Saturday, January 09, 2010

John Milton's Prelapsarian Cosmos: Sun Forever in Aries?

Celestial Equator and Ecliptic
(Image from Wikipedia)

In a recent post on the Milton List, I noted that Alastair Fowler, in the "Introduction" to his annotated edition of Paradise Lost (1998), offers the following observations about Milton's prelapsarian cosmos:
[Milton's] premise, that the ecliptic and equatorial planes coincide, has not been true since the fall. So he has to work out its implications with ingenuity reminiscent of science fiction (e.g. iii 555-61; iv 209-16, 354f; v 18-25; x 328f) . . . . The geometry of Milton's invented unfallen world is elegantly simple -- and exhilaratingly easy to visualize. Its day and night are always equal, its sun remains constantly in the same sign, and the positions of its constellations are easily determined without astrolabe or planisphere. There are no variations in solar declination, no equinoctial points, no precession, no difference between sidereal, natural, and civil days. (Alastair Fowler, John Milton: Paradise Lost, Second Edition (New York: Longman, 1998), page 35)
In response to this passage from Fowler, I posed some questions to the Milton List:
Some of this is obvious, and other of it is easy to derive. But some of it is not clear to me. How does Fowler know that the "sun remains constantly in the same sign"? Is this an inference, or does Milton state this somewhere? PL 10.329 notes that "the sun in Aries rose," but would it have always remained there in an unfallen world? If so, why?

In a geocentric cosmos, I can see why, based on simplicity, this would likely be the case (everything moving around the earth at the same angular momentum), but in a heliocentric cosmos, an extra motion would need to be imparted to the starry sphere to keep the sun in the same sign as the earth revolves around the sun. Or is the earth not revolving at all?
Since posting those questions, I've come to conclude that Fowler was likely wrong, and I posted my developing views at the Milton List:
I've been looking around and found no substantive support for Fowler's statement that the sun would always be in [the same sign, i.e., Aries,] . . . and am ready to conclude that Fowler was inferring this from the fact that springtime reigns eternal in the prelapsarian world. In fact, however, spring and autumn dance eternally in Paradise -- or would have if not for the Fall. Each 24-hour period is 'equinoctial' and could just as easily be considered the autumnal as well as the vernal equinox.

I suspect that Milton thought that the sun did move annually through the 'ecliptic' -- at least in appearance, depending on whether his cosmos is geo- or heliocentric -- such that it entered every zodiacal sign, albeit without seasonal change, for we do have these previously cited lines concerning God's creative act:

Again th' Almightie spake: Let there be Lights
High in th' expanse of Heaven to divide
The Day from Night; and let them be for Signes,
For Seasons, and for Dayes, and circling Years,
And let them be for Lights as I ordaine
Thir Office in the Firmament of Heav'n
To give Light on the Earth; and it was so. (PL 7.339-345)

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, January 2009]

In short, within a prelapsarian world, in which celestial equator and ecliptic coincide, there can be "Seasons . . . and circling Years" even without seasonal change. I think that Fowler was incorrect in his inference . . . unless somebody can demonstrate evidence to the contrary.
Such are my thoughts. Of course from Milton's perspective, we readers -- like the poet himself -- live in a postlapsarian world, a cosmos in which the ecliptic has an obliquity of about 23.5 degrees to the celestial equator, precisely as depicted in the image above.

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At 8:20 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

Hm. I had always assumed Fowler to be correct. I wonder if this wasn't a presumption on my part. It is important to ask these basic questions. Like you,I now question Fowler.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I think the question an interesting one and am puzzled, over at the Milton List, that Professor Strier considers such cosmological questions largely irrelevant

Jeffery Hodges

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