When Milton met Galileo: the collision of cultures that helped shape Paradise Lost

A transformative visit to Catholic Florence inspired the Puritan poet to write his epic masterpiece, a BBC documentary reveals

It is an epic poem with a daunting reputation that has struck fear into the hearts of many a student of English literature. Recounting the fall of man, and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Paradise Lost cemented the reputation of its author, the staunchly Protestant poet, John Milton, as one of England’s literary giants.

The 10,000-line poem is regarded as one of the defining contributions to the English canon, a work to be mentioned in the same breath as those of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens. But 350 years after its publication, some rather surprising influences on the Puritan imagination of its author have emerged, the result of a little-known journey the poet undertook to the heart of Catholic Italy.

In preparation for a Radio 4 documentary – In Search of Paradise Lost –to be broadcast next Sunday, Dr Joe Moshenska, an academic at Trinity College, Cambridge, retraced Milton’s journey to Florence in the late 1630s and claims that the legacy of a formative trip can be spotted throughout Paradise Lost. If he is correct, one of England’s most famous works of literature also bears the stamp of the city of Dante.

Only a small plaque on a hotel five minutes’ walk from Florence’s vast Duomo confirms that Milton visited Florence “drawn … by the Italy of the classics”. “In some sense he’s the person you’d least expect to find there,” Moshenska said. “You encounter him as this towering figure of militant Englishness, someone who is very hostile to Catholicism and hostile to certain kinds of idolatory and tempting beauty, and all these things that the English Protestant mind associated with Italy.”

Milton had described Catholicism as “the worst of superstitions” and a “heresie against the scripture”. But it appears he threw himself into the alien culture with gusto. While in Florence he made friends with the lutenist Vincenzo Galilei, the illegitimate son of Galileo, who introduced him to his father, who had been convicted of heresy.

The meeting of two of the finest minds of the 17th century, one from the arts the other from science, left a deep impression on Milton. “It’s such an extraordinary thing to picture, the two of them crossing paths, people who you think of as belonging to two entirely different worlds, especially now, when we tend to separate science from literature so dramatically,” Moshenska said.

Milton pays tribute to the astronomer in several passages of his masterpiece, including one where the Angel Raphael is granted a clear view through the heavens, “As when by night the glass of Galileo, less assured, observes imagined lands and regions in the moon”.

The poet is also believed to have visited the Benedictine monastery at Vallombrosa, nearly 20 miles from Florence and also mentioned in Paradise Lost. In the book’s beginning, Milton describes the fallen angels strewn across the floor of hell who “lay entranced, thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks, in Vallombrosa”.

John Milton
The young John Milton. Photograph: Alamy

Would one of the greatest poems in the English language have turned out differently, had he not visited Italy? Moshenska has no doubts, believing the Italy that Milton experienced in his youth was a well upon which the older poet drew for some of his most evocative, detailed passages.

“There’s this fascinating tug of war in Milton’s mind between a very bookish and scholarly mindset, where he sees the world through the wisdom of the ancients and all the classical mythology, and this total fascination with the immediacy of the world around him.”

In visiting several of the regions that would one day comprise modern Italy, Milton was following in the path of Chaucer and drawing inspiration from a country that fired the imaginations of two other giants of English literature. There has long been speculation that Shakespeare, who set around a third of his plays in Italy, may have visited the country. Dickens, too, was enthused by a tour of Italy, drawing on his experiences for Little Dorrit and publishing a book about his visit.

A small army of literary pilgrims followed Milton’s trail through the Italian states – from the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. They all visited the country as part of the grand tour, the practice of visiting Europe’s culturally important destinations that became popular among the British upper classes in the 19th century.

“Milton does help to create the later tradition – they are self-consciously following in his footsteps,” Moshenska said.

But Milton’s reasons for visiting Italy were more personal than cultural. “He was not going there because it would be a comfortable, languorous wander through the Italian countryside,” Moshenska said. “He deliberately wants to go somewhere which will be alien and different and ‘other’. Somewhere that will place an interesting pressure on the ideals he’s forming for himself.”

As Milton himself writes in characteristic prose: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary … that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.”

Moshenska believes that discussion of Milton’s Florentine sojourn is particularly timely as Brexit looms. It transpires that Milton, the most English of poets, was a polyglot Europhile whose most famous work is at least partially tinged by Tuscan ochre.

Moshenska said: “I would argue that you can only understand English literature by periodically leaving England and viewing it from afar, from the places that inspire these writers, and that this applies to Milton in particular.”

Such an appreciation might help Milton shed his rather intimidating reputation, three and a half centuries after his masterpiece was first published.

“He’s admired rather than loved,” Moshenska acknowledged. “People are a bit scared of Paradise Lost. It’s a bit like a glistening skyscraper; it towers over you. It’s big, long, difficult and impressive.”


Jamie Doward

The GuardianTramp

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