The Moral Geography of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Randa El Khatib (, University of Victoria, Canada

John Milton’s
Paradise Lost creates an extraordinarily rich and complex sense of space. The epic poem elegantly captures the cartographical leap of the sixteenth and seventeenth century that owes to advancements in navigation techniques and rapid colonial expansion. The world image was rapidly changing and gaining a more distinct contour as newly colonized lands were becoming better described and known. Maps in this time could often be considered prototypes since cartographers were still experimenting to find a more accurate mimesis of the world. At the same time, the strong foundation of
Paradise Lost and many other retellings of the Genesis captures the saturation of the seventeenth century in religious tradition and references to sacred places. In this way,
Paradise Lost can be seen as a prototype of its own that brings together spatial traditions, new and old, real and imaginary, into a single medium. To date, Milton’s spatial allusions – spanning biblical, classical, and contemporary temporalities – have predominantly been studied in relation to the textual sources that had influenced them. However,
Paradise Lost was written at a time when the visual tradition of mapping places of the bible with cartographic exactitude had reached its peak, seen in the King James Bible, which was also Milton’s family Bible – a tradition that, in retrospect, is an early example of a geospatial, text-to-map project. Milton construed his spatiality on the existing framework of this visual tradition, and consolidated the geographies of classical antiquity and of his contemporary world. These temporalities were conceived to have progressed on a linear spectrum of geographical continuity, according to the prevalent notion of historical sequence of a seventeenth-century audience. By superimposing these layers, Milton uses textual sources to assign moral valence to geographical points; these inform the readers’ understandings of the epic and of the space of human history that it encompasses. The GIS-based digital project, “A Map of the Moralized Geography of Paradise Lost,” explores the multi-temporal complexity of Milton’s spatial allusions through an open access map depicting the moralized geography of
Paradise Lost. These multiple temporalities are delineated by various layers of georectified historical maps, including the map that supplies the visual paratext of the King James Bible, as well as John Speeds map of “The Turkish Empire” (1626). The interactive dimensions of the map permit users to recover and evaluate nuance (by resituating geographical names in their poetic contexts) even as they seek to apprehend and deduce larger patterns.

The most powerfully apparent pattern is the concentration of Milton’s spatial allusions on the Mediterranean world, forming a thick chain around the Mediterranean basin. Sites of biblical or classical significance were, in the seventeenth century, in territories almost entirely controlled by the Ottoman Empire; this superimposition creates a polarized dynamic of moral valence. Additionally, Milton’s map is coordinated with a map based on place names extracted from the Book of Genesis in order to investigate the scope of influences of the biblical book itself on the epic poem. The extraction of geo-coordinates from both works was carried out manually for the sake of accuracy, since the limitations of present geoparsing techniques with variant and historical place names remain a methodological sticking-point. The Genesis map is less complex than the initial one, making it clear that it was literary and exegetical writings, and religious culture more broadly, that built thick association. This condition reinforces the status of geographical references in Milton’s epic as references, as vectors that import or apply associations established through cultural tradition or poetic technique. In this way,
Paradise Lost functions like an early modern chorography that contextualizes place names at use. The fruit of this project is a navigable visual network that invites users to trace contextualized recurring patterns in multiple temporalities.

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