Celestial Aspirations: Classical Impulses in British Poetry and Art 
by Philip Hardie.
Princeton, 353 pp., £38, April 2022, 978 0 691 19786 9
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Imagine​ you could fly, above rooftops and mountaintops, beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, up and out to the planets, to the stars. When we take such flights of the mind today, we do so with imaginations conditioned by the experience of actual flight, direct or vicarious. Even if you’ve never been on a plane, you know that others have. Most of us haven’t been to space, but we’ve seen pictures. Anyone with an internet connection can see through webcams strapped to eagles, pilots or BASE jumpers, or zoom in on cities, towns or villages with Google Earth. Thanks to the images transmitted by the Webb telescope, we even have an idea what we would see if we were transported to distant galaxies thirteen billion years ago – a figure much easier to type than to comprehend. Until yesterday, flights of the mind were the only way to fly. You could climb a tower or a mountain, observe birds, or look up at the stars (easier yesterday than today) to help you imagine what it might be like. But imagined flights were modelled above all on previous accounts, in traditions going back to antiquity.

Gods lived on high mountains, or in the sky. Heaven was up there. Sacred knowledge was transmitted from on high, by celestial messengers coming down or by divinely favoured mortals going up. Celestial ascent was also metaphorical. Flight of the mind has long been employed as a figure for poetic inspiration, or scientific discovery, or philosophical insight. It was mythological: myths, legends and tall tales of human flight show up in many times and places. Since ancient stories of celestial ascent have been frequently reworked by later authors, the subject could also be approached as a history of reception. Philip Hardie’s impressively learned Celestial Aspirations touches on all these aspects, with an emphasis on reception history. As a Latinist, he is interested in the long afterlife of classical myths, themes and images of celestial ascent, and traces them through British poetry from the Elizabethans to the Romantics. ‘Between the later part of the 16th century and the beginning of the 19th century,’ he writes, ‘the British imagination – poetical, political, intellectual, spiritual and religious – displays a pronounced fascination with images of ascent and flight to the heavens.’ This fascination wasn’t unique to Britain, as Hardie acknowledges, but British literature and art provides plenty of material. Hardie’s flight of the mind takes him to famous poems like Paradise Lost, once famous poems such as Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1742-45), and less familiar works such as Mark Akenside’s The Pleasures of Imagination (1744). He ends with a chapter on Baroque painted ceilings.

Celestial ascent at death is an ancient idea. In its earliest known manifestations, it was understood as an exceptional fate reserved for the greatest heroes, prophets or kings. The ancient Greeks consigned everybody else to Hades, a gloomy subterranean kingdom without reward or punishment. The picture is familiar from the Odyssey. Odysseus, unlike later epic heroes, does not descend to the underworld; he reaches the land of the dead by ship, sailing until he reaches an ‘ocean river’ where he disembarks and makes sacrifice, the sacrificial blood attracting ghosts who rise from Hades and speak to him. Almost everyone ends up there, even Homer’s Achilles. But there are rare exceptions: perhaps the most famous in Greek mythology is that of Heracles, raised up to heaven by his father, Zeus, after his agonising death. This special elevation is known as apotheosis. The Greek word means ‘becoming a god’, and since the supreme gods lived in the heavens, the term came to include celestial ascent.

Analogous ideas can be found in ancient Judaism. The Hebrew Bible doesn’t give a single or predominant account of the afterlife. In its older sections, death is often described as final, with no afterlife to speak of. There are references to Sheol, sometimes a metaphor for death or the grave, sometimes a subterranean land of the dead, similar enough to the Greek Hades that the Alexandrian translators of the Septuagint used the word ‘Hades’ for ‘Sheol’. And there are rare cases of apotheosis, such as that of the prophet Elijah, carried up to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). This elevation is a mark of extraordinary divine favour, not merely the reward for a virtuous life. It is a corporeal ascent, without any hint of the separation of body and soul.

These older conceptions of the afterlife – undifferentiated subterranean death for the many, celestial ascent for the very few – were gradually replaced by merit-based conceptions towards the beginning of the Common Era. According to the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (2020), the shift reflected an increasing concern for divine justice. It came to seem intolerable to many that the virtuous and the wicked should receive the same treatment after death, or that God should not intervene to right the wrongs of the present. In classical literature this shift can be seen in the difference between the underworlds of the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Whereas Homer’s land of the dead is undifferentiated and vague, Virgil’s has distinct regions, including Tartarus, where the wicked are punished (Aeneas does not visit it, but hears the groans of torment from afar), and the Elysian Fields, the zone of bliss, where Aeneas meets his father, Anchises. Spirits do not stay in the Elysian Fields for ever – there is an elaborate cycle of reincarnation at work – but the Aeneid draws a clear connection, as the Odyssey does not, between one’s actions in life and one’s posthumous fate. Similar connections can be found in later sections of the Hebrew Bible, and in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus did not preach about heaven and hell. He preached that the end was nigh. Like other Jewish apocalyptic preachers of his day, he taught that his was an age of rampant evil, and that God would soon intervene to bring it to a close. This would usher in a new Kingdom of God for the virtuous (the rest, in Ehrman’s reading, would be annihilated, not consigned to hell or eternal torment). This divine intervention would be led by a powerful supernatural figure whom Jesus called the Son of Man. When Jesus was executed and the Kingdom of God failed to materialise, his followers reworked his message. Paul taught that Jesus had been resurrected bodily up to heaven and would return at any moment to gather his believers. It seems that Paul at first assumed he would live to see that day, then came to imagine an interim state for those believers who died before Christ’s return. Later Christians gradually developed this idea into what became the standard two-stage Christian understanding of the afterlife. The original apocalyptic promises were never abandoned but indefinitely deferred. In the meantime, each person would face judgment at death. The saved went up to heaven in the sky. The old chthonic kingdoms of the dead were reimagined as realms of eternal torture for the damned. Purgatory was a later addition.

Versions of apotheosis, both pagan and Christian, persisted through these broader changes. In imperial Rome, apotheosis was integrated into the cult of the emperor. Accounts survive of imperial funerary rites culminating in the release of an eagle, Jupiter’s bird, from the funeral pyre, its soaring upward flight symbolising the ascent of the emperor’s soul to join the gods. Emperors were depicted ascending to the heavens on eagles’ wings, or in flying chariots. By late antiquity classical images of apotheosis could be found in Christian contexts, on, for example, a coin showing Constantine the Great driving a Roman quadriga (four-horse chariot) up to heaven, where he is received by the hand of God. The mixture of Christian and classical elements would become a common feature in early modern scenes of apotheosis, as in the Baroque painted ceilings about which Hardie writes.

A ceiling is a good place to depict celestial ascent. Baroque ceiling painting is a genre I had never properly appreciated: too busy, too grandiose, too much craning your neck. The best way to view a grand painted ceiling may be from a beanbag such as those now placed on the floor of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, into which visitors can sink while gazing up at the enormous panels Rubens painted for Charles I. Hardie shows how these ceiling paintings reworked classical images of celestial ascent to make political statements. Rubens’s Whitehall ceiling pays tribute to Charles’s father, James VI and I, promotes an exalted image of monarchy and attests to the grandeur of the House of Stuart. Its great central panel, The Glorification of James I, shows a scene of apotheosis. James is borne aloft in a swirl of angels and putti, one of whom removes his earthly crown while two others hold in readiness wreaths of laurel, for triumph, and oak leaves, for civic virtue.

For early modern monarchs, as for Roman emperors before them, such images were designed to elicit reverence. Visitors to Whitehall in the 1630s would have been impressed by the wealth and power of a dynasty that had commissioned such a magnificent celebration of itself; they were not expected to believe that James I had actually been raised to heaven by pink-limbed angels, any more than imperial Romans were expected to believe that their dead emperors actually became gods. The case is different, however, for religious images such as depictions of the Assumption of Mary. The Assumption is a post-biblical tradition. (It is called an assumption not an apotheosis because Mary, though highly honoured by Roman Catholics, is not considered a god.) Legends circulated in the early Christian centuries that the Virgin had been raised bodily to heaven at the point of, or instead of, her natural death. In western Christendom (though not in eastern orthodox or, post-Reformation, Protestant churches) these legends acquired widespread credence. The Assumption of Mary was often represented in art, and in 1950 was defined as dogma by Pope Pius XII. Here is an instance of the modern survival of the ancient version of celestial ascent, where the most exceptional persons, by divine favour, bypass the ordinary form of death.

You didn’t have to die to ascend to the heavens. You could also get there in a vision or a dream. One classical topos with a long post-classical history is the ‘view from above’, in which a dreamer or visionary is granted celestial ascent, often with a guide, and receives the gift of heavenly perspective. From this great height spiritual and cosmological mysteries are revealed. The stars shine in the immensity of space. The Earth looks small. Oceans resemble ponds, cities anthills. Our getting and spending, building, voyaging and conquering: how trivial, how ephemeral it all seems. The view from above has often been used to express what Christian tradition would call contemptus mundi, a disdain for worldly goods, values and endeavours. Such scenes typically establish a set of binary oppositions: heaven over earth, soul over body, spirit over matter, heavenly over earthly fame, contemplative over active life.

For many later authors, the paradigmatic view from above was found in Cicero’s ‘Somnium Scipionis’ (‘Dream of Scipio’), the final section of his dialogue on political theory, De Republica (c.54-51 BCE). The Roman general Scipio Aemilianus, who has arrived in North Africa for the third and final round of the Punic Wars, is visited in a dream by the spirit of his grandfather Scipio Africanus, victor of the second Punic War. The elder Scipio transports his grandson to a ‘high starry place’, prophesies his victory over Carthage and subsequent political career, and shows him the nine spheres of the universe. The Earth, he explains, is inhabited only in certain regions, of which the Roman Empire covers only one. Even the greatest Roman’s name will hardly extend beyond the Caucasus or the Ganges and will be forgotten by future generations. Why focus on earthly things? The younger Scipio, taking all this in, asks a reasonable question. Since the only real life is in heaven, why not get there as soon as possible? Versions of this question recur in celestial visionary scenes since they address an intrinsic problem with contemptus mundi: demotivation. Once you are shown the insignificance of worldly endeavours, it becomes harder to see the point of making war on Carthage. Cicero’s answer is that you must fulfil your earthly duties before you can be rewarded with the heavenly perspective.

Do you, therefore, exercise this mind of yours in the best pursuits. And the best pursuits are those which consist in promoting the good of your country. Such employments will speed the flight of your mind to this its proper abode; and its flight will be still more rapid, if, even while it is enclosed in the body, it will look abroad, and disengage itself as much as possible from its bodily dwelling, by the contemplation of things which are external to itself.

Cicero’s answer reflects his Roman patriotism and valorisation of public life, but the idea that heavenly contemplation comes as a reward for virtuous action on earth would become commonplace. Understood in these terms, the view from above becomes a preview. You have your vision and, enlightened, carry on with your mundane responsibilities.

The view from above proved readily adaptable to Christianity, and has a particularly strong presence in epic poetry. Dante’s Paradiso can be read as an extended example. There is a brilliant parody of this tradition in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, in an episode where the knight Astolfo is brought to the moon by St John the Evangelist; they travel in Elijah’s chariot. Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata includes a scene closely modelled on the ‘Somnium’. Paradise Lost is full of journeys up and views down; its closest imitation of the classical view from above comes near the end of the poem, after the fall, when the archangel Michael shows Adam a series of mostly grim prophetic visions of what lies in store for his descendants. In Milton’s brief epic Paradise Regained Satan shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world as a series of visions from above. Here, unusually, the guide is nefarious, and the wisdom on offer is rejected by the recipient of the vision.

Like the view from above, the topos of the flight of the mind has a long history. In a much imitated passage in De Rerum Natura Lucretius praises Epicurus, whose philosophy he likens to an irrepressible voyage into space:

Not the famed stories of the deity,
Not all the thunder of the threatening sky
Could stop his rising soul; through all he passed
The strongest bounds that powerful nature cast:
His vigorous and active mind was hurled
Beyond the flaming limits of this world
Into the mighty space, and there did see
How things begin, what can, what cannot be;
How all must die, all yield to fatal force
What steady limits bound their natural course;
He saw all this, and brought it back to us.
Wherefore by his success our right we gain,
Religion is our subject, and we reign.

As Lucretius describes it, the philosopher’s space flight performs a Prometheus-like errand, stealing from the gods for the benefit of humanity. Epicurus brings back not fire but knowledge, and this knowledge brings about a revolution: religion is revealed as superstition, and humanity, once subject to the tyranny of religion, now reigns supreme. Hardie traces the long afterlife of this passage to a now obscure subgenre of 18th-century verse, poems in praise of Newton. James Thomson’s ‘To the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton’, published on Newton’s death in 1727, describes him as taking flight in Lucretian terms:

He, first of men, with awful wing pursued
The comet through the long elliptic curve,
As round innumerous worlds he wound his way,
Till, to the forehead of our evening sky
Returned, the blazing wonder glares anew,
And o’er the trembling nations shakes dismay.

Here the scientist turns hunter, chasing Halley’s comet through the sky. As Hardie notes, the syntax momentarily blends hunter and hunted. ‘Returned’ seems first to refer to Newton – returning, like Lucretius’ Epicurus, with new knowledge for the benefit of man – until, as the line continues, we see that it refers to the comet.

Flight of the mind has often been used as a metaphor for poetic achievement, as in Horace, who imagines himself bumping his head against the stars as a member of the canon of lyric poets. A long poem could itself be imagined as a flight, as when Milton invokes his heavenly muse at the opening of Paradise Lost:

                                                                I thence
Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

The Aonian mount is Helicon, home to the nine Muses of ancient Greece, so the gesture at once locates Milton’s poem within the classical epic tradition and announces its aim to surpass it. Ambitious words, though their presumption is tempered by their illocutionary force; Milton is not announcing what he has done or will do, but what he aims to do with his muse’s aid. The flight of the poem itself is one of many flights in Paradise Lost, literal and metaphorical, angelic and satanic, successful and ill-fated. One passage combines flight of the mind, the view from above and apotheosis. Midway through the poem Eve has a bad dream, foreshadowing her fall, in which she imagines eating the forbidden fruit at the prompting of an angelic stranger:

                                the pleasant savoury smell
So quickened appetite, that I, methought,
Could not but taste. Forthwith up to the clouds
With him I flew, and underneath beheld
The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide
And various: wondering at my flight and change
To this high exaltation; suddenly
My guide was gone, and I, methought, sunk down,
And fell asleep; but oh how glad I waked
To find this but a dream!

Eve doesn’t know it, but this troubling dream has been produced by Satan, who was earlier found by angelic guards ‘Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve’, evidently up to no good. Now we see that he has been manipulating her fancy while she slept. The supernaturally inspired false dream is another classical epic topos; this one, Hardie observes, offers Eve a ‘false apotheosis’. She is persuaded that eating the fruit will give her the power to ascend to heaven; she imagines the ascent, the beginnings of a view from above. But rather than leading to the revealed wisdom one would expect, the vision suddenly dissolves, Eve’s guide disappears and the dream ends. Perhaps this abrupt end marks the moment when Satan is apprehended by the angelic guards, or perhaps he has done enough: a seed of temptation has been planted. Paradise Lost is continually reworking elements of literary tradition, in large ways and small; among the virtues of Hardie’s book is to show the way the poem does so in its scenes of flight.

To Leonard Welsted in 1726 Milton appeared ‘as a vast comet, that for want of room is ready to burst its orb and grow eccentric’ – an image that conveys the intellectual and artistic risks of Paradise Lost in terms that recall Newton and Halley. In ‘The Progress of Poesy: a Pindaric Ode’ (1751-54) Thomas Gray praised him in terms that combine Lucretian flight-of-the-mind imagery with the newly fashionable language of the sublime, and which include a reference to Milton’s blindness:

                he, that rode sublime
Upon the seraph-wings of Ecstasy,
The secrets of the abyss to spy.
He passed the flaming bounds of place and time:
The living throne, the sapphire-blaze,
Where angels tremble while they gaze,
He saw; but blasted with excess of light,
Closed his eyes in endless night.

Onecould, broadly speaking, describe the history of Western cosmological thinking in terms of three vocabularies: classical, Christian and scientific. Zoom out, and the three appear chronologically sequential. Zoom in and the picture is messier and more complicated, with areas of overlap, syncretism and accommodation, latent tensions and open conflicts. The literary history Hardie examines focuses on the relation between the classical and Christian vocabularies. This focus leads the book away from the more contentious aspect of early modern thinking about the heavens: the relation between Christianity and the new science of the era. It would be ungenerous to call this a flaw in Hardie’s book, but it does result in an eirenic picture of early modern ‘celestial aspirations’. It is not that the new science of the period is absent from Hardie’s account; what is missing is the controversy it generated.

Most early modern proponents of the new science professed themselves orthodox Christians, and went to great lengths to avoid trouble with the religious authorities. Since the balance of power between science and organised religion has shifted in the intervening centuries, many people suppose that there is no real conflict between them. The early modern period teaches us that this comforting belief is historically untrue. It has been a long time since churchmen could put astronomers on trial for heresy, as was done to Galileo in the 1630s. But it is useful to remember that when they could they did, and to remind ourselves of the intellectual and practical stakes of the conflict.

The Galileo affair is a good example because it is well documented and allows us to view the conflict from both sides. It began many years before Galileo’s trial for heresy in 1633. In 1609, having learned of a new optical invention in the Low Countries, Galileo built himself a telescope, pointed it at the heavens, noticed mountains on the moon and four moons orbiting Jupiter, observed Jupiter’s moons closely on successive nights, figured out how to account for their shifting positions, and wrote up his findings in non-technical prose as Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), published the following year. Here, for the first time, was observational support for Copernicus’s geokinetic theory. Galileo’s findings drew opposition from university men affronted at the challenge to Aristotle and Ptolemy, and from clergy who objected that the new view of the heavens contradicted scriptural passages such as Joshua 10:12-13, in which Joshua commanded the Sun not to set until the Israelites could complete a massacre:

Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.

The controversy made its way up to Robert Bellarmine, the great Jesuit theologian, who weighed in with a letter in April 1615. Bellarmine found the Copernican theory permissible as long as it was presented hypothetically as a device for tidier calculations, but not if it were positively asserted that the Earth orbited the Sun; to say this, Bellarmine wrote, would injure the faith and render Scripture false. Patristic interpreters had for centuries taken verses like Joshua 10:12-13 at face value, and this consensus demanded deference even if the matter did not pertain to faith or morals: ‘Nor can one answer that this is not a matter of faith, since if it is not a matter of faith “as regards the topic”, it is a matter of faith “as regards the speaker”.’ Were it proven that the Earth orbits the Sun, we would say not that scripture is false but that we have failed to understand it. Since that would be to admit that the Church had got it wrong for centuries, the standard of proof must be high; and Bellarmine doubted that Galileo or anyone else had offered such proof. Until they did, Bellarmine concluded, one must stick with scripture ‘as interpreted by the Holy Fathers’. This became Rome’s official position on the matter, and would years later provide the basis for the charges against Galileo.

It was not an easy restriction for Galileo to accept. He did believe that the Earth orbited the Sun; while his telescopic observations may not have produced proof to the level of certainty Bellarmine demanded, he was confident that the evidence pointed in that direction. A deeper issue for Galileo was freedom of inquiry; he was loath to accept the jurisdiction of theologians over the findings of astronomers. He was also anxious to avoid trouble with the Church. To argue his case, he produced one of the period’s valiant efforts to reconcile science and Christianity, the ‘Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina’ (1615). Since his opponents had used the authority of scripture against him, his response ventures into biblical interpretation. Scripture, Galileo proposes, is divinely inspired and cannot be wrong, but the Holy Spirit does not always speak literally. To study the natural world, God’s creation, is a pious endeavour, and when that study produces new knowledge, it should be applied to Scripture so that we can better judge which verses to take literally and which figuratively.

It is clear why Galileo’s hermeneutic proposals proved unacceptable to a theologian like Bellarmine: they would diminish the authority of the Church not only over astronomy but over the Bible. Bellarmine took a sophisticated position and a reasonable one, given his beliefs. He allowed it possible in theory that an interpretive consensus long settled within the Church could be revised in light of new knowledge. But the standard of proof would need to be high, and the Church would decide when it had been met. Deference to tradition would be the default. Galileo’s view, by contrast, would effectively restrict the Church’s sphere of interpretive authority to those parts of scripture dealing with faith or morals. Galileo carefully avoided saying that scripture or Church teaching were in error, and buttressed his argument with patristic quotations. But it did not require an intellect as sharp as Bellarmine’s to grasp the consequence.

This was, in short, a jurisdictional conflict, not a misunderstanding or clash of personalities. One side would have to give. In the short run, the Vatican had the power to compel Galileo’s submission. In 1633, summoned to Rome and tried by the Inquisition for heresy, he recanted, and accepted a lifelong prohibition from publishing on the subject and a prison sentence, commuted to house arrest. In the long run, the Vatican lost the power to bring astronomers to heel in this way. Since the early 19th century it has accepted that the Earth orbits the Sun; since Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893) it has accepted that the Bible is not a source of scientific knowledge. Some astronomers still produce arguments for the compatibility of science and religion; most go about their work without caring what Rome or any other church thinks of it, a development that would grieve Bellarmine. At the Roman Catholic university where I teach, the majority of my students are instinctive Galileans. When we read the ‘Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina’ they are reassured by Galileo’s professions of orthodoxy, and find his arguments for the freedom of scientific inquiry common sense. Bellarmine’s position, by contrast, needs to be explained. But eventually someone in the class will grasp it and ask the obvious question: if the Church was wrong for centuries about planetary motion, what else could it be wrong about?

Tosurvive recent centuries of advancing astronomical knowledge, Christian theology has become more abstract in its treatment of heaven and hell. The subterranean picture of hell has been largely abandoned (Milton put it in outer space). But the idea that heaven is up there somewhere is less easily given up. Jesus may not have preached that dead believers go to heaven in the sky, but celestial ascent is deeply embedded in the Christian imagination. It is found everywhere from the Apostles’ Creed (‘He ascended to heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the Father’) to Dante’s Paradiso to the Carter Family (‘There’s a better home awaiting/In the sky, Lord, in the sky’) to every funeral sermon in which the deceased is said to be looking down on the bereaved. Theologians may insist on the figurative nature of such language, but if it is metaphorical, it is in Lakoff and Johnson’s sense of ‘metaphors we live by’, or consciousness-structuring patterns of speech.

Early modern conflict over the heavens also plays out in English poetry. Milton admired Galileo as an antagonist of Rome, mentions him in Paradise Lost, and claims in Areopagitica that he paid the elderly astronomer a visit when he toured Italy in 1638-39. In Paradise Lost he has Adam ask the archangel Raphael if the Sun orbits the Earth or vice versa, and gets a long, inconclusive answer. God, Raphael says, has hidden this information, perhaps so that he can laugh at our vain attempts to puzzle it out:

                                he his fabric of the heavens
Hath left to their disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter at their quaint opinions wide
Hereafter, when they come to model heaven

Having declared the foolishness of pursuing the subject, Raphael pursues it for another hundred lines. His answer raises a range of possibilities. The Earth could be the centre of the universe, with all other heavenly bodies in motion around it, inefficient though that seems. Or the Sun could be ‘centre to the world’. There could be life on the moon: clouds, rain, fruits, fields, inhabitants. There could be life on other planets and other stars. Whatever the truth, Raphael concludes, these matters are God’s business, not yours.

Think only what concerns thee and thy being;
Dream not of other worlds, what creatures there
Live, in what state, condition or degree,
Contented that thus far hath been revealed
Not of earth only but of highest heaven.

This speech, one of the longest in the poem, takes a notably speculative path to its anti-speculative conclusion. Is Milton raising the question in order to dismiss it, or dismissing it in order to raise it? He could have avoided the subject, or delivered the anti-speculative moral more succinctly by having Adam ask the question and Raphael deflect it, as the angel does later when Adam asks him about angelic sex. That Milton chose to incorporate such speculations attests to the imaginative allure of the new science of the heavens, even for those who were not scientific thinkers. That he does not take a position on planetary motion attests to the unsettled state of learned opinion. That he wraps the angel’s speech at both ends in ‘Don’t go there, leave this matter to God’ shows that Milton, like Bellarmine, understood that the new science had the potential to encroach on theology. Neither the English Protestant poet nor the Italian cardinal-inquisitor would have had any respect for the idea that religion and science occupy separate spheres. Early modern cosmological thought was an intellectual wild west, in which learned opinion was divided, imagination and speculation ran far and free, anxieties over the implications of the new science were widespread, and defenders of traditional religion waged what would prove a long, losing battle for control of the cosmos.

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Vol. 45 No. 14 · 13 July 2023

Tobias Gregory quotes James Thomson’s 1727 paean to Isaac Newton: ‘He, first of men, with awful wing pursued/The comet through the long elliptic curve’ (LRB, 18 May). Gregory reads this as a reference to Halley’s comet, but I think it unlikely. Halley did indeed use Newton’s laws to predict the return of the comet named after him, but its reappearance wasn’t confirmed until Christmas Day 1758, well after Thomson’s poem and sixteen years after Halley’s death. The comet in Thomson’s poem is more likely to have been Kirch’s comet, discovered in 1680 and used by Newton to confirm Kepler’s laws of celestial motion.

Andrew Dobson

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