I am not an enormous fan of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, though I can appreciate the accomplishment. Today I’ve been reading Robert Frost, and Frost has reminded me of Book 9 of Milton’s epic poem. Eve has just confessed to Adam that she has eaten of the forbidden fruit. He is initially stunned, but in a matter of just a few lines, he has resolved that his fate will follow hers:
. . . with thee
Certain my resolution is to die;
How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
. . . no, no, I feel
The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine shall never be parted, bliss or woe.
I love the alacrity with which Adam makes his choice. He barely hesitates. If she has fallen, he has fallen. Such is his love for Eve that he cannot contemplate a life without her. If he were Gladys Knight and the Pips, he would be singing “I’d rather live in her world than live without her in mine,” and catching that Midnight Train to Georgia.
This swift decision is also suggested in Genesis: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food . . . she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (3:6). While Adam’s motivation is less clear in Genesis, he has declared earlier (this also echoed by Milton) that Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (2:23). Clearly the man feels happily conjoined, in union with Eve, in bliss or woe, for better or for worse. And one could say that the Fall of all Creation is just about as “worse” as it can get.
By Book 12 of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve have heard the whole story from the Angel Michael. They learn that after generations one will come, a son of Eve, a Son of Man, through whom their Error will be redeemed. It is enough. They accept their fate and leave the Garden as described in the wonderful final lines of the poem:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
Sad, but also rather noble, don’t you think? Wipe your eyes, join hands, and move on.
By now you should be wondering what any of this has to do with Robert Frost. Well. One of the poems I’ve been reading is called “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” and here is how it goes:
He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly, an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover, her voice upon their voices crossed
How now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds is why she came.
While we never know for sure, references to the garden and to Eve strongly suggest the “he” of line 1 is Adam. Note, however, that Adam is not the speaker of the poem. The persona (whoever that is) presents Adam’s point of view, but in such a way that we get some distance from that point of view.
Upon first reading, though, we are tempted to accept Adam’s opinion: by listening to the voice of Eve, the birds in the Garden of Eden have added to their songs an “oversound,” an echo of Eve’s tone, her call or laughter. As such, Adam’s declaration offers a lovely tribute to Eve’s eloquence. And since Adam would be the only person to know how birds sounded before Eve, nobody can prove him wrong.
Given his advantageous position, it seems odd how defensive Adam becomes at multiple points in the poem. Lines 6 through 9 present one clear example: Adam admits that Eve’s soft eloquence could only have had an influence on the birds when her voice was raised, but “be that as may be, she was in their song” (the line suggests that Adam will stick to his belief regardless of logical points to the contrary). While we are on the subject, note that the word order of line 9 creates the phrase “maybe she was in their song.” Even as Adam declares his truth in strong, slow monosyllables, subtle uncertainty emerges.
After one perceives this oversound of doubt, it pops up several times: he could believe, for instance, or probably it never would be lost. Moreover (here is where my antennae went up the first time I read the poem), if a writer employs the word “lost” in a text about Adam and Eve, he just might be wanting readers to remember the Fall. This is what made me think of Paradise Lost, and Adam’s strong devotion to Eve. And once I started factoring Adam’s emotions into my reading of the poem, it occurred to me that Frost’s subject is not Eve and the birds; it is Adam’s altered perception of his reality.
We don’t know (and never can know) if Eve’s voice really had any impact on the songs of birds; in fact, the poem is composed in such a way to cast some doubt upon that possibility. Here’s what we do know: the presence of his wife, from whom Adam will not be parted, has changed the way he hears the songs of birds. We are told in Genesis that Adam’s task was to name the creatures of Eden. He got the words, but Eve added the music. Sense and Sound: the coming of love created poetry, Adam’s creative imagination inspired by Eve.
Here is my reading of the final two lines:
Never again would birdsong be the same . . . for Adam.
And to do that to Adam’s perception is why she came.
Or to put it another way:
God saw that Adam was lonely.
He sent Eve to rock his world.