Place And Space In Paradise Lost

2284 words - 10 pages

In the first three books of Paradise Lost, we find a number of instances in which the physiographic, atmospheric, and geomorphological characteristics of the text’s cosmography are described, allowing the reader a degree of purchase in their struggle to orient themselves within the various settings in which they find themselves following the In Media Res plunge into the “fiery gulf” (I.54) of “yon lake of fire” (I.280). While geographic detail is by no means a prolific element of the text, the instances of geographic detail we find largely feature independent descriptions of regions that stand in notable isolation from one another. Rather than offering a geometrical approximation of spatial ...view middle of the document...

It would seem that the sparse use of geographic detail and lack of scale, proportion and relation similarly contribute to the “illusory and unstable” nature of the independent locales that comprise the setting of Paradise Lost. In the absence of these three characteristics, the settings we encounter cannot be firmly grasped unless one attempts to impose one's own sense of scale onto them.
In his essay “Space and Place in ‘Paradise Lost’,” John Gillies argues that Milton’s handling of space and place is, in fact, a reflection of a trend in the “scientific and philosophical ferment of his time” (27). The distinction that Gillies makes between “space” and “place” centers around the idea of place as “a particular part of space of defined or undefined extent, but of definite situation.”(33). On the basis of this definition, Gillies asserts that modern philosophy tends to emphasize a Cartesian primacy of space over place; while space is a boundless concept that encompasses everything, place is merely “a portion of space occupied by a specific person or thing.” (33) This constitutes an inversion of a notion of spatial hierarchy that traces it’s conception to Aristotelian physics, in which place, specifically the earth, is central to both the physical cosmos and the human understanding of it (29). In this physical scheme, the world is not a single point on an infinite plane, but rather the center of the universe, implying that while space still exists beyond place, it is superseded by place in importance.
In the arc of this philosophical transformation, the inflection point lies roughly around Galileo’s confirmation of Copernicus’ theory of heliocentricity in 1610, roughly half a century before Milton began composing Paradise Lost, although it is likely that the idea for the work was conceived during the early years of Milton’s life, which in turn began two years before this inflection point (Leonard 3). According to Gillies, Milton’s treatment of space and place is based not so much upon a hierarchy in which either space or place is treated as ascendent, as it is on the interplay of the two within a third spatial concept he calls “room.” This term is defined as “an environment with built-in predispositions that are alternately cosmic, physical, metaphysical, moral, emotional, and spiritual” (40). A room is not defined by either place or space, rather, it emcompasses both, since the focus is on the elements of a given environment that constitute the room, rather than on it’s location or on the boundaries between the elements that it contains. It is through the use of room that Milton navigates the ambiguity of place and space in the “philosophical ferment” during which Paradise Lost is composed. Rooming also seems to explain why spatial relationships between independent locals are largely omitted - if we are being lead through a series of rooms, the spatial relationships between them are seemingly superfluous, and emphasizing them would primarily serve...

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