Tuesday, January 12, 2010

John Milton's Paradise Lost: The Sun Turning "Reines from th' Equinoctial Rode"?

Celestial Sphere with Celestial Equator

I seem to be veering wildly from the rule of law below to the starry sky above, if I might paraphrase Kant's famous remark about "the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me" ("der bestirnte Himmel ├╝ber mir und das moralische Gesetz in mir"). Such chaotic fluctuations are characteristic of our postlapsarian world, Milton would say, for only with the fall of mankind came the discrepancy between the two as the laws governing both macrocosm and and microcosm became eccentric.

Anyway, back to Milton and his views on seasonal change, whose origin he dates to some time shortly after the fall when God ordered the unfallen angels to rearrange the cosmos, as described in Book 10 of Paradise Lost:
Some say he bid his Angels turne ascanse
The Poles of Earth twice ten degrees and more
From the Suns Axle; they with labour push'd [ 670 ]
Oblique the Centric Globe: Som say the Sun
Was bid turn Reines from th' Equinoctial Rode
Like distant breadth to Taurus with the Seav'n
Atlantick Sisters, and the Spartan Twins
Up to the Tropic Crab; thence down amaine [ 675 ]
By Leo and the Virgin and the Scales,
As deep as Capricorne, to bring in change
Of Seasons to each Clime; else had the Spring
Perpetual smil'd on Earth with vernant Flours,
Equal in Days and Nights . . . (PL 10.668-680)

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, January 2009]
As Thomas Luxon notes in his online link, concerning the expression "Som say" (10.671):
Here and in the lines that follow we hear some ambiguity concerning geocentric and heliocentric models of creation. The first assumes a solar system; the second a geosystem.
Luxon could actually have noted this from the expression "Some say" (10.668). He's also linked to a couple of sites useful for schematic diagrams and simple explications of the geocentric and heliocentric models, but take the 'history' therein with a grain of salt when the site states that "the heliocentric idea of Aristarchus was quickly forgotten and Western thought stagnated for almost 2000 years as it waited for Copernicus to revive the heliocentric theory." Western thought certainly didn't 'stagnate' for 2000 years. Ptolemy's geocentric system made sense and was very useful, but it often gets denigrated in 'Whig' histories of science.

What I really want to focus on today, however, is a query about Milton's meaning in writing "Som say the Sun / Was bid turn Reines from th' Equinoctial Rode / Like distant breadth to" Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, and the other signs along the zodiacal path. The odd expression "Like distant breadth" refers to the 23.5 degress obliquity of the ecliptic to the celestial equator referred to first in lines 669-670. The "Equinoctial Rode" here refers to the celestial equator on which the sun was constantly positioned in Milton's prelapsarian cosmos.

As I've previously noted, Alastair Fowler has stated that in Milton's unfallen world, the celestial equator and the ecliptic coincided, but does Milton clearly say this anywhere? In lines 671 and following, 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. At least, the words about the sun turning from the "Equinoctial Rode" suggest the possibility. The sun seems to be changing its path from one great circle to another . . . apparently bringing the planets in tow, since we find them also there in our postlapsarian world.

I'll have to see if other scholars have noted this possible interpretation.

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At 6:50 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

I don't know where this fits in...but I'm sure there are places where Milton uses numerical line counts of 23/23.5. I can't think where off-hand. If this is so, he builds numerical images of the Fall into Paradise Lost. This is a hidded "seasonal" image in the epic.

At 6:51 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

This is a hidden "seasonal" image in the epic.

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe it's a 'hooded' seasonal image?

If you re-locate one of those line counts, let me know.

Jeffery Hodges

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