Milton's Earthly Paradise
In Virgil's first references to the 'happy places' ('locos laetos') and the 'groves of the blest' ('Fortunatorum Nemorum') the happy life and the pleasant setting fuse mucli as they do in Paradise Lost. Elysium is the home in the Lower World of purified spirits, who dance and sing and engage in sports under their own sun and stars. They have no fixed abode, but live amidst a neverending variety of scented laurels, shady groves, shining fields, and surging streams. Eventually they will drink from the great Elysian river, the Lethe, which glides past its peaceful shores and rustling woods, and will return to earth.
Descriptions of various classical gardens also contributed immensely to the poetic realization of the Edenic garden. Milton's allusions to two of these gardens, the Garden of Alcinous and the Gardens of the Hesperides, suggest the indescribable beauty of the true paradise garden. Homer's Garden of Alcinous, (Od., VII, 112-34), visited by Odvsseus, enjoyed an eternal spring and was famed for its sensuous beauty and fertility. Some have considered the realm of Alcinous a fairyland, yet its original may have been the isle of Corcyia. Here, as in Milton's Paradise, nature pours forth her bounty in unending profusion: trees bear simultaneously both blossom and fruit; and streams from a central fountain wind through orchard, arbor, and garden plot. But, although the Garden of Alcinous provided the abundance of the life of the golden age, it—unlike Milton's Paradise—remained forever uninhabited. The classical gardens drawn on most richly by Milton were the Gardens of the Hesperides. In Hesiod's Theogony (11. 215-16), the Gardens of the Hesperides (meaning 'in the west') were placed beyond the ocean, in the same location as Homer's Elysium and Hesiod's blessed isles. Tlie Hesperides, daughters of Hesperus, kept orchards heavily laden with fruit and also a tree with golden apples, which was guarded by an ever wakeful dragon. Only Hercules is able to pluck these forbidden fruits, Lucan also described these island gardens. Gradually the Gardens of the Hesperides became imaginatively linked with Elysium, the Islands of the Blest, and the life of the golden age, and like the Garden in Eden, they had ancient mythic origins and were remembered for their fruit.
Other classical landscapes contributed their own loveliness to later descriptions of the Edenic paradise. A long tradition lay behind the allusions to the Proserpina story in Paradise Lost. From the Homeric Hymn to Demeter to Claudian's De Raptu Proserpinae, poets lavished their most alluring images on depictions of Nature in her prime. To the field of Enna, with its flowers of many kinds and hues, might be added a variety of trees, a cave, and a stream. The Hymn to Pythian Apollo introduced the Graces and Hours which later would dance into Milton's Paradise and the idealized pastoral settings of countless Renaissance works. The classical topos of the locus amoenus, the traditional rhetorical formula for illustrating the lovely place, also passed into medieval and Renaissance descriptions of paradise. This topos, as it was developed in Homer's characterization of Calypso's Grotto and in the seventh idyll of Theodritus, unites grass, shade, and water-meadow, forest, and stream—in an image that connotes rest and satisfaction, peace and harmony. It is the staple of pastoral poetry. Nature is brought into a harmonious relation both with the divine order and with man. A landscape, whose caves and spring and luxuriant growth reflects the generative power of nature, becomes the setting for human love and sexuality. This landscape would later be adapted for presenting either an idealized or ambiguous interpretation of the human love and sexuality of Adam and Eve. Another classical rhetorical pattern related to the locus amoenus was the picture of the mixed forest of non-fruit-bearing trees; this, too, would influence descriptions of Christian paradises. Finally, the mountaintop paradise of Dante and Milton is anticipated in the poetry of Statius and Claudian. In the Achilleid, Statius depicts a grove, sacred to the rites of Bacchus, which is so high that it almost reaches heaven. In the Epithalamium de Nuptiis Honorii in descriptions of the Edenic paradise, it is so high that it is free from frost, wind, or clouds.
These classical descriptions of a golden age existence, of fruitful gardens and lovely landscapes, paralleled the Semitic accounts in some ways, but also made important new contributions to later descriptions of the paradise in Eden. Although there were comparable characterizations of an early innocence in an ideal setting, the golden race had no descendants and tlie inhabitants of faraway isles remained far away; the classical narratives, unlike Genesis, did not embody the beginnings of a universal, providential history. However, classical writers developed an ethical ideal of the good life and an aesthetic ideal of sensuous loveliness in relation to the paradisal setting. A golden age existence, either at the world's beginning or as an afterlife, was associated with an ideal of virtue. Unlike Genesis or Ezekiel, classical literature often presented the positive virtue of tlie inliabitants as the most essential feature of an earthly paradise. In the fully developed classical tradition, those enjoying the life of the golden age possessed an inherent virtue or received a reward for virtue. This image was also mirrored in the idealized conceptions of the 'blameless Ethiopians,' Hyperboreans, and other faraway, virtuous races. This ethical ideal harmonized with the later Christian ideal of original righteousness. Similarly, classical descriptions of the earth's abundance, of the varied scenery of Elysium, and of a pristine Arcadian landscape provided an ideal of beauty that inspired Christian poets who praised the wonder of the garden planted by God.