Pre-Modern View of Planetary Earth

Mid-way through Book III of Paradise Lost, Satan descends the golden staircase that leads from heaven to earth. From here he is able to see the entire world, like an astronaut looking at it from the moon. Milton narrates this scene with the following lines:

“Satan from hence now on the lower stair
That scal’d by steps of Gold to Heaven Gate
Looks down with wonder at the sudden view
of all this World at once.” (3.540-554)

Most modern people know what the earth looks like from orbit. To readers in 17th century Britain, a “view of all this World at once” would have been beyond comprehension. Maps did exist in Milton’s time of a round world with 5 continents. Anyone familiar with navigation would have been able to visualize the earth geographically, but Satan sees more than landmasses and oceans from where he stands. He sees everything that is happening, and he sees it all simultaneously. Milton applies the inadequate simile of a scout who “obtains the brow of some high-climbing Hill” and spies from its summit “some renown’d Metropolis / With glistering Spires and Pinnacles adorn’d.” It’s such a narrow illustration compared with knowing the entire globe. Perhaps sensing the scope might be too small, Milton then attempts to equate regions of the earth with corresponding regions in the sky. Libra hangs in the west and Andromeda is positioned just off the Atlantic ocean at the planet’s horizon. “Then from Pole to Pole / He views in breadth.” (3.560)

Later, Satan flies over Eden and alights on Mount Amara to study the world that God has recently made, and Milton describes in detail the different flora and fauna he sees. For this task, Milton appropriates factual information from science books he has read and employs mythological allusion to represent different groves and bowers. He mentions the different beasts of the field which God appoints Adam to name. So the reader gathers these images and facts and vague memories together in his or her mind, and from that pool of categories and dim representations assembles an exhaustive construction of a vast and varied world. An approximation of all this World at once, or at least the closest thing that a single mind is able to imagine.

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