- Solitude and Difference in Books 8 and 9 of Paradise Lost
From the melancholic speaker of Il Penseroso to the solitary narrator of Paradise Lost, John Milton's literary personas frequently emphasize their own physical, mental, and spiritual apartness. Nor is this solitary condition limited to his poetic voices; the same can be said about most of Milton's major characters. Beginning with his God, who describes himself as "alone / From all eternity" (PL 8:405–06), solitude is the modus operandi of characters as diverse as the Son, Samson, Satan, and the Lady of Comus, as well as the subject of the present discussion, Adam and Eve.1 Despite its nearly ubiquitous presence in his poetry, though, the solitary is often overlooked among critics who identify Milton as a man more committed to religious and political solidarity than individual solitude. As I argue, however, Milton's notion of solidarity, including marital solidarity, actually depends on his concept of solitude. Without solitude, solidarity risks turning into conformity, as the search for unity erases the individualities of those seeking it. Aware of this dilemma, yet still an avid supporter of unity, Milton attempts to solve the problem in his epic by depicting Adam and Eve as simultaneously committed to unity and individuality, marital society and personal solitude. Focused [End Page 155] primarily on Adam, my essay investigates the way he responds to this dual commitment during moments of critical decision, beginning with his original solitude and subsequent request for a mate in book 8, followed by his conversation with Eve in book 9 about the function of solitude in marriage. I conclude that solitude in Milton's first humans should not be regarded simply as a passing condition or imbalance of bodily humors but instead as an ongoing orientation predicated on the idea that their differences from each other protect them from conformity.
The better to understand the connection between solitude and difference, I begin with an analysis of Adam's origin story in book 8. Through a vividly conceptualized account of Adam's solitude, Milton depicts the first man's growing awareness of his differences from beast and God, differences that ultimately prompt him to decline both the surrounding creatures and the deity as potential companions.2 By gradually asserting his difference from the beasts and God, Adam embodies the early modern belief that, as Erica Fudge writes, "humans are created and not simply born."3 Though equipped with certain innate human faculties, including the capacity to speak and think rationally, Adam does not become a fully realized human until after he gains self-knowledge, a progression that shows Milton adhering to the early modern belief that humanness depends to some degree on education and a creation of self through processes of development and discovery. With this acquisition of self-knowledge through education, however, comes the possibility of losing it. According to Fudge, early moderns well understood "the risk that humans may cease to be human, may stop acting according to their education, and may revert back to their natural sensuality."4 Such a loss occurs in the wake of Adam's decision to eat the fruit, which sees him momentarily regressing from a fully realized human to a more animalistic state, as indicated by his lust-filled sex with Eve, as well as his desire to "In solitude live savage, in some glade / Obscured" (9.1085–86). If humanness, for Milton, entails knowing oneself aright, an education that occurs through a sincere commitment to contemplative solitude, then refusing—or, in the case of an indissoluble marriage, [End Page 156] being forbidden—to act on that self-knowledge can result in a loss of humanity and a return to the much more "savage" solitude that Milton repeatedly denounces throughout his divorce tracts.
As these last comments about marriage make clear, Adam's struggle to know himself and to recognize his difference from the creatures around him does not end with the creation of Eve. Instead, Adam brings the lessons he learns in solitude concerning difference with him into marriage, a marriage based, at least in part, on Milton's belief, stated in Tetrachordon, that the soul "cannot well...