MEET THE CONTRIBUTORS
We asked all of our contributors to tell us about their favourite lines of Milton and their experiences of reading his work.
To ask or search I blame thee not, for heaven
Is as the book of God before thee set,
Wherein to read his wondrous works, and learn
His seasons, hours, or days, or months, or years:
This to attain, whether heaven move or earth,
Imports not, if thou reckon right, the rest
From man or angel the great architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
His secrets to be scanned by them who ought
~Paradise Lost, VIII.66.
This passage, where Raphael explains the nature of the universe to Adam in the Garden of Eden, sees Milton negotiating the various theological conflicts and contradictions implicit in his grand project. What is remarkable is that he doesn't shirk from bringing up tricky issues - here, the contemporary battle between heliocentricism and geocentricism (that is, whether the sun or the earth is at the centre of the universe). Milton, rather, seems to have an answer for everything. The tension between 'wonder', 'reading', 'reckoning' and 'scanning' rewrites scientific discovery not as a revelation of truth but rather as man's construction of fundamentally arbitrary models in the drive to understand creation.
Indeed, the orbits and planetary systems drawn up from heavenly creation are a useful way in to understanding the project stated at the opening of Paradise Lost: to 'justify the ways of God to men' (I.26). I always find it important that Milton wrote 'justify' rather than something like 'explain' or 'account for': his is a very constructive act that in the very active sense of 'justify' seems almost to make God just, rather than simply to explain how he is just. Like those studying the stars and planets in this passage, Milton builds his own model of Christianity and its doctrine in an act of admiration of the raw materials: Paradise Lost, like the various models of the universe proposed by astronomers, seeks not to represent directly but to present an abstracted model, a system for understanding God, the universe, and everything.
This all sounds rather huge, I must say, but it isn't really: Raphael's place in the poem is both to elevate, and to reveal as arbitrary, man's attempts to understand God's creation. Misunderstanding becomes wonderment, and the act of striving to understand, of looking and wondering, is ultimately far more important than the truth of the model. The success of Paradise Lost can be said to be in its success as a system, deftly marrying detailed and often controversial doctrinal argument to a sense of sheer, bewildered wonder.
That pretty much sums up why I like Milton: the wonder is not destroyed when you investigate how it is created, but intensified. When you take a closer look at it, the poem becomes more manageable, more comprehensible, but also simply more amazing.
Ewan is Scottish, slightly obsessed with music (especially baroque, opera and
techno) and easily distracted. His literary interests include the poetical
and critical works of William Empson, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and medieval miracle plays. He enjoys wasting his money on food and travel.
Plot Summary: Book III