Imagining Paradise


The Garden of Eden, Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Breughel (1615)

Understanding Eden through Place, Environment, and Landscape in Milton’s Paradise Lost

Milton dreamed all his life of seeing the Earth from the air. Flight and the imagining of an aerial perspective obsessed him and, as a result, his many descriptions of flight and of what he imagined the world would look like from the air are some of Paradise Lost’s most sublime passages. In flight, Milton saw something daring and rebellious—to dream of it symbolized for him a reaching beyond man’s capacity to something greater in an impossible striving to transcend his own being. When, in Book Five, Eve describes her dream to Adam, it is her feeling of flight and the look of the world below her that sticks with both her and the reader: “Forthwith up to the clouds / With him I flew and underneath beheld / The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide / And various, won’dring at my flight and change / To this high exultation” (5.86-90). Eve cannot quite shake the awe of the feeling of flight, despite Adam’s warning against heeding dreams. So desperately did Milton wish to feel that soaring he imagined, that he configured his lofty ambitions in terms of it, opening Paradise Lost by declaring his intention to write a poem which will “with no middle flight. . . soar / Above the Aonian mount while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (1.14-16). If Milton cannot soar with the same ease that Satan’s “sail-broad” wings allow, he will content himself with a parallel audacious striving: the writing of this very poem, by which he will simultaneously imitate flight and attempt to understand the world. It is this last which accounts for the extent to which the geography and environment of Paradise Lost are so memorable and sublime. As John Stilgoe notes in his What is Landscape?, the aerial view obsessed people curious about the would around them for centuries before it became possible for that view to be achieved, let alone for it to become achievable for the average person. Milton was just such one of those people. Had he been a young man in 1897, I do not doubt Century Magazine’s articles on how to send a camera aloft on a kite and how to build a kite which would lift a person would have found an eager reader in him (What is Landscape?, 23). In lieu of these exploits, Milton performs his exploration of place, environment, and landscape imaginatively in the creation of a poem in which place and environment are crucial at every stage, often playing roles in and of themselves.

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Satan Descends upon Earth, Gustave Doré (1866)

That environment has a pervasive presence in Paradise Lost is not surprising. Paradise, after all, is a literal place—not simply a state. Paradise serves not only as the setting for every stage in the story of man’s fall, but also as the medium through which Adam and Eve know themselves and know God. It is through Eden that they fall. And it is the loss of Eden that makes up the burden of their punishment. Consequently, Milton devotes many lines to descriptions of Paradise and to Adam and Eve’s interactions with Eden as well as more than one book to Adam’s curiosity about the workings of the world. Eden is itself as much a character as Adam or Eve and so the important question becomes: what then is Eden? In Milton’s term, it is a “landscip” (4.153), a word much-examined by Stilgoe in his What is Landscape? and Common Landscape of America. “Landskip” came to English by way of Frisian mariners, who referred to earth mounded up against the see as “landschop,” meaning literally “shoveled land.” Landschop, then, was something made. In entering English as “landskip,” the word lost the earthiness of its definition, though not its liminality: by 1600, the word in England referred to “paintings representing views across water to land” (What is Landscape?, 4), still locating the word on the margin between land sea. As the word gained in popularity (Gordon Teskey calls it “a fashionable term in Milton’s day” in his note), its definition became even less concrete, coming, as Stilgoe notes, to mean not only paintings of “rural vistas” (the sea, now, having become an optional element), but also “large-scale rural vistas, chiefly hilltop views of woods, villages, fields, and roads, dominated by the colors of vegetation and good soil—green and brown” themselves, outside of painting (Common Landscape, 24-25). To make matters more difficult, “landskip” (now also being spelled as the modern “landscape”) also began to refer to “large-scale ornamental garden objectifying ideals of beauty” (Common Landscape, 25).

A lot, then, is contained even in Milton’s one word “landscip,” which itself is only one of the hundreds of words he dedicates to conjuring Eden. Satan’s view of Paradise (for Satan’s view it is) is of a “happy rural seat of various view” (4.247), containing tall trees, wandering streams, green fields, and “Flow’rs worthy of Paradise which not nice art / In beds and curious knots, but Nature boon / Poured forth profuse” (4.241-243). Reading this, one might think that Satan has set out on assignment for a gardening magazine, rather than to cause the Fall of Man. In this description, Milton ticks all the boxes of the seventeenth century understanding of that nebulous concept landscape. Eden is “rural” (4.134, 247) despite the fact that “rural” is largely defined by its opposition to “urban”: the characteristics of the city, the town, the village. Without these, there can be nothing “rural” for if everything is country, then nothing is. In a prelapsarian world, Milton still imbues Eden with the connotations of a word which carries with it its antithesis; because Eden is “rural,” it is decidedly not urban. And, though Paradise Lost is a poem which takes place before history, it does not lack an understanding of the postlapsarian concept of “urban.” In Book Nine, Milton compares the serpent’s delight upon seeing Eve with the feelings of a man “who has been long in populous city pent” when he is finally released from the city and is able to go out “on a summer’s morn to breath / Among the pleasant villages and farms” and “from each thing met [conceive] delight” (9.445, 447-449), bringing an awareness of the antithesis of rural and urban directly into the poem. That Paradise is rural, though, does more than simply serve to set it off from the urban because in the concept of rurality, as in the concept of landscape, man is central. A wilderness, though it is decidedly not urban, is never said to be “rural,” precisely because it isn’t. Rural and urban describe human environments, space and land which have been shaped and acted upon by man.

Satan views the whole of Eden, Gustave Doré


Furthermore, Eden, like a landscape, is not homogenous. Stilgoe’s definition of the seventeenth century understanding of landscape takes the form of a list simply because one of the requirements of landscape is its variety. An environment shaped by man is seldom homogenous for the simple reasons that variety is pleasing to the eye and arrests the attention and that the action of shaping introduces and is defined by difference. A forest cannot be shaped unless one is also willing to introduce a glade to it. A field cannot be shaped until it is given borders—a fence, a wall, a windbreak, a hedgerow. This essential fact of variety in man’s interaction with the land is contained in the concept of “landscape,” and is reflected in Milton’s Eden, both in his catalogue of Paradise’s various attributes, but also in his direct observation that it presents to Satan a “varied view.”

Just from those two words, “rural” and “landskip,” we have come to understand that Eden is a place which has been shaped by man, even before we have met its inhabitants. Is this, though, surprising? What is Paradise but a garden, which is itself a concept entirely dependent on man in that, as Stilgoe points out, it comes etymologically from “gard” in Old Norse, connoting intimacy and enclosure (What is Landscape?, 111, emphasis mine). A garden, even in its earliest iterations, required that a man make it, and thus, even in the most rudimentary of forms, a garden requires design.

In Paradise the identity of the garden’s designer is the fundamental fact of its existence. Paradise, like Adam, like Eve, is a creation of God’s. If Satan is the first horticultural critic, then surely God is the first landscape designer. As Adam and Eve enter their bower under the surveillance of Satan, Milton emphasizes God’s role in this capacity: “[the bower] was a place / Chos’n by the sov’reign planter when He framed / All things to Man’s delightful use” (4. 690-692). The emphasis on God’s choice in the matter not only conjures up an image of Him wandering around Paradise with a sketchpad considering how best to place the bower in relation to the ornamental pool, but highlights the fact of a plan behind the garden’s design. All Paradise, all of creation, God has “framed.” He is “the sovereign planter,” foregrounding His role as landscape architect even down to the placement of each tree and shrub. This element of artifice behind the garden is referenced, too, in that word “landscip” which Milton uses so effectively.

Satan Enters Eden, Gustave Doré


According to Stilgoe, by 1630 “landscape” had become the accepted spelling of the word, making Milton’s 1667 (in the first edition of Paradise Lost) and 1674 (the second edition) choice to retain the alternate spelling significant, for in doing so he retains all the connotations of art which had begun to ebb out of the more modern “landscape.” In John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis’ The Genius of Place: The English Landscape Garden, 1620-1820, “landskip” (or as they render it, “lantskip”) is designated an “art term,” which carries with it all the implications of artifice in art (Hunt, Willis, 79). Milton references this artifice in more subtle ways, too, as when Satan first looks into Paradise and likens the colors and sheen of its fruits to those of enamel (4.149), a descriptive tactic which, since the Middle Ages, had denoted artifice. In the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo (c. 1300), the hero visits a faerie otherworld characterized by artifice whose castle is “anourned al / Of eech manere divers aumal” (“Adorned all / Of each manner diverse enamel” Sir Orfeo, 364). Similarly, Dante in his Divine Comedy uses the enamel (“smalto”) of Limbo and Purgatory as “an idiom for describing anticipatory Paradises which look forward to the final union of the hero with God and his beloved” (Lerer, 100), emphasizing the semblance of Paradise through the artifice of the enamel. Thus not only does Milton’s use of enamel reference artifice, but it also references artifice in the context of Paradise, though Milton’s Paradise, unlike those of Dante, is the real one.

None of this is to say that there is anything lurking below the surface of Paradise, nor that it is simply a product of artifice, nor that any of this somehow makes Paradise unreal. Artificiality, in itself, is not necessarily negative. Stilgoe notes that by the late seventeenth century, the word landscape was understood to be able to embrace “the small, agricultural-dominated enterprises of artifice evident but hardly intrusive in the countryside” (Common Landscape of America, 25). Indeed it is not the fact of the presence of artifice in Paradise that is interesting, so much as that the object of the artifice is to imitate the natural. To return to Satan’s appreciative comments on first entering the garden, Milton, through Satan, emphasizes the natural appearance of Eden to the extent of referencing the rigid “beds and curious knots” which were the fashionable method for arranging flowers in the seventeenth century. God has not gone in for the “nice art” of calculated design, but rather arranged everything as if by nature. In Milton’s Paradise, then, exists a curious combination of the natural with the artificial. This is a garden not meant to look like a garden: a concept with which we are all now quite familiar, though which historian Mark Stoll traces back to Milton and Paradise Lost.

Adam and Eve in Eden, Gustave Doré

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In his “Milton in Yosemite: Paradise Lost and the National Parks Idea,” Stoll tracks the influence of Milton’s depiction of Eden on the evolution of the English and American conceptions of gardens. Beginning in the latter half of the eighteenth century, books on gardening began to quote Milton’s description of Eden at length in order to convey the horticultural ideal. Paradise Lost “became almost a sacred text for later gardenists. . . . From Milton derived authority for serpentine lines, natural treatment of water, rural mounds, [and] wooded theatres” (Hunt, Willis, 79) report Hunt and Willis. Stoll notes that Horace Walpole went so far in 1771 as to credit Milton with the idea of the English garden, saying that Milton, “judg[ing] that the mistaken and fantastic ornaments he had seen in gardens were unworthy of the almighty hand that planted the delights of Paradise. . . seems with the prophetic eye of taste. . . to have conceived, to have foreseen modern gardening” (Stoll, 246). This idea of “natural” gardening—particularly of the English ideal of it, in which, in the interest of authenticity, plants are permitted to exist in artful wildness—Stoll traces to the look with which we are so familiar today in our own gardens, city and even national parks.

The importance of landscape and environment in Paradise Lost does not begin and end, however, with God’s design for Paradise. Indeed, Paradise’s—and therefore landscape’s— primary function in the poem is not to serve as background, but to relate and interact with its inhabitants, Adam and Eve. Landscape, after all, is a term predicated upon the interaction of man with land. This, however, is not simply etymologically the case, but also fundamentally so. In Common Landscape of America and What is Landscape?, Stilgoe emphasizes the fact that land not only must be made, but must be constantly in the process of making if it is to remain land. Tracing the history of human relation to their surrounding environment, Stilgoe cites the necessity of man to claim land from nature by “making” it. The word “land” itself shares an etymological root with the word “launder,” the denotation of the latter—“to make [cloth] pure and useful”—shedding light on the enterprise by which the former is created (Common Landscape of America, 170; What is Landscape?, 92). However land once made does not necessarily stay that way. “Landscape is fragile” (What is Landscape?, 219) and it must be maintained in a constant process of re-making if it is to be prevented from reverting to wilderness. It is here that the human fear of wilderness—given such colorful expression in the fairy tales of the likes of the Brothers Grimm—originates, for in the Middle Ages, the maintenance of land was tantamount to survival. Thus was born the ethic of cultivation.

The Garden of Eden, Thomas Cole (1828)

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Both Adam and Eve understand their function in Paradise not simply as residents, but as tenders of the garden. God has given them the gift of Paradise and in return it is their responsibility to tend it and, in Adam’s words, “keep [it] from wilderness” (9.245). Their labor’s purpose is hardly agricultural in a strict sense. The “compliant boughs” of Paradise will “yield” them fruit whenever they choose and the abundance of the garden far outstrips the needs of two solitary humans (4.332-333). Rather their labor consists in making their land over and over again, just as the colonial Americans and Canadians (Stilgoe’s phrase “to make land” originates in Saskatchewan (Common Landscape of America, 170)) and the inhabitants of the landschafts were forced to do. Eve reminds Adam that they must work diligently to combat the rate of Paradise’s growth and the speed with which it “tend[s] to wild” (9.212) by lopping, pruning, propping, binding, and directing the unruly plants (9.210, 216). That this should be Adam and Eve’s relation to their environment despite the fact that they have no need fof open land for they have nothing to cultivate and nothing to fear in the garden (and since apparently God’s initial design included open places of the type Satan describes upon first looking into Eden) seems odd, suggesting the degree to which this relation to nature is fundamental to man, but also the degree to which it is fundamental to Christianity.

The First Approach of the Serpent, Gustave Doré


Stilgoe credits Christianity with having “destroyed the oneness of man and nature” (Common Landscape of America, 8) and replaced it with a hierarchical relation wherein man strives to master nature. Paganism depended on man’s intimate connection with nature. At its center “a great tree of life. . . rooted in the underworld of death. . . soared to the heavenly home of powerful gods” (Common Landscape of America, 9) in an organizational principle recalled in Paradise’s Tree of the Knowledge of Life and Death standing at the garden’s center. For Christianity to replace paganism, the intimate connection between man and nature had to be severed—a drama which is played out in Paradise Lost on several levels.

In What is Landscape?, Stilgoe notes that “Individuals conjure landscape differently” (What is Landscape?, 17), something which becomes immediately apparent in comparing Adam and Eve’s conceptions of Paradise. While for Adam Paradise is static, defined entirely conceptually, for Eve it is a living, breathing thing constantly in flux which can only be understood in the actuality of its existence. That Adam conceives of Paradise abstractly becomes evident over the course of his books long conversation with Raphael, during which Adam presses the angel with questions about the nature of the created world, the relation between Heaven and Earth, and the possibility of other worlds. For Adam, environment, Paradise, and his place in the world are concepts which should have definitions, questions for which he’d like answers. Unable to reconcile the idea of himself as the man who “waked from soundest sleep / Soft on the flow’ry herb” (8.253-254) on the day of his creation and proceeded to delight in surroundings which seemed the most extensive thing imaginable with the revelation of being the inhabitant of “this earth, a spot, a grain, / An atom” (8.17-18), Adam simply allows the definitions handed down from God to him through Raphael to define Paradise for him. Thus Adam conceives of the garden as his dominion gifted to him by God; his relationship to it is the hierarchical one of Christianity, not the connected and horizontal one of Paganism which he enjoyed for the first few moments of his creation. When faced with the prospect of leaving Paradise, he laments not so much that he must leave, but that he must leave and lose his dominion which he was of late so easily “the glory of [Paradise’s] glory” (10.722).

Adam and Eve in Eden, Gustave Doré

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In stark contrast, when Eve is told she must leave Paradise, she speaks of it in personal terms, calling it her “native soil” (11.270) and worrying about the fate of her flowers. For Eve, Paradise exists on a small and immediate scale; her relationship with it is intimate and concrete. When the talk between Raphael and Adam turns to abstractions and concepts, she leaves them in favor of “visit[ing]” “her fruits and flow’rs” which “at her coming sprung / And touched by her fair tendance gladlier grew” (8.44-47). The flowers are personified in her “visiting” of them, emphasizing both their importance to her and the degree of her care for them. She conceives of Paradise almost synecdochically, from the smallest detail, from each flower, outward to the garden’s whole. She does not attempt to grapple with her conceptual place in the universe because she does not need to. Eve, in knowing her flowers, knows Paradise and instinctively understands her place in the world—her flowers become for her what the tree of the Old Religion was for its adherents. To emphasize this intimate and organic connection between Eve and nature, “Eden is gendered feminine and given an identity inextricably linked with Eve’s” as Julia M. Walker notes (Teskey, 516). Unlike Adam, Eve does not see herself as presiding over the plants and flowers, but as being connected to them in a relation reminiscent of that of Paganism.

Thus, within Paradise, Milton represents (if only symbolically) both the Christian and Pagan relations to nature. It is not surprising, then, that eventually these two philosophies must come up against one another, which is exactly what happens in the famous separation scene at the beginning of Book Nine. While Adam and Eve both agree on the garden’s tendency toward the wild, because of their profoundly different relations to Paradise they cannot agree on the proper way to deal with the potential for reversion to wilderness. Because Adam sees Paradise only statically as God’s perfect creation given to him as his dominion, he cannot understand Eve’s conception of a fluid relation based in “dressing” and “tending” the garden. While Eve sees their duty to the garden as a “pleasant task,” for Adam it is an “irksome toil” necessary only to the  extent needed to keep it from wilderness (9.207, 242). The responsibility for Adam is to God and the responsibility for Eve is to the garden and through it to God. Their respective conceptions of Paradise and nature are so entirely different that communication between them breaks down and they separate, neither truly having heard or understood the other.

The Temptation of Eve, William Blake (1808)


It is in this state that Eve encounters Satan in the guise of the serpent and is led to the second site at which Milton explores the relation between Christianity and environment. Satan, as the serpent, tells Eve that if she eats of the fruit of the tree she will not in fact die, but rather her eyes will be “opened and cleared and ye [Adam and Eve] shall be as gods” (9.708). For proof that she will not die, he tells her that he himself has eaten the fruit of the tree and not only still lives, but now can speak and reason as man. Though Satan does not know it, Eve is particularly susceptible to this method of temptation precisely because of the way she understands Paradise. To Eve the idea that a tree could hold the power to make her like a god seems plausible simply because her connection to and belief in nature is already so close and strong. She, never having met God herself, as Adam has, can only know Him through the garden and so the garden and its elements have for her a greater meaning and power than they do for Adam.

Thus Eve is primed by her pagan-like understanding of her environment to Satan’s deception. Milton completes the connection in the moments after Eve has fallen when, just before she leaves to find Adam, she does “low reverence. . . as to the pow’r / That dwelt within whose presence had infused / Into the plant sciential sap derived / From nectar, drink of Gods” (9.835-848). In this moment, Eve does not worship God through nature, but instead worships an idol in the tree. Before she ate the fruit, her thought, though Pagan in structure, had not actually been Pagan. Now, having fallen, she is capable of believing that the tree has some power of its own not derived from God—a distinction emphasized by Milton’s use of the word “gods” rather than “God,” referencing the many deities of Paganism as opposed to the single one of Christianity. Eve’s low reverence here constitutes, in Milton’s system, the first act of idolatry, made possible by the fall.

Neither Eve nor Adam’s relations to nature are presented as “right” ones by Milton; nothing is quite so black and white as that. Rather, Milton lingers tenderly on Eve’s intimate connection with her flowers and her “native soil,” while still emphasizing that her closeness of connection to the natural world plays a part in her undoing. However, that Adam’s relation to the garden is consistently portrayed with less affection than Eve’s despite its playing no part in his fall and, indeed, being something approaching the “right” Christian relation is telling. The love for and curiosity about his environment and surrounding landscape that Milton clearly feels do not allow him to fully condemn Eve’s strong connection to her surroundings. Thus, as they go to leave Paradise, Eve tells Adam that she has dreamed the future and now she understands that “Thou to me / Art all things under Heav’n, all places thou” (12.617-618), encapsulating her conception of relation. To her, all along, place has been a “thou.” With the loss of Paradise, Adam has become all places to her, so that, if anything, her relation to place has become even more intimate than it was in Eden, since she is to experience all place as and through Adam.

As Adam and Eve leave, they look back to see Paradise “waved over by that flaming brand” (12.643) which a band of cherubim sent by God wield to destroy the garden. Gone is their “happy seat” (12.642), gone is their bower, Eve’s flowers, and gone (we presume) is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve feel the loss of place poignantly and we understand that for this loss to mean as much as it does, the connection between place and person must be a deep one. However important the feeling of loss is, however, Milton does not want Adam and Eve—or us—to linger. The poem ends not with Adam and Eve standing statically staring at their burning home, but facing outwards into an expanse of unknown place, going on as far as they can imagine. “The world [is] all before them” (12.646) as they begin to move outward, away from Paradise, towards the unknown, towards the future, and towards us. Thus place has not simply been their punishment—through loss of place and displacement, it has also become their promise of a future and the site of their promise to us.

The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Thomas Cole

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Hunt, John Dixon and Peter Willis. The Genius of the Place: The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820. MIT Press, Cambridge, 2000.

Lerer, Seth. “Artifice and Artistry in Sir Orfeo.” Speculum, Vol. 60, No. 1, Jan., 1985, pp. 92-109. University of Chicago Press Journals, Accessed 29 Nov., 2016.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Gordon Teskey. W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2005.

Sir Orfeo. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton and Co., New York. 2012. Pages 170-182.

Walker, Julia M. “Eve: The First Reflection.” Paradise Lost. Ed. Gordon Teskey. W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2005. Pages 516-520.


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