Jonathan Rosen on Milton’s Love, Loss, and Paradise Lost

In researching my latest show, I’ve read a lot about Galileo. His astronomical findings were key in demonstrating that the sun didn’t move around the earth, as had been thought for the past 1500 years. It took over 200 years to finally prove Galileo was right, but the shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric universe started with him.

I was surprised and please to discover that Galileo met John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, an epic poem in which Milton attempts to explain the cosmos via literature (and is the source for one of my favorite series, the His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman, the title of which is a reference to the poem.) Even better, this 2008 article about their meeting by Jonathan Rosen for the New Yorker, touches on all 3 of my show topics: cosmology, love, and disaster.

First, some background on their meeting:

Sometime in 1638, John Milton visited Galileo Galilei in Florence. The great astronomer was old and blind and under house arrest, confined by order of the Inquisition, which had forced him to recant his belief that the earth revolves around the sun, as formulated in his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” Milton was thirty years old—his own blindness, his own arrest, and his own cosmological epic, “Paradise Lost,” all lay before him…

Beyond the sheer pleasure of picturing the encounter—it’s like those comic-book specials in which Superman meets Batman—there’s something strange about imagining these two figures inhabiting the same age. Though Milton was the much younger man, in some ways his world system seems curiously older than the astronomer’s empirical universe.

What struck me most was how much the article, and perhaps Paradise Lost,  touch on areas relevant to my show which focuses on models of the universe, both historical and personal, and how the latter, more individual cosmology is affected by love and disaster. Rosen suggests that Paradise Lost came out of Milton’s burning desire to address, “how things could have gone so wrong in human affairs”. These problems were both personal and national.
Through the preceding years [up to writing the poem], Milton had suffered a number of personal disasters: in 1652, his wife Mary died in childbirth, and a son died the following month. In 1658, his second wife, whom he had married two years before, died as well, followed a month after that by their daughter. Furthermore, in the year of Mary’s death Milton’s blindness became total, a fact that informs the tone and texture of “Paradise Lost,” as does the total collapse of his political-theological hopes. [Milton wrote in defense of the killing of King Charles I, was a key member of Cromwell’s interregnum government, and lived to see his political world crumble when Charles II returned the country to monarchy.]
Milton is, Rosen infers, attempting to create a cosmology in his poem to help him explain the problems he saw in his time, a creative impetus which gives the poem relevance to America and contemporary disasters:

In America, where God and the Devil live alongside Western rationalism, Milton seems right at home. After the attacks of September 11th, it was possible to find Milton invoked to remind us of the nature of absolute evil—his Satan really is a model terrorist, who, having abandoned hope of a happy home, devotes his energy to destroying the lives of others—and at the same time quoted to uphold the rights of individuals whose distasteful views might be curtailed during a time of war.

But the human element, particularly love, is also a central part of the poem. Rosen talk about his first introduction to Milton in a high school English class.
The teacher—a reserved young man who had been born in China—suddenly read aloud to us Adam’s words to Eve after he has made the decision to eat the apple and fall with her… Adam decides that he would rather die with her than live alone: “To lose thee were to lose myself.”… [The] teacher told us, in a voice thick with emotion, that he had just recited these words to his own bride:

How can I live without you, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart.’

Adam is rescued from despair after the fall by his love for Eve and by her fortitude and love for him. In a sense, they rescue each other.

Galileo’s discovery of craters on the moon, sunspots, and the phases of Venus called into question geocentrism, for which he was censured by he church. But his discoveries began a slow yet inevitable shift to a cosmological model where earth was decentered, calling into question humankind’s place in the scheme of the universe . I find it compelling that at a time when the European scientific and religious community was debating the position of earth in the cosmos, and whether the earth was literally shifting underneath their feet, that Milton, in a personal yet epic way, was trying to reconcile his own changing universe. As Rosen says:

“Paradise Lost” is simultaneously personal, national, and universal, a poem that claims divine inspiration but is clearly made up, a poem with ancient origins and contemporary interpolations that confuses the very notion of old and new. A number of recent scholars who have focussed on Milton’s knowledge of Hebrew see echoes in his literary strategy of rabbinic Midrash, human stories that helped embody divine meaning and in the process became divine themselves.
Humankind has always used stories to understand it’s role in the universe, whether tribal people and their myths or our own personal narratives that we use to define our selves in relation to the world around us. Paradise Lost. born from disaster, grounded by love, and informed by Milton’s complicated Christian faith, seems to be a particularly epic example of this impulse. I look forward to reading it and to see how it relates to my show, in which I look at how people make sense of the world, especially in relationship to love and disaster.

[All quotes via Return to Paradise : The New Yorker.]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: