Page images
PDF
EPUB

At this point, and before following the Fiend in his flight down. into the interior of our Astronomical Universe, it is necessary to describe the system or constitution of that interior as it is conceived by Milton and assumed throughout the poem. Let us attend, therefore, more particularly now to that small central circle of our last diagram, hanging drop-like from the Empyrean, which we have as yet described no farther than by saying that, small as it is, it represents our vast Starry Universe in Milton's total scheme of Infinitude. Although a great part of the action of the poem takes place in the Empyrean, in Chaos, and in Hell, much of it also takes place within the bounds of this Starry Universe of ours; so that, if there is any peculiarity in Milton's conception of the interior arrangements of this Universe, that peculiarity must be understood before many parts of the poem are intelligible. Such a peculiarity there is; and a distinct exposition of it is desirable in an Introduction to the Poem.

Milton's Astronomy, or at least the astronomical system which he thought proper to employ in his Paradise Lost, is not our present Copernican system-which, in his time, was not generally or popularly accepted. It is the older astronomical system, now usually called "the Ptolemaic," because it had been set forth in its main features by the astronomer Ptolemy of Alexandria, who lived in the second century.

According to this "Ptolemaic system," the Earth was the fixed centre of the Mundane Universe, and the apparent motions of the other celestial bodies were caused by the real revolutions of successive Heavens or Spheres of Space enclosing the central Earth at different distances. First, and nearest to the Earth, were the Spheres or Orbs of the Seven Planets then known, in this order-the Moon (treated as a planet), Mercury, Venus, the Sun (treated as a planet-the "glorious planet Sol," Shakespeare calls it, Troil. and Cress., Act I. Scene 3), Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond these, as an Eighth Sphere or Orb, was the Firmament or Heaven of all the fixed stars. These eight Spheres or Heavens had sufficed till Aristotle's time, and beyond it, for all the purposes of astronomical explanation. The outermost or eighth Sphere was supposed to wheel diurnally, or in twenty-four hours, from

East to West, carrying in it all the fixed stars, and carrying with it also all the seven interior Heavens or Spheres-which Spheres, however, had also separate and slower motions of their own, giving rise to those apparent motions of the Moon (months), Mercury, Venus, the Sun (years), Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, which could not be accounted for by the revolution of the Starry Sphere alone. But, later observations having discovered irregularities in the phenomena of the heavens which the supposed motions of even the Eight Spheres could not account for, two extra Spheres had been added. To account for the slow change called "the precession of the equinoxes," the discovery of which was prepared by Hipparchus in the second century B.C., it had been necessary to imagine a Ninth Sphere, called "the Crystalline Sphere," beyond that of the Fixed Stars; and, finally, for farther reasons, it had been necessary to suppose all enclosed in a Tenth Sphere, called "the Primum Mobile," or "first moved." These two outermost Spheres, or at least the Tenth Sphere, had been added in the Middle Ages; and, indeed, the Ptolemaic system, so completed up to the final number of Ten Spheres, may be called rather the " Alphonsine system," as having been adopted and taught by the famous King and astronomer, Alphonso X. of Castille (1252-1284). The following extract, which we translate from a Latin manual or Catechism of Astronomy by Michael Moestlinus, Professor of Mathematics in the University of Heidelberg, and preceptor of Kepler (Epitome Astronomia, &c., 1582, pp. 34, 35), will give an idea of the form in which the system was popularly taught in schools and universities all over Europe till it was superseded by that of Copernicus :-" Quest. How many are the Orbs, or celes"tial Spheres, and what is their order?" Ans. "There are "various opinions concerning the number and order of the celes"tial Spheres; but, following for the present, for the sake of "learners, the doctrine of the Alphonsines, we reckon ten, in this "order :-The 1st is the Sphere of the Moon, which has the "lowest place in the Æther; the 2nd that of Mercury; the 3rd "that of Venus; the 4th that of the Sun; the 5th that of Mars; "the 6th that of Jupiter; the 7th that of Saturn. And these are "the Spheres of the Seven Planets, or wandering stars, each of "which has only one star, viz. its own planet, inserted in it.

"To these an 8th succeeds, which, from its order, is called 'the 66 6 Eighth Sphere,' but also 'the Firmament,' on account of its "containing, and as it were fortifying or walling round, all the "other Spheres-for it was believed by the ancients to be the last "and Supreme Sphere. It is also called the Sphere of the "Fixed Stars, because in it are all the rest of the stars, whatever "their number, after the planets are excepted. There is moreover "a 9th, and finally a 10th Sphere; which last is the Primum "Mobile, or Last Heaven. These two Spheres are destitute of "stars." It need only be added that the Spheres were not necessarily supposed to be actual spheres of solid matter. It was enough if they were conceived as spheres of invisible or transpicuous space. Perhaps only the outermost Sphere, or Primum Mobile, enclosing the whole Universe from absolute Infinity or Nothingness, had to be thought of as in any sense a material or impenetrable shell.

The utter strangeness of this Ptolemaic system to our present habits of thought causes us to forget how long it lasted. Although it was in 1543 that Copernicus propounded the other system, and although the views of Copernicus struggled gradually into the belief of subsequent astronomers, and had further demonstration given them by Galileo (1610-1616), the Ptolemaic or Alphonsine system, with its ten Spheres enclosing the stationary Earth at different distances, and wheeling round it in a complex combination of their separate motions, retained its prevalence in the popular mind of Europe, and even in the scientific world, till the end of the seventeenth century. Hence all the literature of England, and of other countries, down to that date, is latently cast in the imaginative mould of that system, and is full of its phraseology and of suggestions from it. When Shakespeare speaks of the stars starting from their spheres," he means from the Ptolemaic Spheres; and, similarly, the word "sphere" in our old poetry has generally this meaning. Indeed, it retains this meaning in some of our still current expressions, as "This is not my sphere," "You are out of your sphere," &c. A full examination of our old literature in the light of the principle of criticism here suggested-i.e. with the recollection that it was according to the Ptolemaic conception of the Universe, and not according to the Copernican,

[ocr errors]

that our old poets thought of things and expressed their thoughts -might lead to curious results. We are concerned at present, however, with Milton only.

In Milton's case we are presented with the interesting phenomenon of a mind apparently uncertain to the last which of the two systems, the Ptolemaic or the Copernican, was the true one, or perhaps beginning to be persuaded of the higher probability of the Copernican, but yet retaining the Ptolemaic for poetical purposes. For Milton's life (1608-1674) coincides with the period of the struggle between the two systems. In his boyhood and youth he had, doubtless, inherited the general or Ptolemaic belief that in which Shakespeare died. Here, for example, is what everybody was reading during Milton's youth in that favourite book, Sylvester's Translation of Du Bartas :—

"As the ague-sick upon his shivering pallet
Delays his health oft to delight his palate,
When wilfully his tasteless taste delights
In things unsavoury to sound appetites,
Even so some brain-sicks live there now-a-days
That lose themselves still in contrary ways-
•Preposterous, wits that cannot row at ease
On the smooth channel of our common seas;
And such are those, in my conceit at least,

Those clerks that think-think how absurd a jest !--
That neither heavens nor stars do turn at all
Nor dance about this great round Earthly Ball,
But the Earth itself, this massy globe of ours,

Turns round about once every twice-twelve hours."

Du Bartas had been a French Protestant, and his English translator, Sylvester, was a Puritan. It was not, therefore, only to the Roman Inquisition, or to Roman Catholics, that Galileo must have seemed a "brain-sick" and "a preposterous wit" when he advocated the Copernican theory. In 1638 Milton had himself conversed with Galileo, then old and blind, near Florence. "There it was," he wrote in 1644 (Areopag.), “ that I found and "visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisi"tion, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and "Dominican licensers thought." And yet, despite this passage, and other passages showing how strongly the character and history of Galileo had fascinated him, it may be doubted whether

Milton even then felt himself entitled to reject the system which Galileo had impugned. His friends and literary associates, the Smectymnuans, at all events, in their answer to Bishop Hall's "Humble Remonstrance" (1641), had cited the Copernican doctrine as an unquestionable instance of a supreme absurdity. "There is no more truth in this assertion," they say of one of Bishop Hall's statements, "than if he had said with Anaxagoras, "Snow is black,' or with Copernicus, 'The Earth moves, and the "Heavens stand still." " There cannot be a more distinct proof than this incidental passage affords of the utter repulsiveness of the Copernican theory to even the educated English intellect as late as the middle of the seventeenth century. Milton was probably even then, if we may judge from the above-quoted reference to Galileo, in advance of his contemporaries on this question; and in the interval between that time and the completion of his Paradise Lost his Copernicanism may have become decided. There are, at any rate, two passages in Paradise Lost where he shows his perfect acquaintance with the Copernican theory, and with the arguments in its behalf. The one (IV. 592-597) is an incidental passage; in the other and much longer passage (VIII. 15-178) he makes the question a subject of express conversation between Raphael and Adam. In this last passage Adam is represented as arriving by intuition at the Copernican theory, or at least as perceiving its superior simplicity over the Ptolemaic; and, though the drift of the Angel's reply is that the question is an abstruse one, and that it is of no great consequence for man's real duty in the world which system is the true one, yet the balance of the Angel's remarks is also Copernican. There is no doubt that these two passages were deliberately inserted by Milton to relieve his own mind on the subject, and by way of caution to the reader that the scheme of the physical Universe actually adopted in the construction of the poem needed not be taken as more than a hypothesis for the imagination.

That scheme is, undoubtedly, the Ptolemaic or Alphonsine. Accordingly, the little central circle, hung drop-like from the Empyrean in our last diagram-and there representing the dimensions of the total Creation of the Six Days, or, in other words, of our Starry Universe-may be exhibited now on a magnified scale,

« PreviousContinue »