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"Rapine Sweet": The Rape of Proserpina and Eve's Fall
"She pluck'd, she eat" (PL IX.781). With these four monosyllables,
Milton succinctly announces the Fall of Eve in Paradise Lost. Eve's Fall,
however, is far more complex than a simple act of eating, for her disobedience
represents a much greater loss of chastity. Indeed, Milton implies that the Fall
is a violation not only of God's sole commandment but also of Eve herself, for
Milton implicitly equates Dis's ravishment of Proserpina with Satan's seduction
of Eve. Milton weaves the Proserpina myth, as told by Ovid in his
Metamorphoses, throughout Paradise Lost as a trope for rape and Eve's
loss of virginity, and this culminates in a metaphorical construction of the
Fall as a rape of Eve by Satan. Milton's depiction of Eve's ravishment,
moreover, is ambivalently misogynistic, for Milton casts Eve as a seductress who
has largely engendered her own rape.
Early in Book IV of Paradise Lost Milton compares Eden to beautiful
landscapes of classical mythology, while insisting that his Christian Garden is
"not" like such pagan settings. Milton's negative syntax implies the
ineffability of Eden—this unfallen paradise cannot be described by a fallen poet
to fallen readers and certainly cannot be evoked by pagan similes. Yet Milton's
lush catalogue of classical landscapes forces an analogy, and as we amble
through the myths, we conjure an image of Eden based on its classical
precursors. Particularly salient is the first classical allusion, which compares
Eden to Enna:
Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin
Herself a fairer Flow'r by gloomy Dis
gather'd, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world
This description closely parallels the Proserpina myth in Ovid's
Metamorphoses, in which Dis ravishes Proserpina and carries her off to be
his queen in the underworld. Ovid begins:
Haud procul Hennaeis lacus est a moenibus altae,nomine
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
perpetuum ver est. Quo dum Proserpina
ludit et aut violas aut candida lilia carpit,
studio calathosque sinumque
inplet et aequales certat superare legendo,
paene simul visa est dilectaque raptaque Diti.
Milton's negative syntax, therefore, not only draws us away from Ovid's Enna
but also propels us toward it, for Ovid too employs a negative construction:
"Not far from Enna's walls [. . .]" (Met. V.385-6). Furthermore, Milton's
progression from the active participle "gath'ring" to the passive "gather'd"
mirrors Ovid's progression from "legendo" (gathering) to "rapta" (she has
been taken). In addition, Milton directly prefaces the above passage with
"th'Eternal Spring" (PL IV.268), much as Ovid tells us that "spring is
eternal" (perpetuum ver est).
What resonates in Milton's description, however, are not the enumerated
similarities between Eden and Enna but that which Milton leaves unmentioned—the
striking comparison between Eve and Proserpina, between Satan's seduction of
"our mother" and Dis's ravishment of Ovid's goddess. Milton does not explicitly
compare Proserpina to Eve, yet the obvious parallel between these two innocent
gardeners preyed upon by dark forces is a potent subtext. Indeed, upon
completing his catalogue of myths, Milton reminds us that it is Satan who has
led us into Eden and through whose eyes we see "True Paradise [. . .], where the
Fiend / Saw undelighted all delight" (PL IV.282-6). While reading about
the pristine Garden of Eden, we as readers may have forgotten our own fallen
state and the dark force accompanying us into Paradise. Milton, however, reminds
us that we, like Satan, are fallen and must see the Garden through a fallen
lens. This unsettling reminder bears remarkable similarity to Ovid's sudden
disclosure that Dis has been watching Proserpina gather flowers. "Paene simul
visa est dilectaque raptaque Diti" (almost at once she has been seen and
desired and ravished by Dis), Ovid writes. Ovid and Milton, then, both paint
scenes of innocent gardening, leaving readers unmindful of the dark sexual
voyeurism that taints these scenes. Only once we have absorbed their seemingly
innocuous descriptions do the poets reveal that an evil force has been guiding
our gaze with his own and thereby force us to understand that we as readers
partake in the depravity of Satan/Dis.
Milton, then, not only invokes Ovid to color his description of Eden but
also, and more potently, uses both characters and events of the Proserpina myth
to suggest the consequences of the impending Fall. Indeed, just as Ovid's
Proserpina myth focuses primarily on Ceres's plight, Milton too turns to Ceres's
search for Proserpina "through the world." More saliently, Milton writes that
Proserpina's ravishment "cost Ceres all that pain." The final three sharp
monosyllables evoke the opening of Milton's epic and the Fruit that caused "all
our woe" (PL I.3). Thus, as early as Book IV, Milton establishes
Proserpina's rape as a trope evoking the Fall.
It is therefore not surprising that we next encounter
Proserpina on the brink of the Fall, as Eve withdraws from Adam to garden on her
own. Eve departs in a cloud of Ovidian images:
To Pales, or Pomona, thus adorn'd,
Likest she seem'd,
Pomona when she fled
Vertumnus, or to Ceres in her Prime,
Yet Virgin of Proserpina from Jove.
Eve is compared not to Proserpina but rather to Proserpina's mother, Ceres.
However, just as the negative syntax in the simile of Book IV does not
undermine, but rather implicitly fosters, comparisons between Eden and Enna and
between Eve and Proserpina, the very mention of Proserpina in Book IX likewise
suggests a relationship between her and Eve on the brink of the Fall.
Furthermore, Eve does not have a mother, and throughout Paradise Lost
Milton casts "our mother" as maternally self-sufficient.2 Thus, perhaps Eve can be both mother and daughter,
both Ceres and Proserpina.
The correlation between Ovid's Proserpina and Milton's Eve grows more tenable
as we examine the larger context of Book IX, taking Milton's simile as a tool
for reading rather than a single isolated analogy. Eve, we recall, leaves Adam
so that she may garden more efficiently (PL IX.223-5). Likewise, in
Ovid's Metamorphoses, Proserpina struggles to collect flowers
rapidly—"aequales certat superare legendo" (she was striving to outdo her
friends in gathering) (V.394). In Ovid's myth, this description immediately
precedes Proserpina's ravishment: "paenae simul uisa est dilectaque raptaque
Diti" (almost at once she has been seen and desired and ravished by Dis)
(V.395). Likewise, immediately after Eve departs from Adam, she is "seen and
desired" by Satan, who tempts her Fall.
When Satan spies Eve, Milton evokes not only Ovid, but also his own
Proserpina-Eve simile of Book IV. Satan sees Eve surrounded by flowers, which
Gently with Myrtle band,
mindless the while,
Herself, though fairest unsupported Flow'r
best prop so far, and storm so nigh.
This description clearly recalls Milton's earlier simile, in which
Proserpina, "gath'ring flow'rs / Herself a fairer Flow'r by gloomy
Dis / Was gather'd" (PL IV.270-1, emphasis added). The parallels
between these metaphors are striking: in each, Milton begins the line with
"Herself" and also uses the words "fair" and "Flower"; furthermore, Milton notes
the marginal presence of an evil figure preying on an innocent female
gardener-Dis gathers Proserpina, and the "storm so nigh" reminds us that Satan
observes Eve as we read. Eve, like Proserpina, is cast as both gardener and
flower, active agent and passive object.
Overarching structural parallels between the Fall and Ovid's Proserpina myth
continue throughout Book IX . Satan repeatedly addresses Eve as "Empress,"
"Queen," and "Mistress" (see, e.g., PL IX.532, 623, & 684), appealing
to both her beauty and her desire to share Adam's reign. Likewise, Dis makes
Proserpina queen of the underworld. As Arethusa tells Ceres, "regina [. . .]
/ inferno pollens matrona tyranni" (She was queen [. . .] the powerful
consort of the tyrant of the underworld) (Met. V.507-8). The comparison between
the tyrant Dis and Satan, introduced in Book IV, clearly continues in Book IX,
as does the comparison between Eve and Proserpina. Furthermore, just as Eve eats
the Fruit, Proserpina eats seven pomegranate seeds while in the underworld, and
this act of eating proves to be her transgression, for the Fates have ordained
that Proserpina can return to Earth only if she has not eaten in the underworld
(Met. V.530-32). Thus, just as Eve breaches God's single command that she
and Adam not eat from the Tree, Proserpina engages in the single act of eating
that Ovid's Fates have prohibited. Finally, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Jove
divides the year into two six-month periods and gives Dis and Ceres equal share
of Proserpina. Similarly, when Eve and Adam eat the Fruit, their transgression
licenses Satan to share the reign of Earth with God.
More compelling in equating Eve's Fall with Proserpina's
ravishment, however, is the language of sexual desire and rape that permeates
Book IX of Paradise Lost. During Eve's conversation with Adam, Milton
emphasizes Eve's virginity and casts this as a cardinal virtue, labeling Eve
"the Virgin Majesty" (PL IX.270). When Eve departs from Adam, Milton
again alludes to the virtue of virginity, comparing Eve to virgin
goddesses-Delia's train of nymphs, Pales, Pomona, and Ceres. Milton also notes
the transience of virginity, for Pomona will soon cease to flee Vertumnus and
Ceres will conceive Proserpina. Indeed, Milton specifically states that Ceres is
"Yet Virgin of Proserpina from Jove" (PL IX.396). Interestingly,
his syntax closely resembles a description of Eve immediately before she eats
the Fruit as "yet sinless" (PL IX.659). The structural parallel between
Ceres "yet Virgin" and Eve "yet sinless" underscores Milton's equation of Eve's
virginity with her sinlessness and implicitly casts Eve's eating the Fruit as a
loss of her virginity.
In a cluster of classical and biblical allusions closely following Milton's
enumeration of Eve's counterparts, Milton compares the Garden of Eden to the
Gardens of Adonis, Alcinoüs, and Solomon. He claims that Eve's environment is
"more delicious" (PL IX.439) than these gardens, all of which serve as
locales for sexual encounters (between Adonis and Venus, Odysseus and Nausikaa,
and Solomon and his "fair Egyptian Spouse" [PL IX.443], respectively).
The allusion to Adonis is particularly worthy of note, for it contains an
oblique reference to Proserpina. According to Ovid, Venus, upon the death of her
beloved Adonis, invokes Proserpina and turns Adonis into a flower the color of
pomegranates (Met. X.725-39). Proserpina, then, again enters Paradise
Lost3, and the aggregate effect of Milton's allusions
renders Eden a stage for a sexual encounter.
When Satan first sees Eve, he is struck by longing, just as Dis is struck by
desire for Proserpina. For Satan, Eve's "look sums all Delight" (PL
IX.453), and his first words to Eve evoke Proserpina's rape, for Satan declares
that he gazes "Insatiate" (PL IX.536) at Eve, who is "With ravishment
beheld" (PL IX.541). The word "ravishment" is particularly intriguing in
this context, meaning as it does "the act of carrying off a person," and, more
pertinently, "the forcible abduction or violation of a woman" (OED).
Although Satan ostensibly utters the word as a compliment meaning "ecstasy" or
"joy," the alternate definitions of the word powerfully shadow his compliment.
Furthermore, after taking Eve to the Tree, Satan is "to passion mov'd" (PL
IX.667) and his words are "impregn'd / With Reason" (PL IX.737).
Finally, when Eve eats the Fruit, "Earth felt the wound, and Nature [. . .] /
gave signs of woe / That all was lost" (PL IX.782-4); "wound" suggests an
infliction of harm, more consonant with rape than with an act of eating, and
"all was lost" connotes a loss of virginity, historically regarded as a loss of
each of these sexually laden phrases alone might be overlooked, their aggregate
presence, coupled with allusions to the Proserpina myth, diffuses a potent
subtext of rape and sexuality throughout Book IX.
Adam's reaction to Eve's transgression provides particularly compelling
grounds for reading the Fall metaphorically as the rape of Eve by Satan. When
Eve tells Adam that "the Serpent [. . .] with me / Persuasively hath so
prevail'd" (PL IX.867-73), he stands "amaz'd, / Astonied" (PL
IX.889-90), much like Ceres stands stunned as if turned to stone ("stupuit
ceu saxea uoces" (Met V.509) when she hears of Proserpina's fate.
Adam inwardly bemoans:
How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost,
Defac't, deflow'r'd, and now to
Rather how hast thou yielded to transgress
forbiddance, how to violate
The sacred Fruit forbidd'n?
Adam's marking Eve as "deflow'r'd" strongly connotes rape, for the primary
definition of "deflowered" is "deprived of virginity, violated" (OED).
Why, we must wonder, does Adam regard Eve as "deflow'r'd," with the peculiarly
sexual connotations of this word, if no sexual act has occurred? Furthermore,
the embedded reference to "flower" recalls descriptions of both Eve and
Proserpina as fair flowers. When Dis ravishes Proserpina, Milton describes her
as a gathered flower (PL IV.270-1); now Adam casts Eve as a flower
"deflow'r'd," a flower gathered by Satan.
Adam further bemoans that Eve is "now to Death devote" and
tells Eve "if Death / Consort with thee [. . . ]" (PL IX.954), suggesting
a sexual relationship between Eve and a personified Death. The word "consort"
has a specifically sexual meaning-"to be a consort or spouse to, to espouse; to
have sexual commerce with" (OED)-and Milton has used the word to mean
"spouse" and, in particular, to describe Adam and Eve's relationship, earlier in
Paradise Lost (see, e.g., IV.448, IV.610, VII.529). Likewise, "devote"
conveys personal attachment or loyalty. Adam's words, it seems, exploit a
semantic tension contained by the word "Death." In classical mythology, Dis is
both the tyrant of the underworld and a personification of death itself. Thus,
the identification of Satan with Dis further identifies Satan with death. Satan
"consort[s]" with Eve by raping her, and she, "deflow'r'd," is now "devote" to
Milton not only inserts Ovid's Proserpina myth as a trope
of rape, however, but also characteristically transforms his classical analogue,
casting Eve as a wanton sexual object who must bear the "guilty shame" (PL
IX.1058) of her rape6.
Indeed, the language of seduction and sexuality attributed to Satan spills over
into Eve's actions. When Satan first spies Eve,
her every Air
Of gesture or least action overaw'd
His Malice, and
with rapine sweet bereav'd
His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought:
The word "rapine" evokes the ravishment of Proserpina, but
seemingly reverses the actors. Eve plays the role of Dis, while Satan is
Proserpina. Thus, Milton, even while espousing Eve's innocence (e.g., "sweet"),
casts her as a seductress7.
Indeed, the language of seduction and sexuality attributed to Adam, too, blames
Eve for having "peril great provok't" (PL IX.921-2). Ultimately, Milton's
treatment of Eve is intensely ambivalent-she is both an object of desire and a
desiring subject, for even as Satan seduces her, she seduces him.
This complex treatment of seduction extends to the Fruit itself, for when Eve
arrives at the Tree she "gaz[es]" (PL IX.735) at the Fruit with "desire"
(PL IX.741) and a "longing eye" (PL IX.743), much as Satan
"gaze[s] insatiate" (PL IX.535-6) at Eve. Adam, in his internal musing
following Eve's return, echoes the attribution of both active and passive
behaviors to Eve with the sexually laden words "yielded" and "violate." Adam
bemoans that Eve passively "yielded to transgress" (PL IX.902) God's
command8, but also that she actively "violate[d] / The sacred Fruit
forbidd'n" (PL IX.903-4). The word "violate" evokes rape, for the second
definition of "violate" is "to ravish (a woman)" (OED), and the peculiar
syntax of Adam's phrase underscores this definition. Eve does not violate God's
abstract command not to eat the Fruit, according to Adam, but rather violates
the Fruit itself, a tangible object "sacred to abstinence" (PL IX.924).
Eve's Fall, then, consists of both yielding and violating. Her roles as victim
and seductress are ultimately one and the same, for after the rape has occurred,
Milton reinterprets Eve's innocent seduction as a guilt-ridden action, thereby
blaming the victim. Eve, not "Virgin," is not "sinless."
Milton further underscores the sexual subtext of the Fall by describing the
primary consequence of the Fall as lasciviousness. The Fruit inflames Adam and
Eve's "Carnal desire" (PL IX.1013), and the two engage in "amorous play"
(PL IX.1045) until weary. This voracious sex act is mutually desired by
Adam and Eve, for Eve's "Eye darted contagious Fire" PL IX.1036) and Adam
leads her "nothing loath" (PL IX.1039) to the flowery bank. Their sex,
however, is fallen and corrupt, it seems, both because of its voracious nature
and precisely because Eve is overtly sexual. She is not merely seduced but also
a seductress. Indeed, Adam's hand "seiz[es]" (PL IX.1037) Eve's much as
it did in Book IV (488-9), but Eve now eagerly seeks sex rather than yielding
reluctantly to Adam.
This reading of the Fall is disturbingly misogynistic, for Milton casts Eve
as the seductress of her rapist and portrays sex desired by both Adam and Eve as
an illicit act. Such a characterization of illicit sex is all the more
distressing for modern readers who recall Milton's description of unfallen
sexuality. In Book IV, Milton tells us that Eve's hair
Subjection, but requir'd with gentle sway
And by her yielded,
by him best receiv'd
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
sweet reluctant amorous delay.
Eve's own story of her creation further emphasizes female "subjection" and
modesty: "thy gentle hand / Seiz'd mine, I yielded" (PL IV.488-90). Adam
is eager for sex, while Eve is shy and reluctant; it is her role to "yield"
passively, not to actively seduce. Ultimately, Milton's portrayal of unfallen
sex, in which Eve "subjects" herself to Adam, is disturbingly more similar to
rape than Milton's characterization of fallen sex, desired by both Eve and Adam.
The depiction of Eve as wanton seductress peaks near the
end of Book IX, when Adam and Eve wake from their "mutual guilt" (1042). Milton
compares Adam to Samson in a simile that underscores the misogyny inherent in
his portrayal of the Fall:
So rose the Danite strong
Herculean Samson from the Harlot-lap
Of Philistean Dalilah, and wak'd
Shorn of his strength,
As we know from reading Milton's Samson Agonistes, Dalila(h) seduces
Samson into revealing the secret of his strength (his hair) and then shaves
Samson's head, stripping him of this "Herculean" strength. Interestingly, in
both Samson Agonistes and the above passage from Paradise Lost, Milton
describes Dalila(h)—Samson's wife—as a prostitute and implicitly casts marital
intercourse as a sort of castration, an act treacherous for heroic man (see
e.g., SA 531-40). Although Eve is not explicitly compared to Dalila(h),
the analogy is powerfully present. Just as Samson rises from Dalilah's
"lascivious lap" (SA 536), Adam rises from Eve's. Eve's desire for sex,
then, renders her a prostitute, and she alone bears guilt for the fallen sex
between her and Adam9.
This reading of Eve as lascivious prostitute can perhaps
explain the narrator's account of Adam's Fall, in which Adam, "Against his
better knowledge, not deceiv'd / But fondly overcome with Female charm"
(PL IX.998-9) partakes of the Fruit Eve offers. This account seems to
contradict Adam's earlier deliberations, which cast his imminent Fall as an act
of love for, and connectedness to, Eve, not his falling prey to female
seduction. However, the fallen Eve is no longer the innocent virgin whom Adam
loves and to whom he feels connected, but is rather a seductive and carnal
woman. Like the heroic Samson, Adam is shorn by wanton female sexuality.
Ultimately then, in Paradise Lost Eve undergoes a transformation from
a modest and reluctant virgin to lascivious seductress, and the
Fall—representing a rape for which she is in part responsiblemarks her sexual
alteration. Milton infuses the trope of Proserpina's rape throughout Book IX to
depict the Fall of Eve. By the close of Book IX, however, Milton equates illicit
sex with an act antithetical to rape—sex desired by Eve. It is proper for woman
to be reluctant; when she is eager, her desire tarnishes sexual encounters,
rendering them as obscene as rape.
The reading of the Fall as an illicit sex act comparable to rape garners
particular strength when we recall Milton's own chastity obsession throughout
his career. In early writings Milton frequently equates chastity with poetic
success10. Thus, the loss of chastity implies the loss of literary
achievement, a loss of utmost consequence for the poet Milton. Furthermore, in
his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Milton writes that "happy
conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage, for we find [. . .] no
expression necessarily implying carnal knowledge" (Hughes 707). It is quite
possible, then, that Milton's own anxieties play themselves out in the text of
Paradise Lost and that Milton exposes his preoccupation with chastity by
depicting the Fall as a contemptible sex act. After the Fall, the sex act and
poetry are both fallen, for the loss of chastity has serious consequences for
the lover and the poet, for sexuality and language.
In a 1637 letter to Charles Diodati, Milton writes: "Not with so much labour,
as the fables have it, is Ceres said to have sought her daughter Proserpina as
is my habit day and night to seek for this idea of the beautiful, as for a
certain image of supreme beauty" (Patterson 27). Milton's search for supreme
beauty, then, may be a search for chastity, a quest to restore Proserpina's
virginity, and, similarly, to "sing celestial songs" (Hughes 695) of epic
poetry. Indeed, the Fall "Brought Death into the World and all our woe / With
loss of Eden, til one greater Man / Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat"
(PL IX.3-5). This "greater Man" is most literally Christ, born of virgin
mother, yet Milton, too, seeks to be the "greater Man." Later in his letter to
Diodati, Milton quips: "You ask what I am thinking of? So may the good Deity
help me, of immortality!" (Patterson 27). With his chaste epic ambition, Milton
seeks to place himself in the role of savior, using his poetic brilliance to
undo the Death engendered by the Fall.
1 Hereafter, Ovid's Metamorphoses will be abbreviated in parenthetical citations as Met. The original Latin, with which Milton was familiar, will be accompanied by my own English translations, which are indebted to those of Allen Mandelbaum and D.E. Hill.
2 For example, in Eve's narration of her creation, she describes herself at a pool, viewing her own image as a comforting maternal figure who provides "sympathy and love" (PL IV.465), and when Adam discusses Eve's creation with Raphael he describes her as "in herself complete" (PL VIII.548).
3 Furthermore, one version of the Adonis myth tells that when Adonis was born, Venus, impressed by his beauty, entrusted him to Proserpina. Proserpina then refused to return Adonis to Venus, upon which Jove decreed that Adonis would spend half the year with each goddess. This myth clearly evokes Proserpina, both including her as a main character and echoing her own year divided between Dis and Ceres. Although Ovid does not recount this version of the myth in his Metamorphoses, Milton may well have been familiar with it.
4 Interesting also: immediately after Eve eats the Fruit, "Back to the Thicket slunk / The guilty Serpent" (PL IX.784-5), in a description perhaps suggesting the male anatomy after orgasm.
5 "To die" can also mean "to languish, pine away with passion," and in the late 16th and 17th centuries in particular meant "to experience a sexual orgasm" (OED). However, reading these meanings into the Fall seems extreme, as death was the biblical punishment for eating the forbidden Fruit.
6 Milton's misogynistic tendencies, it must be noted, are no greater than those of Ovid, whose Jove decrees that Proserpina must spend half the year with her rapist, Dis, for the rape is not an injury but love ("non hoc iniuria factum, / uerum amor est" (Met V.525-6)).
7 Interesting also is the description of Eve tending her garden: "Each Flow'r of slender stalk, whose head though gay / [. . .] / Hung drooping unsustain'd, them she upstays" (PL IX.428-30). This description suggests male erection and can further imply Eve's arousal of Satan.
8 Adam's choice of the word "yield" is particularly interesting given Eve's role to "yield" herself submissively to Adam, which Milton emphasizes in Book IV. (See below.)
9 In a similar vein, Adam longs for some "Woods impenetrable" (PL IX.1086), perhaps expressing his desire to escape from female sexuality.
10 See, for example, "Elegia Sexta," lines 55-66, and Apology for Smectymnuus (Hughes 695).
- Hughes, Merritt Y., ed. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose .
New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1957.
- Milton, Paradise Lost. In John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose.
Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1957. 211-469.
- - - -, Samson Agonistes. In John Milton: Complete Poems and Major
Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1957. 550-93.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses. Trans. and ed. D. E. Hill. Wiltshire: Aris &
Phillips Ltd., 1992.
- Patterson, Frank Allen, ed. The Works of John Milton, Volume XII. New
York: Columbia UP, 1936.