Biblical Story of the Genesis (Creation) and The Garden of Eden: Milton’s Use of Myth in ‘Paradise Lost’

Milton in the very beginning of Book IX (in the invocation) rejects as inferior the classic epics as well as the epics of chivalry of Spenser and other Renaissance poets, particularly of Italy. Milton’s approach to epic is not, however, a negative one. He does not merely reject earlier epic – patterns – and, indeed, he retains much of the machinery of the Classical epic, like Homeric similes and invocations to the Muse; he has also a positive doctrine to put in its place. And this doctrine must be presented in a suitably elevated style to match the grandeur of its subject. As a matter of fact, Milton uses his Biblical source for three of his main themes in paradise lost, Books IV and IX – the description of Eden, the temptation and fall of man, and the relationship of husband and wife; and also for a number of incidental references. “Where the Bible is detailed or specific, Milton tends to follow it closely. But where he is given opportunity to expand the Bible narrative from his own vast store of knowledge, he does not hesitate to do so. And where he wishes to stress his own ideas – and even prejudices as in the case of husbandly dominion – he does not hesitate to adapt his scriptural original.”

To Milton the Bible was a divinely inspire Holy writ, and its wording was not lightly to be tampered with. Therefore, the poet uses creative freedom in those parts of the narrative which are not covered by the Bible; but where the Bible story is followed, Milton’s wording is so close as to be almost a poetic paraphrase. There are three main areas covered by both Milton and the Bible; the description of the Garden of Eden; the temptation and fall of mankind; and the relationship of husband and wife. The first two themes are based on the Genesis, and make an interesting contrast. Because the description of Eden in the Genesis is detailed, Milton follows it closely.

The whole of Milton’s description of Paradise is full of verbal reminiscences of the Genesis account of Eden, for Milton was quite prepared to rely on written authority – and so impeccable a written authority – for his description of nature. And he was prepared to rely on St. Paul’s sentiments regarding the subjection of a wife to a husband – because they coincided so exactly with his own.

In telling the Biblical story of the Genesis – the temptation and fall of man – Milton adapts the scriptural text to suit his own ideas. There is actually in the Bible no specific identification of the tempting serpent with Satan, the archfiend: most Englishmen have absorbed this conviction in childhood – from Milton. There is no discussion of wedded love or of sex before the Fall in the Genesis, and the sin of Adam and Eve is one of disobedience rather than intemperance. The actual arguments used by the serpent in his temptation of Eve are not given in the Genesis account, as they are given in paradise lost, Book IX. There is no mention of rational souls or souls irrational through lust and anger, no free will or free choice. Milton adds the unsuccessful attempt on Eve in Book IV, and this increases interest of his successful effort in Book IX, when her will is entirely free to make its own choice. Perhaps the most significant adaptation – small but significant – is the change of emphasis in the admission of responsibility. In Genesis, Adam says, ‘The women ….. gave me of the tree, and I did eat’. In paradise Lost a much nobler Adam, ‘not deceived’, but fondly overcome with female charm, declares that he would rather die with Eve than live without her.

Apart from his main themes, Milton uses the Bible for some of his incidental references and epic comparisons. Solomon as a garden-lover (IX,442) is from the song of Solomon, and the last epic simile in Book IX compares the shame of Adam to the shame of Biblical Samson. Sometimes, too, Milton supplements the Bible from other sources, Gabriel as a warrior angel from early Jewish traditions; an alternative site for paradise from the seventeenth-century geographer Heylen ; and the details of the fig-leaves with which Adam and Eve cover their nakedness from Pliny’s Natural History.     .

The Setting

The action of Book IX is set in the garden of Eden in which grows the Tree of knowledge, and it is against this beautiful nature-background that the tragic drama of Man’s fall has been depicted.

The Location

From the lofty empyrean, the burning depths of hell, and the limitless vastness of the realm of chaos and old Night, we come to rest with considerable relief in Book IV in a garden on our own planet. Strictly, Eden is an area of land, and Paradise is the garden on tom of a wooden hill set in the in the eastern part of it; but the two names are used loosely in the epic, one for the other, so that it is difficult to distinguish between them.

Artificiality of Milton’s Descriptions

Unfortunately, Milton’s description of the garden leaves much to be desire as nature-poetry. There is no reason to doubt that Milton loved nature, but he relied for his descriptions of the supreme beauty of Eden less on what Dante call ‘the memory of the eye’ (his blindness should not be forgotten) than on comparing paradise to the most celebrated gardens of the Classics:

Spot more delicious than those gardens feigned
Or of revived Adonis, or renowned
Alcinous, host of old Laetres’ son,
Or that, not mystic, where the sapient king
Held dalliance with his fair Egyptian spouse.

Some Problems: Ways in Which Milton Solved Them

In his depiction of the Garden of Eden Milton had to face and solve a number of problems, and he has done so remarkably well. As W. Graham points out, “Armed only with the familiar but inadequate terms of our known world and all their associations, Milton has somehow to extend the reader’s imagination into the unfamiliar, the unknown; his imagery must be lively and graphic enough to engage our interest yet not too particular to seem absurd; he has to tell us about a pre-lapsarian (world before the Fall) world and he has only post-lapsarian (of the world after the Fall) language in which to do it. One further difficulty is that we may not all share Milton’s idea of paradise; yet success in this part of the poem is vital to his purpose.

He solves these problems by refusing to describe Eden in a startlingly novel way, preferring instead to evoke it in the minds of his readers by drawing on those ideas and images which are, in Maculay’s words, ‘the burial places of the memory’ ; the effect of his poetry is produced ‘not so much by what it expresses, as by what it suggests ; not so much by the ideas which it directly conveys, as by other ideas which are connected with them. He electrifies the mind through conductors’ (Maculay). If we object that Milton’s Eden consists of all the obvious things, then we are recognizing its symbolic appropriateness.

Generalized Description: Use of Myths

Milton achieves his effect largely through the generalization of his descriptions and the evocation of myth, working on the reader’s sensitivity to the accumulated desire of the ages for ‘the happie Garden’, the ideal, secret, safe and jealously-guarded place. Eden thus becomes a symbol, an archetypal garden. This is what explains the use, and success, of the long series of apparent contrasts beginning. ‘Not that faire fied/Of Enna’. Milton is saying that Eden is none of these places but only in the sense that it is, somehow, all of them; they have been shadowy pre-figuration of the real things. If the golden apples of the Hesperian contain a truth, it is only because they hang ‘amiable’ in Eden, ‘Hesperian Fables true,/If true, here only.’ He tells us all we need to know: that Eden was floral pasture, like Enna, a secret heaven of refuge like Mount Amara or the Nyseian Isle.

Milton supports his evocation of paradise by panoramic views of large generality:

‘………sweet interchange
Now land, now Sea, and Shores with Forest
Rocks, Dens, and Caves;’

Alternating these there are lavish descriptions which collapse the barriers erected by our world between organic and inorganic matter.

Scents and Sounds

The flora and fauna of Eden are enveloped in a characteristic atmosphere of ambient scents and sound:

‘…….gentle gales
Fanning their odoriferous wings dispense
Native perfumes and whisper whence they stole
Those balmie spoiles.’

There are ‘Groves whose rich trees wept odorous Gumms and Balme’: dawn, ‘the season prime for sweetest Songs and Aires’, brings forth ‘the humid Flowers, that Breethed Their morning Incense’, and,

‘The Birds their quire apply ; aires, vernal aires,
Breathing the smell of field and grove,
The trembling leaves.’

Scents have substance and Eve is ‘Veil’d in a cloud of fragrance’. The noises of Paradise are as golden as their absence and when ‘the wakeful Nightingale’ sang her amorous song, ‘Silence was pleased’. Milton is careful to see that we are ‘To all delight of human sense exposed’ for it is part of his intention to remind us that our fallen senses are imperfect or associated with sin; because Paradise Lost is a poem and not a theological treatise, he works through the ‘simple, sensuous and passionate’ medium of his language to a glimpse of ‘delight to Reason joyn’d’, of which our world, at its best, is only the palest shadow.

Sunrise and Sunset

Sunrise is thus described:

‘…….whenas sacred light began to dawne
In  Eden on the humid Flours, that breath’d
Thir morning Incense, when all things that breath,
From the Earth’s great Altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his Nostrils fill
With grateful smell……’

-and sunset has the familiar intimacy of our human scale,

‘Now came still Evening on, and Twilight gray
Had in her sober Liverie all things clad;
Silence accompanied, for Beact and Bird,
They their grassie Couch, these to their Nests
Were slunk’,

And also a kind of cosmic grandeur:

‘……. For the sun
Declin’d was hasting now with prone career
To the Ocean Iles, and in th’ ascending Scale
Of Heav’n the stars that usher Evening rose.’

A Country of the Mind

But if Eden is an actual, though unattainable place, it is also a condition of the mind ; it exists partly in the eye of the beholder, as Eve tells us in some of the loveliest lines of the poem, lines which recapitulate not only their own content but also much of what Milton has already said about Eden, so that the idea is beautifully sustained at every point.

After the Fall

After the Fall, therefore, their Eden crumbles. Adam’s garland sheds ‘all the faded roses’; his imagined loss of Eve turns his paradise into a wilderness, ‘these wilde woods forlorn’; he will.

In solitude live savage, in some glade
Obscur’d, where highest woods impenetrable
To Star or Sun-light, spread their umbrage broad
And brown as Evening’.

Even the ‘Skie lower’d, and muttering thunder, some sad drops Wept’; Night is ‘with black Air Accompanied, with damps and dreadful doom’; Eden becomes, eventually, uninhabitable:

‘……..torrid heat
And vapour as the Libyan air adust
Began to parch that temperate Clime’.

For Adam and Eve, as for us, Eden has ceased to be a reality and has become a memory; all we can do is to piece it to together with recollection, blunted senses and loving care, as Milton does. (W.Graham).

Symbolic Significance

A number of critics have examined the symbolic significance of Eden. Eden is not only the perfect pattern of subsequent gardens, but also that all subsequent gardens are to a greater or lesser extent imperfect copies of Eden. It is also a symbol of the golden age of mankind as depicted in classical literature. One such depiction is that by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Book I. The second aspect of the symbolic nature of Paradise is as a garden of love, especially as depicted in medieval romances, like that in The Romance of the Rose. The garden of Adonis in Spenser’s Fairie Queene, combined all three aspects – Biblical, classical and medieval. Milton’s Paradise is symbolic of the moral, climatic and erotic Paradise of the three traditions mentioned above.

Milton’s paradise has been variously criticized, by a number of critics. J. B. Broadbent believes that it is an anachronism, like Milton’s psychology, because neither the garden nor the macrocosm it represents should need pruning and weeding in innocence, the fact that work has to be done even in this idyllic poetic garden might be the result of Milton’s attempt to answer in advance the frequently repeated charge that life in Eden would have been boring. Or it could be symbolic of Adam and Eve’s moral condition before the fall.

 The Garden of Eden can also be regarded as a symbol of a pastoral retreat. The pastoral is a social and geographical ideal: the perfect place outside the city. From its very beginning in the Idylls of the Greek poet Theocritus, pastoral has been an urban genre, a city-dweller’s fantasy about how much better things might be in the country: simple natural, free uncomplicated leisurely, open, honest, everything that the rat-race is not. Rural life could also be naïve, crude, immoral, vulgar, boring, earthly, everything that sophisticated society is not. The pastoral nature of Eden is established by the presence in hell of Pandemonium, the diabolic metropolis. It is seriously qualified by the presence in heaven of an ideal court, the other traditional enemy of the pastoral. Once again Milton seems to want it both ways. From Satan’s point of view Adam and Eve are the quintessential (symbolic) shepherd and his nymph; from Raphael’s they are two of god’s courtiers. The Forbidden tree symbolizes Evil which is there even in the most idyllic of poetic retreat. It symbolizes sin, temptation, disloyalty, and loss of faith, the curse of human life in all places, even in the countryside made, according to the poet Cowper, by God Himself. A fundamental question which arises is where Paradise can have an existence as an ideal of any kind. Lionel Trilling  voices such doubts strongly when he says that we dread the wilderness called Eden, and of all the Christian concepts there is none which we understand so well because by means of sin and the fall, we managed to get ourselves expelled from that place. There are other critics who are of the view that in Paradise Milton depicts an ideal of effortless innocence. A.J. A Waldock is one of the advocates of this view. He observes: “In many senses Paradise Lost was his predestined theme and yet in a sense it put him in a false position, cud clean against the grain of his nature. Believing rather more intensely than the average man that our dignity consists in independent and strenuous thought, and feeling with the same rather exceptional intensity that the essence of life is struggle, he must deplore the coming of thought into the world and represent man’s best state as that of original blessedness. He was trapped, in a sense, by his theme, and from the trap there was no escape.”  The clearest refutation of such a standpoint is the feeling of many readers that fall of Adam and Eve had occurred, to a lesser degree, even before Eve’s temptation and seduction by Satan.

And so that scholarly wrangling goes on.


  1. Raghukul Tilak , Anupam Gupta : Milton’s Paradise Lost
  2. Macaulay ,Lord : Essay on Milton
  3. S.A.Brooke : Milton

Ansuyaben Piyushbhai Mehta, Government Arts College, Ahmedabad

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment