Adamantine; a grand, four-syllable word that could be saved for special occasions. What was it that attracted me to that word? I don’t know, but I was impatient to use it. I first met ‘adamantine’ in Paradise Lost in a sparsely populated Theatre N in University College Dublin. It was likely a cold and dark November afternoon. Second Year English was a pretty grim affair in 1980. I remember lots of metaphysical poetry, Jacobean tragedy and religiously charged middle English. I’m not complaining though; I did love it. I learnt that if something had an ‘adamantine’ property, it was impossible to break it. Here it is in all its Miltonic glory:
‘With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to arms.’
Or perhaps it was the nineteen eighties pop icon Adam Ant who helped fix that unbreakable word in my lexicon. He, apparently, had purloined his stage name from Adamant, manufacturers of bathroom accoutrements.
Anyway, adamantine chains were what you got then when you refused to be a team player with the other archangels in Heaven Inc. There’s nothing like a scorned CEO godhead for resorting to the old ‘adamantine’ to short circuit archangels who ‘set themselves in glory above their peers’, or, who ‘lose the run of themselves’. Looking back, I think I would have been a more confident reader of Paradise Lost if I had received a biblical and a classical education. Having neither meant I had to constantly refer to ridiculously detailed footnotes in ludicrously tiny font. By the time I got my head around some ancient Greek tryst, Roman elegy, or Old Testament soap opera and tried to relate it back to the poem, I felt like a failure. The flow, nebulous as it was, floundered in a sea of classical allusions. Notwithstanding, the whole experience was strangely compelling. I appreciated that Paradise Lost was an important work and I knew that I was all the better for having studied it, albeit at a very basic level in my case. I loved the big language; it was bold and mellifluous; over the top yet puzzlingly puritanical. If Milton was working in the twentieth century he would have been a member of Depeche Mode, Erasure or The Pet Shop Boys; all angst and concealed thoughts in an androgynous haze of synth and satin. I wonder what inspired them?
One of the most frequent responses I used to get from teachers about my schoolwork was, ‘You must have done that in your sleep.’ They were not being complimentary. Paradise Lost was created in Milton’s sleep and edited in his waking hours. It’s every writer’s dream, isn’t it? Have a heavenly (or equivalent) muse dictate your next work to you in your sleep. Milton’s muse was called Urania. Next morning, the blind Milton would dictate installments forty lines at a time to a scribe. He would then edit and reduce it by half. It might be more accurate then, to say that Paradise Lost was written by a woman and edited by a man, and in his introduction to The Essential Paradise Lost, Professor Carey asks if in any sense it might be a feminist poem. Not likely, he concludes, because the poem’s subjection of Eve to Adam is officially endorsed as part of the divine plan. But then again, the shock experienced by any modern woman reading Paradise Lost is, in itself, a service to the cause of equality; it re-energises your outrage and spurs you on.
Look, for example, at the allegorical figure of sin at the gateway out of hell, in Book 2 - a woman above the waist and a serpent with a deadly sting below, who sprang fully armed from Satan’s head, became pregnant by him and gave birth to Death. Death then raped her, and she gave birth to the hell hounds who perpetually torment her. Professor Carey’s drawing our attention to this ‘gruesome parody of motherhood and childbirth’ is instructive when you consider the anti-woman practices associated with childbirth throughout history, mostly rubber-stamped by male dominated religious and professional institutions.
In recent years, comic book superheroes are replacing the more traditional deities. I had read about three quarters of Professor Carey’s The Essential Paradise Lost when I went to the latest Wonder Woman movie with my daughter. In the characters Zeus and Ares I was looking at God and Satan. In Wonder Woman’s home, Themyscira, I was looking at the Garden of Eden and, like Adam and Eve, she lives the first part of her life in a Utopian bubble, completely oblivious to the nature and pervasiveness of human evil. Her wakeup call is swift and shocking when she is introduced to the Western Front during the death throes of World War 1 in 1918. The devastation she witnesses is redolent of the vast emptiness called Chaos in Paradise Lost that Satan must fly through to reach earth. Perfect timing; Wonder Woman was a revelation; not only does the movie attempt to explain the convoluted nature of evil in the world, it also touches on the nature of free will - a leitmotif throughout Paradise Lost. Ares sells the idea of an apocalyptic poison gas to the German military just like Satan sells the idea of picking the forbidden fruit to Eve.
The marvellous thing about re-visiting Paradise Lost with the help of Professor Carey is that it reminds us about the complexities and contradictions in human nature and we are living in a time when such an understanding was never more important. The debate between leading devils Molloch, Belial, Mammon and Beelzebub in Book 2 eerily mirrors countless political and military powwows throughout history. While Milton’s Satan is a lesson in how not to let political power cut you off from conventional human mores – Robert Mugabe currently springs to mind – that very Satan does have flashes of empathy. While watching Eve in the garden, he momentarily forgets his nefarious plan and remains ‘stupidly good; of enmity disarmed’. Like Gollum, intent on leading the Hobbits to destruction in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Satan oscillates between feelings of kindness and hatred. More tellingly, alone and on earth in Book 4, Satan has an attack of conscience over the suffering his misdeeds on earth will cause. His self-questioning as to why he succumbed to vain ambition while other angels did not, reminds me of Macbeth succumbing to the witches while Banquo does not.
But let’s return to the feminist angle and what makes uncomfortable reading for me. In Book 8 Adam explains his understanding of Eve to the archangel Raphael: ‘Full well I understand in the prime end / Of nature her the inferior, in the mind / And inward faculties, which most excel,’ In Book 9 we are led to believe that Mr Superior himself, Adam, eats the forbidden fruit ‘Against his better knowledge; not deceived, / But fondly overcome with female charm.’ In Book 10 the bold Adam laments his folly: ‘Oh why did God, Creator wise, that peopled highest heaven / With spirits masculine, create at last / This novelty on earth, this fair defect / Of nature, and not fill the world at once / With men as angels without feminine;’ Finally, in Book 12, just before leaving the Garden of Eden, the archangel Michael reassures Adam that he has relegated the sleeping and unsuspecting Eve to the fourth division: ‘all her spirits composed / To meek submission.’ Adam is now in charge, and with divine permission, he can drip feed Eve any knowledge and information as he sees fit.
Thank you, Professor Carey, for bringing me back to Paradise Lost. It has been a long time. You have made a great and important poem more accessible without dumbing down the work.
©Berni Dwan 2017