By Christopher Nield
How do we cope with the loss of paradise?
Adam and Eve’s departure from Eden
all the eastern side beheld Of Paradise,
so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate With dreadful faces thronged,
and fiery arms: Some natural tears they dropt,
but wiped them soon; The world was all before them,
where to choose Their place of rest,
and Providence their guide: They,
hand in hand,
with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
In the course of our lives, all of us have lost–-or will lose–-a paradise or two. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, a marriage falling apart, or even getting fired from a dream job, there will always come a point when a seemingly perfect situation is shattered. We can never go back. We can only trudge on–with our hopes, our memories and our regrets.
This passage is the conclusion of Milton’s epic poem "Paradise Lost" and describes that perilous stage between the old world and the new, as Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden of Eden and turn to face what lies beyond. Most of us are familiar with the Biblical story, in which God creates Adam and Eve and tells them that they can eat freely from every tree in the garden–except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they do that, then they will die.
Our ancient parents fail the test. The wily serpent convinces Eve that God has lied and, in fact, she will become a god by tasting the tree’s fruit (traditionally depicted as an apple). After both Adam and Eve eat from the tree, they become aware of their nakedness and cover themselves, but in so doing reveal their treachery to God, who banishes them forever.
The opening lines of this extract have a desperate poignancy, as we catch Adam and Eve "looking back" at paradise, knowing they will never return to their "happy seat" or home. Now it is guarded by a flaming sword and its gates throng with "dreadful faces": gargoyles whose features both mirror and mock human misery. So near and yet so far! The gap between joy and torment is indeed far closer than we like to recognize; with a single quirk of fate we can pass from one to the other in a matter of seconds. As the Chorus says at the end of the Greek tragedy "Oedipus the King:" "Count no man happy."
But after looking back, Adam and Eve wipe away their tears and continue their trek. The atmosphere is profoundly sad, yet stirring. There is a grand, heroic feeling to the phrase: "The world was all before them." It’s like a Hollywood epic, with two startled figures used to the confines of a walled enclosure staring at a vast landscape for the first time.
Confronted by the unknown, Adam and Eve appear gauche, daunted, childish. Their steps are those of puppets loosed from the strings of the puppet master, trying to find their feet in slow, stumbling shock and wonder. The term "wandering" stresses the newness of their journey, although there is the implicit judgement that they have strayed from the true path. But now humanity has the power to exercise the one faculty it never possessed in Eden: the faculty of choice. It is blessed (or perhaps cursed) with free will.
In a beautifully tender touch Adam and Eve hold hands to guide and protect each other. Man and woman are united in their isolation, exiled by God and menaced by nature. The term "Providence" shows how their relationship with God has changed. Deprived of direct contact with their heavenly father, they must glimpse his presence in the overall scheme of things. Hungry for knowledge, they must be led by faith.
This passage, with its simple dramatic contrast of looking back and looking forward, is worth recalling in moments of crisis or transition. It reminds us that even when paradise is lost, there is still a world to be found: a world of new possibilities that we must try to accept, despite our painful nostalgia for the past.