The Harmony of Time in Paradise Lost
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In the first terrible misery following Gods judgment on him, Adam longed for death. Nor could he understand the delay in carrying out the sentence. The conditions had been clear enough: "In the day thou eat'st, thou diest"(7.544). "Why delays," he asked himself, His hand to execute what his decree Fixed on this day? Why do I overlive, Why am I mocked with death, and lengthened out To deathless pain? (10.771-75) Adam's confusion is in some measure resolved by the time he comes to talk with Eve. He tells her that . . . this day's death denounced, if aught I see, Will prove no sudden, but a slow-paced evil, A long day's dying to augment our pain, And to our seed (O hapless seed!) derived. (10.962-65) Because we readers of Paradise Lost are at home in this fallen human world, it can be instructive for us to imagine how it must first have impinged on Adam, as the strange consequences of his crime and his punishment were borne in on him. We discover that the poem's theological doctrine is a key not only to its meaning but to its narrative art as well. A consequence of the fall for Adam was his heightened awareness of duration and change, memory and anticipation--in other words, of a plot unfolding in time. From the almost timeless simultaneity of the heavenly aevum, Adam is expelled into a world of time, of history and story. The judgment of God is, he discovers, to be worked out in time, both the sentence of death and the promise of redemption. Eventually time will have a stop, Paradise will eventually be regained; this future hope is consolation for the dreadful sorrow that memory of his past happiness brings on him. But an important human virtue in this new world of change becomes endurance, enlightened and made possible by memory and hope.
Oral Tradition, 2/1 (1987): 260-72.