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Fear of falling: Icarus, Phaethon, and Lucretius in Paradise Lost

Renaissance QuarterlyFall, 2004   by David Quint

In his epic about the Fall, Milton includes versions of two famous characters of classical myth who fell from the heavens: Icarus, who fell when he ignored his father's warnings and flew too high on his wings of wax and feathers; Phaethon, who fell, struck by Jupiter's thunderbolt, from the solar chariot of his father Apollo, the chariot he had unsuccessfully tried to drive through the sky in spite of Apollo's plea that he forbear. Ovid tells the stories of the two highfliers as parallel myths in the Metamorphoses and twice couples Icarus and Phaethon as figures of his own fate in the Tristia; Renaissance poets would similarly juxtapose the two as figures of excessive pride and immaturity. (1) They thus provide analogues to the bad offspring of Milton's epic, Satan and Adam and Eve, as well as contrasting foils to its good sons, the Son of God and Milton the poet himself. Milton further evokes these classical myths of falling in order to confront behind them the Epicurean doctrine of Lucretius's De rerum natura, the epic poem of an atomic universe that is in a state of freefall. At stake is nothing less than the cosmology and theodicy of Paradise Lost. Milton mentions neither Icarus nor Phaethon by name, however, and their presence in the poem has largely escaped critical notice. The reworking of their myths needs to be excavated by patient philology from complicated, but coherent and deliberate, systems of allusion to earlier epic poetry: to Virgil, Ovid, Dante, and Tasso, to Milton's own youthful exercise, Naturam non pati senium ("Nature does not suffer old age," composed ca. 1630, published 1645), as well as to Lucretius. It will then become apparent how the epic poet who would justify the ways of God to men and explain the Fall that brought death into the world engages, beneath the surface of his text, the godless Roman poet and his doctrine of sheer contingency and purely natural mortality. Meanwhile, the myths of Icarus and Phaethon shape the metaphors of a poem in which falling is depicted as the failure of aspired flight. These metaphors will apply equally to the soaring, Icarus-like poet himself. (2)


Satan begins to fall through the oceanic depths of Chaos at book 2.927-38 of Paradise Lost. This scene, as we shall eventually see, is Milton's version of the myth of the fall of Icarus, and it completes a long train of poetic imitation and allusion. The series begins with Virgil's own submerged reference to Lucretius.

The story of Icarus is present by its absence on the doors of the temple of Apollo at Cumae described by Virgil at the opening of the sixth book of the Aeneid. Positioned at the gates of the underworld (6.107) and in the groves of Avernus (6.118), the temple was built by Daedalus in order to commemorate his landing-place after he had flown from Crete on his artificial wings. He dedicated his "remigium alarum"--the "oarage of his wings"--to Apollo; the wording suggests a mariner making a votive offering after surviving a stormy voyage or shipwreck, and Daedalus had indeed made a journey over the sea. (3) Of course, we know that Daedalus was not alone: his son Icarus, the myth tells us, flew too close to the sun, fell into the waves, and drowned. The climax of Virgil's ecphrasis of the temple doors describes the scene that is not there. Daedalus, we are told, tried two times, but could not bring himself to depict his son's "casus" (6.32): Icarus's fall which was also the accident that befell him.

What is this myth doing here? Virgilian critics have pointed to the way that the reference to the son who does not survive mirrors the end of book 6, the lament for Augustus's nephew and designated heir Marcellus, and both can be linked to the succession of sons who die young in the Aeneid: Polites, Neoptolemus, Astyanax, Polydorus, Euryalus, Pallas, Lausus, and Turnus--all so that one crucial Roman son, Ascanius, ancestor of the Julii, can survive and replace their extinguished lines. (4) Daedalus's skill in fashioning the figures on the doors is comparable to Virgil's own artistry in depicting the procession of future Romans who parade before Anchises. As the survivor of a long sea journey, moreover, Daedalus is similar to Aeneas at this point in the poem: having reached his destination in Italy, Aeneas, too, has hung up his oars. True enough; but the myth of flying--and falling from the sky--has a particular resonance in this particular part of the world.

Avernus, we are told at line 242, derives its name from the Greek "Aornum," that is, the place without birds, for no flying creature could safely wing their way there--"super haud ullae poterant impune uolantes / tendere iter pinnis" (6.239-40)--thanks to the sulfuric exhalations sent up from the earth and lake. Virgil's source is his great predecessor, Lucretius, who devotes a section of book 6 of his De rerum natura to a description of the phenomenon:

  Nunc age, Averna tibi quae sint loca cumque lacusque
  expediam, quali natura praedita constent.
  principio, quod Averna vocantur nomine, id ab re
  impositumst, quia sunt avibus contraria cunctis,
  e regione ea quod loca cum venere volantes,
  remigi oblitae pennarum vela remittunt
  praecipitesque cadunt molli cervice profusae
  in terram, si forte ita fert natura locorum,
  aut in aquam, si forte lacus substratus Avernist.
  is locus est Cumas aput, acri sulpure montes
  oppleti calidis ubi fumant fontibus aucti. (6.738-48, emphases added)

  Now listen, and I will explain what is the nature of those Avernian
  regions and their lakes. In the first place, they are given the name
  Avernian because of the fact that they are dangerous to all birds,
  because when they have come in flight to those places, forgetting the
  oarage of their wings they pull in their sails, and fall headlong with
  their soft neck outstretched to the earth, if that is the nature of
  the place, or into the water, if the lake of Avernus lies below. This
  place is near Cumae, where the mountains smoke, filled with bitter
  sulphur and rich with hot springs.
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