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Astrology and Iconoclasm in Milton's Paradise Regained

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Wntr, 2001   by David Gay

The work of setting John Milton amid the political events to which his poems respond should enhance our reading of the poems themselves. In juxtaposing "accounts of spectacle with literary texts," Laura Lunger Knoppers shows how the Restoration exerted a profound, though negative, influence on his three major poems: in her view, the major poems counter the spectacles of state by "constituting an inwardness or conscience" in readers. [1] If the prose treatises that opposed the Restoration show Milton standing his ground in both disappointment and prophetic indignation, the major poems provide a common ground for future generations of readers seeking a critical vantage point on history. Milton invested his hopes in the "children of reviving libertie" at the close of The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth; [2] nevertheless, he was dismayed by the capacity of his contemporaries for political idolatry. If Areopagitica anticipates the progressive reformation of society through the dynamic of rea ding, The Readie and Easie Way laments the devolution of political imagination upon a monarchical icon. Milton's major poems effect the emancipation of political imagination by providing counterhistorical texts for readers who would resist "the detested thraldom of Kingship" induced by material displays of power. [3] Published in 1671, Paradise Regained portrays this emancipation as Jesus counters the spectacle of temptation with a developing vision of the Kingdom of God. During his inward rehearsal of the history of Israel in the wilderness, Jesus finds no material signs of his messianic identity, as Israel did not in times of exile; he conserves the textual grounds of that identity by internalizing and remembering scripture, as Israel did in hearing the Law and the Prophets. Satan's purpose as a tempter is thus twofold: (1) to provoke Jesus into producing a material sign of his messianic identity through the performance of a miracle and (2) to deprive Jesus of the textual grounds of his identity through an exchange or substitution that supplants scripture by diverting Jesus' mission into demonic paradigms of power rather than grounding it in God's purpose.

Both the material and textual aspects of temptation converge when Satan reads Jesus' horoscope in the "Starry Rubric":

if I read aught in Heaven,

Or Heav'n write aught of Fate, by what the Stars

Voluminous, or single characters

In their conjunction met, give me to spell,

Sorrows, and labors, opposition, hate,

Attends thee, scorns, reproaches, injuries,

Violence and stripes, and lastly cruel death.

A Kingdom they portend thee, but what Kingdom,

Real or Allegoric I discern not,

Nor when, eternal sure, as without end,

Without beginning; for no date prefixt

Directs me in the Starry Rubric set. [4]

Milton's general opposition of the textual to the material sources of Jesus' identity is illustrated specifically in this passage. The "Starry Rubric" is a material surrogate that diverts attention from scripture; at the same time, Satan reads a narrative of Jesus' future sufferings as they will indeed occur. The suffering Satan foresees is not, however, the result of the radical choices Jesus makes in the temptation episode, or even of his opposition to Satan and the worldly order he represents. Instead, Jesus' sufferings are merely his fate, implying that scripture, if read like the zodiac, induces fatalistic passivity rather than active choice. Satan's "reading" is passive rather than active, fated rather than interpretive: he is only "given" to read the stars in their oppositions and conjunctions. Jesus, in contrast, demonstrates the active, critical possession of scripture possessed in the heart of each believer by smashing the fatalistic limits of Satan's temptations. Astrology is therefore a significan t locus for the opposition of iconoclasm and idolatry in Paradise Regained. By documenting this locus in Milton's historical milieu, I will consider its relationship to the emancipating and iconoclastic political work he portrays in the hero of the poem and in his own poetic identification with that work.

The attribution of astrology to Satan might appear to condemn the practice, but astrology was too pervasive to be so easily demonized. David Renaker, who sees even a "qualified approval" of astrology in Milton's use of it, views Satan's prognostication as a "rational effort to construe the probable course of future events, frustratingly incomplete, but quite true as far as it goes, and presented with a modest array of limiting conditions." [5] Satan's speech is speculative - if "Heav'n write aught of Fate." Speculation, predicated on the sense that astrology is permitted by "Heav'n, reflects the persistent commitments of many seventeenth-century readers to astrology, and even a willingness on the part of some to treat it as an inferior accessory to divinity. To place astrology in demonic quarantine with Satan is to overlook the conjunction of Satan's forecast with a widespread discourse linking astrology and providence in the examination of political events from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the Rest oration of Charles II in 1660. Satan's speech surprisingly evokes this discourse by deferring to providence or "Heaven." Satan presents astrology in a location that would be familiar and even acceptable to many of Milton's contemporaries.

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