The Rape of Proserpina and Eve's Fall in Milton's Paradise Lost
"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 gath'ring flow'rs
Herself a fairer Flow'r by gloomy Dis
Was 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
Pergus, aquae; [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
perpetuum ver est. Quo dum Proserpina luco
ludit et aut violas aut candida lilia carpit,
dumque puellari studio calathosque sinumque
inplet et aequales certat superare legendo,
paene simul visa est dilectaque raptaque Diti.
(Metamorphoses V.385-95) 1
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...