Thursday, January 21, 2010

John Milton, Paradise Lost: An Already Oblique Ecliptic?

Sun Carriage
"the Sun / Was bid turn Reines from th' Equinoctial Rode"
(Image from Wikipedia)

By now, readers will likely recognize the above quote from Paradise Lost 10.671-672. Like the sun, I'm turning to the obliquity of the zodiac today to return to a question that I posed earlier and had thought settled. In a January 12th post, I raised the possibility that the ecliptic and equatorial planes did not coincide in Milton's prelapsarian cosmos, and in the very next post, on January 13th, I offered a supporting argument. But in two follow-up posts -- January 15th and January 16th -- I believed my assertion of the possibility to have been mistaken. I had read the following lines and taken the "Starrs" to be planets, for this terminology was possible in Milton's time:
[Satan flew] his oblique way
Amongst innumerable Starrs, that shon
Stars distant, but nigh hand seemd other Worlds (PL 3.564-566)
My thought was that if Satan was traveling an already oblique ecliptic, then the 'planets' shouldn't yet be on that ecliptic since the sun (with planets in tow) had not yet been forced to move in such a way as to cause the inclement seasons (as Milton explains in PL 10.651-680).

I now think, however, that I misread the term "Starrs," for it does not mean "planets" but really does refer to "stars," the so-called 'fixed' stars, which Milton allows might be "other Worlds" (by which, he means possibly other cosmic systems). Satan is thus not yet passing by planets; rather, he has recently passed through the primum mobile and the crystalline sphere (as depicted here) and is now passing through the sphere of fixed stars. If so, then this reading does not have Milton show Satan moving past planets in his "oblique way" and therefore allows that the zodiac might have always been on an oblique ecliptic after all since the planets are not being described along Satan's path.

Such a reading could then fit with Satan's oblique movement (3.564) from the sign of Libra to the sun in Aries (3.558, 588), as described in Book 3, lines 555 through 588, for when Satan leaves the sun, he is said to speed "Down from th' Ecliptic" (PL 3.740). One might well legitimately counter that if "the ecliptic and equatorial planes coincide," as Alastair Fowler maintains in his annotated Paradise Lost (Fowler, Paradise Lost, 1998, page 35), then Satan could accurately be described as speeding down from the ecliptic in leaving the sun. Granted, this hypothetical retort could very well be correct, but Milton leaves at least room for a variant interpretation, such that the sun and planets are located in the plane of the celestial equator, to which the plane of the zodiac is already oblique by approximately 23.5 degrees.

My point is not that Milton clearly asserts that the zodiac was already oblique, merely that a close reading allows for the possibility, and that's Milton's intention, for he doesn't wish to commit himself to a definite world system that might be shown false by scientific advance.

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