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Revolution in Milton

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John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one the greatest examples of English literature ever composed, and its astronomical allusions have been studied for centuries. A new book by Milton scholar John Leonard shows that nearly all the scholarly analysis of Milton’s Universe is wrong – very wrong.

Generations of Milton scholars were too clever by half. Time and again Leonard shows that they were guilty of historical error, illogic and misreading – sometimes all in the same paragraph!

Scholar after scholar misrepresents what Milton meant, thereby creating a vision that they admit cannot be reconciled with what Milton wrote. Their solution – blame Milton for inconsistency!

“Something has gone wrong when literary criticism gets into a muddle like this,” Leonard says with obvious sadness.

Leonard is world-renowned as a scholar of Milton’s poetry. He received his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1986 and is now professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. He served a term as President of the Milton Society of America in 2003.

There is lots of blame to go around for the current muddle about what Milton meant in Paradise Lost, but Leonard says the bedrock of the false edifice was built by Davis Masson, who wrote a three-volume work about Milton in 1874. It included a lengthy section on Milton’s universe. So strongly was he identified as the greatest authority on the subject that scholars ever since have either slavishly followed his lead, or been very reluctant to even suggest there might be a chink in the armour.

“Masson writes with great enthusiasm,” says Leonard, “which helps explain why his model has enjoyed so much lasting success, but that model robs both the outer and inner spaces of Milton’s universe of their wonder and majesty.”

So, just what is at stake here? It is nothing other than the ancient view of the heavens as laid down by Ptolemy, with a stationary Earth at the center of the universe, or the Copernican system where the Sun is at the centre and Earth is just another planet revolving around it.

The ideas of Copernicus were still fairly new and contested when Milton was writing in the mid-1600s. An example of this is a book written by Alexander Ross in 1646, provocatively entitled The New Planet no Planet, in which he says the Earth is no wandering star “except in the wandering heads of Galileans.” Ross attacks the Copernican system as ridiculous, erroneous and impious.

Most Milton scholars have simply assumed he, like Ross, was not receptive to the new Sun-centred system. Leonard shows he did in fact adopt the Copernican system in Paradise Lost.

This was not lost on early scholars of Milton. “The Jonathan Richardsons, father and son, offer some of the best commentary ever written about Milton’s universe,” he says. Their 1734 analysis made it very clear that Milton was being ironic when he talked about the ten Ptolemaic spheres that comprise the universe. He was not supporting the idea that Earth was surrounded by spheres, he was making a joke about it!

Why subsequent generations of scholars ignored them is a sobering reminder that many seemingly intelligent people in both science and literary studies waste much of their lives defending ideas that have no basis in reality.

Milton scholars might have clued into the fact that he actually spent time with Galileo himself during a visit to Italy! Galileo makes an appearance in Milton’s poem, and he clearly regarded the Italian as a great man who certainly had no use for the Ptolemaic system.

In the 1930s another great Milton scholar, Grant McColley, made a thorough muddle of what Milton was saying. “When he attends to Milton’s words he makes elementary mistakes,” writes Leonard, even though McColley had “unrivalled knowledge of the astronomical options that were available to Milton.” It is yet another reminder for the young scholars reading this magazine to question not only the opinions of others, but their own entrenched views as well.

Also in the late 1930s the influential book Astronomical Thought in Renaissance England was written by Francis Johnson, who “shares McColley’s view that Milton’s astronomy was woefully out of date.”

McColley & Johnson are superb scholars, but they are not good critics, writes Leonard. “McColley’s attempts at close reading miss the obvious, while Johnson does not even try to read closely. The simultaneous publication of their studies nevertheless delivered a double blow from which Milton’s universe has yet to recover.”

While doing this research, Leonard related to me that “I came to believe that everyone has got Milton's universe dead wrong for the past 260 years. Far from adopting a medieval picture, Milton ridicules it by placing it in the Paradise of Fools. It all comes down to a misreading of three lines that are a joke! Through the mouth of Raphael, Milton also prophesies the discovery of exoplanets, a prophecy that has of course been vindicated in our own lifetimes. (What a privilege!).”

Professor Leonard has done a great service to both literary studies and the history of astronomy by this recent work, and I highly recommend everyone to read it for themselves.

Leonard’s analysis is contained in Vol. 2 of his 2013 book Faithful Labourers (Oxford University Press). Visit their website:

A full review of Dr. Leonard's 2-volume work will appear in the Sun News Miami early next year. Don't forget to look at the other Milton book reviews, in the special feature box on the left side of this front page.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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