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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
Post
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Article
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
Criticism
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

 
“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today