Acoustics, Magic, and Milton’s A Masque
Critics have long been absorbed by the many ways in which Milton’s A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle is involved with the religious and political debates of the early seventeenth century. But A Masque reflects other areas of contention, too, including natural philosophy and acoustics in particular. When the masque was written in 1634, just prior to the Cartesian revolution, physical theories from empirical, scholastic, and occult traditions competed for acceptance; no single school of thought dominated the field of natural philosophy. The possibilities for understanding and manipulating Nature represented in A Masque reflect this pluralism. This paper focuses on the heroine’s acoustical negotiation of her environment: a darkened and enchanted wood. Milton’s depiction of her speech, singing, and attempts to preserve herself from auditory injury draws on a group of interrelated perspectives in early acoustics including the vitalist musical explanations of Renaissance Neoplatonism and Francis Bacon’s program of experimental acoustics. In demonstrating that the central moral trial of the masque adapts terms from the developing science of acoustics, this paper illustrates how deeply invested Milton was in the relationship between personal aural experience and the physical conditions of the atmosphere and more broadly indicates his early willingness to address theological and moral issues through the resources of contemporary science.
Coffee and refreshments will be served before the seminar.
The Milton Seminar is organized by Stephen Fallon, University of Notre Dame; Christopher Kendrick, Loyola University Chicago; Paula McQuade, DePaul University; and Regina Schwartz, Northwestern University.
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