It was only when I was into my forties that I got around to reading Paradise Lost. To start with, there are some bits that really stick in my scientific mind. Take this bit where Satan gets ejected from Heaven:
Him the Almighty Power
hurled headlong flaming from th' eternal sky
with hideous ruin and combustion down
to bottomless perdition, there to dwell
in adamantine chains and penal fire,
who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.
Adamant is an ancient word often applied to diamond, and what better to describe the backbone of a polyethylene molecule? It is, in a sense, a one-dimensional diamond, and its strength has been exploited in high modulus fibres such as Dyneema. Whenever I gave talks on our work on these fibres I would quote this verse.
Later on, however, Milton makes what we would now regard as a scientific howler. One of the punishments after the Fall was to incline the Earth’s axis:
The poles of earth, twice ten degrees and more,
From the sun's axle; they with labour pushed
Oblique the centrick globe: Some say, the sun
Was bid turn reins from the equinoctial road
Like distant breadth to Taurus with the seven
Atlantick Sisters, and the Spartan Twins,
Up to the Tropick Crab: thence down amain
By Leo, and the Virgin, and the Scales,
As deep as Capricorn; to bring in change
Of seasons to each clime; else had the spring
Perpetual smiled on earth with vernant flowers,
Equal in days and nights, except to those
Beyond the polar circles; to them day
Had unbenighted shone, while the low sun,
To recompense his distance, in their sight
Had rounded still the horizon, and not known
Or east or west; which had forbid the snow
From cold Estotiland, and south as far
A little thought even in Milton’s time would have suggested that Britain, perpetually in late March or late September, would not be such a cosy place, let alone Estotiland (Labrador). Indeed, it is the tilt of the Earth’s axis that turns northern Siberia into a feeding ground for wildfowl in summer and brings the periodic rains to parts of India and China that support many millions of people.
But it is interesting to read how Milton is still playing his part in American politics, and he’s also playing his part in the British political blogosphere. Many see him as a potential champion of liberties that are sinking into our present British and European political quagmire. However, Milton might be horrified at some of the ways his great work has been taken. In The 400th anniversary of John Milton, a great Englishman Daniel Hannan writes:
Not everyone shares those principles, of course. Johnson called Milton “an acrimonious and surly republican” and, again, there is an element of truth in his charge. Milton's distrust of authority figures spills over, unconsciously, into Paradise Lost. Whereas Adam is portrayed with heart-breaking sympathy, God comes across as arid, lordly and cruel. Milton bridled at the claims of bishops and princes, and it seems he couldn't help projecting a little of his radicalism on to the Creator Himself.
With God coming across as “arid, lordly and cruel”, Milton seems to have scored an own goal for Christianity. No wonder Philip Pullman likes it so much!
This morning I heard on the radio a male voice choir singing John Lennon’s “Imagine there’s no Heaven”. With Milton in mind, perhaps that’s what Satan has been trying to do ever since!