To many novices, the blending of science and art seems to be a recent event. It comes as a surprise that cross-fertilization of the disciplines reaches back as far as the seventeenth century. John Milton, the English poet, whose works were celebrated at the New York Public Library in 2008, represented the embodiment of a writer who integrated activism, scientific knowledge, and poetry. Here is a review of the exhibit as recorded in 2008.
Review of John Milton exhibit (2008)
Although the exhibit focuses exclusively on his life, prose, and impact on contemporary as well as modern artists, we can discover much about his scientific and political thinking by studying the poet’s own words.
Milton is shown at the exhibit as a ten-year-old boy depicted in a stipple engraving. Who knew he would blossom into the writer of Areopagitica, an impassioned defense of freedom of speech and a foundational essay for the First Amendment to the US Constitution? Milton’s other writings may have been more provocative, notably a tract justifying regicide which earned him a stint in prison.
The first half of the exhibit focuses on Milton’s childhood, early career as a prose pamphleteer and member of Oliver Cromwell’s government, marriages, progressive deterioration of his vision (possibly due to glaucoma), and some of his works. His epic poem, Paradise Lost, brings one closer to appreciating the influence of science on his writing. Lines in the poem that speak of “a Tuscan artist viewing the moon through an optic glass” refer to the astronomer, Galileo Galilei, whom Milton met on a trip to Italy. In re-imagining the story of Adam and Eve, Milton drew heavily upon scientific lore of Medieval-Renaissance times to compare the universe in terms of Heaven, Hell, Earth, and Chaos. The other scientific allusions found by scholars in the poem may stymie the average reader, but we can all appreciate the creativity of a mind that incorporated “the paradoxical invention of gunpowder from materials in the soil of Heaven” into his poetry.1 Add to these lines his nuanced interpretation of the good-versus-evil conflict and one begins to see why diverse figures such as Charles Darwin, Norman Mailer, Helen Keller, and Malcolm X found inspiration in his words.
Milton’s appreciation of the sciences stretched beyond the imagery, as evidenced by his exhortations to others to advance their scientific studies to the “most exact structure and surgery of the human body,” and by his understanding of the “godlike power and force of mind.”1 However, he had several critics, including Sir Walter Raleigh, who denounced his work as “a monument to dead ideas,” and T.S. Elliot, who felt that his poems played a role in the “dissociation of sensibility” that occurred in English poetry after Shakespeare and Donne.
The exhibit also reflects on music influenced by Milton’s words. Joseph Haydn’s 1798 oratorio, The Creation, is a brilliant adaptation of Paradise Lost, while the heavy metal band, Cradle of Filth, echoes Milton’s sympathetic portrayal of Satan in their song Better to Reign in Hell.
1 K. Svendsen, Milton and Science. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1956).