- Milton's Earthbound Bodies:Genesis, Physics, Aesthetics
When Thomas Browne writes, "It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature," he captures what was in 1658 one of "nature's" main meanings: organic existence, or "the natural life," as it was also glossed.1 Though common coin, this signification was not uncontroversial. Robert Boyle included it in his sweeping critique of the semantic field of "nature," expounding it as follows: "an Aggregate of Powers belonging to a Body … as when Physicians say, that Nature is strong, or weak, or spent."2 What Boyle found objectionable in the usage was the idea that a natural body could lay claim to powers and so take credit for its ongoing life. To laud a "strong" "Nature" was to suggest that attaining to body was a proper, native achievement.
This essay will argue that in Paradise Lost Milton does just that: he takes the epic circumstance of earthly life as an occasion to extol, analyze, and polemically affirm the phenomenon of attaining to sound physical body. His home discourse for this project, unsurprisingly, is physics, yet it is a physics that diverges from contemporary models. Milton brings to the usual treatment of the [End Page 125] natural body a sculptural imagination, one that crosses elements of the old "closed world" physics and cosmology with a deep-laid armature, a peculiar vision of earth, embedded in the Genesis tradition. Consequently, and counterintuitively, the poet exalts Browne's "nature" and Boyle's "vital powers" by underscoring life's firm limits.3
To get at Milton's surprising vision of earthly life, we first need to consider Milton on what, for him, gives the phenomenon an identifiable shape to begin with: we need to revisit Miltonic place. In what follows, I will explore the terrestrial realm in the cosmos of Paradise Lost. Terrestrial life is not, as has been argued, continuous with the poem's other living kinds. Instead, it is roundly set apart by its material emplacement. I outline the set of primitive or standout properties characterizing that place and its homologous, earthly creatures, what I refer to as Milton's "terrestrial aesthetic" and "hexameral stamp." Locating the epic in the contexts of Creation exegeses (Saint Basil, Torquato Tasso, Guillaume de Saluste du Bartas) and contemporary natural-philosophical debates (with a focus on a neglected treatise), I argue that its earthborn beings, precisely by virtue of their material likeness to their sub-celestial bounded "native seat," gain in ontological efficacy and standing. Ascent is not therefore the poem's overriding ontological ideal; Milton's aesthetic innovations create a new philosophical and evaluative gauge. As we will see, measured afresh, the far-from-epic, rude and earthy work of attaining to natural body becomes a dignified achievement.
Premodern Milton: Rapt on Earth
In his invocation to book 7, shifting from the warring angels in heaven to the creation of the world, Milton marks himself as a certain kind of creature. "Up led by" his muse Urania:
Into the Heav'n of Heav'ns I have presum'd,An Earthlie Guest, and drawn Empyreal Aire,Thy tempring; with like safetie guided downReturn me to my native element [End Page 126] . . … …Half yet remaines unsung, but narrower boundWithin the visible Diurnal Spheare;Standing on Earth, not rapt above the Pole,More safe I Sing with mortal voice.4(7.13–16, 21–24)
For readers who argue for Milton's intellectual contemporaneity, lines like these pose a problem. Governing them is a radially ordered Aristotelian cosmos: the body in which the element of earth predominates wants to be drawn down from the ether of the highest heavens back to its "native" Earth. More intellectual conservatism can be found in the emphasis on returning the song to "safety," that is, to content not risking high speculation and with it the chance to "fall / Erroneous" (7.19–20). Situate this passage alongside the plentiful depictions of earth as stationary, ponderous, and determinately placed—"self-ballanc't on her Center hung"; "link'd in a golden Chain / To that side Heav'n" (7...