Saturday, January 20, 2007

"Things invisible to see..."

John Donne (1572-1631)
After a miniature by Isaac Oliver (1616?)
(Image from Wikipedia)

In Paradise Lost 3.1-55, Milton addresses the divine light and -- after lamenting his own physical blindness -- asks to receive inward, spiritual eyes:

So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. (PL 3.51-55)
Lines 54-55, "that I may see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight," recall -- at least for me -- lines 10-11 of John Donne's posthumously published poem "Song" (1633), which read: "If thou be'st born to strange sights, / Things invisible to see."

Was Milton remembering Donne? Let's look:
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
Well, we do have the devil and a beautiful, unfaithful woman appearing in both poems, and Milton's Paradise Lost does go and catch that falling star Lucifer ... among other 'impossible tasks' imposed by true love, both sacred and profane.

So ... was Milton alluding to lines 10-11 of Donne's "Song" in Paradise Lost 3.54-55?

Maybe, maybe not.


At 5:44 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

I'd tend to say...maybe not. Though stars and sight did interest the ironical contemplation of "consider" in his famous sonnet: with sidereal, astronomical vision. And the subsequent fascination with Galileo as a type for prophetic vision. Perhaps, here, you are pulling at mandrake roots...just a tad.

At 8:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm rather skeptical myself ... and worried about pulling up a mandrake root without safety plugs in my ears...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't quite see a case of literary dependence there in those few lines. I think this sort of language about seeing the invisible is rather common. On the other hand, I suppose it's possible.

At 9:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The consensus seems against it, so it's likely mere coincidence.

Jeffery Hodges

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