John Milton: Literary Contribution to English Literature

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       John Milton's literary career can be divided into three clear and well-marked periods. Of these the first was the period of training, education and literary apprenticeship; the second was the period of political strife and turmoil; while the third was the period of the great poems.

Milton's literary career can be divided into three clear and well-marked periods. Of these the first was the period of training, education and literary apprenticeship; the second was the period of political strife and turmoil; while the third was the period of the great poems.
John Milton

      First period (1608-1639) Born in London of a family in easy circumstances and Christian without undue strictness, from adolescence he dedicated himself to poetry. He was only twenty one when he wrote his first masterpiece 'Ode on the Morning' of Christ's Nativity in which his mastery is apparent as in the poems of maturity. He was at Cambridge when he wrote this ode. He left there to live for time with his father at Horton in Buckinghamshire. Between 1632 and 1638 in the studious quiet of Horton, he wrote the lovely poems of his youth. He shows his feeling for nature in the early L' Allegro and II Penseroso. Each poem evokes a distinct figure: the first, that of mirth, fresh, rosy and vigorous, dancing on tiptoe and the second, that of divine Melancholy like a pensive nun "devout and pure After the fragment of a masque-Arcades, John Milton wrote an entire masque-Comus (1634). It is hymn to chastity. The young heroine assailed in a wood by the magician Comus, god of wine and sensuality disdains his attacks and emerges from the trial. The poem is simple as an old morality. The morality of the poem is that of Milton, high, disdainful and solitary.

      Lycidas (1657), probably the finest example of the pastoral elegy in English is a lament for a Cambridge fellow student who was drowned. In all these poems, the mental conflict of the poet is evident. In outward form he adheres to the Renaissance, writing either masques or pastorals. He introduced classical machinery and copiously drew on Greek mythologies to decorate his poems. Lycidas is inspired by the pastoral poetry of Bion, Mosehus and Theocritus. From the beginning of his poetic career, Milton had felt the conflict of the opposing forces-Paganism and Christianity and he intermingled the two elements in a harmonious manner by the impulse of a powerful will. He fused the spirit of the Renaissance and the Spirit of Reformation.

      In 1637, John Milton went on an extensive tour through the continent, and after travelling largely in France, Italy and Switzerland returned home in June, 1639. His second period begins from 1639 and extends to 1660. It was the period of civil war in England and Milton plunged headlong into the vortex of the conflict between Charles and his people. He wrote a number of prose pamphlets on Church, Government, divorce and the justice and otherwise on the king's execution. His greatest prose tract is Areopagitica- a speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing. The sole exceptions to the prose were a dozen 'occasional' sonnets, among which are some of the noblest in the English language. Of these is the sonnet on his blindness: that which describes his vision of his second wife after death, and specially that in which his indignation bursts forth against the Piedmontese for having massacred the Vandois.

      The third period : Restoration of 1660, in forcing Milton back into private life allowed him to return to the high aims of his youth. He was blind, old, lonely and cut off from all communion with the world. And yet these last years of worldly loss and privation were the greatest in the poet's life. Paradise Lost appeared in 1665; Paradise Regained in 1671 and Samson Agonistes in 1671. He died shortly after in 1674.

      Tennyson appropriately calls Milton the "God gifted organ voice of England". Halam says that "the sense of vision delighted his imagination, but that of sound wrapped his soul in ecstasy." Milton without conscious effort wrote in melodious phrases and cadences. With his remarkable gift of phrase and cadence, he could easily untwist "all the chains that tie the hidden soul of harmony" Milton's poetry is characterised by grandeur and sublimity of sentiments and swelling fullness and harmony of music. In respect of the musical quality of Milton's poetry he is the greatest among English poets. As Mr. Matthew Arnold has observed: "In the sure and flawless perfection of his rhythm and diction, he is as admirable as Virgil and Dante, and in this respect, he is unique amongst us".

      Paradise Lost is Millon's greatest work. Here his imagination rose beyond time and space. He could conceive of the universe as immensity. Milton's hell is a vast indeterminate space where, in 'darkness visible', on the burning marle are Stretched gigantic beings, the vanquished angels changed to demons. He wrote the poem to justify the ways of "God to man" and "to assert eternal providence" but the central force of the poem is the poet's own personality; its beauty lies in his art- an art always that of the humanist. The rejection of rhyme is in the spirit of the poets of the Renaissance. The value of words, the syntax, the pauses recall the classics. Milton's periods, the unrhymed verse, beautiful in its cadence, with its enjambment and inversions possess a solemnity and nobility inherited from ancient Rome. Paradise Regained is the complement of and reply to Paradise Lost. It is not an epic, being merely a semi-dramatic account, in four short books, of the commencement of Christ's ministry. It begins on the lowest key and the last book is magnificent. It is less intense and titanic than Paradise Lost and mediates between the epic and the dramatic point of view. In Paradise Lost, Milton wrote epic which is classical in form but in which he asserted the eternal providence.

      Samson Agonistes shows Milton using all his strength and wisdom to write a sacred tragedy. It is his most flawless single work of art in which he openly challenges comparison with Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Structurally, Milton's play reproduces with extraordinary precision the form of a Greek tragedy as Aristotle conceived it. In spirit, however, it is Hebraic and in effect it is the most autobiographical. like Milton, Samson is a dedicated soul, like Milton, he has been embittered by an unwise marriage, has suffered blindness, and been delivered into the hands of godless enemies, and Like Milton he is grappling with the problem of God's justice. This play with its noble bareness of style is a fitting close to Milton's poetic career. His work is the product of an egoism which is heroic, of a pride so high that it is often sublime. It is also the product of a matchless art, the delicate rhymed poems of youth being equalled, with a difference, by the mighty blank verse of his maturity. Samson Agonistes is Hebraic in spirit but hellenic in form. Here he takes the theme of Biblical story and casts it in the mould of a classical tragedy.

      Milton's influence on later English poetry is tremendous. The musical quality of his verse inspired the later generations. There was a revival of Miltonic blank verse in the eighteenth century and Miltonic grandeur is seen in many later poets. His style of sonnet writing was followed by the Romantic poets and his moral passion and religious exaltation were an inspiration to many, but few could recapture them. Milton's prose is, however, intricate, involved and Latinised. English prose develops in the direction of order, simplicity, clarity and lucidity.

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