The science of sound in the poetry of John Milton
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“The Science of Sound in the Poetry of John Milton” reconsiders T. S. Eliot’s now axiomatic claim that Milton is an exceptionally aural poet in light of the emergence of acoustics in the seventeenth century. Although Milton has been credited with a singularly aural imagination, the fact that his poetry abounds with representations of sound, surprisingly, has been overlooked. This study argues that the science of acoustics informs Milton’s distinctly aural poetics. The experimental study of sound arose in the seventeenth century from the interaction of diverse fields, namely music, meteorology, magic, and mechanics. Milton adapts concepts from each of these sciences to formulate his own poetic and philosophically rigorous conception of sound. A central thesis of this dissertation concerns the interplay of occult and mechanical theories of sound in Milton’s works. While allowing that sound may be transmitted through the mechanical operation of air—a central tenet of experimental acoustics—Milton also retains ideas from occult traditions that suggest sound is a spirituous substance susceptible to magical and spiritual interference. Milton’s portrayal of sound as a living part of the universe thus illustrates his monism. Chapter 1 establishes that Milton derives an oral and ecological understanding of the voice from works of classical meteorology, such as Aristotle’s Meteorologica and Pliny’s Natural History. The second chapter posits that the moral dilemmas confronted by the heroine of Milton’s 1634 masque, Comus, are chiefly aural in nature. In the interest of preserving her chastity, the Lady must correctly choose when to speak, sing, listen, or ignore what she hears. Informed by the acoustical theories of Francis Bacon and Marsilio Ficino, for example, her judgments evaluate their influential models of sound. The third chapter argues that Milton’s demonology is influenced by Satan’s title in orthodox Christianity as “prince of the power of the aire” (Ephesians 2:2) and the related belief that devils cause inclement weather. The final chapter proposes that Satan employs his meteorological power to instrumentalize various environments and organisms in Paradise Lost—most notably the pipe organ in Hell and the serpent—using both pneumatic and mechanical methods.