quinta-feira, 25 de outubro de 2012

John Milton and the Moons of Jupiter by Angus Fletcher

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.
In that role he caused endless controversy, much of it fueled by his own rhetoric and arguments, until his confrontation with the Holy Office led to his leg­endary status. Ending up so much later as the hero of Brecht’s Galileo, even in his own lifetime he had come to be everybody’s favorite scientific hero, as historians have sometimes said.

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.



It is crucial to recall the idea of a world well lost, or lost in tragedy, depend­ing upon one’s vision. In The Elizabethan World Picture —that recently much maligned classic—E. M. W. Tillyard summarily argued that the reign of Eliz­abeth was intellectually and symbolically governed by ideas and analogies of “due degree,” “place,” “state,” “ceremony,” or indeed any number of ele­mental hierarchic frameworks which together combine to produce a single “supreme commonplace,” the Elizabethan version of an ancient archetype: the Great Chain of Being.2 The standard Elizabethan “Homily of Obedience” admonished all members of the congregation to imitate the ordered celestial model. With Ulysses’ speech in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare memorably epitomized the model as follows:

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.
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.

The Elizabethan symbolism of the center found perhaps its most powerful iconic expression in the Aristotelian idea of “perfect motion”:
that of rota­tion around a point, as in Ptolemaic astronomy. Here movement draws in upon “the still point of the turning world,” and it specifically shares in an ideal, perfect, unchanging order of things. Of course, whatever is conceived as central, and hence authoritative, may somehow lose its privileged position. Hence, there is a stultifying danger in any excessive pursuit of fixated centrism, and the aim of all the greater poets of the time is virtually to dislocate the fixed centers of belief, whether political, religious, or otherwise. Never­theless, Queen Elizabeth’s “Golden Speech” of 1601, in which she professed politic “love” toward her people and to the 140 members of her final parlia­ment, would be a critical example. The queen proclaimed, “Of myself I must say this:
I never was any greedy, scraping grasper, nor a strait fast-holding Prince, nor yet a waster. My heart was never set on any worldly goods. What you bestow on me, I will not hoard it up, but receive it to bestow on you again.” This principle of reciprocal gift-giving affirms the regular returns of a cyclical process;and just as the Copernican Revolution provided a hid­den justification for this schema, its Ptolemaic predecessor was even more strongly a centrist arrangement. While the Copernican model and its ejection of earth as cosmic focus appeared to orthodox Christians a fundamental attack on Aristotelian and biblical vision, the much deeper difficulty—in the view of the present argument—was not so much one of central position in the universe, as the privi­lege now given to motion. This privilege takes many paradigmatic forms, as seen, for example, in Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, or in the capitalist circulation of money (with many analogues, as in the gift-giv­ing of Shakespeare’s  Timon), or in the new physics and astronomy of Galileo. We may say that circles were beginning to look more elliptical, as they had been in the “Pythagorean” astronomy of Kepler.

When Tillyard chose Sir John Davies’ Orchestra: A Poem of Dancing to illus­trate the ideal Elizabethan world picture, he privileged a fundamentally static model of movement. Ideally the archetypal dance of the spheres com­prised circular perfect motions, reducible to human scale, where a system of round dances reinforced formal social structures of degree. On this view, the dance evolved the ladder of the Great Chain of Being into a circle, yet the scientific implications of this turn were not to be examined.
Iconically the Poem of Dancing cleaved to a late medieval design, and Tillyard wisely ob­served that “if Davies knew (as here he shows he does) the Copernican as­tronomy, he must have known that this science had by then broken the fiction of the eternal and immutable heavens. But he trusts in his age and in the beliefs he has inherited, and like most of his contemporaries refuses to allow a mere inconsistency to interfere with the things he really has at heart.”4 Perhaps the aside is a “mere inconsistency,” or perhaps it lets fall a serious anxiety:

Only the earth doth stand forever still;
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. . . .
(Stanza 51)
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’s
Paradise Lost, where the Archangel Ra­phael imagines that the sun as center “incites” the planets, including earth, to “dance about him various rounds.”5
These “various rounds” need not be Keplerian ellipses; rather, as we shall see, a composite cosmology of mixed Ptolemaic, Tychonic, and Copernican ideas organizes a loosening of the uni­verse of Paradise Lost. The whole epic, its larger effect, aims to dissolve ideal centers, as if defying a poet like Sir John Davies, who foresaw the much wider and at first much more disturbing version of the universe in motion. The form, if not always the sense, of Paradise Lost carries much further that ambivalence toward motion that had brought ritual drama to the Mutability Cantos. Milton’s Eden may in the poem appear exactly located; but owing to the swirl of various motions in the narrative, we can never be sure of that lo­cation. And therefore, to acquire a better framework, we turn to the masters of movement in this narrative: Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.

The most dramatic report comes from Galileo himself: “Accordingly, on the seventh day of January of the present year 1610, at the first hour of the night, when I inspected the celestial constellations through a spyglass, Jupi­ter presented himself. And since I had prepared for myself a superlative in­strument, I saw (which earlier had not happened, because of the weakness of the other instruments) that three little stars were positioned near him— small but not very bright.”6 This extraordinary and remarkably precise de­scription of the telescopic appearance of four tiny new planets, along with a series of carefully recorded and carefully illustrated successive orbital ob­servations, occupies much of the second half (about thirty pages) of Gali­leo’s epochal report The Sidereal Messenger (1610).
This small book, published in Latin no doubt to increase its circulation among scientists, was called Sidereus Nuncius, a title with oddly significant ambiguities. Nuncius seems in­tended to have meant “message,” but soon the word came to mean a per­son, the “messenger,” and it has retained that primary sense. The status of personhood exactly fits the otherwise different aim of a papal nuncio, who as trusted carrier of true information would bring official news to important Catholics in distant places. An overnight sensation, this little book sold out almost at once, and it was quickly known in England through the efforts mainly of Donne’s friend Sir Edward Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice. Following directly upon this electrifying Italian publication came Donne’s 1611 satire, Ignatius His Conclave—which contains what maybe the first reference to Galileo in English literature, and in which, among other contemporary scandals, we have a mock conversation between Lucifer and Copernicus, the latter claiming that he “gave motion” to the earth. Coperni­cus, refused admission to the conclave, is presented as wanting entrance to discuss the astronomical and theological issues now emerging.
The question here is not so much who is scientifically right, as how much interest the tele­scopic discoveries could immediately generate abroad.

On three quite spectacular counts, the Sidereal Messenger is exciting evi­dence of change. First, it recounted precisely and in detail Galileo’s observa­tions made by telescope, an instrument he did not invent (it came from the Low Countries) but which he instantly improved, giving him greater magni­fying power, showing him the method which that power was soon to adopt in all its most important advances—namely, an instrumental capacity to ob­serve and even measure previously inaccessible information.

Second, the Messenger described the true character of the surface of the moon—a body the orthodox theologians and Church astronomers had claimed was perfect, of an ideal smoothness and polished reflectance, ac­cording to Aristotelian belief.
The telescope revealed that the moon’s surface was full of irregularities and imperfections, mountains, gullies, and crags, and Galileo deduced that its hidden side would be similar. This was a shock to the system, and became a notorious scientific point of argument.

Third, and for me far more important than the lunar-surface discoveries, was the discovery of the four Medicean Stars, which Galileo too found to be of greater astronomical (though perhaps lesser propagandistic) interest. This dramatic observation he first made on the night of January 7, as we have noted. Immediately he set to work to replicate his discovery, and using his improved 30-power telescope almost every night between the 10th and the 28th, he found that the planet Jupiter was accompanied by these four “moons of Jupiter,” or, as he soon cleverly renamed them in order to flatter Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, the “Medicean Stars.” They were “discovered by me, for the first time,” and he immediately understood why this was so im­portant for astronomy in general.
As The Sidereal Messenger clearly states, Ju­piter and his tiny court of satellites appeared to be a miniature Copernican system, closely analogous in their motions to the order of things in the vastly larger solar system. Albert van Helden summarizes: “In the Ptolemaic sys­tem the Earth was the single center of all motions;in the Copernican system there were two centers of motion, the sun and the Earth. Why, opponents of the Copernican system asked, should the Earth be the only planet to have a moon? The telescope supplied the answer: the Earth is not the only planet with a moon;Jupiter has no fewer than four.”7 Jupiter today is known to have more than twenty such tiny satellites, which Galileo’s telescope could not reveal;8 but he had produced a powerful systemic analogy that could only suggest Copernicus was right.

Prior to these discoveries it had been widely thought, in pre-Copernican fashion, that earth alone could be circled by orbiting bodies; but now the earth would now have to give up its claim to being the cosmic center. To find another center behaving with exactly the same holding power, to find a double for the Ptolemaic ordering of spheres or other such regulations of celestial motion, was entirely to upset fundamental cosmic expectations. Among the many consequences of the Copernican Revolution that required slow assimilation, it seems that none was more startling than Galileo’s tele­scopic observation of the Medicean Stars. And he certainly thought so him­self, for his pamphlet took great pains to show how he had recorded obser­vations made not just once, but on successive nights, starting with that night of January 7, 1610.9 In terms of the diffusion of scientific knowledge, it is critical that Galileo’s illustrations in print could, by their clarity, make a magic impression on their first readers. Graphic in regard to the depiction of the moon’s face, detailed in regard to the distinctiveness of the fixed stars, here, with similar exactitude, the astronomer reported on Jupiter’s very small orbiting bodies at a level of astonishing telescopic detail.

In the Messenger Galileo makes certain his readers take a larger view; he now has “an excellent argument for taking away the scruples of those who, while tolerating with equanimity the revolution of the planets around the Sun in the Copernican system, are so disturbed by the attendance of one Moon around the Earth while the two together complete the annual orb around the Sun that they conclude that this constitution of the uni­verse must be overthrown as impossible.”10 The moon had always been the troubling exception, even for Copernicans, but now that scruple could go the way of all refusals to accept a revolutionary image of the universe. Finally, the universe was a vast system, it seemed, of potentially varied orbit­ing bodies, with endless multiplications of the center. As van Helden ob­serves in a note to his translation of the Sidereal Messenger, “Jupiter’s moons demonstrate that our Moon can revolve around a moving body”11— in short, did not require the earth to be a perfectly fixed body; and since this point was immediately evident to Galileo, Jupiter’s four satellites in­dicated that cosmic centrality no longer had to depend upon the medi­eval passion for fixity. In the Galilean terms we shall soon describe, any sufficiently massive moving body might become a center, upon which sec­ond, third, or fourth subcenters might in turn depend, producing an ex­panding system of multiple, moving cynosures. When Kepler suggested to Galileo that he should call the four little moons “satellites,” or hangers-on at court, he was implying that any sufficiently important court favorite would always have his own lesser favorites, and so on, down the line. We stand at the doorstep of a new cosmic understanding, where the planets could wander and stand with ever-changing relationships to each other.
That such a relativistic design could have its inventor, its discoverer, was not lost on the young Milton, who must have felt Protestant anger against the Church for harassing Galileo, as Areopagitica suggests. On the higher plane of creative destiny, the two inventors, one a poet and the other a scientist, should meet in the epic story of Paradise Lost. Their encounter implies that the poem will be unlike any predecessors, especially those that invoked earlier science, such as Guillaume du Bartas’ La Sepmaine; or Dante’s epic, so influenced by Aristotle and Aquinas;or Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, where story is displaced, however theatrically, by cogitated Epicurean phi­losophy.

Three times the Tuscan artist interrupts the flow of Milton’s narrative, but certainly the first entrance is the most perturbing and complex. It is also a dramatic moment, reminding us that originally Milton had thought of com­posing his Paradise Lost or Adam Unparadized as a gigantic morality play, with acts, scenes, debates, and many abstract persons such as Justice, Mercy, Wis­dom, Labor, Grief, Envy, Fear, and Death, all in the earlier manner.12 Such a view of the poem as a conflict of abstract ideas or icons makes an indirect mark on the later work as composed (actually dictated orally), but what mostly counts is the conception that the Fall of Man must be seen dra­matically. For Milton, a dramatistic conception governs epic narrative; yet when we read this kind of epic drama instead of seeing it staged, the work provides a deep experience. If only as a sketch or initial blueprint, Adam Unparadized makes it clear that Milton intended his drama to include masque and masque-like effects: “The angel is sent to banish them out of Paradise but before causes to pass before his eyes in shapes a masque of all the evils of his life and world.”13

Finally, in the narrative poem we have, Galileo’s first entrance has the ef­fect of a highly ornamented iconic wonder, linked as it is to the moment when Satan rises from the burning lake of Hell. Satan’s gigantic figure looms like an optical illusion of immense dramatic presence. Prone on the burning surface, the fallen angel Beelzebub has replied to Satan’s great speech that echoes Mephistophilis describing Hell to Faustus (“For this is hell, nor am I out of it”).
Then we read:

He scarce had ceased when the superior fiend Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield Ethereal temper, massy, large and round,
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,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands, Rivers or mountains in her spotty globe. There follows an extremely complicated simile in two parts, wherein all possible questions of scale and scale-differences confront the reader, produc­ing an effect at once both intricate and impressive. This passage seems de­signed to embed the picture of Satan at his first appearance, at his first being observed, against or within the Galilean landscape of Florence and the hills north of the Arno and “the brooks in Vallombrosa.” The image of the fallen leaves, while traditional for fallen warriors in heroic poetry, has the sublime effect of heightening an impression that the fallen angels together make a vast army of dying heroes. Even supposing we can imagine this catastrophic rout, we are instructed by Milton’s simile to read its vision as an instrumen­tal observation, made possible only by the use of a telescope, an optical de­vice unknown to biblical times. The simile warps both time and space at once. It draws the narrative, at least on Satan’s behalf, into the orbit of the New Philosophy and into the excitement of the new avenues of knowledge that, as I have wished all along to emphasize, constitutes the chief obstacle to all older religious worldviews. Galileo is the modernist here, and it is his device that makes Satan visible. Of course, this happens in simile only, yet the narrative suddenly enlarges its scale and scope through theallusion to Galileo as artist of the telescope.

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.

To perceive this distracted aberration of the divine Creation is to under­stand that Galileo in this pursuit of knowledge is spiritually closer to Doctor Faustus than one might think, because he, too, looks perilously close to be­ing a Gnostic heretic. Galileo is certainly a “hero of knowledge,” and would have been so recognized, had he lived in England. There he would have known the circle around Raleigh, Dee, Digges (father and son), Chapman, Harriot, and for a short time even the visiting Bruno, and in England the dark shadow of heresy could fall on any of these men. Years later, during Sir Walter Raleigh’s outrageous trumped-up trial, in which Lord Chancellor Ba­con played an infamous part, Thomas Harriot was called a “devil”; but we must not exaggerate the historical significance of a School of Night to which such men were thought to belong. Surrounded by an aura of occult prac­tices, any learned gathering of speculative minds would suggest an imagi­nary exploration of the “new world,” in whatever magic direction that voy­aging might choose.16 The chief magus of the period, Dr. John Dee, was also for many years a trusted adviser to the queen on matters of navigation, ow­ing to his considerable mathematical skills and his interest in overseas ven tures.17 We are reminded of Einstein’s comment about his own youthful plans to be a physicist.

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.

Independence of vision seems to be the keynote for the way Milton uses such episodes as Satan’s rise from the burning lake of Hell. These days we have sophisticated ways of analyzing the semiotic procedures by which Mil­ton produces such effects. Everything in the epic seems to depend upon its free play with space and time, and its sense that on a cosmic level the story must voyage outward, like a carrier of light. As we contemplate the initial appearance of Satan in Paradise Lost, however, we can pull back to the more general description given by Dr. Johnson:

[Milton] seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others; the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splen­did, and forcing the dreadful; he therefore chose a subject on which too much could not be said, on which he might tire his fancy without the cen­sure of extravagance. The appearances of Nature, and the occurrences of life, did not satiate his appetite of greatness. To paint things as they are, re­quires a minute attention, and employs the memory rather than the fancy. Milton’s delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his faculties out upon discovery, into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superior beings; to trace the counsels of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven.

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.

Whatever his subject, he never fails to fill the imagination; but his images and descriptions of the scenes or operations of Nature do not seem to be al­ways copied from original form, nor to have the freshness, raciness, and en­ergy of immediate observation. He saw Nature, as Dryden expresses it, “through the spectacles of books”; and on most occasions calls learning to his assistance.19

Johnson continues his discussion with an idea that scientific allusions combine memory and imagination in a complex learned style, whose aim is to afford precisely that freedom in ranging widely, as we have just heard. In effect, the mixing of learning and immediate sensations forces the poet to change the scale of his vision, from moment to moment, thus making the reader constantly aware of scale changes. These perspectival shifts are precisely what the complex Miltonic similes create; and when the similes are extruded by association, the effect of the whole becomes sublime. An ancient rhetorician would have called this procedure “transumptive” or “metaleptic.”
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 in
2001, 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.

Thither his course he bends Through the calm firmament; but up or down By center or eccentric, hard to tell,
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.

Again, as narrative interruption, the figure of the astronomer enters to point the meaning of Satan’s space travel.

There lands the fiend, a spot like which perhaps Astronomer in the sun’s lucent orb Through his glazed optic tube yet never saw.

The landing site is like an area of the sun’s surface that even Galileo, who wrote the well-known Letters on Sunspots (1613), would have failed to ob­serve or explain correctly. The analogy here places knowledge of the greater universe in the hands of the scientist, taking it away, a second time, from the poet’s mythography pure and simple. The wonder of unprecedented discov­ery (“yet never saw”) is exactly what the great mannerist poet Giambattista Marino celebrated in his Adonis, published in 1623. Six elaborate stanzas of Canto X are devoted to the “marvelous new instrument / through which things distant can appear close by,” whose hero is the celebrated scientist:

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,

He speeds, and through the vast ethereal sky Sails between worlds and worlds, with steady wing Now on the polar winds, then with quick fan Winnows the buxom air.

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.

Not for the last time in the poem is this suggestion of celestial navigation given a context of actual space travel; for Milton, there is an odd fascination with the idea of the pilot, the cybernetes, the voyager across strange seas— one remembers the doomed voyage of Lycidas. One remembers how dan­gerous all ocean travel was in Milton’s day, when one hears sailors like Conrad or recent scholarly types like Edwin Hutchins tell of the dangers of making landfall. Navigation is one Miltonic archetype of governing any craft, and he makes much of the image, as had Virgil; and when we realize that sea voyages and space travel have much in common, we grasp why Ga­lileo used this shared archetype, recounting landfalls on the unknown coast­lines of remote celestial islands in space. What, in a poetic sense, is it for such an observer to discover tiny planets never before seen by the naked eye? Our question from earlier pages must now finally be: How does this Miltonic motif of Galileo’s telescopy bear upon our major theme, the question of the new “less assured” science of motion? What here is the link between the poet and the Tuscan artist? The presence should reveal a bond between art and science.

The only way to perceive such affinities is to uncover a deeper level of understanding, some principle that invisibly supports the tenor of ordinary things and events happening in a story. Looking for these hidden principles had always been the aim of science, going all the way back to the Greeks, al­though specific material observations appeared to lie on the surface of the phenomenal world. Yet theory always looks deeper, and in the present case it searches out the Galilean principle of relative motion. “Galilean relativ­ity,” as it is called, is the “Newtonian” forerunner of modern light-based rel­ativity theory, as Einstein himself observed in Chapters 4 and 5 of Relativity: The Special and the General Theory. Used in a mechanistic universe—the world of the stars and planets that Paradise Lost explores in the vein of science fiction—the “Galilean system of co-ordinates” works perfectly, enabling as­tronomers to calculate “the actual motions of the heavenly bodies with a delicacy of detail little short of wonderful.”22 The discrepancies from which Einstein’s relativity theory arose would not have been apparent to Galileo or Newton, although Newton especially, as a master of optics, was seemingly aware that the speed of light and nothing slower must somehow figure in a final theory; and certainly Milton understood, and repeatedly hinted in his epic, that light, by moving faster than even thought itself, was bound to af­fect what we consider to be “fixed” and “moving.” Over many centuries, of course, there had developed in the West a metaphysics of light, a luminous cosmology of descending and ascending powers identified as “lights” that possessed influence analogous to the “divine names” of Pseudo-Dionysius; and this magic naming, too, would influence the scene. Embracing in a uni­versal dance of light, the stars and the Word of God were imagined to feed the harmony of all things, at all levels of being. Mythographically, the poet now comes to anticipate the scientist—yet never obliged to know “exactly why,” and while preserving a bridge back from science to magic and mys­tery, he engages his full powers in a proleptic vision where the relativity of motion was the most mysterious example of a higher power.

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.

Shakespeare’s Troilus had asked, “What’s aught but as ’tis valued?” Gali­leo and the poets of his early modern period could also ask, “What’s aught but as ’tis observed?” The observer’s role is already beginning to acquire its fully modern status. A persistent theme for Galileo derived, as I have more than once suggested, from his experience with vessels on the water. In re­gard to the role of the moving observer, he had noticed that if an individual were below decks when the sea was absolutely calm and the boat steadily moving ahead without any noticeable interference to its perfectly calm mo­tion, the person would never know he was moving at all. He would know this only if he could see the shoreline passing by; he would have to go up on deck. This problem—the need to gain standpoint and perspective—is one that the modern astronaut experiences in the most radical fashion in space travel, which Galileo could only imagine. Without some external coordi­nate framework against which to compare and measure their own move­ment, astronauts would be lost in a limbo of absolute stasis, weightless, directionless, and motionless forever—yet they might be moving at 4,000 miles per hour relative to earth. In all such cases, motion is evidently sig­nificant only when related to, seen relative to, some framework of observa­tion.

For the poet imagining the story of a cosmic catastrophe, such as Paradise Lost, it is evident the ground of the actions must somehow be stabilized. Mil­ton, as I read him, shares the general Galilean picture of relative motion. We have just seen that a person traveling on a ship and observing a moving ob­ject, such as a shoreline, is in effect the double of an observer standing oppo­site to him on that shore, able, in turn, to observe the moving ship. On this plan, observations of motion are always relative to the standpoint of the ob­server, who may be observed by the very person he is observing. Any object can seem to be in motion, from someone’s point of view. On the other hand, as Galileo showed in the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, if we accept the mutual equivalence of rest and continuous steady motion, we find that motion is in fact a kind of stability.24 The assumption required is simply that the motion here is uniform, as if we were in the cabin of a ship moving at a constant velocity over a smooth body of water, changing neither speed nor direction, neither rolling nor pitching. Under these conditions, our experience would be identical to that of a person in a ship in port. The identity of these two states of motion and rest means that we have two iden­tical “inertial frames.” It is impossible to distinguish absolute motion from absolute rest; we have to think of motion only in terms of inertial frames (for example, two bodies moving, or at rest, some distance from each other). Meanwhile, as the Dialogue set out to show, objects inside a steadily moving ship and then by extension all objects—including ourselves, as we live on earth—are not flung off into the chaos of outer space, because we and our earth share the same inertial frame. Our stability derives from our belonging to our own inertial frame. We are free to move, and to see the boundaries of that freedom.

The net result of Galileo’s theory is that not only is the universe in which cosmic events occur relativistic in the above sense, but its relativism of mo­tion, with endless nodal points of rest, allows its boundaries to expand for­ever, so as to include what Bruno had called “an infinity of worlds.” In Paradise Lost, the primary aesthetic effect of such relativizing is that we are more aware of acceleration, and what Aristotle called “violent motion,” than of any constant movement, and it is hard not to believe that once again the poet has anticipated later science, since the effulgent light of the Divine Cre­ator traverses the universe with the greatest possible velocity. In terms of mere vision, it would not be necessary to wait for Maxwell’s equations, the Michelson-Morley experiment, or Einstein’s relativity theory to see that the boundary of the universe was defined by the speed of light. Short of this cos­mic expansion in perspective, the story of the Fall could treat the results of the infinitely variable gravitational attractions between bodies as the source not of a primal descent from above to below, but—in the far more human context—of a lateral fall, where every single body has its own center of grav­ity and its own inertial frame, which is the world of Galilean relativity.

Traditionally the axis of the Fall was vertical, from Heaven above down to Hell below;but owing to Galileo’s discovery of the “Law of Fall,” which, in studying the paths of projectiles, he related to lateral motions, the vertical axis has lost some of its privileged status. When undisturbed, uniform mo­tion of any object will persist forever in a straight line, and the direction of movement makes no difference at all. Gravity, as Newton was to show con­clusively, is in the larger sense omnidirectional. A spaceship will “fall up­ward,” if the presence of a larger planetary mass pulls it away from earth. In his foreword to Stillman Drake’s translation of the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Einstein puts the issue this way: “Once the concep­tion of the center of the universe had, with good reason, been rejected, the idea of the immoveable earth, and, generally, of an exceptional role of the earth, was deprived of its justification. The question of what, in describing the motion of heavenly bodies, should be considered ‘at rest’ became thus a question of convenience.”25 “Up” and “down” lose their status in a scientific sense—though of course not mythologically, since myths appeal to archaic sources of belief. It then follows that given this new idea of gravitational fields pulling every which way, any story based on the idea of a fall will essentially have to understand this to be a lateral fall. Already in Spenser and the medieval Romance tradition, this lateral principle had been understood, so that the Myth of the Lateral Fall was given expression in stories not of de­scent, but of errant sidewise wandering in ethical and spiritual digression. It is no accident that the story of Adam and Eve chronicles their wandering in the Garden, that wandering planets are a feature of the night sky above them, and that when they must leave, “They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way.”

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 of
Lycidas 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 fatal and perfidious bark Built in the eclipse, and rigged with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.

In Book IX, in one of his greatest passages of abstract description, Milton de­picts Satan as a moving, sailing, undulant spiral form whose purpose is to deceive by “tract oblique.” At the moment of approaching dramatic catas­trophe, Satan weaves circuitously toward Eve, reminding us that the source

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.

When it comes to poetry, a principle of universally relative motion sup­ports the modern belief that moving centers may, despite and also because of their motion, provide significant stability in all areas of life, as in the celestial universe. Gravity operates everywhere, we might say; given the correct rela- tivistic arrangements, a stable overall result ensues. And in the same way, the multiple displacements of events in Paradise Lost are simply the poet’s way of understanding the best contemporary scientific theory. Instead of a fixed platform, the poem seeks a moving, rotating, homing, stabilizing gyro- scope—earth herself—leaving to the sun the role of a life-sustaining star, the remote source of all our energy. The Copernican reordering of the heavens was a commentary on Heaven, Galileo clearly thought, and Milton followed by ascribing to God all the main properties of a light-emitting source. Above all this is a matter of getting the universe right, and letting all epic actions work within that uncertain but highly promising new conception of worlds in motion. To the interest this interpretation may possess for the scientist and historian of ideas, one may then add the poet’s concern that life be truly represented. Thus, although Johnson is surely right that Milton lacks “raci­ness,” he is also right to suggest, if reluctantly, that the tumbling world of Paradise Lost truly represents the world as learning has shown it to be— “communion with all the elements,” to use a Coleridgean phrase—and as its learned style must permit, properly for an epic justifying the ways of God to man.

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.
The sublime can be radically simple, and thus there is an inherent problem about the poem’s mode, for it simultaneously engages in endless details of astonishing complexity, while overall asserting its sublime simplic­ity. It is as if Milton’s God had said, “Let there be light. . . and a lot of other things as well,” so that the poem invests simplicity with all the categories of earthly and celestial information.

In his recent book, Delirious Milton, Gordon Teskey has said: “Except for T. S. Eliot, who argued that Milton had turned English poetry away from the clear, sharp, intellectually challenging images of Donne into the path of hol­low eloquence, critics have not been much concerned with Milton’s rela­tion, as a poet, as an artist, to the future.”

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.”

There is a price to pay for all advances; and in the case of Milton’s grand style, the reader will always find a lack of creatural realism. What is lack­ing in the poem is the vast mid-range where humans debate exactly how they are to accomplish their ends—it is as if they were being created as in­struments for measuring forces in nature, not as mixed human creatures. Hence, a lack of middle ground marks the vast distance between Marlowe and Shakespeare and this later poem. It is as if Milton acknowledged how much he admired the earlier dramatists (which he manifestly did, quoting from both authors many times), but then complained they were not “math­ematical enough.” Is this a humorless wit? Or is there a grander and more savage wit in Milton, whereby he tells us of the massive sufferings that lie ahead of Adam and Eve, after their expulsion from the Garden?

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.

In the end, the original critical question returns: Is there a way of using poetic language that indeed aspires to mathematical precision and mathe­matical abstraction from the common reality of things, the felt qualitative reality things possess in use by humans? Perhaps Galileo’s own conception of his enterprise will help us to imagine such a language, to imagine that while the New Science was uncovering new foundations of coherence in the natural world, these very finds were threatening a more general cultural disintegration. There is no reason to think that societies really ever know what they are doing, and this period of nascent enlightenment is no excep­tion. As we shall see, while full of inspiring vistas, the evolving scientific methods of the early modern period did not clearly address the broader so­cial need for coherent verbal expression, unless we agree with members of the Royal Society that language should be pared down to exact perspicuous referential speech—in which case the future of a great literature was left out in the cold, to survive in the forms of prosy wit.
A taste for neoclassical verse will not develop unless such verse is studied as a perfection of rational econ­omy, and it may be hard for post-Romantic readers to grasp how Johnson could say the final lines of The Dunciad were “noble lines”; but one can only wonder whether Milton’s late style is not partly an antithetical counterforce raised against the new advances in which the poet himself was participating. Even as the humanist’s worldview was losing its allusive lore and its spiritual command, poetic language itself revealed the distress of the conflict;such a confrontation virtually forced the rise of the novel, in order to fill the imagi­native power vacuum. Alternatively, it may be that a deeper level of knowl­edge informs the writing of the New Philosophy, which so often recalls a gradual progress through mathematics toward dialectical thinking, as sketched in Book VII of Plato’s Republic. Paradise Lost presses similar claims,
for it sets our gaze toward the heavens and the starry firmament, those paradigms of the highest, while unavoidably insisting upon the paired solitude of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Invoking light itself, the poem sustains a massive inquiry into mysteries of our world. Yet nature remains obscure to the poet, beckoning his thought toward deep space, as if somehow he could understand the ratios and relations between all things and all events.

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 [1916] (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.

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