Illustrator, John Martin. Original illustration from Paradise Lost, Book 5


Eve (On Awakening as if from Sleep)

I want to tell a story about an experience I had while writing about Mary Shelley. I decided to study Milton's Paradise Lost because of its influence on Frankenstein. Milton (1608-1674) was not a writer I found accessible. As an undergraduate majoring in English, I had avoided him. I thought him arrogant, judgmental, and a sexist. I knew he’d taught his two daughters enough Latin so they could accurately pronounce the words, but had refused to let them learn what the words meant because he believed it inappropriate for women to have such knowledge, as if it gave them access to a secret intellectual society that belonged only to learned men. He taught his daughters because he was growing blind and needed them to read to him, which they did, daily, without ever understanding what they read.
On this particular day, I was driving toward the community college where I taught, about a forty-five minute jaunt primarily across country roads until the very end. (I was living on Whidbey Island, at the time, in Washington State.)  Deciding that the best way to ease myself into Paradise Lost was to listen to it, I had purchased some excellent tapes, narrated by a fine British actor who handled the archaic Renaissance English with ease. In fact, I was immediately taken by the beauty of the language and fell easily into the poem. Paradise Lost is an epic poem, considered by many to be the greatest epic poem in any modern language. It is a telling of the Christian understanding of “man’s first disobedience and the fruit/of that forbidden tree whose immortal taste/brought death into the World, and all our woe/with the loss of Eden.” It opens with the story of Satan’s rise to power, his history as God’s most treasured companion, an angel of captivating beauty, and then chronicles his corruption, his bid to overthrow God’s order, and his eventual fall.

In my mood of emancipated, twentieth-century woman, I found myself enjoying Milton’s characterization of Satan. He seemed an intelligent creature, and the more I fell into the tale, the more he intrigued me. I knew something of the spiritual history of women in the West, and recognized Satan as a twisted, co-opted image of the great mother goddess’s consort. My anger at Christianity’s destruction of those early women’s ways and of the goddess tradition was piqued. I drove along, utterly engaged, drawn fully into the telling. And then something very unexpected happened.

Just as I was hitting the height of my emotional involvement and feeling waves of angry superiority about Milton’s characterization of Satan, the scene changed and I was in Eden with Eve and she was falling under Satan's spell. Recognition struck like a lightning bolt: this was how Eve fell! 

As this wave of understanding came over me, I experienced a sudden and sharp attack of nausea so strong that I felt faint. Clearly I had to get off the road and I literally battled the car to a stop on a gravel drive. And then I fainted, quite literally passed out. When I awoke, moments later, I was absolutely appalled, and so angry I could only stutter with amazement as I grasped the fact that, like Eve, I had been taken in by Satan. And, that the knowledge of it was so powerful, so distressing to me, that it made me pass out—not my normal response to information however shocking, rather something like a scene out of a nineteenth century novel where the damsel simply faints away.

I could hardly believe my own experience. My anger at Milton rose to a crescendo. I could almost hear him laughing across the centuries, his arms folded in condescending disdain: There you have it, he seemed to be saying, the weakness of woman, the ease with which she is seduced. You have proved my point entirely! When I returned home that evening I wrote Eve (On Awakening as if from Sleep).



Eve (On Awakening as if from Sleep)
by Molly Dwyer

O thou for whom
and from whom I was form’d flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end,
My Guide and Head...

That day I oft remember, when from sleep
I first awak’t, and found my self repos’d
Under a shade on flow’rs, much wond’ring where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
of waters issu’d from a Cave and spread
Into a liquid Plain, then stood unmov’d
Pure as th’ expanse of Heav’n; I thither went
With unexperienc’t thought, and laid me down
On the green bank, to look into the clear
Smooth Lake, that to me seem’d another Sky.
As I bent down to look, just opposite,
A Shape within that wat’ry gleam appear’d
Bending to look on me, I started back,
It started back, but pleas’d I soon return’d
Pleas’d it return’d as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love, there I had fixt
Mine eyes till now, and pin’d with vain desire

Paradise Lost, Book IV
John Milton (1608-1674)

I arise from my dreams: cathedrals and griffins, serpents slithering through gardens of past bliss, and Eve so beautiful that like Satan, I am jealous.  I no longer recognize truth; I know not the sacred as torn from the profane. I dream, lost in mythic darkness, terrified of what, I dare not repeat. My God, who am I? And who, my God, are you? Is this then the labyrinth, and am I lost? Is this then confrontation with wingéd angels tumbled from the realm of light?

I dress shivering in the raw morning cold to the radio news of militia and military and men of might. Yes, men. I’m still searching for the women, digging in the garbage heaps of history, the discarded memories, the unorthodox, the forgotten and irrelevant.

I am woman. Eve awakening to the marvel of her own refection, hovering on the shores of a sapphire lake, alive, shimmering. I look into the waters and reach for her curiously. What (who) is this? She reaches back, her face shy and open. We smile through the waters and wonder at one another while somewhere in the overgrowth of the thicket, a voice murmurs: “Do not stand alone. Do not trust thyself not to sin. Thou art my rib, here to make me whole.”

I tremble and rise. This then is Eden? This paradise?  The growth is verdant, true enough, and green with passion, but I am wandering naked in the hope of understanding. That it was I who first bit the apple, wanting knowledge, wanting more than to be what I was. Yes. So: it does make sense. I have been one with the serpent since ancient times, my consort, Lord of the tree of truth and the mystery of rebirth.  It was I, yes I, who stood the snake goddess, the divine mother of the mountain, lady of the beasts, giving birth to the god of the gods, my hands outstretched in prophetic trance.

And now the car clicks away the miles of country road and tears dig ditches across my face.  I am beating my breast, pulling at my hair, “Take me back!” I cry, dreaming at night of the terrors of redemption, the terrors of hoping for redemption. Waking, looking my friends squarely in the eye, “I dreamed the true terror of life is hope.  I dreamed it is better to be afraid, than abandoned by God.” They look at me blankly. 

I am raving, now: where have I been searching for myself these past fortnights, these long aching days? I’ve been riding across the star-painted skies, breathing in the infinite vacuum of forever, clinging to the divine mother even as I am ripped from the soil of my own understanding.

I thought it was about volcanoes, but no, it’s about fire in the sky, fire in the being of blood, fire as spirit, spirit as soul, soul as divine and forever. And me, Eve, awakening from my dreams and he is still is bending over me and I am still reaching out to him, whispering, “Yes, take me. God, please take me, and I will come, hot and gentle and full of soft cries. And I will be thy rib. I will join the mystery.”

The tears that soak my cheeks are for Satan. Who cries for Satan? I do. I stand before the throne of God in my radiant blasphemy and say, “Holy one, call back your fallen angels. Please let us live in peace, for how God, can ever there be peace on earth when, indeed, heaven herself is led by warriors and cries of war and everlasting Hell?”

We are but children... and who left the gates of Paradise unguarded?  Not I.  My sin was craving knowledge. I, woman, in my wonder, still stunned by the magnitude, still listening to the subtle arguments of the serpent. Why should it be that knowledge is my sin? Why knowledge? And away slithers the snake and I, innocence denied, lie on the lush bank beside the waters knowing what before I could not have understood: that soft, beguiling creature in the waters, that face smiling back at me, that beauty which so fills me with longing and desire (sweet Eve, we are one) is me.  Precious mother of all life, I am she and thou art me. And am I forever condemned?

What can it mean that I lie with the dying Christ in my dreams, giving him pleasure in his agony?  The passion of Christ.  Is that too the darkness of unspeakable sin?  Should I confess myself of such a dream? And to whom and when? Wherefore does my brain steal at night, to what world, to what purpose? And does dream tarry in existence?

“I am. . .” the radio croons.  I am driving the byways to civilization and life.  In my dream I wash his blood from my hands (for I’ve handled his most private offerings, his most mysterious parts, and handling them, have watched his eyes close to life even as he cried in the wonder of his own ecstasy.) He was chaste before I touched him. The consort of the goddess divine, given over to God, given only to the purity of his own innocence. Did I then destroy his holiness?

Having thus enacted my abasement, (my basement crime), I climb the stairs to the living room to dine. (This, yes, is my dream.) I wash my hands clean of his blood. Wasn’t that what Pontius Pilate did?  I sit and we smile politely and speak of the weather and of art, and of the rich valleys of the Rhine where someday we should travel in search of romantic scenery. And all the while the death of Christ, his body wet with blood and semen lays in my darkness, down deep beneath the layers of my table, in the abasement of my dwelling. (I found him thus and there, and know not from whence he came. I only thought to love.) Woman, wherefore art thou?  Whom for art thou? Woman made from Adam’s rib.

I find my self awake at the pulsing red light of the interchange. Interstate 5, the highway to Hell, the real road, the freeway to the city and to the high rising towers where my brother (my lover) plies his trade in law and I blink and think, “My God, we’ve built our entire civilization on a myth!”

The thought runs through my veins, blood to feed my pulsing mind. “A myth, nothing but a myth?  How could we build on such airy nothingness?” The light turns green. I enter the traffic, the radio blares on: “I am,” it cries, “I am.”  I sing along for comfort, escaping my labyrinthine mind, externalizing the world, merging with the traffic flowing through reality.

“But where (the voice is persistent) from where did such myth arise?  How is that we came to tell ourselves this story, why and wherefore?” And what of it is lies?