Milton's Eve and Ovid's metamorphoses
Milton's early partiality for Ovid once noted, it is customary to assume that his formal apprenticeship to the Latin poet concluded with Eleqia Septima, after which, it is argued, he left the service of his first master to follow the more congenial example of Virgil. That this is an over-simplified account of the development of Milton's literary tastes is confirmed by the number of Ovidian reminscences in the text of Paradise Lost, and also by evidence of a different kind. We have the testimony of Milton's daughter, Deborah, that Ovid's epic, the Metamorphoses, retained its hold on Milton's imagination and remained one of the three favourite works she was most often called upon to read to her father. So enigmatic and protean a character as Milton's Satan has understandably diverted a great deal of critical attention away from his portrayal of Adam and Eve. However, Milton's characterization of Eve, particularly, repays the closest critical attention. In my thesis, I have concentrated upon the presentation of Eve, where lines that breathe forth an unmistakably Ovidian redolence tend to gather. When painting his portrait of Eve, Milton employs a special technique. She is not presented to us directly, but obliquely, through the medium of a controlled and inspired evocation of figures from the Metamorphoses. These associative links do not simply provide imaginative colouring, they become in addition the means whereby we apprehend her nature and role in the epic. They become expanding images of surprising potency, relating pointedly to the present and future parts she is to play. Indeed, this strategy of deliberate allusion to Ovidian mythology performs several, different functions simultaneously. By associating Eve with the bright, vernal beauty of Ovid's mythical settings, Milton establishes his unfallen Eve as belonging to a remote yet familiar world. She is glimpsed as Proserpina, Narcissus and Daphne in quick succession, and then as Ovid's Mater Flora in a pattern of unfolding significance, which provides the means whereby Milton can articulate and expand the Biblical account of Eve's pre-lapsarian experience. Previous critics have tended to concentrate on the way in which Milton uses certain kinds of imagery to prepare for the Fall. Searching out potential flaws and latent weaknesses, they alert the reader with a knowing wink when a simile or incident warns us of the inexorable sequel. It is admittedly tempting to seize upon one or two memorable strands of mythological identification - whether of Eve as Narcissus or Circe - to the exclusion of others, and to find in them the formative motifs for her portrayal. However, this approach does not do justice to the complexity of Milton's usage; these figurative links define the positive, as well as hint at the negative, aspects of Eve, and seem often to be used with calculated ambiguity by the poet. Again, some of the most subtle and interesting examples of this narrative technique are those where Milton provides only the first link in a chain of associated ideas, where the relationship is merely suggested or hinted, rather than explicitly stated. Eve is then presented in such a way that the reader enjoys the pleasure of making previously unapprehended connections and exploring for himself the implications of such a correspondence. In these cases, the reminiscence is sufficiently distinct to alert the informed reader while preserving something of the quality of things left unsaid which characterizes Milton's greatest poetic effects. Keenly aware of the imaginative value of pagan myth, Milton could tap and exploit its poetic power, whilst at the same time establishing Eve as the summa of all other partial embodiments that appear in fractured versions of the true and complete account to which he had access in the Scriptures. Shining through her local manifestations as Narcissus, Daphne, Pomona, Venus and Flora, Eve subsumes and thus transcends her mythical ectypes, which become reflections or 'shadowy types' of Eve herself.