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BryceJ. Christensen THE APPLE IN THE VORTEX: NEWTON, BLAKE, AND DESCARTES In 1667, John Milton created one of the great landmarks of English poetry with his publication of Paradise Lost. Few modern readers, however, find much time for Milton's masterpiece. In the first place, the tale Milton relates seems ludicrous: the scientific mind cannot believe that a woman fell, thus changing the laws of the universe by eating an apple. No. Modern man believes instead that a man, not a woman, effected a change in die universe, not by eating an apple (how crude!), but by observing one when it, rather than the man, fell. Modern skepticism about Milton's tale of woman and apple is not die only reason for the current neglect of his epic: relatively few moderns devote much attention to poetry of any sort, including Milton's sublime verse. To most, the poet's emotional response to the world's beauties, expressed in aesthetically wrought lines, seems far less meaningful than the scientist's mathematical descriptions of the world's phenomena, formulated in empirically verified formulae , like die one Newton used to explain the fall ofhis famous apple. Indeed, the fall ofthat apple seems to have occasioned both the passing ofMilton's scriptural religion and the silencing of his poetic muse. Aldous Huxley hence observes that poets like William Blake have "detested Sir Isaac Newton because he [diey thought] had cut the old connections between the stars and the heavenly host . . . , had cut die connections and had so depoetized man's world and robbed it of meaning." 1 His remarks apply to W. H. Auden as well, who assails "Cartesian metaphysics [and] Newtonian physics" for transforming "physical nature" into a poetically uninspiring "colorless desert" of "matter infinite in extent, permeated by movement, devoid of ultimate qualitative differences and moved by uniform and purely quantitative forces."2 Auden's mention of Cartesian metaphysics in connection with Newtonian physics, however, suggests that the transformation of die world into a desert devoid of the meaning of religion and the color of poetry was not the simple result of Newton's apple watching. A study of Newton's own thought, in fact, reveals that the mechanistic worldview which has proven so detrimental to Philosophy and Literature Vol. 6 Nos. 1 and 2 Pp. 147-161 0190-0031/82/0061-0147 © 1982 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 148Philosophy and Literature poetry and religion did not originate, as is commonly supposed, with him or his apple. Indeed, in his unpublished writings, Newton vehemently attacked Descartes for his world-machine philosophy and rose to raptures of poetic transport in celebrating the active spiritual reign of the providential Deity of Scripture over the entire universe, including his much noted apple. During the course of the eighteenth century, however, Newton's physics (and consequently his name) were misappropriated by thinkers who wittingly or not denied the dominion of Newton's rapture-inspiring Deity and posited the world as an autonomous machine. Thus, eighteenth-century mechanists stole Newton's apple from his own world, a world in which the scriptural God called it down from its tree with divine music, and made it part of Descartes's world, a world from which the scriptural God was banned and in which apples fell without the music of spiritual agents. Like Milton (who published his account of Eve and her apple the year after Newton observed his), Newton believed that the world of men and apples was actively governed by God, and, like Milton, he celebrated God's reign in voluminous writings filled with poetic wonderment at God's power. Samuel Johnson, in fact, was wiser than he knew when he said to Boswell, "I am persuaded that, had Sir Isaac Newton applied to poetry, he would have made a very fine epick poem." 3 Indeed, though Newton did not structure his religious and philosophical writings (only fragments ofwhich he published) in verse forms as Milton often did, Newtonian scholar Frank E. Manuel reports that Newton's unpublished religious writings are filled with "poetic transports" of"almost rhapsodic wonderment at the complex and infinite power of the Creator." Manuel gives the following as an example: He...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 147-161
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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