- Mortal Change:Life after Death in Paradise Lost
In this essay I shall be looking at the effects of death's entrance into the world, as an immediate consequence of the first sin on earth, when Eve, and then Adam in turn, disobey God's sole command and eat the forbidden fruit. To extend our understanding of the different aspects of death, I shall draw on Milton's definition of the four degrees of death in De doctrina Christiana, and, in order to deepen our understanding of the effects of death's presence on humankind, I shall compare the aftermath of the earthly Fall with the experience of the fallen angels. By investigating the spiritual conditions of Adam and Satan, in particular, I hope to throw new light on the importance of human agency in the process of spiritual regeneration and degeneration, and by revisiting the concept of apokatastasis, mediated through George Rust's A Letter of Resolution concerning Origen (London, 1661), I intend to reconsider Milton's rendering of the exactions of divine justice and the possibilities of grace and pardon at work in the poem. [End Page 57]
Adam is stunned when Eve returns blithely announcing that she has tasted the fruit expressly forbidden to them by God. Paralyzed with shock, Adam experiences a presentiment of death itself and:
Astonied stood and Blank, while horror chillRan through his veins, and all his joynts relax'd;From his slack hand the Garland wreath'd for EveDown drop'd, and all the faded Roses shed.1(9.890–93)
At this moment he is scarcely able to credit what has happened, and demands incredulously: "How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost, / Defac't, deflourd and now to Death devote?" (9.900–01; emphasis added). But the garland of faded roses, the first flowers to wither in Eden,2 have already become, in truth, a wreath for Eve,3 and it is not long before Adam has resolved to die with Eve rather than live on in an Eden that he knows would be no paradise without her. Bereft of her informing presence, the garden will no longer be a "Wilderness of sweets" (5.294) but, he mournfully reflects, a desolate expanse of "wilde Woods forlorn" (9.910).
Adam's outburst, as he is confronted by his consort, "Defac't, deflourd and now to Death devote," goes some way to encapsulating this "mortal change" (10.273) that Eve has undergone, and which Milton unfolds more fully in De doctrina Christiana, where he defines four degrees of death (1.12).4 Eve's state at this point in the poem can be helpfully illuminated by this passage from his theological treatise. An integral part of the first degree of death is an immediate "maiestas oris humani imminuta" (lessening of the majesty of the human countenance), a diminution of the divine image in humankind. The second degree, mors spiritualis, the death of the spiritual life, is the privatio … gratiae divinae ("privation of divine grace") and spiritual deflowering of the unregenerate sinner, "Et hæc quidem mors lapsum hominis eodem momento, nedum eodem die consecuta est" (And this death did indeed follow hard on man's fall at the same moment, not just on the same day) (DDC 1.12, OM 8:430–33). The third degree, mors corporalis, the [End Page 58] physical death of the human body now doomed to die, need not be "one stroak … / Bereaving sense" (10.809–10), but a "living Death" (10.788), in which life is experienced as death in slow motion, "A long days dying to augment our paine" (10.964). Milton helpfully amplifies the notion of a "living death" in De doctrina Christiana where he blurs the distinction between life and death by identifying all "labores, aerumnae, morbi" (the toils, sorrows and diseases) which afflict the body as intimations of mortality, "nisi corporalis, quae dicitur mortis praeludia" (nothing but the precursors of what is called bodily death) (DDC 1.13, OM 8:440–41). The fourth degree is the everlasting death of the damned, those who remain unregenerate and who are doomed to eternal torment. It is the...