Saturday, January 16, 2010

John Milton's Paradise Lost: "With tract oblique"?

Satan Contemplates Serpent
(Image from All Art)

In the image above, Satan contemplates his malicious intentions and deplores having to incarnate his spiritual substance within the serpent (PL 9.163-167), but he does so, of course, or there would be no story, and goes forth to approach Eve:
. . . With tract oblique
At first, as one who sought access, but feard
To interrupt, side-long he works his way. (PL 9.510-512)
As we noted yesterday, Satan likes "his oblique way" (PL 3.564) of motion, and we see from today's passage above that his motions can be termed oblique even when he is far from the ecliptic. Concerning yesterday's passages, then, his motion from Libra to Aries in approaching the sun is "hard to tell" (PL 3.575). Upon reflection, I think that since Satan is described as moving past planets, he must be on the ecliptic, but perhaps the ecliptic is still located upon the celestial equator, as Alastair Fowler maintains. Satan's "oblique way" might then refer to his fallen manner of approaching any of his aims. Conversely, the planets might be on an oblique ecliptic but the sun simply upon the celestial equator. That the sun cannot be moving along an oblique ecliptic is certain from what we have previously seen in Book 10, where the sun's annual motion, or apparent annual motion, is made oblique to account for the excessive summer heat and the dire winter cold. But if the sun is not moving along the ecliptic, why call it an ecliptic?

Adam himself wonders about such questions, and poses them to the angel Raphael, who says:
To ask or search I blame thee not, for Heav'n
Is as the Book of God before thee set,
Wherein to read his wondrous Works, and learne
His Seasons, Hours, or Dayes, or Months, or Yeares: (PL 8.66-69)
Asking about the celestial motions is therefore not forbidden . . . and yet:
This to attain, whether Heav'n move or Earth, [ 70 ]
Imports not, if thou reck'n right, the rest
From Man or Angel the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
His secrets to be scann'd by them who ought
Rather admire; (PL 8.70-75)
Asking is okay, but searching too deeply becomes problematic. Here, Milton seems to hearken back to the long tradition of Western debate over the legitimacy of curiosity that Hans Blumenberg has analyzed so well. Milton would appear to share Augustine's concern, for he has Raphael conclude his discourse over the celestial motions with the following advice:
. . . Heav'n is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowlie wise:
Think onely what concernes thee and thy being;
Dream not of other Worlds, what Creatures there [ 175 ]
Live, in what state, condition or degree,
Contented that thus farr hath been reveal'd
Not of Earth onely but of highest Heav'n. (PL 8.172-178)

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, January 2009]
Like Augustine, Milton would seem to think that a busybody curiosity leads one astray from what has been revealed as proper to mankind and distracts one from concern with one's soul, if I might extrapolate from Raphael's words.

Considered from a different perspective, Milton is admitting ignorance of the prelapsarian celestial motions, and probably also the postlapsarian ones, so the reader should not be surprised to find that movement "up or downe / By center, or eccentric, hard to tell" (PL 3.574-575).

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