Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
Adam and Eve pray beneath the open sky

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Adam and Eve pray beneath the open sky

Excerpt from John Milton, Paradise Lost

Before the fall, as we hear from Scripture, Adam and Eve were naked, but they felt no shame. That isn’t because they were foolish. We’re the ones who are foolish. They were innocent. Of course, once they eat of the forbidden fruit, they do feel shame, they weave together some fig leaves for loincloths, and they skulk — hiding from God, as they think, when they hear him walking in the garden in the cool of the evening.

You know what poets do? They take something we’ve passed by a hundred times, and they show us something wondrous about it, something right there for us to behold, yet somehow we never saw it till the poet pointed it out. And that is what John Milton does in our Poem of the Week, which is a short passage from Book Four of Paradise Lost. We’ve just met Adam and Eve for the first time, overhearing, so to speak, their conversation, which is about How We First Met — what else do you think young married people in love are going to talk about?

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And they embrace and kiss, and they enjoy their dinner, watching the animals frolicking about, and talking about what comes to mind, such as the stars that begin to appear in the evening sky. After that, it’s time to retire for the night. Adam and Eve have a special grotto, their bower, which Eve has decorated with vines and flowers, a sacred place where none of the animals will go, such is their awe of man. But before they do that, they stand, holding hands, under the open sky, looking heavenward, and they say a prayer of thanks and of petition.

And there it is. To be innocent is to be able to stand tall and to pray without embarrassment, openly, without ducking your head, without looking this way or that to see if anybody’s watching you, without the shame of sin, without a cover for your soul. Milton’s suggesting that it’s how we would have prayed, had there been no fall from grace.

The prayer is simplicity itself, though expressed with all the elegance of Milton’s verse. Why, we don’t even get words from them until we’re part of the way into the prayer. They turn, they look up, they see the sky, the air, heaven and earth, the moon, the stars in their bright array as they slowly circle the pole star; I said that they see them, but Milton says that they behold them, which is what God did when he looked upon all that he made in the beginning. To behold is to do more than see: it is to gaze upon, with wonder, as an artist might gaze upon the work of a master. And almost without a pause we’re into the very words of their prayer, expressing gratitude, and asking God for two blessings. One, obviously, is sleep. The other, the more important, is children. Think of that! Think of how simple and open it is. And Adam and Eve will enter that bower after their prayer, the bower of both love and sleep. The endless sky is above them as they pray; the roof of their bower is a few feet above them as they sleep; and all is open, and all is like a holy garden, enclosed and sheltered, and pure.

Thus, at their shady lodge arrived, both stood,
Both turned, and under open sky adored
The God that made both sky, air, earth, and heaven,
Which they beheld, the moon’s resplendent globe,
And starry pole: Thou also madest the night,
Maker Omnipotent, and thou the day,
Which we, in our appointed work employed,
Have finished, happy in our mutual help
And mutual love, the crown of all our bliss
Ordained by thee; and this delicious place
For us too large, where thy abundance wants
Partakers, and uncropt falls to the ground.
But 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.

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“Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Jan Bruegel, the Elder. Public Domain.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. We value all of our subscribers, and we thank you for reading Word and Song!

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
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