Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Milton & the Book of Nature

When we look back to how the Book of Nature was perceived during the early modern period, it is clear that the scientific progress of the later seventeenth century was firmly rooted in a new reading of the natural world, rendering an older theological approach to nature obsolete. In the closing chapter of my dissertation I will look at how Milton negotiates a divide between two very different approaches to the explosion of knowledge in the post-Gutenberg era; here, I take a similar approach by briefly arguing that in Lycidas the poet anticipates one interpretative model as he engages with another.

In Into Another Mould: Change and Continuity in English Culture 1625-1700, Ken Robinson writes about how the natural world was reinterpreted in the later seventeenth-century:
Whereas the earlier interpretive model approached the world as a unified thesaurus of correspondences and affinities in which part paralleled part and part symbolised whole, the alternative model sought not to unify but to take apart, to distinguish part from part and to discover the taxonomies and laws that order the whole. (91)
Here, Robinson marks the transition from a mystical-religious to an empirical-mathematical reading of nature. In the former, based on “a system of resemblances”, nature is “read” according to a series of metaphors that point to an underlying theological meaning; the latter model is more responsive, judging the natural order based on observational evidence and piecing these observations together to compile a more general “reading”. In some sense, this shift is not dissimilar to the move from the long-standing homeocentric view of the universe to the later Copernican model – human affairs are removed from the centre of orbit and the world is consequently seen to behave according to its own inherent laws, regardless of how this behaviour is interpreted and justified by man. Noting the literary implications of this new interpretative model as the metaphorical conceit gave way to the heroic couplet, Robinson makes the claim that the ‘days of the poet who like Milton thought of himself as inspired or vatic were numbered.’ (92)

In Lycidas, written in 1637 to commemorate the death of Edward King, Milton seems at first to populate his poem with natural phenomena whose behaviour directly react to the fateful drowning of his classmate:
Thee Shepherd, thee the Woods, and desert Caves,
With wild Thyme and the gadding Vine o’ergrown,
And all their echoes mourn.


Nature, responsible for King’s death, is here also portrayed as his mourner, instilling his death with noble tragedy in place of abhorrent senselessness. Of course, it is Milton and not Nature who constructs this meaning, a fact the poet is painfully self-conscious of: ‘Ay me, I fondly dream!’ (56) he cries out, acknowledging in a line that not only were the gods he conjures here not present to save King, but that these beings are mere fantasies with no power beyond the confines of the text. The final lines reinforce this irony: it is revealed that the extraordinary action described in the preceding lines were the product of the uncouth swain’s ‘Doric lay’ (189); of course we knew it all along, but here Milton lets us know that he’s not kidding himself either.

Contrary to Robinson’s assertion that poets like Milton were doomed to obsolescence, it can be seen that Lycidas anticipates the stark empiricism of the later seventeenth and constructs a painfully self-conscious, moving narrative from this vision.

Milton, John. John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Hackett Publishing Company, 2003.

Robinson, Ken. “The book of nature.” Into Another Mould: Change and Continuity in English Culture, 1625-1700. Ed. T. G.S Cain & Ken Robinson. London: Routledge, 1992. 86-106.

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