Galileo is mentioned three times in Paradise Lost, once in epithet as “the Tuscan artist.” As artist he may be the maker of telescopes—the artifex,or inventor of new devices for acquiring knowledge. Along with Columbus, who appears in Book IX of the poem at its climax, Galileo belongs to secular history; and more dramatically he is the only contemporary of Milton to be actually named in the whole vast composition. As a distinct historical agent of immediate importance to the early modern world—indeed, as maker of that world—Galileo alone among other great thinkers is not anonymous, for Milton accords him a heroic authorial identity granted to no other historical person in the poem. The effect of such singularity is to confer upon him the role of a second author to the work, given that Paradise Lost speaks or sings through the symbolism of celestial bodies that Galileo made his own especial domain of thought and research. To us, he is known as the initial discoverer of the law of inertia, upon which in its perfected form Newton based his grand scheme of universal celestial mechanics; but for history and drama, Galileo is the persecuted champion of the Copernican Revolution.
The present account simultaneously limits and extends the role that Galileo’s discoveries played for Milton; yet before making my argument for this intellectual drama, I should recall a comment by Keith Thomas, in his Man and the Natural World: “The great philosophers Galileo, Descartes, Gassendi and Leibniz all rejected the idea that the natural world was created for man alone.” 1
This judgment is by no means new, but it deserves to be repeated again and again, for therein lives the conundrum of conflict between science and religion, a seemingly never-ending struggle. By claiming to limit to a single work the reach of Galilean influence upon Milton, I only mean that so great is the scientist’s range and achievement in different areas of inquiry, that he enjoys almost universal presence during the early seventeenth century. His thinking permeates the entire composition of Paradise Lost; and as a heroic model of what revolutionary independence might be, poetically, Galileo acts the role of a presiding spirit.
In a sense, as Milton well knew, those scientific discoveries and opinions were one distinct cause of our losing Paradise, of our needing to conceive it as an entirely spiritual notion.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order.
(I.iii.85-88)Disordered planetary motions are to blame if social order goes awry, and there is no limit to the natural disasters that will follow “when the planets / In evil mixture to disorder wander.” It follows that the assembled Greek warriors must by act of will reinstate the principle of degree, at all costs. Thus counsels the cunning, ambitious, and ambiguous Ulysses, projecting a deep fear shared by his contemporaries, insofar as they were a people obsessed by chaos and mutability, or, as Tillyard calls it, “an obsession powerful in proportion as their faith in the cosmic order was strong.”3 This anxiety has to be the case when dynastic succession to the throne was unavoidably doubtful.
Her rocks remove not, nor her mountains meet;
(Although some wits enricht with learning’s skill Say heav’n stands firm and that the earth doth fleet And swiftly turneth underneath their feet);
Yet, though the earth is ever stedfast seen,
On her broad breast hath dancing ever been. . . .
These throwaway lines recall the much more serious ideas of Spenser in the Mutability Cantos, and we recall that mutability provides the new centering principle of the universe. Both ancient and modern astronomy appear now to inspire the later lines of Milton’sParadise Lost, where the Archangel Raphael imagines that the sun as center “incites” the planets, including earth, to “dance about him various rounds.”5
Behind him cast; the broad circumference Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views At evening from the top of Fesole,
The realism of scale-differences, registered by the natural scientist, is subject to figurative control. If the opening narrative gesture is thus controlling our perspective on the power of daemonic agencies, then the whole ensuing poem will have to follow with similar optical controls of its story line, the idea being that a cosmically true account of biblical and pagan historical events is for Milton subjected to control by an actual historical person, be it Milton himself or Galileo. The latter seems to bring a principle of perspective transformation into the poem at its first moment of action, and we shall find this a determining factor throughout the work, giving it the baroque turbulence and folded interleaving structure that Gilles Deleuze associates with baroque displacements of fixed classical forms, especially in the thinking of Leibniz.14 The poet is not unaware that scientists like Galileo are now the arbiters of fact in the study of nature, while older systematic beliefs are only metaphors and myths for the new knowledge. According to this metonymic reading, Satan and his grandeur appear optically generated;and if we take this thought to the extreme, we might say that he appears to us with the splendor and surprise of a newly discovered telescopic phenomenon. While this reading might appear too literally scientistic, the fact remains that Satan’s towering figure has fallen into the orbit of telescopic science. His shield, itself a flattened orb, his spear a peeled Norwegian tree trunk, are known to us here only as images. They are present only as likenesses, and even the shield’s protective shape has been reduced to the geometry of a “broad circumference.”
These epithets may be read simply as the language of vast size, and nothing more, but virtually occult philosophy points through such scalar images to things only the telescopic scientist can see. A. D. Nuttall makes the general point that Galileo’s initial observations of the moon gave a “glimpse” every bit as striking as Herschel’s 1781 discovery of the planet Uranus.15 The discovery was mainly phenomenological, possibly related to the formation of planets, but its symbolic effect was instantly available to nonscientists and appeared to affront the Church’s idealized, rationalized Aristotelian vision of the virgin moon. By the same token, the Miltonic simile of Galileo’s observation, with its overlapping complexities of reference, formally also undoes the older belief that the earth’s moon was a simple and perfect sphere.
At school in Aarau, at the age of seventeen, he wrote “My Plans for the Future,” an essay where, besides praising “the theoretical part of these sciences,” he went on to announce that he was “much attracted by a certain independence offered by the scientific profession.”18 When Milton casts Galileo as a telescopic voyager in strange seas of thought, he opens the door to connecting poetry with the scientific method as embodied in the Sidereal Messenger, a method depending (for science) on optical precision and (for poetry) on the complex use of visual images, moving thence into synesthetic imagery deriving from the originally optical starting point—the shield, the spear, the ship, and so on.
But he could not always be in other worlds; he must sometimes revisit earth, and tell of things visible and known. When he cannot raise wonder by the sublimity of his mind, he gives delight by its fertility.
If the question of uncertain scale dominates Satan’s first appearance, his second appearance carries us directly into the scene of sublime motion. In Book III Satan lands on the surface of the earth, an event that permits the poet to describe space travel in magnificent rolling rhythms—the same oceanic effect Stanley Kubrick achieved in2001, when he suddenly shifted his musical score into Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz. Our uncertainty about knowing how to orient our perspective is Milton’s chief interest; and in this passage, as so often in the poem, we are reminded that for Sergei Eisenstein the archetype of film montage was the Miltonic style in Paradise Lost.
Of longitude, where the great luminary Aloof the vulgar constellations thick,
That from his lordly eye keep distance due,
Dispenses light from far; they as they move
Their starry dance in numbers that compute
Days, months, and years, towards his all-cheering lamp
Turn swift their various motions, or are turned
By his magnetic beam, that gently warms
The universe, and to each inward part
With gentle penetration, though unseen,
Shoots invisible virtue even to the deep:
So wondrously was set his station bright.
Through thee, O Galileo, the telescope,
To present age unknown, shall be composed,
The work which brings remotest object close,
And makes it show much larger to one’s sense.Thou only, the observer of her motion And of what in her parts she has concealed,
Thou shalt, without a veil to shroud her form,
Behold her nude, O new Endymion.20
Alluding to the Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, Galileo’s patron, Marino conveniently enhances the appeal of his poem by invoking the most celebrated mythical explorers, the Argonauts. Similarly the Portuguese epic celebrating Vasco da Gama, the Lusiads of Camoens, had associated actual exploration with a vision of cosmic coherence; hence its use of the myth of Venus. In Marino’s Adone, a complex transumption tells us that Galileo and the Argonauts were virtually shipmates and explorers sailing with Columbus, a compression of temporal passage that recalls the mysterious final allusion to the shadow of the Argo on the sea-floor, at the end of the Divine Comedy.21 As Donne’s “Elegy XIX” had referred to the Atlantic coast of North America, so here the Italian poet bends his delight in the latest science, to make an admittedly rather silly mannerist comparison of Galileo to Endymion, a shepherd boy who fell in love with the moon. After the 1611 publication of the Sidereal Messenger, everyone was falling either in or out of love with the moon. In all respects, the poetry and journalism of the time indicate just how extraordinary the 1610 telescopic sightings appeared to Europeans of every persuasion. Technique was beginning to acquire its magic fascination in the West.
The third and final entrance of Galileo is initially less mysterious than the first two, but it is the one where he is named, in his own person, with his particular Christian name conferring on the moment an uncanny overtone, a prophetic sense more powerful for scriptural reasons than anything the poet might have said to describe the careworn astronomer. The Archangel Raphael is now on his way to earth, to instruct the hapless pair in Eden, and he soars through space with unprecedented speed and freedom. This is one of the great lyric passages at which Milton excels. The Archangel, “up springing light,” divides the choiring angelic host. Then, like a ship,
His voyage ended, Raphael makes landfall on earth, in the Garden,
As when by night the glass Of Galileo, less assured, observes Imagined lands and regions in the moon:
Or pilot from amidst the Cyclades Delos or Samos first appearing kens A cloudy spot.
Nevertheless, in the Galilean and hence Miltonic universe these judgments of rest and motion were capable of sensed observational analysis. In this context, Copernicus and Ptolemy seemed not very different, each theorizing that his system required a determining center, whether earth or sun; and in this regard, Copernicus had been anticipated in the third century b.c. by Aristarchus of Samos. Despite different theories of the center, the advance into the modern world came when thinkers like Galileo saw that motion became interesting when one understood it in this way: if I am standing on the deck of my boat, the shore passes by me as I sail along—yet the observer on the shore sees and thinks that I am passing him by, the situation being symmetrically reversed. What, then, is a state of rest? Our judgments are relative, first, to our viewing positions, and then to our beliefs regarding which observer shall be considered to be at rest. The concept of rest versus motion had long been a puzzle;it appears, we have seen, in Plato’s dialogue The Sophist, where the discussion touches on which is the more perfect case of Being, rest or motion.23 Now science was looking mechanically—and in that sense realistically—at this most fundamental of questions, for the new concept of inertia gave equal stress to states of rest and states of uniform motion, since either condition will continue forever, as long as there is no outside force (such as friction or propulsion) impeding or impelling the object. With Galileo, the problem begins to acquire the correct worldly setting, and a usable poetic setting as well.
It is likewise no accident that when Satan would tempt Eve, he comes at her like a ship tacking back and forth until it reaches port. One is reminded ofLycidas and the ominous implications of venturous voyaging by sea, a topic on which Donne had written his two brilliant elegies, “The Storm” and “The Calm.” Lycidas falls victim to such a Lateral Fall: while at sea, he becomes the victim of a ship,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.
of any spiritual Fall will always result from some action we take in a world through which, like Eve, we wander. Our destiny is to stray from the beaten path.
If Paradise Lost is cosmic and sublime to the highest degree, then we would do well to look for its peculiar mode of wit, which I take to be the play of ambiguous terms expressing the high degree of abstraction that cosmic thinking requires. If the archetype of common jokes is the cartoon image of an exaggerated particular (“feet way too big”), the archetypes of the sublime are distant, noble, and transcendent in their appeal to higher thoughts. The sublime needs no detail, as would be the case with its antitype, the picturesque.
Teskey shows with great learning and imagination that Milton indeed turns to the future, by adopting a new stance toward the oldest of all supposed events, the Creation. Milton, Teskey says, manages this by speaking in modern tones like an ancient shaman. There is a special sense in which the future in question is definitively the future imagined by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, the future whose outline is provided classically by Newton’s Principia Mathematica. An irony persists here, however, for this modern cosmic interpretation is precisely “a path of hollow eloquence,” because only if the poet hollows out the scene of time, space, and motion will the poem achieve its future-looking modernity. Donne and Milton were equally perturbed by the New Philosophy, but Milton found a relativistic solution for Donne’s lament, “all coherence gone.”
This seems often so, for there is precious little common kindness expressed in the poem, as if that might be trivial and too close to the raciness Johnson said was severely lacking. The common comes across here with ponderous Wordsworthian honesty—“no fear lest dinner cool” is the comment on cookery in the Garden of Eden. Wit on the sublime scale, therefore, pertains to the style of monstrous plays like Tamburlaine, where Marlowe had seen that world-conquering designs require world-conquering rhetoric, but nothing lowly. What saved Milton, as perhaps the “mighty line” had not saved Tamburlaine, is the incredibly complex Miltonic syntax and rhythm that weave the strings of interrelations making our vast universe possible.
This syntactic weave seems to me exactly the result of the poet’s acceptance of a Galilean universe, where all motion is significantly relative—that is, where the telling stability of things comes from their being forever on the move, but in orderly fashion. By allowing reminiscences and hints of allegiance to the Ptolemaic world system to persist alongside the Copernican system, the poem simply increases the general baroque sense of hyperactive harmony. For centuries, cosmic movement had been central to all serious cosmological speculations, including the great system of Ptolemy, with all its complex mathematical proofs of planetary movement, so we are not denying motion to the superseded system. It is as if the poem superadded Copernicus to Ptolemy and then let the newer vision dominate the larger cosmic effect of the poem’s vision.
This almost forbidden pursuit of knowledge—we might call it the liberation of occult causes—becomes, as we saw with Donne and Jonson, the modern way for metaphor to assimilate science. As figures of relative motion, metaphor and metonymy are clearly basic to all literature, especially poetry, and—as their rhetorical master Milton certainly knew—they remain quite mathematical enough.
1. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural world: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500¬1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 167.
2. E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952). 3. Ibid., 13.
4. Ibid., 99.
5. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Gordon Teskey (New York: Norton, 2005), VIII.125. Subsequent references to this edition will appear in parentheses in the text.
6. Galileo, Sidereus Nuncius, or The Sidereal Messenger, trans. and ed. Albert van Helden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 64.
7. Ibid., 24. 8. On the current state of research, see Reta Beebe, Jupiter: The Giant Planet (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997). 9. See Stillman Drake, Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography (New York: Dover, 1995), 145-169.
10. Galileo, Sidereus Nuncius, 84. 11. Ibid., 85, note 95. 12. Draft quoted from Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler, 2nd ed. (London: Longman’s, 1998), 3.
13. Ibid. 14. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).
15. A. D. Nuttall, The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), 85. See Nuttall’s discussion of the “homologated” similes.
16. Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 244, note 3, quoting Alexandre Koyre to the effect that Bruno’s universe remains vitalistic, magical, animistic: “his planets are animated beings that move freely through space of their own accord, like those of Plato or Patrizi.” In that respect Bruno is not at all a modern thinker, but his speculation regarding the infinite extension of the universe is definitely modern in its tendency.
17. See Frances Yates, Theatre of the World (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969). Also John Dee on Astronomy: Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558 and 1568), trans. Wayne Shumaker, introduction by J. L. Heilbrun (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).
18. Thomas Levinson, Einstein in Berlin (New York: Bantam, 2003), 15.
19. The Works of Samuel Johnson, First Complete American Edition, 2 vols. (New York: Alexander V. Blake, 1843), vol. 2, 42.
20. Adonis: Selections from the Adone of Giambattista Marino, trans. H. M. Priest (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), 190.
21. See Frank Manuel, Isaac Newton: Historian (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963), ch. 5 (“The Primitive Sphere of the Argonauts”), 78-88. 22. Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory  (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1961), 16-17. The fundamental question of “simultaneity” opens a conceptual door leading beyond the Newtonian mechanical universe. On simultaneity versus relativity, see, among various sources, Peter Galison, Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps (New York: Norton, 2003), 19-23. 23. Plato, The Sophist, trans. with commentary by Seth Benardete (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 255A-256B.
24. Galileo, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, trans. Stillman Drake, Foreword by Albert Einstein, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), xv.
25. Einstein, Foreword, ibid., xv.
In: Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare. Harvard , 2007 pp. 130-151.