Wednesday, January 13, 2010

John Milton's Paradise Lost: Satan Speeding "Down from th' Ecliptic"

Satan Eclipsed?
(Image from Art Passions)

Yesterday, I noted -- concerning Paradise Lost 10.671-677 -- that:
Milton seems to allow for the possibility that the constellations Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, and the other signs along what is commonly known as the zodiacal path did not lie on the celestial equator even in prelapsarian times.
I thought that Milton's reference to the sun turning away from the "Equinoctial Rode" suggested this possibility, for the sun appears to change its path from one great circle to another in moving from the celestial equator to the ecliptic.

I now have another, supporting reason for thinking the two great circles possibly distinct prior to the fall of mankind in Paradise Lost. In Book 4, Satan disguises himself as an angel of light and seeks directions to earth from the unfallen angel Uriel, who is engaged in God's work on the sun. Uriel, not recognizing the hypocritical disguise, falls for Satan's ruse and directs Satan before turning back to his work:
Thus said, he turnd, and Satan bowing low,
As to superior Spirits is wont in Heaven,
Where honour due and reverence none neglects,
Took leave, and toward the coast of Earth beneath,
Down from th' Ecliptic, sped with hop'd success,
Throws his steep flight in many an Aerie wheele,
Nor staid, till on Niphates top he lights. (PL 3.736-742)

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, January 2009]
The passage describes Satan as speeding down from the ecliptic, but why does Milton call attention to this great circle rather than to the celestial equator if not to leave open the possibility of there being some distinction? We know from PL 10.329 that the sun was in the zodiacal sign of Aries. Since PL 10.668-677 describes the change by which the sun began its motion away from the celestial equator, then Aries would be the sign of the equinox in Milton's epic poem. If the ecliptic were already inclined to the celestial equator in prelapsarian times, then Satan could reasonably be described as leaving the sun by going "Down from th' Ecliptic" since the ecliptic crossed the celestial equator in Aries when the sun happened to be in that sign, meaning that the sun would be at the equinox.

This argument is not decisive, of course, and is only a supporting point for yesterday's stronger argument for the possibility that the ecliptic and celestial equator were distinct in Milton's prelapsarian cosmos.

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