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Malabika Sarkar, Cosmos and Character in Paradise Lost (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). (ISBN 978-1-137-00699-8), 236 pp. HBK. £55.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Stone


[1]  Since the 1960’s the astronomical elements of Paradise Lost have been a recurring theme in the work of Milton scholars. Perhaps the most notable contributor to these discussions, Marjorie Nicholson, laid the foundations for the vast majority of the debates that have occurred and in many of them a state of academic impasse has been reached. We are left with some questions that have been answered and others that are frequently re-answered through diametrically opposed arguments with contributions to the respective debates often amounting to little more than the most minor re-configurations of established positions. In essence, the field has not stagnated but is in a state that requires significant invigoration. Malabika Sarkar’s work does, to some extent, offer this re-vitalisation.

[2]  Sarkar’s work reads the cosmos of Paradise Lost in the context of those lesser known intellectual nuances and intrigues that occurred within the restoration period but have not sustained academic interest into the modern day. Sarkar acknowledges the significance of both the new astronomy and traditional understandings but tempers this by noting the significant role of a number of seemingly less eminent academic pursuits – amongst these cabalistic and hermetic thought, the Mosaic tradition, alchemy, the roles of British scientists in the establishing of the new astronomy, millennial concerns, and vitalist thought. Sarkar offers chapters on ‘Invocations: Milton as Moses’ in which she reads Paradise Lost in the context of cabalistic thought and the mosaic tradition, “Unoriginal Night’ and Milton’s Chaos’ where she provides a new understanding of the dual nature of Chaos, “This Pendent World’: The Cosmos of Paradise Lost’ and “The Visible Diurnal Sphere’: Space and Time’ which contain excellent descriptions of the landscape of Milton’s cosmos, ‘Satan and Astronomical Signs’, ‘Milton’s Angels and Celestial Motion’, ‘The Galileo Question’, and ‘Adam, Eve, and the “Virtuous Touch” of Alchemy’. Amongst these it is her readings of the character of Satan and the role of Galileo in the poem that are most intriguing. Sarkar offers a pithy and economical reading of Satan in the context of the ‘millenarian fervour’ (p.111) that arose in the wake of the observations of the 1572 and 1604 supernovae. Indeed, her reading of Satan as ‘millennial hero’ (p.116) and false prophet based on his comparison to the comets and stars noted in the constellation of Ophiuchus in the ‘Satan and Astronomical Signs’ chapter is amongst the most compelling in the entire work.

[3]  Stylistically, Sarkar’s work has two major strengths. Firstly, her descriptions of the physical layout of Milton’s cosmos significantly supersede any precedents. Sarkar demonstrates a vivid visual imagination and her eloquent explanations establish the physical geography of the universe of Paradise Lost in a manner that benefits the field enormously. In areas where Milton demonstrates certitude Sarkar offers confirmation; in areas where Milton offers ambiguity Sarkar offers thorough explorations of the intellectual possibilities of his descriptions. Secondly, Sarkar’s methodology contributes significantly to the clarity of her arguments. As the book progresses it makes a notable effort to demonstrate the growth of a core thesis with later chapters repeatedly referencing the readings posited at earlier points in the work. The effect created is to suggest a naturalness in Sarkar’s understanding of Milton’s cosmos. Her readings grow organically as the book progresses guiding the reader through what is a complex and much disputed area of study with the utmost precision.

[4]  The work is not without its flaws. The chapter on the character and role of Milton’s angels seems rather too brief to add to Joad Raymond’s excellent work Milton’s Angels (a work Sarkar references), and occasionally the work is guilty of exploring the secondary meanings of passages in a manner which can undermine the significance of Sarkar’s contribution to Milton studies. Sarkar herself acknowledges this fact in the ‘Invocations: Milton as Moses’ where she states that her reading of these passages represents a ‘second benchmark’ of significance behind that of the invocations reflecting Milton’s knowledge of ‘classical and Spenserian epic’ (p.23). However, these are minor issues in what is fundamentally a stimulating, nuanced, eminently readable, and well researched work.

[5]  Given that Sarkar’s chapter on ‘Milton’s Angels and Celestial Motion’ seems rather perfunctory in the wake of Raymond’s work; it is of great credit to Sarkar that she avoids a similar fate in her chapter on ‘The Galileo Question’. ‘The Galileo Question’ is, in fact, a series of well-versed intrigues which could – and in the hands of a lesser skilled academic would – become a mere revision of over-exploited materials and over-repeated arguments. Sarkar acknowledges the recent discord over whether or not Milton actually met Galileo (as he famously claims to have in Areopagitica) and rather than engaging in debate either pro or against such a meeting suggests that Galileo’s inclusion in Paradise Lost is of great significance in either situation. If Milton met Galileo then clearly he made a distinct and direct impact upon the poem; if not then Sarkar suggests that this it is ‘all the more significant that Milton needed to invent such a meeting’ (p.148). Sarkar is also adroit in distinguishing between the reference to meeting Galileo in prose and the repeated uses of images relating to him in Paradise Lost, ultimately concluding that Galileo is selected for inclusion in Milton’s epic as both a ‘martyr in the cause of intellectual freedom’ and an ‘example of a combination of outstanding scientific achievement and the capacity to believe in doubts and uncertainty as positive and enabling’ (p.159).

[6]  Cosmos and Character in Paradise Lost, therefore, offers its readership a wealth of materials that significantly advance the present state of Milton studies. Sarkar has read widely and combines this breadth of knowledge with a focus upon the details of Milton’s work admirably. The work is a must read for serious Miltonists, and would offer invaluable clarity to undergraduate students in a field that can often seem obfuscated by the nuanced readings of arguments with significant critical heritage. This is not to say that Sarkar is any less nuanced in her understanding, nor less appreciative of her academic forbears, but rather that her style demonstrates an admirable lucidity that is often missing from these complex debates.

University of Leeds, May 2013