- the influence of Galileo on John Milton -


Susan Biggin, Oxford







"Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views [the moon's orb] at evening from the top of Fesole or in Valdarno, to descry new lands, rivers or mountains in her spotty globe" [1]



So John Mi1ton refers to Galileo in his first book of Paradise Lost, written some twenty years after Milton visited Galileo in Italy, in 1638-9, just a few years before Galileo's death. Indeed, Galileo was the only contemporary of Milton mentioned in Paradise Lost. Why had he been singled out? Stepping back a decade or two, let us review the events leading up to the meeting of these two giants of the seventeenth century.


The Trouble had started around 1610, when Galileo reported his telescopic observations of the moon in his Sidereus Nuncius.[2] Galileo and Kepler had been broadly supporting the Copernican theory, proposed in 1514, of a stationary sun and circularly orbiting planets. Galileo's night-sky telescopic observations carried out in 1609 revealed four moons round Jupiter, known now as the Galilean moons. So everything did not have to orbit directly around the Earth, as Aristotle and Ptolemy had thought.


The rest is history. Galileo writing in Italian (not the usual academic Latin) found wide support outside the universities. After various conflicts with Rome, Galileo, around 1616, acquiesced to the command never to defend or hold the Copernican doctrine. However, with a change of Pope in 1623, Galileo was given permission to write a neutral treatise. Galileo's sense of humour showed up as he later quipped, in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,[3] "I should think that anyone who considered it more reasonable for the whole universe to move in order to let the Earth remain fixed would be more irrational than one who should climb to the top of a cupola just to get a view of the city and its environs, and then demand that the whole countryside should revolve around him so that he would not take the trouble to turn his head." This led eventually to house arrest, but the work was smuggled out of Italy to Holland and published as Two New Sciences, to be the genesis of modern physics.[4] For as Galileo said, "The Bible shows the way to go to Heaven, not the way the heavens go."[5] Einstein three centuries later wrote that Galileo possessed "the passionate will, the intelligence, and the courage to stand up as the representative of rational thinking" in the face of priestly superstition.[6]





The novelist, poet, playwright does not create in a vacuum: his world-view is influenced by the philosophical and scientific climate of his time. Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein all had their impact. John Donne, a contemporary of Galileo, was a metaphysical writer, a mystic, but instantly recognized the significance of Galileo's telescope, expressed in the stirring lines:


"Man has weav'd out a net, and this net throwne

Upon the Heavens, and now they are his owne."


In fact, the Moon, sun spots, the phases of Venus, are all cited in Paradise Lost. But before looking more closely at Milton's prose, let us consider how Milton responded to his meeting with Galileo. Milton was deeply affected by two distinguishable issues regarding Galileo's experience the censorship he had suffered and his discoveries per se. Milton's writings subsequent to his Italian tour switched from his earlier lighter, romantic poetry, to the meatier, maturer, philosophical open prose which reflects his profound reaction of course also tempered by the backcloth of the grindings of the Reformation and Restoration in England. Milton's major writings owe part of their soul to Galileo. As expressed by Kenneth Clark,[7] "Without Galileo's discoveries Milton's universe would have taken a less grandiose form."





The Whole of Miton is poured into the stupendous poem Paradise Lost, whose first drafting can be traced to 1642, though the composition is traditionally said to have begun in 1657-8, completed in 1665. At that era, world history was seen in a frame of three events: the creation and fall of Man; the life and death of Christ; and the end of the world and the day of judgement. All three have a place in Paradise Lost. Scattered throughout the blank verse are references to the discoveries of Galileo: these include the moon in Book I Line 287, sun spots Book III Line 589, the phases of Venus (like the moon often described then as having horns) Book VII Line 366, moons such as Jupiter's satellites Book VIII Line 148.


In Book VIII, around Line 168-9, Milton's angel Raphael, who, incidentally, has just summarized centuries of patching up of the Ptolemaic system, cautions Adam against his thirst for knowledge. Milton is not attacking science itself how could he, given his broad tributes to Galileo, but takes astronomy as the tangible example of enquiry far removed from basic human needs and likely to engender irreligious pride echoes of Eve's temptation. He adds Christian urgency to Socrates' concern with the moral life, and is rather fearful of excessive pursuit of mere knowledge.


This whole outlook is challenged by movements in New Science in recent decades of our own time. Paul Davies, in God and the New Physics,[8] believes ironically that science offers a surer path to God than religion, and Pope Pius XII addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome in 1951 on the implications of modern scientific cosmology.[9]





Of the seemingly boundless aspects of this poet and thinker, one in particular stands out, that of libertarian. Milton's fierce role as spokesman for liberty was seeded from his time spent in Italy with the one great man he met there, Galileo. In 1644, Milton's famous tract Areopagitica[10] was published, which recalls Galileo's situation. Traditional censorship was in the balance in England, as elsewhere, in the 1640 decade, and in Areopagitica Milton brought all the eloquence of a scholar and a poet to the denunciation of censorship before publication. The tract has its place in Milton's general campaign for liberty, title-paged with a verse from Euripides:


"This is true Liberty: when free-born men,

Having to advise the public, may speak free,

Which he who can, and will, deserves high praise;

Who neither can nor will may hold his peace.

What can be juster in a state than this." [11]


Milton's cause of freedom, born in Italy, nourished by principle and reckless courage, gave birth to a republican idealist, who lived on as a warrior of freedom long after his death in 1674. William Wordsworth appealed in 1807[12]:


"Milton! thou shouldst be Living at this hour;

England hath need of thee; she is a fen

Of stagnant waters,"




"We must be free or die, who speak the tongue

That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold

Which Milton held."





We have seen in this brief cameo the influence of Galileo on just one man, John Milton, who was moved to capture in perennial print not only the scientific achievements of Galileo, but also the then burning issue of freedom of expression. We thus see Milton caught up in both Galileo's seeding of the birth of Modern Science, and also the other cause for which Galileo is immortal liberty: Milton became inextricably bound up in the continuing machinations of the late Reformation and of the Restoration.


These latter kept Milton busy all his middle years, his sense of honour and duty towards his country and the liberty of its people delaying the onset of his writing of Paradise Lost until his later years, despite its having been planned since he was nineteen years old,[13] before he knew of the existence of Galileo, and at the very time that Galileo wrote to his patron about the order from the Holy Office in Rome to suspend copies of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems but it was too late, that Spirit of Genius was free.




1 John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, Line 288, 1667

2 Galileo Galilei, Sidereus Nuncius, 1610

3 Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632

4 Stephen W Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press, London, 1988

5 C Ronan, The Astronomers, Evans, London, 1964, p152

6 Albert Einstein, Foreword to G Galileo, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, University of California Press, 1953, p xvii

7 Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, BBC Publications, London, 1986, p 218

8 Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK, 1983

9 Pope Pius XII, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 8 (1952) 143-6, 165

10 John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644

11 Euripides, Suppliants, Lines 438-41, ~ 410 BC

12                 William Wordsworth, National Independence and Liberty, Part 1,1807

13                 FE Hutchinson, Milton and the English Mind, Hodder and Stoughton, 1964 (3rd edn)






Galileo Galilei 1564 - 1642

William Shakespeare 1564 - 1616

John Donne 1572 - 1631

John Milton 1608 - 1674

Isaac Newton 1642 - 1727

William Wordsworth 1770 1850