not part of God’s plan for mankind, any more than it was his plan for Adam and Eve. On the contrary, the early and oft-promised grace that is to be given to man precludes such unending torment. As Milton writes in Doctrine and Discipline “for all the wariness [that] can be us’d, it may yet befall a discreet man to be mistak’n in his choice” [DDD 249]. If a man is unhappy with his wife, then they are not of a conjugal mind. If they are not of a conjugal mind, they will grow into hatred. To remain in, and worse still, to legislate such marriages, which to Milton are not marriages at all, ultimately means the mere satisfaction of the “fleshly appetite, like brute beasts who have no understanding” [DDD 248]. Furthermore, if a man remains (as Adam did) in such a marriage under the assumption that it is the nature of God’s covenant, then he blames God both for his torment and his sin. In the divorce tracts, Milton argues that the very essence of wedlock lay in choosing one woman; that choice, rather than procreation or the control of lust, was the true gift of God. In Paradise Lost, Adam passes God’s initial test of judgement by requesting a compatible mate, but fails a subsequent test of humility, refusing to admit his own error in relegating his own judgement to that of Eve.

From the earliest point in Milton’s divorce argument, his introductory propistio to The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, it is clear that Milton was not arguing for divorce, but for marriage as God originally intended it: a free and frutiful conjunction of compatible souls. As A.N. Wilson puts it: “In Milton’s view…his plea for divorce was integral to the general struggle…for liberty of a more general character” [127]. Arguing from the outset for a complete redefinition of the contemporary state of marriage, Milton wrote:

I make no wonder, but rest confident that whoso preferrs either Matrimony, or other Ordinance before the good of man and the plain exigence of Charity, let him professe Papist, or Protestant, or what he will, he is no better than a Pharisee, and understands not the Gospel. [DDD 233]

Once again, Milton equates the contemporary interpretation of marriage with sin and heresy. Charity, he argues, allows for man’s weaknesses and enables him to move towards greater goodness. To deny divorce as a remedy for man’s fallibility simultaneously absolved man of his sins and accorded those “violent and cruell” [DDD 251] results to God. Since the original sin was one of pride, of the elevation of man over God, to claim man as infallible and thereby have God “made the author of sin” [DDD 295] is interpretable as the perpetuation or original sin. And yet the utter, even conscious, fallibility that Genesis applies to man implies that divorce is not only a necessary remedy for the constraints of an unhappy marriage, but an inevitable one. If this is true, then the implied certainty of cleaving to one woman borders on the absurd. If God’s charity is to be respected and embraced, then the remedy of divorce must be accepted as necessary in all cases of incompatibility. But, if the remedy is to be accepted in all cases, then the idea of matrimony requires a complete redefinition, one which amounts to an overturning of contemporary ideas.

Milton’s redefinition of marriage shifts compatibility from peripheral to central consideration: “Marriage is a covenant the very being whereof consists not in a forced cohabitation and counterfeit performance of duties, but in unfeigned love and peace” [DDD 254]. It is here that Milton asserts the power of his central thesis, for this optimistic view of marriage is impossible for people bound by Canon law as it stands. It is Milton’s intention to recover matrimony as a charitable blessing from God, to throw off the yoke of sedentary toil that Canon law has placed upon it. With God’s charity comes the responsibility of choice, and the duty only to be not alone.

As we have already seen, Milton quotes Ecclesiastes 9:9, invoking the idea of choice in a redefinition of “wife”: “If Salomons advice be not overfrolic, Live joyfully, saith he, with the wife that thou lovest, all thy dayes, for that is thy portion” [DDD 256]. The lines appear to deny the possibility of divorce, but in the body of Milton’s thesis, they are interpreted quite differently. Just as Milton shifts the emphasis in Genesis to a concentration on the alleviation of loneliness as opposed to the helpmeet, so here he shifts the emphasis from simply “wife” to “the wife that thou lovest.” In so doing, he effectively redefines “wife” to mean she who is loved. Earlier in the tract, Milton defines Love as “the son of Loneliness, begot in Paradise by that sociable and helpful aptitude which God implanted between man and woman” [DDD 252]. In Paradise Lost, God congratulates Adam for requesting a companion. In short, Milton’s God rewards Adam for displaying love and requesting Eve, then punishes them for their obedience to lust.

Milton does not, however, abandon Adam and Eve to the fate of Satan. Rather, the poet uses them to full advantage as examples of his own vision of marriage. That the essential requirements of compatibility are satisfied in Adam and Eve is evident in lines toward the close of the poem:

In mee is no delay; with thee to go,

Is to stay here; without thee here to stay

Is to go hence unwilling; thou to mee

Art all things under Heav’n, all places thou,

Who for my willful crime art banish’t hence. [XII, ll. 615-619]

The fact that Eve chooses to remain with her husband, and Adam makes the same choice to remain with her, proves their compatibility. As it was when Eve was created, she continues, even after the fall, to alleviate Adam’s loneliness. This is the nature of charity: that though fallen, man is not forever damned, and has the right to expect comfort and solace from his mate. As Satan’s vanity gave birth to Sin, Milton claims, so Adam’s loneliness gave birth to Love [DDD 252]. As Satan’s damnation is not only characterized, but defined, by his inextricable bondage to Sin, so Adam’s salvation lies in the mercy and charity that allows him to choose. To this point, Milton is perhaps most explicit in this passage from The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce:

how miserably doe we defraud our selves of that comfortable portion which God gives us, by striving vainly to glue an error together which God and nature will not joyne, adding but more vexation and violence to that blisfull society by our importunate superstition, that will not heark’n to St. Paul, 1 Cor. 7. who speaking of mariage and divorce, determines plain anough in generall that God therein hath call’d us to peace and not to bondage. [DDD 256]

To steadfastly deny oneself, and worse still, to deny other men that portion of God’s grace is itself the height of sin. To deny compatibility is to deny Love, and to deny Love is to deny true marriage. When Milton asserts that “Love onely is the fulfilling of every Commandment”[DDD 258], he redefines marriage, placing companionship and happiness at the forefront, far above procreation and duty. It is in the reformation of this hierarchy of duties that Milton seeks to rescue matrimony from its presently perverted ends.

Works Cited

Aers, David and Bob Hodge. “‘Rational burning:’ Milton on Sex and Marriage.” In Milton Studies 12 (1979). Pp. 3-33.

Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin Books, 1972.

______________. Confessions. Trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin. London: Penguin Books, 1961.

Aquinas, Saint Thomas. Summa Against the Gentiles. In The Pocket Aquinas. New York: Washington Square P, 1960.

Bacon, Francis. Francis Bacon: A Selection of his Works. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.

Barker, Arthur E. Milton and the Puritan Dilemma. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1942.

Halkett, John. Milton and the Idea of Matrimony: A Study of the Divorce Tracts and Paradise Lost. London: Yale UP, 1970.

Lieb, Michael. The Dialectics of Creation: Patterns of Birth and Regeneration in Paradise Lost. U of Massachussets P, 1970.

Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford UP, 1942.

McDill, Joseph Moody. Milton and the Pattern of Calvinism. Nashville: The Joint University Libraries, 1975.

Miller, Leo. John Milton Among the Polygamophiles. New York: Lowenthal P, 1974.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. In The Complete Poetry of John Milton. Ed. John T. Shawcross. New York: Doubleday, 1971. Pp. 249-517.

__________. Areopagitica. In Complete Poems and Major Prose. Pp. 716-749.

__________. Second Defense of the English People. In Complete Poems and Major Prose. Pp. 817-838.

__________. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. In Complete Poems and Major Prose. Pp. 696-715.

__________. The Christian Doctrine. In Complete Poems and Major Prose. Pp. 930-1020.

__________. Colasterion. In Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Ed. Ernest Sirluck. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

__________. Tetrachordon. In Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Ed. Ernest Sirluck. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

__________. The Judgement of Martin Bucer. In Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Ed. Ernest Sirluck. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

Parker, William Riley. Milton’s Contemporary Reputation. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1940.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Books, 1972.

Shawcross, John T. Milton: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

Sirluck, Ernest. “Introduction.” In Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Ed. Ernest Sirluck. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978.

Turner, James Grantham. One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1987.

Wilson, A.N. A Life of John Milton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983.

[1] An intriguing mix of the issues of divorce and political resistance occurs in an example put forth first by Phillipp Melancthon and then by John Ponet, who declares that a magistrate may be killed if he is “found in bed with a man’s wife” (Skinner 224). It is interesting to note that this would also be a just cause for divorcing the wife.

[2] “And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s