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The Idea Of Dreams As A Crucial Motif In The Poem Paradise Lost

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An analysis of Milton’s use of dreaming as a crucial motif and idea throughout Paradise Lost, especially in the four books preceding the fall, is one of the most revealing ways of analysing the reasoning and events leading to the Fall. Dreams, specifically Eve’s Satanically inspired dream in Books VI and V, have been the subject of fairly extensive critical debate, particularly surrounding the dream’s implications with relation to the fall. Where mid- 20th century critics such as Tillyard argue that “the first stage [of the fall] is Eve’s dream” (11), more recent criticism tends to attribute more agency to Eve, a contrast I shall explore in this essay. The importance and thus the precedence of ideas received in sleep, and in dream form, is reflected in Milton’s own views and experiences.Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, John Carey references Milton’s invocation of Urania, the heavenly muse of astronomy and navigation, in the first 40 lines of Book VII. My interpretation of this, is an explanation for Milton’s use of sleep and dreaming to impart supernatural information in this section of Paradise Lost. If Urania’s “celestial song” (VII.12) is imparted to Milton in his sleep, and enables him to “sing with mortal voice” (VII.24), then we can naturally draw parallels between this. Likewise, in his introductory invocation (I.1—26), he implores to his Muse: “What in me is dark/Illumine, what is low raise and support;/That to the heighth of this great argument/I may assert eternal providence,/And justify the ways of God to men” (I.22—26). Aside from being one of the most important lines in the poem — as it clearly sets out Milton’s stated aim — the idea that dreams are able to inspire clarity, illuminate Man’s internal psyche, and ultimately bolster Milton’s “argument”, is pivotal to my critical reading of Paradise Lost. Furthermore, this concept is again referenced preceding the pivotal events of book 9 — “Her nightly visitation unimplored,/And dictates to me slumbering” (IX.22—23). In this particular invocation, it is clear that Milton feels in order to fully articulate the pre/post-lapsarian shift, he must be inspired in sleep. Of Milton’s use of dreams, Carey argues that it reveals the existence of both a conscious and subconscious poem. From this, it is not untenable to argue that when dreams and sleep are used as devices in Paradise Lost, they are able to subvert the explicit meanings in the text.

Dreams are not simply, to Milton at least, manifestations of a fancy that can only appear in sleep — they are voices from other planes, with the aim of impacting reality. Thus, if Milton receives divine inspiration through dreams, we can apply the same idea to the supernatural dreams received by Adam and Eve. In this essay, I shall argue that, following Satan’s defeat and fall, the way in which he exacts his revenge on mankind is primarily through the usage of dreams and sleep. This is illustrated not only by the dreams he invokes, but the use of all kinds of dreaming throughout the poem. The battleground changes from a physical one, to a mental one in the minds of Man.

In Book IV, we see Satan’s reasoning behind creating Eve’s dream — namely, that God’s command to stay away from the Tree of Knowledge provides “Oh fair foundation laid whereon to build/Their ruin; hence I will excite their minds” (IV.519—520). Additionally, we later see him “Squat like a toad” (IV.798), caught in the act by Gabriel. Satan’s role in Book IV is markedly different to the soldier portrayed in the first 3 books — he becomes a spy, hence the use of the image of a squatting toad. He is able to lose all semblance of an angel, instead resembling a base animal, foreshadowing his transformation into a serpent. It is in this form he utilises dreams to influence Eve — his change in stature reflects his changing methods and his changing aims. At the end of Book IV, Satan’s transformation appears to be complete. He chooses not to challenge Gabriel physically — and instead “fled, murmuring” (IV.1014—1015). McColgan takes this argument further, asserting that “This dream, then, is not an indication of what Eve is but rather of what Satan has become” (142), an idea that strengthens the argument that the dream is Satan’s, not a manifestation of Eve’s intrinsic desire to be tempted. Benet agrees, arguing that the human propensity to sin comes from a Satanic invasion. She does concede, that in a balanced contextual and textual reading, this is another form of determinism, and Eve does still have “causal agency” (49). Put more simply, the existence of the dream provides an interpretive ambiguity apparently at odds with the seemingly straightforward explicit message of the poem. Wiznura describes this as the “problem of interpretation” (108) created by the varying perspectives of the dream. It lacks clarity and is itself a metaphor for the counter-Edenic chaos it appears to present.

The recounting of the dream itself, bears a different tone to that of an external perspective. Millicent Bell argues that “the rehearsal of the temptation presented in Eve’s dream already moves her across the border this side of innocence” (867). The lack of agency ascribed to Eve is interesting in this interpretation — she is simply a victim of her own unconscious weakness. Though I see merit in the idea that the dream represents a removal of Eve’s innocence, it appears that the dream merely offers the possibility of temptation. On the tone of the recounting in Book V, Bell also argues that “we relive with Eve the amazing night in which a gentle male voice (‘I thought it thine,’ she says to Adam) calls her into the moonlit woods” (871), arguing for an explicitly romantic tone. This is compounded in Eve’s description of the sounds in the dream — “the night-warbling bird that now awake/Tunes sweetest his love laboured song” (V.40—41). A fundamental function of the dream is that Adam is not there — instead the romantic (and secular, as McColgan points out: “formation of the sacred into the secular in Eve’s dream” (141)) connection is made between Eve and Satan, and by extension Satan’s defining character trait: disobedience. Bell argues that the blame is placed on Eve for her susceptibility (871), and agrees with Tillyard in that the dream (the reception of which Eve is blameless) is the first indication of the inevitability of the fall. Of this, Petty argues that “Regardless of how well one may think it works, Eve’s dream spans the chasm between innocence and knowledge” (43), and with this I certainly agree. Both Tillyard and Bell take this argument further, arguing that the dream symbolises a loss of innocence, but it simply opens up the possibility of knowledge and loss of innocence, hitherto unknown.

McColgan, on the other hand, argues that “the script is Satan’s, not Eve’s who helplessly plays the role in which she is cast” (142), and my analysis of the opening of Book V concurs broadly with this assertion. Adam’s immaculate sleep helps to articulate Eve’s restlessness and evil dreams — a concept that theoretically contrasts with idea of “paradise”. Contrasts in language arise, as “When Adam wakes, so customed, for his sleep/Was airy light from pure digestion bred/and temperate vapours bland which th’ only sound/Of leaves and fuming rolls, Aurora’s fan/Lightly dispersed” (V.3—7) — an intensely Edenic and flawless portrayal, contrasts heavily with Eve’s awakening: “of offence and trouble which my mind/knew never till this irksome night” (V.34—35). The simple fact that Eve immediately awakens in a restless state provides textual evidence suggesting that her subconscious has not fallen into temptation. However, the dream does open possibilities previously unrealised — “much fairer to my fancy than by day” (V.53). Robert Wiznura argues that “The dream Satan implants forces Eve to entertain the possibility of disobedience” (Wiznura 109), and I agree. Wiznura argues that Eve’s reaction to the dream indicates a conscious rejection of the temptation proposed in the dream, and on this point, I agree. Though the dream evidently foreshadows the actualisation of the vision, it is by no means prophetic — Eve appears to have free will to a certain degree. Adam’s reassurances compound this, as he philosophises that “Evil into the mind of God or man/May come and go, so unreproved, and leave/No spot or blame behind” (V.117—119). Though Adam does not necessarily have knowledge of Evil thus far, his words nonetheless clearly absolve Eve of blame for having had the dream incepted into her. Thus, the only possible agency she is granted is in her reaction to the dream, and as previously discussed she consciously chooses to reject its message.

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A key idea that works in tandem with dreams, is that of “fancy” — in this context, as a contrast to “reason”. Adam’s interpretation is:

“But apt the mind or fancy is to rove/Unchecked, and of her roving is no end;/Till warned, or by experience taught, she learn,/That, not to know at large of things remote/From use, obscure and subtle; but, to know/That which before us lies in daily life,/Is the prime wisdom” (VIII.188—194).

Bell argues that the idea of “fancy” put across in these words contrast with his reassurances to Eve about Evil — if it is her fancy that is wandering in these dreams, then surely it is her own mind that is wandering, not simply a Satanic invasion. She argues that Adam’s logic is fundamentally flawed; “His speculations on the wandering action of the Fancy during the hours when sleep overcomes the Reason are wide of this particular mark”. On the other hand, Wiznura argues that “Fancy appears as something of a manifestation of the chaotic, of the mixture, of a return to the indistinguishable and uninformed matter that preceded creation. Fancy is the home of possibility, of multiplication, duplication, conjugation, and endless permutations. Fancy reflects an order distinct from creation and reflects the order/disorder of pre—creation, or chaos” (Wiznura 115). Combining these ideas, it appears that Eve’s dream simply introduces the concept of self determination, through the usage of “roving Fancy”. Indeed, it is her “roving fancy” that leads to a physical manifestation of the dream — the symbolic separation at the beginning of Book IX. Their debate culminates in Adam’s acceptance of her suggestion to divide their labours — “Go in thy native innocence” (207). Yet, if her “Fancy” has previously entertained the possibility of disobedience without Adam, then her wandering away from him will lead to temptation. Satan tempts Eve through her dream, and this thus leads to the mindset where she is comfortable working away from Adam. Diane McColley, however, argues that the dream “allows a growth in moral understanding and the proper use of fancy that might have proceeded in innocence” (41). This again reinforces my argument that Eve still has a certain amount of agency, and has not necessarily fallen.

The dream is also pivotal as it subverts the foundation of Adam and Eve’s relationship. Eve recalls that “I rose at thy call but found thee not” (V.47), implying that in the dream scenario, Satan has essentially replaced Adam as the one that dictates Eve’s actions (allegorised by control of her waking and sleeping). Contrasts do arise in her recounting of the dream — the fact that she feels “high exaltation” (V.89) having eaten the fruit lends credence to the arguments of Bell and Tillyard, in that due to the dream format, Eve subconsciously links the forbidden fruit to “exaltation”, even if when awake she rejects this message. However, on balance, this is less a case of prolepsis and more evidence of Milton’s desire to show Satan’s cunning, especially when the option of physical battle no longer exists. Though the dream does not directly suggest that Eve was predestined to have fallen, utilising other dreams as foils to her Satanic dream indicates the asymmetric information delivered to the couple. The motif of hands is an important one used throughout, especially with respect to relationships. Adam “Her hand soft touching, whispered thus. Awake” (V.17), and with Eve “Thus talking, hand in hand alone they passed” (IV.687). Likewise, in Adam’s recounting of his post-creation dream (which serves as a foil to Eve’s Satanic dream), “So saying, by the hand He took me raised,/And over fields and waters, as in air/Smooth-sliding without step” (VIII.300—302). Even in dreams, the importance of this physical connection is stressed — implying the hierarchal nature of Eden. God leads Adam, and Adam and Eve go hand in hand. However, a contrast with Eve’s dream is that she is not physically “led” anywhere. Eve’s dream is a subtle, nuanced temptation, induced by Satan, whereas Adam’s divine dream is didactic, as he is literally taken by the hand. Both the language, and framing (God first speaks to Adam and Satan first speaks to Eve, in dreams) used is strikingly similar, and the effect of this is essentially to elicit comparison. Eve describes “The pleasant savoury smell/So quickened appetite that I, methought,/Could not but taste” (V.84—86), and Adam describes “Loaden with fairest fruit that hung to th’ eye/Tempting stirred in me sudden appetite/To pluck and eat” (VIII.307—309). Both describe an apparently involuntary biological reaction, yet as Eve is tempted where Adam is led, Eve’s dream is seen as a sign of her inherent flaws. Adam is allowed to succumb to his temptation, whereas Eve is forbidden from her temptation. Likewise, Adam describes “a dream/Whose inward apparition gently moved/My fancy” (VIII.292—294), yet when Eve’s fancy is moved, it is seen as sinful, further highlighting the ways in which dreams can be used to analyse the unequal prelapsarian gender dynamics. In addition to this, as Eve is ostensibly inferior, then it has been apparently deigned that she will not receive celestial dreams. This is shown even when Raphael is commanded to appear to Adam, for fear that “how disturbed/This night the human pair, how he designs/In them at once to ruin all mankind” (V.226—228). Not only does this indicate God’s awareness of the precedence of the impact of dreams in the determination of mankind, he follows with “Converse with Adam” (V.230), and “Lest wilfully transgressing he pretend/Surprisal” (V.244—245). In God’s conversation with Raphael, Eve isn’t even mentioned — thus, he places the burden of saving Eve, from what Benet refers to as Satan’s “poison” (41), on Adam, who only had access to the dream through Eve. Here, Eve is denied agency to deal with the dream — thus we cannot blame her for later being influenced by a dream which deliberately separates her from Adam.

Directly following the Fall, sleep changes from a poetically beautiful concept to one linked to Sin — a clear representation of the postlapsarian shift. Having “taken their fill of love” (IX.1043), “dewy sleep/Oppressed them” (IX.1044—1045), a clear contrast to Adam’s previous sleeps in particular — namely, his “love dream” containing the creation Eve, and his initial “creation dream”, where he receives divine inspiration. Dreams are described — “grosser sleep,/Bred of unkindly fumes, with conscious dreams/Incumbered” (IX.1049—1051). This inversion of the dream motif bears a clear link to Eve’s Satanic dream, yet more severe, and importantly, not inspired by a higher power. The dreaming is entirely the product of their own free will. It is following this episode of dreaming, that postlapsarian Eden truly manifests itself, and the ramifications of the Fall become clear. However, the final instance of dreaming in the poem comes in Book XII, and indicate that irrespective of their result, dreams provide Adam and Eve with access to planes of understanding inaccessible when awake. Eve’s statement “God is also in sleep, and dreams advise/Which he has sent” (XII.611—612), seems to imply that Michael’s explanation of the future of humanity to Adam has had the same effect as God’s explanation to Eve in a dream. Of this, Webber posits that “Although both attend to lectures, Eve is more responsive to dreams: the work of reeducating her after the Fall thus is much less laborious than that of teaching Adam” (16), and this ties into my previous arguments. Similarly, McColgan argues that “this statement, emphatically placed near the end of Book XII, brings to closure an important theme of Milton’s poem, that both God and Satan work through dreams” (135), further reinforcing the idea that dreams are able to illuminate, in the same way that they inspired the writing of Paradise Lost itself. Adam and Eve receive differing treatments throughout, yet when dreams are utilised, they appear to symbolise a higher understanding, through fancy, instead of reason. This unification is symbolised in their final image — “they hand in hand with wandering steps and slow/Through Eden took their solitary way” (XII.649). This is the final way in which dreams are able to illuminate reality — the solitude and possibility for self-determination of Eve’s Satanic dream combines with the unity espoused in the dreams sent to Adam, and the pair are able to move forward, out of Eden, with free will intact.

To conclude, then, it has been clearly established that, as Petty asserts, ‘the function of the dreams is to lend credibility, realism, and naturalness to the flow of events” (46), as well as adding another plane of understanding with the opposition of Fancy and Reason. Additionally, the usage of the dream by Satan introduces complexity to the character of Eve, by offering her the possibility of disobedience. The visions and dreams following the Fall, in Book XII, provides hope for a future in a way that other mediums cannot. With respect to free will, Benet argues that “Paradise Lost directly addresses readers who attribute too much power to Satan: ‘Happiness [is] in [man’s] power left free to will / Left to his own free Will’ (5.235-36). But it also addresses those who attribute too little power to the apostate” (50), and this is an argument similar to mine — the existence of dreams in the narrative indicate the possibility for free will, yet Satan’s influence is clear and deliberate.

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