August 25, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Milton and Galileo: Affinities between art and science

I don’t know much about John Milton and Galileo Galilei. However, I have stood beside Milton’s Mulberry tree at Christ’s College, Cambridge and beside Galileo’s chair and lectern at the University of Padua – and felt some affinity with the poet and the scientist. I didn’t know though that there was actually a connection between Milton and Galileo until I opened The Observer on Sunday and chanced upon an article that said: “In preparation for a Radio 4 documentary – In Search of Paradise Lost – to be broadcast next Sunday, Dr Joe Moshenska, an academic at Trinity College, Cambridge, retraced Milton’s journey to Florence in the late 1630s and claims that the legacy of a formative trip can be spotted throughout Paradise Lost. If he is correct, one of England’s most famous works of literature also bears the stamp of the city of Dante.”

In a quote Moshenka says: “It’s such an extraordinary thing to picture, the two of them crossing paths, people who you think of as belonging to two entirely different worlds, especially now, when we tend to separate science from literature so dramatically”.

This post is about affinities, between Milton and Galileo, between art and science, between poetry and technology (the telescope), between England and Italy, between the 16th and the 21st century, us and them, then and now. All these affinities have gradually been or are gradually being replaced by barriers and blockades. That is a great shame. To quote from the article again: “Moshenska believes that discussion of Milton’s Florentine sojourn is particularly timely as Brexit looms. It transpires that Milton, the most English of poets, was a polyglot Europhile whose most famous work is at least partially tinged by Tuscan ochre.”

Reading the article set me off on a little journey of discovery and time travel. I thought: there must be people before Dr Moshenska who have written about Milton and Galileo. And indeed there are – quite a few. I can of course not survey them all. So I just want to pick a few things out here and there. In the process I found one article from 1922 by Allan H. Gilbert for Studies in Philology, which made me smile, as it contains a lot of lengthy Latin quotes without providing any translation! How’s that for accessibility?

In the following I’ll first put Paradise Lost in the context of the lives of Milton and Galileo – very briefly. Then I go on to say a few things about science, technology, and freedom of speech.

Milton, Galileo and Paradise Lost

As people probably know, Paradise Lost is a long epic poem. The first version of this poem was published towards the end of Milton’s life in 1667.  Milton had been born in 1608. The final version consisting of 12 books was published the year he died, in 1664. “The poem concerns the biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.” So what has this to do with astronomy and Galileo?

Since his youth, Milton had been interested in astronomy and many of his works contain allusions to this new and exciting field of science. Milton was also interested in maths and while he lived at Horton (his family home in Berkshire), “he was in the habit of repairing to London ‘for learning … the mathematics’” (Gilbert, 1922: 154). However, Milton never really committed to the new Copernican or Galilean view of the world, that is, the heliocentric one, even after his apparent meeting with Galileo; and even after giving Galileo the honour of appearing in Paradise Lost (the only contemporary of Milton to do so).

Milton went to Italy when he was still quite young, at the age of thirty. The Galileo he visited was, by contrast, very old and under house arrest. The Inquisition had found him suspect of heresy because of his views on heliocentrism.

Galileo was born in in 1564 and died in 1642, that is, a few years after his encounter with Milton. 1642 also signalled the start of the English Civil Wars, in which Milton was quite heavily involved on the side of the Commonwealth. After the Restoration in 1660, he spent some time in the Tower of London but was, fortunately, not killed. These were the times, including the 1664 plague and the 1665 fire of London, during which Milton started to write Paradise Lost.

Milton and Galileo met in 1638. That was also the year that Milton published one of his early poems, Lycidas, which wasdedicated to the memory of Edward King” a friend of Milton’s at Christ’s College, Cambridge, who drowned when his ship sank off the coast of Wales in August 1637. Furthermore, in 1638 Galileo published one of his later works, namely Discourses on Two New Sciences. “Although, this book completely overturned Aristotle’s physics, the Church didn’t punish him further” (Bembenek, 2012). 1638 was also the year that John Wilkins published his famous Discovery of a New World in the Moon, in which “he defended the Copernican and Galilean idea that the Earth is a planet by establishing analogies with the Moon”. Overall, this was a rather fruitful time for poetry and science and everything in between.

A few years after Galileo’s death, in 1644, Milton published Areopagitica, his defence of free speech. It was in this work that he mentions his journey to Italy and says: “There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisner to the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise then the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought. And though I knew that England then was groaning loudest under the Prelaticall yoak, neverthelesse I took it as a pledge of future happines, that other Nations were so perswaded of her liberty.”

It should be noted that while he very much admired Galileo and his work, Milton did not fully accept the new astronomy, it seems. As Gilbert pointed out: “Yet even in mentioning his visit, in the Areopagitica, he does not assert his belief that Galileo was right. However his purpose was not to uphold the correctness of any particular opinions, but to declare that all should be tolerated.” (p. 155). And as Jonathan Rosen said in The New Yorker (2008): “For Milton, the great trial of life was to discover truth through error, but without falling off the pat of good.” And yet, it has also been pointed out that the younger Milton’s cosmology as it appears in poems preceding the Italian journey is decidedly more medieval than the universe of Paradise Lost (see Hunter, A Milton Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 120).

Poetry and technology

Let’s now come to the most famous passage from Paradise Lost in which Milton talks about Galileo and his telescope (although he never used that new-fangled word, it seems):

He scarce had ceas’t when the superior Fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield
Behind him cast; 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.

Satan’s shield is here depicted as the moon seen through Galileo’s, or rather ‘the Tuscan artist’s, telescope. Milton probably used the word artist to refer to the art of designing optical instruments.

Many articles have been written about Milton and the telescope but I only want to quote from one by Marjorie Nicolson (1935): which claims that Milton never forgot the experience of looking through a telescope and seeing new worlds on the moon. This, she says, “is reflected again and again in his mature work; it stimulated him to reading and to thought; and it made Paradise Lost the first modern cosmic poem, in which a drama is played against a background of inter-stellar space”.

The encounter with Galileo and the telescope left in fact many traces in Paradise Lost: “each of Galileo’s most famous discoveries is reflected in one or more passages in the epic. Among them are the countless newly sighted stars (7. 382-84), the nature of the Milky Way (7. 577-81), the phases of the planet Venus (7.366), the four newly discovered moons around Jupiter (8.148-51), the new conception of the moon (7. 375-78), the nature of moon spots (1. 287-9; 5. 419-20; 8. 145-48), and the nature of sun spots (3. 588-90)”. (Hunter, A Milton Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 120-121).

Paradise Lost might be in part inspired by Galileo, science and technology but it basically represents Milton grappling with the new science and its impacts on the fortunes of the humanities and in particular on Christian theology and cosmology – as struggle that continues today.

Science, art and politics

Milton was not only a poet and polymath, but also a politician and Paradise Lost was published in a period of political turmoil – which in fact affected directly its publication and printing. As we have seen, in Areopagitica “Milton recalls his visit to Galileo” but more importantly perhaps also “warns that England will buckle under inquisitorial forces if it bows to censorship, ‘an undeserved thraldom upon learning.’” (Rosen, 2008). One passage of Areopagitica in particular has resonated to this day: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties…Truth was never put to the worse in a free and open encounter…. It is not impossible that she [truth] may have more shapes than one…. If it come to prohibiting, there is not ought more likely to be prohibited than truth itself, whose first appearance to our eyes bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom is more unsightly and implausible than many errors….Where there is much desire to learn there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.”

This passage was quoted twice in the British Medical Journal, once in the year 2000 and once in the year 2004. Both times the passage was quoted by Richard Smith the editor of the journal. In 2004 the ‘Correspondence’ was entitled “Milton and Galileo would back BMJ on free speech”. Subtitle: “Arguments, crazy ideas and open communication are the lifeblood of science”.

These are values that still need defending in 2017, on the 350th anniversary of Paradise Lost. It is a strange time, where the people talking most about freedom of speech are not defending new truths, but old hatreds.

PS I am neither an expert on Milton nor on Galileo, so I expect that I have got some things wrong – comments and corrections welcome! And if somebody knows what ‘areopagitica’ actually means, let me know! I also wonder what Galileo might have made of Milton and whether they discussed the moon as a metaphor……

Image: Milton visiting Galileo when a prisoner of the Inquisition. Oil painting by Solomon Alexander Hart, 1847 (Wellcome Collection)


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