The Cosmography of Paradise Lost

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      By Milton’s cosmography, it is meant particular disposition of the Universe as conceived by the poet in Paradise Lost. Milton has got a peculiar idea of the disposition and the division of the Universe, with all its planets, the Sun, the Moon, etc. The interest about this subject now seems to us to be almost of an antiquarian type, being more fanciful than real or scientific. In fact, from a scientific point of view, Milton’s idea of the Universe as described in Paradise Lost is nothing short of the absurd, yet, the cosmography of Paradise Lost, purely fanciful though it be, is found to have an intimate connection with the poem and its treatment, and that perhaps justifies the treatment of this subject by almost every editor of Paradise Lost.

      Since Paradise Lost is supposed to cover the course of events right from the beginning of the Universe, we have got perhaps four different stages in the development of this cosmography as traced by Milton himself. In the very earliest stage before Time began, the Universe, according to Milton, was divided into two parts, namely Heaven or the Empyrean and Chaos. This was, of course, the very first stage. Later on when Satan rebelled against God and led the war in Heaven and the rebels were overthrown, a place of punishment was prepared for them on the nether side of Chaos. Thus, Chaos becomes split up into Hell and the rest of Chaos. We have next the third stage when God created the visible Universe out of Chaos, and the Earth was fashioned out of that mass of confusion which is known as Chaos. Thus we have Heaven and Hell and the Earth. Subsequently, the stars, the Sun and the Moon were created, and so we have, fashioned out of Chaos, the visible Universe, namely the Earth and, according to the cosmography of Paradise Lost, all the luminaries revolving round it. That according to Paradise Lost is the final stage, where we have Heaven above, Hell below, and the Universe made up of the Earth and all the planets of the constellation spread out in and differentiated from Chaos.

      In connection with the last stage, Milton’s conception of the constellation is seen to be that exploded theory known as the Ptolemaic System. Down to the 17th century the generality of the people, and even some astronomers, thought that the earth was the center of the Universe and that around the Earth revolved the various planets, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. This was the order in which they were supposed to be situated around a fixed Earth. Copernicus, and later on Galileo, exploded these ideas and endured considerable persecution, especially from the clergy, for thinking about the Universe in other than the accepted terms. Milton in Paradise Lost (see Book VIII) shows his acquaintance with the Copernican System, but he is not prepared to admit that is the correct point of view. In fact, in the discussion between the Angel Raphael and Adam, the angel says that the question is still obscure, and obviously Milton does not want to commit himself to either side of the question. However, whatever be Milton’s own opinion regarding the Ptolemaic and the Copernican ideas of the Universe, he follows the former system, mainly because we suppose it suited his poetical purpose much better. What that purpose is we shall see from the descriptions of the various regions that Milton has given in Paradise Lost.

      Heaven, according to Milton, is a particularly grand and beautiful place, and though it might hardly agree with the spiritual conceptions of the philosopher, is certainly a most poetical and beautiful place. Heaven is placed on high, infinitely extended, walled with a crystal wall, having opal towers and sapphire battlements. From Heaven runs a broad and ample road, powdered with stars whose dust is gold, to the throne of God. The throne itself is placed on a sacred hill in the midst of ineffable light. Beyond, around, are blissful bowers, amaranthine shades, fountains and springs. The trees there bear ambrosial fruits and the vines nectar. In the midst is the Fountain of Life, and through this region runs the River of Bliss over Elysian flowers. In these tree-clad hills and vales, the angels have their seats, and diamond quarries and golden rocks. On the whole, Milton’s conception of Heaven seems to be more poetical than philosophical. Anyhow, that is Milton’s conception of absolute beauty and bliss.

      A vast gate from Heaven opens on to Chaos, "a dark immeasurable ocean without bound, without dimension, where night and chaos hold eternal anarchy amidst the noise of endless wars."

      Deep down, a fall of nine days and nine nights from Heaven, lie the regions of Hell. In the very midst of Hell is the bottomless lake of fire into which pour the four great rivers of classical mythology—which represent Sin, Death, Sorrow, etc. Around the lake is a vast space of dry land formed of fire, and it was on one of the hills in this region that Pandemonium was supposed to be built - Pandemonium, the palace of Satan. Beyond lies Lethe, the fabled ocean-stream of forgetfulness and still beyond is "a frozen continent dark and vile, beat with perpetual storm of whirlwinds and dire hail."

      Our world, as Milton conceived it, is the whole Solar System with the Sun, the Moon and the stars. It is represented as a vast, hollow sphere linked by a golden chain to Heaven, and similarly having a pathway down below leading to Hell. This world itself is placed in the midst of Chaos, that Chaos which separates Heaven from Hell. Of course, by this representation Milton meant that the Earth, while it is linked to heaven by goodness, is also capable of leading its inhabitants to Hell by means of the pathway that leads to it. It is obviously through this pathway that Satan emerged from Hell into Chaos, and after passing through the various planets alighted on the borders of the Earth. We are also told that the golden stairway which leads from the Earth to Heaven can be drawn up and thus closed, but that the road to Hell is broad and plain and is never closed. This is probably a poetic representation of the comparative ease with which a man can fall into evil and the comparative difficulty of trading the path of goodness to Heaven. It is possible for this kind of poetical and philosophical representation of the Earth and its relations to Heaven and Hell that Milton preferred the Ptolemaic System. Possibly also Milton did not want to depart from the conventional ideas of the Earth being a fixed planet in the very center of the Universe.

      The constellation as Milton conceived it was a hollow sphere in which the Earth was a fixed center with the Moon and the Sun and number of other planets moving around the Earth in a series of concentric circles. Milton also dwells upon the idea that these various planets as they move around the Earth produce a kind of music popularly known in the Middle Ages as the music of the spheres. We are also told that with the fall of Man these concentric circles of the planets movements got deranged, and that the planets were driven away from their path into a sort of ecliptic which they are now pursuing.

      Thus, then, is Milton’s idea of the total Universe and its disposition. In brief, it is make up of the blissful Empyrean above, the dark and dismal Hell below and the visible Universe separated from Chaos in the middle. The disposition of this visible Universe in different from our present scientific idea of it; but it suited Milton to follow the ancient idea because it agreed more with his own poetical ideas and the traditional Scriptural conception of the Universe.

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