The Poets

June 07, 2009

Eve's Reflection (Milton Fragment)

It was the heat of the day that drew Narcissus to a pool of water. As he bent over its silvery gleam for a drink an image appeared before him- it was his self. Narcissus, who hadn’t seen himself before, was so enamored by what he saw he instantly feel in love- wishing, as it were, to become one with the object of his delight, kissing the reflection and trying to pull it out of the water. After having realized that what he had viewed was merely a reflection of himself, he became utterly distraught and grief-stricken as the object of his highest desire became suddenly unattainable ...

Ah wretched me! I now begin too late
To find out all the long-perplex'd deceit;
It is my self I love, my self I see.

His unrequited love killed him beside that body of water.

Milton, whose brilliant mind was highly versed in Greek mythology, drew upon the story of Narcissus as he introduces us to Eve. In Book IV of Paradise Lost (449 – 471), Eve recalls her first memories as a human. In her recollection she gives the following account of the very first human face she sees:

That day I oft remember, when from sleep
I first awaked, and found myself reposed
Under a shade on flowers, much wondering where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issued from a cave, and spread
Into a liquid plain, then stood unmoved
Pure as the expanse of Heaven; I thither went
With unexperienced thought, and laid me down
On the green bank, to look into the clear
Smooth lake, that to me seemed another sky.
As I bent down to look, just opposite
A shape within the watery gleam appeared,
Bending to look on me: I started back,
It started back; but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love: There I had fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warned me; 'What thou seest,
'What there thou seest, fair Creature, is thyself;
'With thee it came and goes: but follow me,
'And I will bring thee where no shadow stays
'Thy coming…

Of the Poem:

Clearly this is a parallel to Narcissus, and there’s no doubt that Milton intends a warning here: That self-love is inherently idolatrous, leads to creature worship (which is essentially theft from God), and is in the end ultimately self-destructive.

It was by unchecked self-complacency that Narcissus destroys himself. His self-love rose to such a height as to count itself the highest image of contemplation, a clear case of idolatry. But Eve is spared. It’s a voice, God’s to be sure, that both warns and redeems Eve from such a narcissistic fate. "Follow me" it implores.

It's interseting that God’s manifestation to Eve was not that of a corporeal, tangible one; but was rather by an unseen Voice. Milton seems to imply that we ought not be drawn away by things seen, but lead by God who is Spirit. There immediately comes to mind several verses from scripture: John 4:24, II Cor 5:7, Heb 11:3, II Cor 4:18 to name a few.

I find it amazing that the above passage, selected from a larger work, is a poem on its own. Milton has this way of poeticizing that- whether it be line or stanza, chapter or epic- that renders every minute detail scripted by him poetic. His prolific poetic mind is massive. He is to poetry what Socrates is to philosophy. Of Milton, what poet compares?


Jen Jen said...

This is very interesting especially considering this day and age, how many of us stop to look at ourselves in the mirror, or a window as we pass. Any chance we get as humans we take a look to see if we "look okay". I guess this makes us all adolterous at some point in life. Does this mean we should run from a mirror now? I also find it a bit amusing at the simplicity of both Naricissus and Eve in finding an image in the water and not knowing it was their own. How easily we fall in love too as human's even if it's with our own unknown image in the water or love at first site.

Anonymous said...

This is true. Do you mean vain, perhaps, instead of 'adulterous?' because that is a different word, that has to do with cheating on a partner or religiously also.

Daniel Galef said...

She means "idolatrous."

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