Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Paradise Lost 4: Milton and Galileo

Satan is the father of lies, and here is a famous one which is often quoted but rarely attributed to him: "Farewel happy fields where Joy for ever dwells," he says, as he and his followers are trying to pull themselves together after their long fall, "Hail horrors, hail/ Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell/ Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings/ A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time./ The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a hell of Heav'n." Try telling that to someone who's being eaten by a bear or stung by thousands of bees. But we already know that Hell has no location in space and time, that it is not a place at the center of earth but a condition: "bottomless perdition."

Earth, however, has a definite place at the center of the universe which is where it should be as the 'theatre' where the divine comedy of sin and salvation is to be acted out. And indeed everything that Milton says about the cosmology of this universe would lead you to assume that the earth is at the center and that the sun, moon and planets revolve about it. The trouble is, he had met Galileo, seen his telescope, and he knew that Copernicus had got it right—as did most educated people in the 17th century. What to do. How do you justify the ways of God to man if this world is only one of many possible worlds and no where near the center of the universe if it even has one? Well, you go ahead and use the traditional cosmology as the framework for your poem while making a small gesture of acknowledgement to the man who invented modern astronomy and was the first to show how the motion of objects in uniform acceleration can be mathematically described.

As Satan is climbing out of the sea of "burning sulphur unconsumed", the "oblivious pool" where all his associates and copartners still lie "astonished," "groveling and prostrate," he turns his back on which is tied his "ponderous shield" of "ethereal temper, massy, large and round," so that we may see it:

                                        the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan artist views
At Ev'ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty globe.

That Tuscan artist with his optic glass can only be Galileo, the only contemporary (approximate: he died in 1642), non-mythical human being that Milton ever refers to in this huge poem.


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