The passages that got John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ banned by a Florida county

Would students in the state's Orange County be tempted by the 17th century classic? One can only hope.

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(RNS) — In its effort to comply with a new state rule in Florida that bans sexual content in books in public schools, one Florida county last month decided to err on the side of caution and require teachers to rid their classrooms of all books that might violate the rule. The school officials in Orange County provided a list of 673 books that they thought invited trouble from state minders.

News reports said the list is currently being reviewed by Orange County school staff, and one school board member voiced concern that the list represents “over censorship” spurred not by prudery but by fear of inviting trouble from the state.

The list included some traditional high-school English class go-tos such as “Jude the Obscure” by Thomas Hardy and “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck, as well as “The World According to Garp,” by John Irving, and John Grisham’s legal thriller “The Firm.”

But the surest sign that panic had broken out in Orange County was that the list also flagged “Paradise Lost,” the epic Christian poem about Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, written by 17th-century English Puritan John Milton.

There are many reasons to read Milton’s poem, whose10,565 lines are rich in language, texture and theology. I’d encourage anyone to read it, or even just to dip into passages every now and then. If that doesn’t motivate you, but lascivious appetite might, I can also recommend the sexy bits of the poem, which are presumably the parts that caused school officials to remove one of the masterpieces of world literature.

In Book Four of the poem (of 12), we are introduced to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The lines quoted here describe Adam leading his new wife (naked!) into their nuptial bed. They,  having not yet sinned by eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, are enjoying marital love in pure innocence, having fulfilled a day of working in the garden as God commanded and eager to fulfill his command to fill the earth. 

… thou hast promised from us two a race
To fill the earth, who shall with us extol
Thy goodness infinite, both when we wake,
And when we seek, as now, thy gift of sleep.
This said unanimous, and other rites
Observing none, but adoration pure
Which God likes best, into their inmost bower
Handed they went; and, eased the putting off
These troublesome disguises which we wear,
Straight side by side were laid; nor turned, I ween,
Adam from his fair spouse, nor Eve the rites
Mysterious of connubial love refused:
Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
Of purity, and place, and innocence,
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.
Our Maker bids encrease; who bids abstain
But our Destroyer, foe to God and Man?

…. Here, in close recess,
With flowers, garlands, and sweet-smelling herbs,
Espoused Eve decked first her nuptial bed;
And heavenly quires the hymenaean sung,
What day the genial Angel to our sire
Brought her in naked beauty more adorned,
More lovely, than Pandora, whom the Gods
Endowed with all their gifts…

These, lulled by nightingales, embracing slept,
And on their naked limbs the flowery roof
Showered roses, which the morn repaired. Sleep on,
Blest pair; and O! yet happiest, if ye seek
No happier state, and know to know no more.

They (naturally) fall peacefully asleep. Only the imagination of a Milton could require his readers to leave so much to theirs.

In Book Nine, Milton describes a bedroom scene that parallels the first, but after Adam and Eve have given in to temptation and sin and eaten the forbidden fruit. Their relationship is transformed. This time, the pair’s lovemaking, as well as the sleep that follows, is marred by guilt and shame. 

…. from the bough
She gave him of that fair enticing fruit
With liberal hand: he scrupled not to eat,
Against his better knowledge; not deceived,
But fondly overcome with female charm.

…. that false fruit
Far other operation first displayed,
Carnal desire inflaming; he on Eve
Began to cast lascivious eyes; she him
As wantonly repaid; in lust they burn:
Till Adam thus ’gan Eve to dalliance move.
Eve, now I see thou art exact of taste,
And elegant, of sapience no small part;
Since to each meaning savour we apply,
And palate call judicious; I the praise
Yield thee, so well this day thou hast purveyed.
Much pleasure we have lost, while we abstained
From this delightful fruit, nor known till now
True relish, tasting; if such pleasure be
In things to us forbidden, it might be wished,
For this one tree had been forbidden ten.
But come, so well refreshed, now let us play,
As meet is, after such delicious fare;
For never did thy beauty, since the day
I saw thee first and wedded thee, adorned
With all perfections, so inflame my sense
With ardour to enjoy thee, fairer now
Than ever; bounty of this virtuous tree!
So said he, and forbore not glance or toy
Of amorous intent; well understood
Of Eve, whose eye darted contagious fire.
Her hand he seised; and to a shady bank,
Thick over-head with verdant roof imbowered,
He led her nothing loth; flowers were the couch,
Pansies, and violets, and asphodel,
And hyacinth; Earth’s freshest softest lap.
There they their fill of love and love’s disport
Took largely, of their mutual guilt the seal,
The solace of their sin …

In Book Eight of the poem, Adam converses with the angel Raphael and dares to ask if angels express their love bodily as he and Eve do. But the angel (as Milton would have it) coyly refuses Adam a straight answer.

And there you have the scandalous sexual content in “Paradise Lost.” Perhaps in being removed from schools, more students will be tempted to read it. One can only hope.

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