No Comment, Quotation — August 10, 2008, 11:16 am

Milton’s Golden Compass

blake-golden-compass

On heav’nly ground they stood, and from the shore
They view’d the vast immeasurable Abyss
Outrageous as a Sea, dark, wasteful, wilde,
Up from the bottom turn’d by furious windes
And surging waves, as Mountains to assault
Heav’ns highth, and with the Center mix the Pole.

Silence, ye troubl’d waves, and thou Deep, peace,
Said then th’ Omnific Word, your discord end:

Nor staid, but on the Wings of Cherubim
Uplifted, in Paternal Glorie rode
Farr into Chaos, and the World unborn;
For Chaos heard his voice: him all his Traine
Follow’d in bright procession to behold
Creation, and the wonders of his might.
Then staid the fervid Wheeles, and in his hand
He took the golden Compasses, prepar’d
In Gods Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things:
One foot he center’d, and the other turn’d
Round through the vast profunditie obscure,
And said, thus farr extend, thus farr thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World.

John Milton, Paradise Lost bk vii, lns 210-31 (1667)


This is one of the most wonderous passages of one of the greatest poems in the English language, the work of John Milton. The William Blake drawing set above it, The Ancient of Days, seems unmistakably influenced by these lines, indeed it recasts the fantastic and tempestuous vision of Milton’s poem and visually realizes his golden compass, a tool by which god measured and cast the earth and continues to wield by way of judgment upon the product. As in much of Milton there is a curious meeting in these lines of the world of Greek antiquity and of the Biblical tradition. But the essence, the conception of a world driven by a celestial mechanics not altogether fathomable by humans, is distinctly a classical Greek idea. This notion was present even in the Homeric vision in which gods regularly appeared equipped with instruments capable of bringing devastation or favor to humankind at their whim, but it lies at the center of the Pythagorean tradition which saw the divine as a cover for a series of mathematical or scientific relationships not now understood, but capable of being learned by the adept. And perhaps the greatest figure in this tradition is Plato, who called god the Divine Geometrician, and who invoked the challenge of Prometheus–the challenge directed to humankind to unlock these secrets.

The golden compass describes a world of order and reason, a place where the possibilities open to humankind are great. But it also describes the limits of this world, beyond which lies maddening and incomprehensible Chaos. This profoundly religious vision which nevertheless accepts science and its central role in man’s happiness is essential to understanding the genius that moved England in the seventeenth century, and which put her on a path toward greatness and leadership in the world. It lies also unmistakably at the center of the American Idea, received from the generation which fought England’s Civil War and whose ideas bore fruit in America’s Revolution.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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