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Paradise Lost and Cosmology

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Most of the scholarly analysis of science and astronomy in Paradise Lost, for the past three centuries, has been written by literary scholars. In hindsight, this has been extremely unfortunate, as they have made a nearly total botched job of it.

The new (and correct) insights into Milton’s classic prose poem in this book by Dennis Danielson, a Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, must be seen first and foremost with this as a backdrop. Of modern Milton scholars who are not astronomers, only Danielson and John Leonard (a former president of the Milton Society) have achieved the expertise and wisdom to see previous scholarly books and papers for what they really are. Misguided is the kindest work I can think of. As an astronomer, my own work in Paradise Lost has not only solved the comet conundrum in Book 2, but has revealed several allusions to the aurora.

Like Danielson in this superb book, I had the sad task of highlighting the numerous errors made by eminent scholars in their reading of Paradise Lost. The author pulls no punches in this unpleasant but critically important effort. Here is one example from the book. “Typical of (to my mind) tendentious efforts to cast doubts upon the veracity of Milton’s claim that he met Galileo is George F. Butler” in a paper that got published in the Milton Quarterly in 2005.

Danielson devotes two chapters to Milton and Galileo. While Milton is the poet, Danielson offers us the insight that even scientists can wax poetical while conveying truths about the cosmos. “Earthshine is an interesting phenomenon on its own, but its cosmological implications are stunning. For it entails a Cosmos is which light travels a two-way street. Poetically, Galileo describes the phenomenon as constituting a kind of friendly commerce that also has immense consequences for humanity’s conception of Earth’s place and role in the Universe at large.”

Danielson highlights the confluence of thought in the 1600s when he quotes both Kepler and William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood.

In 1628 Harvey wrote that “The heart is the sun of the microcosm, even as the sun in his turn might well be designated the heart of the world.” Kepler said nearly the identical thing ten years earlier: “Most rightly is the sun held to be the heart of the world and the seat of reason and life.”

To put Milton’s cosmological beliefs in perspective, Danielson ranges widely over astronomical work done in the century before Paradise Lost was written in the 1660s. “One of the criticism of astronomers on into the seventeenth century is that they behaved like tinkers…Relative to the cosmological revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I would suggest that bricolage may serve as a slightly more dignified term than tinkering or mere eclecticism.”

In this regard, Danielson calls out for special mention the work of Tycho, whose “proposed system was itself a piece of brilliant bricolage.” He refers here to the solar system envisioned by Tycho, a cross between that of Ptolemy and that of Copernicus. In this Tychonic system, both the Moon and the Sun revolved around Earth, while the other planets revolved around the Sun.

As Leonard showed in 2013, Milton espoused the Copernican, not the Ptolemaic system. Danielson uses that as the bedrock upon which to build the edifice of this book. Unlike most of the tripe that has been written for centuries about Milton’s astronomy and cosmology, this is one edifice that will weather the tests of time. Read this and, to quote Milton, “be henceforth among the gods.”

In an interview with Dr. Danielson at a conference a few weeks ago, I asked him what he wants readers to take away from reading this book. He replied that “an appreciation for how immersed and subtly immersed Milton was in ongoing cosmological debate in the seventeenth century” was foremost.

“I’m hoping first it really enhances peoples’ appreciation of the depth and richness of Milton. But secondly I hope that Miltonists and literature people reading the book will come away with a sense of the complexity and beauty and excitement of those cosmological debates in a way that they might not have before.”

Paradise Lost and the Cosmological Revolution (220 pages) is $95 from Cambridge University Press.

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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