- Milton and the "Savage Deserts of America"
"Whether a reader wishes to see a New World connection or not, the language of Paradise Lost creates it."—Rodger Martin, "The Colonization of Paradise"
Tzvetan Todorov applied the descriptors "astonishing," "intense," "extreme," and "exemplary" to characterize early modern Europeans' first reported encounters with the alterity of the Americas and the indigenous peoples. Over the centuries Europeans demonstrated an awareness of Africa, India, and China; "some memory of these places was always there already—from the beginning," Todorov confirms.1 As for the Americas, given the belated public record of a European contact, this alien, captivating place still required comprehension and possession. Literary works enabled and instantiated some of these efforts—intellectual and territorial. "Of late / Columbus found the American," Milton declares in recounting the immediate aftermath of human disobedience in Paradise Lost.2 Two books later, in a long, globe-consuming epic catalog (PL 11.383–411), Milton's prophetic narrator, Michael, directs Adam's gaze slowly westward, while [End Page 3] mapping and naming capitals and historic rulers of Asia, Africa, and Europe, which, until the late fifteenth century, were the known continents. By Milton's day, the Americas were, as the geographer and antiquarian Peter Heylyn states in his massive chorographical project Cosmographie, "lately known."3 In Milton's encyclopedic epic, the Americas still lie beyond Adam's view, beyond the horizon and the ecliptic, the path of the earth with respect to the sun. Essentially, Adam needs to be hoisted on the shoulders of Atlas, Hercules, and Milton's Michael to experience "in spirit perhaps" (PL 11.406) the Americas, which extend, if not geographically then conceptually, into the unknown Southern Hemisphere. Still in Milton's day, the Americas were an otherworldly place, occupying a liminal space between the known and unknown, and thus inviting reclamation and representation.
The earliest encounters with the Americas may have predated Columbus by many centuries. In the first century BCE, Greek geographer Diodorus of Sicily (Siculus) wrote of the islands beyond "the Pillars of Hercules" or the Straits of Gibraltar, "There lies out in the deep off Libya an island of considerable size. … Its land is fruitful, much of it being mountainous and not a little being a level plain of surpassing beauty. … the island contains many parks planted with trees of every variety and gardens in great multitudes." Diodorus goes on to suggest a possible encounter of a western land by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians from Northern Africa.4 The land mass in question was known as "India Occident" (India Occidentalis), "occident" meaning "going down" or, in some cases, "setting" like the sun. In the early modern era, the first terrestrial globe, produced by the German cartographer and navigator Martin Behaim in 1492, may contain some traces of the latterly identified South America, but it features no clear indications of the continent's existence. Columbus's 1492 voyage would result in the early modern "discovery" of the Caribbean islands, and in 1498 he would land on the South American mainland.
Given the relative novelty of the Americas, the indirectness of transatlantic routes, and the vastness of his own imagination, Milton's virtual travels to the Americas are marked by detours, [End Page 4] circumnavigations, and chance encounters. To devote an essay to an investigation of how the New World—as a whole and as a precursor to the latterly defined North, Central, and South America—registers in Milton's works can be a daunting and frustrating exercise. Scholars venturing into the territory of Milton in the Americas readily discover that there is no conspicuous New World orientation in Milton, J. Martin Evans's influential argument in Milton's Imperial Epic notwithstanding.5 Literary evidence confirms Milton's familiarity with Walter Ralegh's Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Beautiful Empyre of Guiana (1596), Samuel Purchas's Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625), and Peter Heylyn's Cosmographie (1652); yet "America occupied no significant place in Milton's mental geography," William Spengeman concedes in "Milton's American Poem."6 In the few allusions to the New World in Milton's prose and verse, the Americas appear as degenerate or inferior...