Satan in Milton’s telescope

As an amateur astronomer, I took special pleasure in all the astronomical imagery in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. Milton depicts Satan exploring the vastness and boundaries of three immense worlds: Hell, Chaos, and the created universe that contains our Earth. At one point he has Satan landing on the surface on the Sun, which is such an arresting image that I couldn’t help, observing Saturn through my small telescope later, picturing a little devil sitting on the rings on that lovely planet.

It was a fun moment for me, when literature and astronomy, two hobbies of mine that normally don’t occupy a shared space in my brain, connected.

Milton also famously depicts Adam as having a special interest in the planets and their motions, so that Adam comes off as practically the First Astronomer. But it’s in Satan’s travels that your imagination is pulled through everything that Adam admires and observes from below.

The way that Milton pulls this off is interesting, because he doesn’t restrict himself to describing what Satan directly sees. He does use that latter technique, for example when he has Satan inspecting what seems to be the ceiling of Hell, or when Satan first sees the entire created universe, and later our Earth. But Milton really fills your imagination with astronomical images by likening Satan himself to bodies and events that we observe in our skies. That’s what I want to focus on in this post.

Satan himself is variously described as a comet, a meteor, an eclipsed sun, and a sunspot.

All these things, incidentally, were viewed with more fear and suspicion than they are today, and I think this is yet one more reason that modern readers of “Paradise Lost” tend to have a less damning view of Satan than the one that Milton probably intended.

That may be clearer as we go through the descriptions of Satan in the passages below.

Raised impious war in Heaven and battle proud,
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.

Book I

That’s the first astronomical image of Satan, and almost our first picture of him, our first indication of what Milton’s creature is.

Th’ imperial ensign; which, full high advanced,
Shone like a meteor streaming to the wind,

Book I

The meteor image recalls how Satan was hurled from heaven, and it presents a new image, of the demons’ imperial banner burning through hell’s air.

Their dread Commander. He, above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent,
Stood like a tower. His form had yet not lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than Archangel ruined, and th’ excess
Of glory obscured: as when the sun new-risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or, from behind the moon,
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs. Darkened so, yet shone

Book I

Another wonderful image: Satan in eclipse, but shining like the sun behind the moon and casting fear on all onlookers, especially monarchs.

We no longer fear eclipses, so Milton’s image can’t automatically make us feel everything that he may have intended to evoke. I was thrilled with this image. Milton did not have those unforgettable photographs we all have seen today, showing closeups of the Sun at the moment of totality. We see these photographs and know the immense size and unimaginable heat of the star to a degree that Milton probably never imagined.

The 2017 solar eclipse as seen from Hopkinsville, Kentucky

It is no criticism of Milton to note how differently his century and ours would have interpreted eclipses. I don’t claim that they evoked no wonder in his time, but for us there can be almost a complete sense of beauty and a connection with the cosmos, as described, for example, by the Vatican’s astronomer:

"... it reminds us of the immense beauty in the universe that occurs outside of our own petty set of concerns. It pulls us out of ourselves and makes us remember that we are part of a big and glorious and beautiful universe.... God chose to make a universe that was rational, so that we could predict these eclipses with enormous precision, and at the same time beautiful, so it is not only that the eclipse occurs just when it is supposed to, but that, along with the delight that our calculations are right, there is the delight at seeing the beauty that comes, that we can experience, while we are underneath this eclipse."

- The Universe Remains: Pope Francis' Astronomer on Finding Meaning in the Eclipse

… and for an ever better sense of how eclipses make us feel ….

But the image of an eclipse held a dramatic power for Milton that we are still familiar with. We know that any solar eclipse is brief, so we feel something that Milton surely intended to convey: the defeated Satan we’re seeing at the beginning of “Paradise Lost” will imminently be in sight again.

Later in the poem, Milton ascribes virtue to the Sun’s rays (metaphorically?) That would cast his eclipse metaphor in yet another light (sorry …), though I have no idea whether Milton intended this image to evoke any possible goodness in Satan. Perhaps these various metaphors collectively illustrate Milton’s statement that Satan, though a fallen angel, retains some of his original light.

Let’s go to the surface of the Sun:

There lands the Fiend, a spot like which perhaps
Astronomer in the sun’s lucent orb
Through his glazed optic tube yet never saw.
The place he found beyond expression bright,

Book II

Satan here is a literal sunspot, but also a moral blemish, because Milton describes the Sun as beaming “invisible virtue” to the universe.

The surface of the Sun is “informed / With radiant light, as glowing iron with fire,” which makes you wonder: the Sun is far brighter than Hell, but surely Satan should find it just as hot as where he came from? But there is no indication of that, because Satan seems quite comfortable here. The only thing that seems to bother him is the light.

Incenc’t with indignation SATAN stood
Unterrifi’d, and like a Comet burn’d,
That fires the length of OPHIUCUS huge
In th’ Artick Sky, and from his horrid hair
Shakes Pestilence and Warr.

This is from the great scene where Satan defies a goblin blocking the path out of Hell — a creature to all appearances more monstrous than himself.

Again, we no longer take comets as signs of Pestilence and War. Such references in older texts are foreign to us, though we can still relate to the positive references that we do find. I love the Great Comet from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” which fills Pierre Bezukhov with rapture. Finding it in the sky at a moment when his heart is tender, it lifts and opens his spirit, en-couraging this typically timid man.

Maybe I’m just an astronomy nerd, but I was thrilled by the line “unterrified, and like a Comet burned.” Milton probably intended something more malign in this image of defiant burning, but for me any line of poetry that tells of courage and of comets burning brightly is a line of singular beauty.

So there’s some disconnect between the text and our modern worldview. That’s no surprise in itself, when a text is centuries old. What’s interesting is the particular details. Our more benign modern conceptions of Milton’s astronomical imagery surely lessen the malignity that he meant to convey, and that must have an impact on how we interpret Satan’s character.

C.S. Lewis addressed this theme in his book, “A Preface to Paradise Lost”. He argued that modern readers view Milton’s Satan more innocently than the author had intended, because they lack —

two predispositions in the minds of [Milton’s contemporary] readers, which in that age, would have guarded them from our later misunderstanding. Men still believed that there really was such a person as Satan, and that he was a liar.

I agree with this, and I would add this small factor: Milton’s contemporary readers felt eclipses and comets to be evil things.

If this post comes off as an encouragement for us to feel better than the men and women of the 17th century, then it’s a failure. My intent has been to express how I, as an amateur astronomer living in the 21st century, find Milton’s text both more exciting and more distant: both less accessible, and more. Milton, to his great credit, has filled his poem with images of, and questions about, the physical universe beyond Earth, and we just have to do our best to navigate the space between his time and ours.

I’m going to end this post by quoting directly from Tolstoy’s passage about Pierre’s comet, just because this is a blog about classic novels and I deeply love this passage. Let its relevance to the subject express itself.

And there in the middle, high above Prechistensky Boulevard, amidst a scattering of stars on every side but catching the eye through its closeness to the earth, its pure white light and the long uplift of its tail, shone the comet, the huge, brilliant comet of 1812, that popular harbinger of untold horrors and the end of the world. But this bright comet with its long, shiny tail held no fears for Pierre. Quite the reverse: Pierre’s eyes glittered with tears of rapture as he gazed up at this radiant star, which must have traced its parabola through infinite space at speeds unimaginable and now suddenly seemed to have picked its spot in the black sky and impaled itself like an arrow piercing the earth, and stuck there, with its strong upthrusting tail and its brilliant display of whiteness amidst the infinity of scintillating stars. This heavenly body seemed perfectly attuned to Pierre’s newly melted heart, as it gathered reassurance and blossomed into new life.

Leo Tolstoy, “War and Peace” (1869)

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