- Apple Trees in the Archive:Thoreau, Milton, and the Melancholy of American History
In book 10 of Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan, recently returned to hell after his exploits in Eden, brags to his infernal cronies that his seduction of Adam and Eve was wondrously simple. He has lured them away from God with only an "apple" (PL 10.485–87). But Satan's claims for the simplicity of the fruit of the tree of knowledge are reductive. In fact, the fruit is only an apple according to Satan; no other speaker in Paradise Lost names it so.1 Elsewhere, Milton makes the fruit intentionally ambiguous—as "Ruddie and Gold" as an apple at one moment, as "downie" and "ambrosial" as a peach at another—but never finally classified one way or the other (PL 9.578, 851–52).2 In keeping the fruit of the Fall generic, Milton keeps its effects implicitly tied to both Nature's general fecundity and Eve's "fruitful Womb," reminding readers of the full span of biblical history, from God's predetermination of "each / Plant" and "every Herb" even "before it grew" in Genesis, through the possibility of humankind's redemption through Eve's descendants—Christ, and his followers (PL 5.388–90, 7.334–36). When Satan introduces the "goodly" tree's "apples" to Eve as "fair," he seeks to [End Page 67] oversimply the fruit's potential, both for good and evil. But even Satan's description of the location of the fruit—both "farr distant," and yet somehow close enough that its "fruit of fairest colours mixt" can be seen—suggests that things are not as simple as they seem. Attempting to lure Eve toward the tree itself, Satan begins by claiming that "the way is readie, and not long," before describing everything that stands between them and these apples: "Beyond a row of Myrtles, on a Flat, / Fast by a Fountain, one small Thicket past / Of blowing Myrrh and Balm." The way is further than he wants to admit, and yet, he assures Eve, if she will follow him, he can lead her "thither soon" (PL 9.576–77, 585, 626–30). He can collapse the time and space between them and this fateful fruit.
Satan gives Eve yet another hint that this tree may be more complicated than he wishes her to believe: although elsewhere in Milton's poem Eden is heady with its own newness, sprouting spring flowers left and right, the tree of knowledge is already old: its trunk is "mossie." Nevertheless, Satan claims to wind himself around the tree "soon"; the quickness of his reported arrival stands in contrast to the timescales required to cover a fruit tree with moss (PL 9.589). Placing Satan's winding body between these two timescales—an easeful present and the inhuman scale of natural history—Milton suggests that there is something dangerous in entangling the past with the present. Yet, Paradise Lost also makes deep biblical history feel like present politics for its readers. When Adam and Eve wander out of Eden at the end of the poem, they famously make their way not only into an earthly paradise, but also into the present. Eden's mossy apple tree therefore represents the pitfalls of conflating nature and history, of seeing any action in human history—even Eve's eating of an apple—as natural, if by nature we mean inevitability. For Milton, history, unlike nature, is directed by humans, progressive, and, like the reading of Paradise Lost, hard work. While trees may inevitably collect moss the longer they live, Adam and Eve's labors in the garden, and our labors of reading, require agency and effort.3 Milton's poem refuses mourning the loss of Eden in favor of a perpetual, melancholic, recreation of paradise: a present perfecting.4 [End Page 68]
Two centuries later and on the other side of the Atlantic, Milton's view of history plays an important, if somewhat "oblique," role in Henry David Thoreau's first published book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1848).5 In The New England Milton, K. P. Van Anglen calls A Week "a text...