Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Publicizing the Science of God: Milton's Raphael and the Boundaries of Knowledge

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Publicizing the Science of God: Milton's Raphael and the Boundaries of Knowledge

Article excerpt

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature ... so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done.... Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

--Sir Philip Sidney A Defence of Poetry (1595)

Is it not evident, in these last hundred years (when the Study of Philosophy has been the business of all the Virtuosi in Christendome) that almost a new Nature has been reveal'd to us? that more errours of the School have been detected, more useful Experiments in Philosophy have been made, more Noble Secrets in Opticks, Medicine, Anatomy, Astronomy, discover'd, than in all those credulous and doting Ages from Aristotle to us? so true it is that nothing spreads more fast than Science, when rightly and generally cultivated.

--John Dryden An Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1688)

Situated between Sidney's Defence of Poetry and Dryden's Essay of Dramatick Poesie, Milton, "freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit," "deliver[s] a golden" world in Paradise Lost but populates it with inquisitive inhabitants not unlike those of Dryden's milieu, inhabitants who find themselves at once intrigued by "useful Experiments" and bounded by the requirement to have those experiments "rightly and generally cultivated." While Sidney's theory posits that the poet "doth grow in effect another nature," Dryden suggests that the brazen world he and Milton inhabit itself appears "almost a new Nature." Within the context of his own age's literary theorists, then, Milton creates in Paradise Lost a golden world while inhabiting a newly-altered brazen one himself. This reduplication of the poetic sense of the newly altered natural world (or, to superimpose Dryden on Sidney, the poetic sense of "another nature" derived from "a new Nature") has complicated Milton criticism that seeks to examine the scientific in Paradise Lost. With a few notable exceptions among recent work, the body of criticism on Milton's epic tends to relegate Raphael--the principal expositor of scientific knowledge in the poem--and his discourse with Adam to secondary or even tertiary points in arguments of larger design. Though often with useful results, the critical inquiry Raphael's discourse on the scientific has garnered usually focuses on what type of science Milton promulgates, more often than not examining whether he sides with classical cosmography or more contemporary theories. Dennis Danielson's recent penetrating study on Miltonic cosmology as a whole is a noteworthy continuation of this interest in the content of Milton's natural philosophy. Though productive, however, this kind of approach, as William Kerrigan observes, "encourages us to regard the poem in a certain fashion--as, let us say, a very nice museum" (263). But just as important as what science Milton depicts is how Milton chooses to depict it. Or, to continue Professor Kerrigan's metaphor, how the museum is operated and to whom admission is granted.

This essay seeks to revisit how Milton handles his representations of science by means of a sustained inquiry into the problematics of Raphael's narration and the social space through which he directs his pedagogical efforts. In particular, I'm interested in the social space of dining in which Raphael conducts his discourse with Adam and the tensions--some might say contradictions--implicit in his pedagogy between liberty and containment, between the incitement to and curtailment of investigation into the created order. Casually dining with Adam and Eve in the cool of their bower while discussing issues of mutual concern, Raphael represents the natural world as inextricably bound, ironically enough, to the concept of circumscription. …

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