Description of The Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost

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      The Central subject of Paradise Lost, as its title makes clear, is the loss of Eden. To Milton and his age Adam and Eve are historic figures and the Paradise they inhabit and are expelled from an actual localized garden. Though idealized, it is within the world of nature as we know it. The ‘shifting phantasmagoria’, as Eliot calls it, of Hell and the great Deep Beyond surrounds it; but in Paradise itself the time is the time of the sun, mealtimes come round regularly as does the time for sleep and waking, and the garden demands, like our own garden, hard work if it is not to be overgrown. But it is the world as it might be ‘if we were things born not to shed a tear’—in other words, an idealized world.

An Actual Garden

      By the time Millon came to write, it was universally agreed that the Garden of Eden was a real garden and was in Mesopotamia. In the Book of Genesis itself we have the line -

and the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden and there he
put the man whom he had formed.

      Milton lavished all his art on making delightful to the senses this secret garden of God, high on its mount overlooking the region of Eden. It may be noted here that, though strictly speaking Eden is an area of land and Paradise is set in the eastern part of it, the two names are used loosely in the epic, and it becomes difficult to distinguish between them. Like all gardens of romance it is walled and has a gate, and it is surrounded by steep forests. The great river of Eden flows under the Mount of Paradise and issues as the four rivers of Paradise. Within the garden itself these waters spring up as fountains, springs, and lakes to diversify and refresh the landscape.


      Eden is an extensive country. We get from the poem an exact idea of its location, as handed down by tradition, which the poet has accepted. It extends from the Mediterranean and the Black Sea in the west to Persia in the east. Starting from Eden and taking a westerly direction, Satan crosses the River Orontes, the Mediterranean lake, that ‘herring-pond’ the Atlantic, the Isthmus of Darien in Central America, the whole stretch of the Pacific, until he alights on the plains of Hindustan, crosses the Ganges and the Indus, and passes over Afghanistan to the eastern border of Eden. One of the rivers of Eden is the Tigris. Paradise is a delightful and extensive garden, situated on the eastern border of Eden, very probably in what we now know as the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

A Landscape Garden

      The garden the Lord God planted is not the medieval pleasure-garden of the Roman de la Rose, or the old formal garden of Elizabethan and Jacobean times with beds cut out in formal lozenges and squares, trimmed with box-edgings, and with terraces adorned with topiary work. Nor it is one of those wonderful Italian gardens that Milton must have seen on his tour of Italy, an architectural garden. This garden is not something opposed to nature. It is nature idealized and in perfection. It is the new conception of a garden as nature in miniature, where trees, bowers, and fountains, lakes and waterfalls make up a landscape, a conception that comes to perfection in eighteenth-century garden parks and that spread all over Europe. Milton is of his age in thus, picturing the Garden of Eden as a landscape garden, sharing with Marvell’s mower a hatred of what ‘luxurious man’ has made of innocent nature in his gardens. He is himself in his scorn for ‘nice Art’ as opposed to ‘Nature boon.’

Appeal to the Senses

      This garden appeals wholesomely to the senses. Milton works through the ‘simple’ sensuous and passionate medium of his language to a glimpse of ‘delight to Reason joined’, of which our world, at its best, is only the palest shadow. In the most pleasant part of the garden stood the Tree of Life, bearing. Fruits of ‘vegetable gold’ and towering aloft so high, that one who took a perch on the top could have a view of all Paradise. Beside it stood the Tree of Knowledge the source of all our woe. But it was a tree of ambrosial scent; and its fruits looked both succulent and savory.

      Mentioned in the poem ‘bower and field, tuft of grove or garden-plot’ that lay so pleasant. There are ‘thick-woven arborets’. There is a rose-garden ‘with fragrant myrtle stalks’ to support the rose plants bending due to the weight of the flowers. The colors of the roses are ‘gay carnation, purple, azure, or specked with gold. And Eve stands there, veiled in a cloud of fragrance, stooping to support some flower. And the serpent meets her there, sliding gloriously on the banks of flowers, all Eve’s handiwork.

      The two central trees in Paradise are those of Life and of Knowledge, both of them rare and supernatural specimens. The other trees there are of our well-known earthly varieties, such as the cedar, the pine and the palm. And for the ‘fauna’ or the animal world in Paradise, mention is made in the poem of this also. There was God’s plenty. All the animals and birds of Paradise were exceedingly pious creatures. Each morning, they sent out their ‘voiceless’ prayer to their Maker, but their sentiments were echoed by the voice of Adam and Eve at prayer-time. They were all gentle beasts, friendly to each other and devoted to Adam and Eve; especially responsive to Eve’s ‘Circean call’. But the ‘subtlest’ beast of the field was the serpent, also a pleasant, wavy, gleaming creature, with neck of verdant gold, eyes of carbuncle, and a ‘turret crest’ that glistened when it was pleased.

Eden—an Archetypal Garden, or a Symbol

      Eden, though having overtones of a real garden, is also archetypal, a symbol. Eden is the perfect pattern of subsequent gardens; What is more, all subsequent gardens are, to a greater or lesser extent, imperfect copies of Eden. Eden typifies the Age of Innocence. It is also a garden of love—pure innocent love. It is symbolic of moral, climatic and erotic Paradise of three traditions-biblical, classical and medieval.

      It has been pointed out by some critics, such as J.B. Broadbent, that Milton’s Paradise is an anachronism, because neither the garden nor the macrocosm it represents should need priming and weeding in innocence. However, there are two conceptions of innocence—the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’. According to the former, the condition of man in the state of nature was little better than that of animals; according to the latter it way idyllic. Millon seems to adopt a midway position. His paradise has touches of pastoralism with its typical delights but the work is not as hard as it is for shepherds in pastoral Utopias. Adam and Eve work with Nature in the pastoral tradition, though not with flocks of sheep. All animals are under their control. However, in spite of the angels guarding Paradise, the state of bliss is precarious; Satan can enter Paradise at will, and even Gabriel admits helplessly that being incorporeal Satan cannot be kept out by material boundaries. Thus, there is also some insubstantial quality about Milton’s Paradise. While noting the pastoral aspect of Paradise, it would be appropriate to recall that opposed to the pastoral retreat of Eden is the presence in Hell of Pandemonium the diabolic metropolis. At the same time, there is the ideal court in heaven, and the court is also traditionally opposed to the pastoral retreat. It appears Milton wants it both ways: from Satan’s point of view, Adam and Eve are the quintessential shepherds and his nymph; from Raphaels’s point of view they are two of God’s couriers.

      Amidst even the most idyllic of pastoral retreats there is an element of evil waiting to overcome the unwary. The Tree of Knowledge, forbidden to Adam and Eve, symbolizes this evil. It symbolizes the sin, temptation, disloyalty and loss of faith, the curse of human life in all places—even in pastoral retreats.

      According to Paul Elmer More, there is “some great human truth, some appeal to universal human aspirations, decked in the garb of symbolism.”

      More proceeds to show where the ‘true theme’ of Paradise Lost, hitherto missed, really lies. “Sin is not the innermost subject of this epic, nor man’s disobedience and fall; these are but the tragic shadows cast about the central light. Justification of the ways of God to man is not true moral of the plot: this and the whole divine drama are merely the poet’s means of raising his conception to the highest generalization. The true theme is Paradise itself; not Paradise lost, but the reality of that ‘happy rural seat’ where the errant tempter beheld

“To all delight of human sense exposed
In narrow room nature’s whole wealth, yea more,
A heaven on earth.”

      More makes the point that the scenes which have to convey this central meaning are placed, with propriety, in the middle books of the epic, “just as “ winter places the most important object of his picture in the center of his composition and throws upon it the highest light.”

      According to Waldock it is obvious that Milton presents his Paradise with exquisite appreciation, and nearly as obvious that this appreciation is somehow related to deep needs of his nature. The image of Paradise is, it would seem, related to deep needs of every body’s nature; it affords inner relaxation, release, after trial and tension and effort; and if we press the matter a little further and take the heartfelt imagining of Paradise as signifying, even with Milton, an unconscious yearning back towards some forgotten haven of security—infantile or prenatal—no harm, perhaps, is done.

      More falls back upon the ‘pastoral ideal, haunting the imagination of men’, Milton’s poem being just one instance of the ‘ancient ineradicable longing of the human heart for a garden of innocence, a Paradise of idyllic delights, a region to which come only “golden days’ fruitful of golden deeds.’’ We may allow readily enough that this particular longing is ancient and ineradicable, and yet feel strongly that some hurt is done to the due proportions of things when the whole of literature, including Shakespeare, is seen to be just one long illustration of it.

University Questions

The Garden of Eden is the setting for Milton’s depiction of Man’s Fall. Discuss its symbolic significance.
The Paradise that Adam and Eve occupy is an actual localized garden. How does Milton lend symbolic significance to this idealized garden?

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