From The New Yorker:
Sometime in 1638, John Milton visited Galileo Galilei in Florence. The great astronomer was old and blind and under house arrest, confined by order of the Inquisition, which had forced him to recant his belief that the earth revolves around the sun, as formulated in his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” Milton was thirty years old—his own blindness, his own arrest, and his own cosmological epic, “Paradise Lost,” all lay before him. But the encounter left a deep imprint on him. It crept into “Paradise Lost,” where Satan’s shield looks like the moon seen through Galileo’s telescope, and in Milton’s great defense of free speech, “Areopagitica,” Milton recalls his visit to Galileo and warns that England will buckle under inquisitorial forces if it bows to censorship, “an undeserved thraldom upon learning.”
Beyond the sheer pleasure of picturing the encounter—it’s like those comic-book specials in which Superman meets Batman—there’s something strange about imagining these two figures inhabiting the same age. Though Milton was the much younger man, in some ways his world system seems curiously older than the astronomer’s empirical universe. Milton depicted the earth hanging fixed from a golden chain, and when he contemplated the heavens he saw God enthroned and angels warring. The sense of the new and the old colliding forms part of Milton’s complex aura. The best-known portrait of his mature years makes Milton look like the dyspeptic brother of the man on the Quaker Oats box, but he is far more our contemporary than Shakespeare, who died when Milton was seven. Nobody would ever wonder whether Milton was really the author of his own work. Though “Paradise Lost” is a dilation on a moment in Genesis, it contains passages so personal that you cannot read far without knowing that the author was a blind man fallen on “evil days.” Even in his political prose, Milton will pause to tell us that he is really not all that short, despite what his enemies say. Though he coined the name “Pandemonium”—“all the demons”—for the palace that Satan and his fallen crew build in Hell, he also coined the word “self-esteem,” as contemporary a concept as there is and one that governed much of Milton’s life.