University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada (Spring 2016)
Milton had been blind for seven years when he began to compose Paradise Lost; however, there is much evidence to suggest that Milton had struggled with his vision from an early age. This struggle had great influence on his writing. In Paradise Lost, Milton draws from his experiences with failing vision, blindness, ophthalmic procedures, and medicines to create a poetic vision of vision. This vision rests on the theory of “double vision” developed by Origen, an early Christian theologian. Origen believed that man possessed both external eyes and internal eyes, which endowed him with “double vision”.1 Milton incorporates this theory into Paradise Lost and argues that the internal eyes are superior to the external. This argument was deeply personal, as Milton coped with his external blindness by realizing his superior and “piercing [internal] sight.”2 Milton uses his experience with failing vision to create a poetics of vision that can convince the reader (and prove to himself) that internal vision is superior to external vision.
Milton’s blindness has been a subject of fascination for many scholars. Records suggest that Milton’s sight began to decline when he was 36 years old, and he was completely blind by the time that he was 43.3 Several accounts of his symptoms exist; the most famous of which was written by Milton himself in a letter to Leonard Philaras. This account has spurred much speculation as to the cause of his blindness. Many diagnoses have been suggested, including cataracts, albinism, congenital syphilis, glaucoma, and detachment of the retina, but a consensus has never been reached.4 The majority of these diagnoses, however, have been formulated by modern readers and physicians. In Milton’s day there were three popular diagnoses for his blindness, which were based less closely on his symptoms than his scholarly and political activities. The first was that his blindness was sent as a judgment from God for his controversial writings against the ordained King Charles I.5 Milton detested this diagnosis, stating that “[he was] not conscious of any recent or remote crime, which by its atrocity [could] have drawn down [the] calamity exclusively upon [his] head.”5 However, the suggestion remained a source of anxiety throughout his life and deeply affected his writings. The second was that his blindness was the result of eyestrain from excessive study. Milton’s nephew Edward Philips voiced this opinion in his biography of Milton, reporting that “[Milton] hardly ever went to bed before midnight [and] this primarily led to [his] loss of sight.”5 However, modern ophthalmologists believe that this is a slightly romantic notion because, in reality, eyestrain could only have aggravated a pre-existing problem.5 The third diagnosis was that Milton “traded” his external sight for the internal sight necessary to write Paradise Lost. This diagnosis appealed greatly to Milton, who attests to his improved internal sight by stating:
“Why, in truth, should I not bear gently the deprivation of sight, when I may hope that it is not so much lost as revoked and retracted inwards, for the sharpening rather than the blunting of my mental edge.”5
This diagnosis suggests that blindness presented Milton with a unique opportunity: he could also pursue “things invisible to mortal sight.”2
Milton draws from his own experiences with failing vision when he distorts the reader’s view of Satan, who first appears dressed in armor.2 Satan’s shield looks immense “like the moon,” and his spear seems to be tall like “the tallest pine/ hewn on Norwegian hills.”2 Essentially, Milton evokes the image of a titan “of monstrous size.”2However, he quickly distorts this image: Satan’s spear shrinks in size until it appears to be “but a wand,” and Satan himself is diminished until he seems like an old man who walks with a stick “to support [his] uneasy steps.”2 The effect of this resizing is to disorient the reader and prevent him from comprehending Satan’s true size. Milton may be drawing from personal experience because he had suffered from micropsia in his left eye, which caused objects to appear smaller than they really were.5 Milton subjects the reader to an experience of micropsia in order to prove that external vision is fallible.
Milton also mentions an “optic glass” in this passage, which is similar to ophthalmic glasses.2 Like concave ophthalmic glasses, this “optic glass” allows distant objects to be viewed more clearly: “through optic glass the Tuscan artist views” the moon in greater detail.2 There is substantial evidence suggesting that Milton was myopic before he became blind.5 There has even been speculation that Milton’s blindness may have been the result of progressive myopic changes followed by the detachment of the retina.3 If he was myopic, Milton would have had difficulty seeing objects clearly at a distance. Spectacles were frequently used during the 17th century to aid the elderly with their eyesight.6 Charles I even granted a charter to the Spectacle Makers’ Guild in 1629.5 However, most elderly people are farsighted and require convex glasses, which would not have aided Milton.5 Milton was nearsighted and would have required concave glasses, which were introduced much later in the 16th century.5 By suggesting that the reader requires concave glasses or an “optic glass” in order to view Satan clearly, Milton is suggesting that the reader also has difficulty seeing objects clearly at a distance. He is reminding the reader that he cannot properly view Satan with his external eyes.
This “optic glass” may also represent the material that blocks sacred light from entering the fallen eye. Athanasius Kricher, a German Jesuit polymath, wrote that essential light could not be seen by a fallen man because it was hindered and refracted by the many materials through which it passed.1 In Milton’s day, this essential light was thought of as a divine impulsion.1 Milton refers to “holy light” in his invocation to light, describing it as an “offspring of Heav’n.”2 Clearly, Milton was aware of the notion of essential light. He was also aware that essential light could not be seen in the fallen world because he describes Hell as possessing “no light but rather darkness visible.”2 Thus, it seems probable that an “optic glass,” which bends and refracts light in order to magnify images, could also represent the material that blocks sacred light from entering the fallen eye. If so, the glass serves to remind the reader of his fallen perspective.
The reader views Satan “at evening,”when his vision is obscured by shadows and a lack of light.2 In order to describe evening vision Milton draws from his own experience with obscured vision. As Milton’s eyes deteriorated, a “blackness dashed . . . with ashy gray” obstructed his vision.7 This obstruction cast Milton into perpetual evening: a time of indeterminacy and faulty perspective. In the passage, Milton uses evening to complicate the reader’s vision, whereby the reader is unsure of his perspective because he is unsure of his own location. He either views Satan “from the top of Fésole,” “or [from] in Valdarno,” but neither perspective is confirmed.2 Thus, the reader is forced to recognize that his perspective on Satan is unclear. Milton draws from his experience with obscured vision to remind the reader that he cannot rely upon his fallible external vision. Milton believed that the external eyes could not provide man with a true vision of the world because they could be easily cast into an “ever-during dark.”7
The procedure that Adam undergoes to repair “the inmost seat of [his] mental sight” or his internal eyes includes elements from several different ophthalmic procedures.2“The film [is] removed” from Adam’s eyes in an operation similar to that performed to remove cataracts.2 The ancient Greeks and Arabs treated cataracts by turning down the opaque lens of the eye with a needle, a procedure called “couching.”5 Some scholars believe that Milton suffered from cataracts, but there is no evidence to suggest that he underwent surgical correction. This was probably fortunate, given that 17th century eye surgeons were commonly called “eye-destroyers.”5 Adam’s eyes are also “purged with euphrasy and rue,” which were medicinal herbs used to strengthen the eyes.8 Phillips reported that Milton himself “[tampered] with physick to preserve [his sight].”5 Reports also suggest that Milton used “issues and setons . . . to save or retrieve [his sight]” and tried “drawing away the spirits which should have supply’d the Optic Vessels.”5 “Issues” are threads introduced beneath the skin to form an issue and “setons” are artificial ulcers created to discharge pus for relief of an affected part.5There is no evidence that either of these methods was at all effective and, given the nature of most 17th century cures, these may well have caused Milton’s blindness.5 However, Milton transforms his failed experiences with ophthalmic procedures and medicinal herbs into a successful experience: the curing of Adam’s inner sight.
Adam’s internal eyes allow him true vision. With these eyes he clearly sees “the tenor of man’s woe.”2 However, he also sees hope: a man, who will “quell the Adversary Serpent” and lead “wandered Man / safe to Eternal Paradise.”2 These visions bring Adam closer to God, teaching him to “love with fear the only God” and accept “his providence.”2 The last lines depict Adam and Eve wandering “hand in hand” out of Paradise.2 Their “slow” and “wand’ring” steps imitate the steps of a blind man because, at this point, they have closed their external eyes and are relying upon their internal eyes.2 Adam and Eve have accepted Providence as “their guide.”2 Milton believed that external blindness forced man to rely upon Providence, whereby blindness would bring man closer to God. Thus, Milton assures the reader that Adam and Eve, who have closed their external eyes, will remain connected with God after the fall. Although they must leave Paradise, their internal eyes will allow them to glimpse the “paradise within.”2 It is this paradise that Milton himself is struggling to realize throughout Paradise Lost.
In Paradise Lost, Milton’s struggle to come to terms with his blindness is evident. Moreover, his need to prove that he had “[purchased] a greater good…at the price of blindness” is clear.2 This “greater good” was an improved sense of internal sight, which allowed Milton to write of the “things invisible to mortal sight.”2 Milton uses his experiences with failing vision to prove to the reader that external vision is fallible and that only internal vision is flawless. If the reader chooses to accept that his external eyes are blind to truth, and to rely upon his internal vision like Milton and Adam and Eve, perhaps he too may realize the “paradise within.”
- Allen, Don Cameron. The Harmonious Vision: Studies in Milton’s Poetry. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press; 1954.
- Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Gordon Teskey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.; 2005.
- Sorsby, Arnold. “On the Nature of Milton’s Blindness.” British Journal of Opthalmology. 1930; 14.7: 339-354.
- Snyder, Charles. “Milton on his Blindness.” Archives of Ophthalmology. 1963; 69.4:531-533.
- Brown, Eleanor Gertrude.Milton’s Blindness. New York: Columbia University Press, 1934.
- Sobotka, Harry. “Ophthalmology during the Middle Ages.” American Medical Association’s Archives of Ophthalmology. 1957; 57:3: 366-375.
- Milton, John. “Blindness.” Milton on Himself: Milton’s utterances upon himself and his works. Ed. John S. Diekhoff. New York: Oxford University Press; 1939.
- Morse, Katherine. “Milton’s Idea of Science as shown in ‘Paradise Lost’.” The Scientific Monthly 10:2 (1920): 150-156. Web. 18 March 2012.
ASHLEIGH FRAYNE is currently studying medicine at the University of Calgary. She recently completed a BSc in Biology and English and an MA in English Literature at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include the intersections between poetry and medicine, gender politics in medicine, and the history of medicine.