Choosing Rest in Paradise Lost

By Daniel Ritchie and Jared Hedges

Immediately after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost, John Milton describes the first steps of Adam and Eve in these striking words:

Some natural tears they dropp’d, but wip’d them soon;

The World was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence thir guide:

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way. (12.645–49)

Why “rest”? Why not repentance or obedience? Or, given Milton’s Puritan affinities, why not work or vocation? Why not covenant or sanctification? Prior to the fall, Milton emphasizes how Adam and Eve find rest in their Edenic cycle of eating, conversation, worship, sexual expression, and labor. After the fall, these elements are degraded, but not lost. Rather, each element needs to be re-established in a new “place of rest.” Following their expulsion from the Garden, our human parents may choose to use their time in the world to choose rest, or not. In this article we explore the ways in which Paradise Lost carries Adam and Eve—and its readers—through their choice of a “place of rest.”

The “holy rest” of God, mentioned twice in the poem, will be attained in Paradise (6.272, 7.91). But a different kind of rest must be discovered here on earth. At the risk of stating the obvious, Paradise Lost is emphatically about life in this world, and the “rest” described at the end of the poem is clearly available to the wandering Adam and Eve, and potentially available to readers of Paradise Lost as well.

Rest is strikingly absent at the poem’s opening, and Milton frequently links restlessness to evil in its first few books. Hell  is a place “where peace / And rest can never dwell” (1.65–66, cf. 1.185), and even the earth scorches Satan’s feet upon his arrival: “Such resting found the sole / Of unblest feet” (1.237–38).

This demonic “restlessness” finds its antithesis in Adam and Eve’s “haste,” which is neither chaotic nor restless (5.136, 211, 326, 331). Instead, our unfallen parents’ alacrity is always balanced by conversation, walks, sexual expression, and sleep. Even their labor is in equilibrium with their rest; it is never viewed as the enemy of rest. Conversely, Satan and the fallen angels attempt to “work ease out of pain / Through labor and endurance” (2.261–2, emphasis added).

In addition, while Satan seeks to destroy God’s cycles (9.136–37), Adam knows that “God hath set / Labor and rest, as day and night to men / Successive” (4.612–614). Rather than being their enemy, time can be used fruitfully by the unfallen Adam and Eve for all kinds of activities, laborious and restful. The primary way they enrich these activities is by conversing with one another and with God. Indeed, Adam dreads the loss of such conversation first among the consequences of the fall, asking Eve: “How can I live without thee, how forgo / Thy sweet Converse” (9.908–909). Such sweet converse is not limited to speech either. Adam cannot rest while he is in “unity defective”; he needs the “Collateral love” of a sexually conversant lover (8.425, 426). Both the verbal and sexual conversing of Adam and Eve plays an essential role in the couple’s developing understanding of rest.

Rested from a night of rejuvenating sleep, Adam awakens Eve to converse about the next stage in their God-ordained cycle: the day’s labors. “[W]e lose the prime,” he urges, “to mark how spring / Our tended Plants” (5.21–22). Even here, though, Adam places the urgency on “marking” rather than reforming the plants and groves. His following lines explode in sensory appeal, and affirm the Garden as an object of contemplation as well as a place of labor.

Adam similarly pauses to appreciate Eve (5.19ff), demonstrating again that, in their relationship, resting takes precedence over laboring. It is only after speaking with each other and with God that they “to thir morning’s rural work … haste,” and even these labors are to be punctuated with “[r]efreshment, whether food, or talk between, … [f]or not to irksome toil, but to delight / He made us” (5.211, 9.235, 242–43). This is “eat, pray, love” with depth.

Pursued with restful intermission, labor fits harmoniously into the cycles of creation as Adam and Eve experience them: sleep, worship, conversation, sexual expression and work. Significantly, four of these blessings are experienced primarily during times of rest, and all are ways of obeying God.

After the fall in Book Nine, however, toil becomes irksome, and the other varieties of resting mentioned above are similarly degraded. Milton explicitly frames the pair’s fallen condition as an absence of rest: Adam and Eve not only have no “paradise within,” but are “worse within” (9.1122). In the wake of the fall, Adam and Eve indulge in lustful but unsatisfying passion, and arise from sleep “[a]s from unrest” (9.1051–52). Likewise, conversation is veiled by deception and leads to error, food intoxicates rather than sustains, and work is entirely absent from their consideration (9.1034–1189).

But even such degraded rest can be recovered in new forms. Christ, says Michael, will “bring back / Through the world’s wilderness long wander’d man / Safe to eternal Paradise of rest” (12.312–314). Christ’s “eternal Paradise of rest” anticipates both the promise of a “paradise within” and Adam and Eve’s sought-after “place of rest,” both of which must be found in the fallen world. While eschatologically charged, Milton’s language here is consistent with the promised restoration of earthly rest.

When Michael pronounces their exile from the Garden, Adam and Eve must again reconceive their rest. Indeed, it is the loss of the place of rest that so undoes Eve: “O unexpected stroke, worse than of Death! / Must I thus leave thee Paradise?” (11.268–269). But Eve is mistaken in supposing that her violets, pansies, and hyacinths cannot grow outside the Garden’s “Climate” of rest. The angel instructs Eve to reconceive her “native soil” as wherever she and Adam go (11.270, 292). He reassures Adam that God, who met him in Paradise, will also be found “in Valley and in Plain” (11.349). They now must learn, however, to cultivate a “paradise within” (12.587).

Unlike both the eternal future Paradise and the Paradise that was “so late their happy seat,” this “paradise within” is to be found during their present life on earth (12.642). The entire poem has prepared Adam and Eve—and the reader—for this conclusion. “The World was all before them,” and the poem’s ending beckons toward the answer: their joined hands signify a renewed relationship; their “choosing” signifies a renewed rational capacity; and their slow steps toward their place of rest signify that space and time are no longer enemies, but rather their means to a redeemed life. “Some natural tears they dropp’d, but wip’d them soon” (12.645), and in doing so they reaffirm the cycles that will define their wandering and give meaning to their labor, their conversation, their sexuality, and their rest.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Choosing Rest in Paradise Lost,” published in Christianity & Literature 67.2 (2018). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.