Monday, September 23, 2013

A poet re-envisions space

University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Ghrist, in his September 19 lecture ("Putting Topology to Work") at the MAA's Carriage House, credited poet John Milton (1608-1674) with the first use of the word space as an abstract entity -- and, Ghrist asserted, by so doing, Milton opened a door to the study of abstract space (known in mathematics as topology).
The following material is a 24 September correction
from my 23 September posting.  For I discovered -- in a thoughtful email from Ghrist --
that the proper citation of "space" was not from line 50 of Book 1 but from line 89 of Book 7.  
(I invite you go to literature.org  for Paradise Lost in its entirety.)
Here, below, I have replaced my original posting of  lines 44-74 of Book 1 
with lines 80 - 97 of Book 7 --  lines taken from my shelf copy of Milton's Paradise Lost,
 the 1968 Signet Classic Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks.
In the selection below and throughout his epic, Milton replaces past visions of hell down-in-the-earth and heaven up-in-the-sky with more complex and abstract configurations.

80               . . .  But since thou hast voutsaf't
       Gently for our instruction to impart
       Things above Earthly thought, which yet concern'd
       Our knowing, as to highest wisdom seem'd,
       Deign to descend now lower, and relate
85    What may no less perhaps avail us known,
       How first began this Heav'n which we behold
       Distant so high, with moving Fires adorn'd
       Innumerable, and this which yields or fills
       All space, the ambient Aire wide interfus'd    
90    Embracing round this florid Earth, what cause
       Mov'd the Creator in his holy Rest
       Through all Eternity so late to build
       In Chaos, and the work begun, how soon
       Absolv'd, if unforbid thou may'st unfold
95    What wee, not to explore the secrets ask
       Of his Eternal Empire, but the more
       To magnify his works, the more we know.


In a later era American mathematician Cassius Keyser (1862-1947) produced an essay, "Mathematics as a Culture Clue" in which he explored how developments in mathematics -- invention, rigor, abstraction, generalization, chaos, and the like -- are clues to changes taking place in other creative arts. As in Milton's time, as in Keyser's time, now also it is as Karl Patten (my first poetry teacher) asserted: "Every Thing Connects."

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