From “PARADISE LOST: ASTRONOMY, SKEPTICISM, PERSPECTIVE,” Chapter 1
For my purposes in this chapter, I would like to dwell a bit longer on Leonard’s and Danielson’s emphases on ‘the beyond’ of the created universe in Paradise Lost, which most effectively restore the epic’s true and awe-inspiring cosmic scale. The following scene from book two serves as an excellent example. When Satan manages to steer through Chaos, he first steadies himself in the air and from a distance beholds Heaven, which stretches so wide that he cannot tell whether it is square or round, then he catches sight of “this pendant world, in bigness as a star / Of smallest magnitude close by the moon” (2.1052-3). “This pendant world,” Leonard reaffirms the insight of Zachary Pearce in 1733, does not refer to Earth but to our entire created universe. Its size, seen from Satan’s position in space, is like that of a star, and not even a bright star—to illustrate the contrast between Heaven and our universe, Milton invites us to imagine what a star “Of smallest magnitude” would look like beside the Moon. As both Leonard and Danielson inform us, magnitude is a technical term for the measurement of the brightness of stars. Before the invention of telescope, “smallest magnitude” would be the sixth, i.e., the dimmest star visible to the naked eye. After the invention of telescope, lower magnitudes were added according to the stars’ visibility to the assisted eye, that is to say, a star of the smallest magnitude would be virtually invisible to the naked eye. For centuries many critics have enormously shrunken Milton’s relative scale between Heaven and “this pendant world” by reading the latter as Earth. But once we realize that, through Satan’s spatial perspective beyond, Milton gives us a glimpse of our entire universe hanging from the immense Heaven like a barely visible star to the angelic vision of Satan, which would be invisible to human sight, we begin to get the idea what incredible distance Satan has travelled through space thus far. Then indeed as readers of Paradise Lost “we are surprised not only by sin but also […] by wonder” (Danielson xiv).
Wonder and fear are the two sentiments in our own age of space exploration. Many modern readers find a poignant early modern expression of fear in Pascal’s Pensées, where he registers terror at “le silence éternel des ces espaces infinis [the eternal silence of those infinite spaces].” Forty-five years have passed since the first moon landing, during which time advanced machines and telescopes have replaced human explorers, and indeed our exploration has extended further and further into the space, but till now no discovery of life beyond Earth has been announced. Pascal’s terror, in essence, a mixture of profound loneliness and fear of nothingness, is keenly felt by some of us today, similarly induced by an awareness of what vast space and time stretch increasingly beyond our existence on the tiny Earth. In Milton, however, as both Leonard and Danielson show in their readings, we find a much more positive response to the dawning awareness of the infinite space in the early modern period. Our entire universe looks indeed like a barely visible star from afar, but when Satan, in a different perspective, from the stairs to Heaven looks down “at the sudden view / Of all this world at once,” he is seized by wonder and then by envy, confronted by “the goodly prospect,” “though after Heaven seen” (3.542-3; 548; 552). Far from conveying a sense of loneliness and fear of nothingness, Milton suggests that the universe teems with life. Winding his way towards Earth through the interstellar space, Satan passes by “other worlds, […], or happy isles, / Like those Hesperian gardens famed of old, / Fortunate fields, and groves and flow’ry vales / Thrice happy isles, but who dwelt happy there / He stayed not to enquire” (3.567-71). Raphael stresses fruitfulness and vigor of the Earth which “though, in comparison of heav’n, so small, / Nor glistering, may of solid good contain / More plenty than the sun barren shines” (8.92-4). He hints at the existence of those other inhabited worlds Satan passed: “[…] The Maker’s high magnificence, who built / So spacious, and his line stretched out so far; / That man may know he dwells not in his own; / An edifice too large for him to fill,” and suggests to Adam that “other suns perhaps / With their attendant moons thou wilt descry / Communicating male and female light, / Which two great sexes animate the world, / Stored in each orb perhaps with some that live” (8.101-4; 8.148-52). Raphael’s predictive suggestion of future discovery of extraterrestrial life in space finds strong echoes in our twenty-first century—our contemporary scientists are indeed optimistic that we are on the very brink of such discoveries. At this moment NASA’s Curiosity rover is working diligently on Mars, looking for signs of life in ancient Mars. A recent story from Scientific American reports that “New results suggest evidence for extraterrestrial life could be near at hand.” In Faithful Labourers, Leonard is thrilled that the ancient idea of the plurality of worlds is “poised to make a sage and serious comeback” with modern astronomy’s discoveries of more and more exoplanets in habitable zone, and Milton’s apparent enthusiasm towards the idea makes him “a true poet-prophet” (769; 725). As Danielson also shows in his new book, Milton’s cosmic imagination stretches not only backward but also forward “indeed, to the present day” (xxii). And a proper appreciation of it as such helps us to see that far from being a tomb of dead ideas, Paradise Lost as a cosmic epic is particularly engaging and fascinating for our present space exploration era.
Yanxiang’s dissertation “Paradise Lost: Astronomy, Scepticism, Perspective”, is available for viewing and download at Scholarship@Western. The recommended citation for her dissertation is as follows:
Wu, Yanxiang, “Paradise Lost: Astronomy, Scepticism, Perspective” (2015). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. Paper 3415. http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/3415