“Of Man’s First Disobedience” * Taste & Smell in John Milton’s Paradise Lost

The opening lines of Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton are perhaps some of the most recognizable in all of western literature, and they begin with taste—the oh-so-delicious taste of good and evil that will get humans kicked out of Eden forever:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse,…

A quick “find” command in my Project Gutenberg copy of Paradise Lost informs me that the word “taste” appears 63 times, which makes sense since it’s taste that brought all our woe.

“Smell” is also not infrequently mentioned in Milton’s epic poem—20 times—and nearly always in conjunction with ambrosial odors. For example, here’s God exhaling sweet smells as he tells his angels that, although humans will fall it will be because they were tempted, and so he will allow them mercy:

The heavenly hosts by Gustave Doré for an illustrated version of Paradise Lost, 1866. God and Jesus sitting above hosts of angels with dove wings in clouds and robes.

… Man therefore shall find grace,
The other none:  In mercy and justice both,
Through Heaven and Earth, so shall my glory excel;
But Mercy, first and last, shall brightest shine.
Thus while God spake, ambrosial fragrance fill’d
All Heaven, and in the blessed Spirits elect
Sense of new joy ineffable diffus’d.

If God is a kind of diffuser of heavenly aromatherapy, Sin—daughter and  consort of Satan, mother of Death—emits another fragrance altogether, described in an extended simile:

Nor uglier follow the night-hag, when, called
In secret, riding through the air she comes,
Lured with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland witches, while the labouring moon
Eclipses at their charms.

Satan’s pain by Gustave Doré for an illustrated version of Paradise Lost, 1866. Satan, waring ornate ancient armor, has bat wings and is putting his hands to his head in anguish.

Satan will not be detained by Sin and their lovely son Death , for he’s on his way to check out the marvelous humans he’s heard about in order to see how he might corrupt them. Thus, he passes through the terrible gates to the garden, where enticing trees await:

All trees of noblest kind for sight, smell, taste;
And all amid them stood the tree of life,
High eminent, blooming ambrosial fruit
Of vegetable gold; and next to life,
Our death, the tree of knowledge, grew fast by,
Knowledge of good bought dear by knowing ill.

To their sorrow, first Eve then Adam will taste the forbidden fruit, which is tempting not only for the knowledge it will bring, but also for its delicious flavor! Interestingly, in Paradise Lost, only Satan calls the forbidden fruit an apple. Here he is, answering Eve’s question as to how he, a lowly snake, came to speak. He tells her about the day he tried this really wonderful fruit, neglecting to mention that it is the fruit of the forbidden tree, peaking her curiosity long before he provokes her alarm:

I was at first as other beasts that graze
The trodden herb, of abject thoughts and low,
As was my food; nor aught but food discerned
Or sex, and apprehended nothing high:
Till, on a day roving the field, I chanced
A goodly tree far distant to behold
Loaden with fruit of fairest colours mixed,
Ruddy and gold: I nearer drew to gaze;
When from the boughs a savoury odour blown,
Grateful to appetite, more pleased my sense
Than smell of sweetest fennel, or the teats
Of ewe or goat dropping with milk at even,
Unsucked of lamb or kid, that tend their play.
To satisfy the sharp desire I had
Of tasting those fair apples, I resolved
Not to defer; hunger and thirst at once,
Powerful persuaders, quickened at the scent
Of that alluring fruit, urged me so keen.

“The Fall of Man” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1628-29. Painting depicting a naked Eve reaching to the snake with the head and torso of a cherub who holds out a ruddy golden forbidden fruit, while Adam, also naked, seems to want to detain her. And storm clouds gather.

Though Eve will further question this odd talking snake, and doubt and delay. It’s about lunchtime, so really, how can she refuse?

Mean while the hour of noon drew on, and waked
An eager appetite, raised by the smell
So savoury of that fruit, which with desire,
Inclinable now grown to touch or taste,
Solicited her longing eye; yet first
Pausing a while, thus to herself she mused.
Great are thy virtues, doubtless, best of fruits,
Though kept from man, and worthy to be admired;
Whose taste, too long forborn, at first assay
Gave elocution to the mute, and taught
The tongue not made for speech to speak thy praise:
Thy praise he also, who forbids thy use,
Conceals not from us, naming thee the tree
Of knowledge, knowledge both of good and evil;
Forbids us then to taste! …