Main Features of The Age of Milton in English Literature

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       The age in which Milton lived and wrote is known in history as the Puritan age. It was filled with the political and religious strife - the Civil War, the triumph of Puritanism and the Restoration. The Renascence impulse which produced the 'spacious times' of Queen Elizabeth and its brilliant literature had all but spent itself. The old ideals were slowly crumbling and yet the new were powerless to be born. It was, indeed, the period of the alter-glow of a brilliant age. The emotional fervour had decayed yielding place to play of intellect and fancy. Literary fashions were rapidly and radically changing. In short, it was an age of transition. The age of the understanding, unable to take pleasure in the exuberant fancy of such poets as Spenser and shocked by the metaphysical poets, was at hand.

the title conferred on the basis of the study of the great art of antiquity, he who would deserve it above all others would be Milton who wrote Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost

      The new literature that was coining was called 'classical' but the word signified that it sought restraint rather than inspiration from the ancients. Were the title conferred on the basis of the study of the great art of antiquity, he who would deserve it above all others would be Milton who wrote Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes. No poet of the later age that goes by the name Neo-classical showed as great and accurate understanding of the beauty of the ancients as Milton. In him there was a perfect fusion of the influences of the Renaissance and the Reformation. "No other poet was at once so profoundly religious and so much an artist".

      The rise of Puritanism had made the middle class people religion minded. It produced a noble but stern and hard type of character. It bred a narrow religious aspect of man's conduct, aim and destiny. In consequence it looked askance at art, science, human culture and whatever else makes life sweet and beautiful. It was, therefore, fatal to literature. Fortunately Milton transcended this limitation of Puritanism. He was not a representative of the age but stood "like an alien conqueror, dominating it from above".

      John Milton has been called a 'belated Elizabethan' with his two faces turned in two directions. The political and religious unrest of the age also told heavily on the growth of literature. The Civil War had divided the nation into two rival camps. Religion intensified and completed the split. It was the age of pamphleteering, political and religious and almost great literary men of the time even Milton, not excepted, threw themselves into the vortex of the strife. Thus the output of prose in the age was abundant and also excellent in kind. The opposition of the Puritans stopped dramatic activity. he theatres were closed in the Puritan regime.

      In poetry, too, the influence of religion was uppermost. The Metaphysical poets were of a religious and mystical cast of mind. John Donne, among the poets fashioned a new kind of poetry which blended wit and passion. He wrote his love poems in the Elizabethan age, but he created a different idiom and pattern. Other poets who followed John Donne and his metaphysical tradition were mainly religious and did not produce anything great or outstanding. The Cavalier poets (the Catholics) dealt with themes of life and love. From Ben Jonson they derived their classical restraint and concise lucidity. Their style is simple, polished and graceful.

      Thus the age was poor in literary output, both in quantity and quality and in this respect it stands in sad contrast with the age just gone. The sun of the Elizabethan age had set and the twilight had descended on the literary scene.

      The Age of Milton (1625-1660) The growth of Puritanism as a moral and social force, its establishment as the controlling power in the state, and the religious and political struggles by which these were accompanied, are for the student of the literature of Milton’s age the principal features of its history.

      At the time of the Reformation, though the counsels of the more moderate men prevailed, there were not wanting those of a more radical cast of mind who were dissatisfied with the religious settlement accomplished by Archbishop Parker and his colleagues, because they held that the Church of England as organized by them did not differ sufficiently from the Church of Rome. The true descendants of Wyclif and the Lollards, and now greatly influenced by the famous John Calvin of Geneva, these Dissentients, while in many ways they failed to agree among themselves, were at one in their hostility to the episcopal form of ecclesiastical government and to the retention in the creeds and public worship of the national church of many ideas and ceremonies which they regarded as remnants of Popery. They also advocated very strict views concerning life and conduct, and thus came to be called Puritans—a name which appears to have originated about the year of Shakespeare’s birth or shortly after, and was at first used his derision, though it was soon accepted as a merely descriptive term. While the uncompromising spirit of this party spread steadily among the English middle classes during the reign of James I, it was not till the time of his successor that Puritanism emerged as a great national power. A combination of causes now led to its practical success. The fast-growing flippancy and profligacy of the upper classes, by drawing towards it the sympathies of serious men of various shades of opinion, greatly increased its moral and social influence. The high-handed policy of Laud, and his determination to enforce his will by persecution, meanwhile precipitated a fierce conflict within the religious world, and brought all the enemies of episcopacy into line. Then came the monstrous encroachments of Charles upon the rights of the Commons and the constitutional privileges of the English people. Their keen sense of the supremacy of God as the ruler of rulers, and of the prerogatives of the individual conscience, made the Puritans intolerant of earthly tyranny in any form. Thus Puritanism became a political as well as a moral and religious force and, at a very critical time, the great custodian and defender of our jeopardized liberties. After a stormy period of civil war, it triumphed with the triumph of Oliver Cromwell, and during the few years of the Commonwealth, it was supreme. Within its range, the influence of Puritanism upon the tone and temper of English life and thought was profound. The spirit which it introduced was fine and noble, but it was hard and stern. We admire the Puritan’s integrity and uprightness; but we deplore his fanaticism, his moroseness, and the narrowness of his outlook and sympathies. He was an intense and God-fearing, but illiberal and unreasonable man. While in the light of the conditions of the time we can make the fullest allowance for his violent and extreme reaction against prevailing abuses, we are still bound to admit that he was a one-sided and unwholesome view of the world, for in his preoccupation with moral and spiritual things he generally neglected, and often expressly denounced, the science and art, the knowledge and beauty, which give value to the secular life. To the extent of its power, Puritanism destroyed humane culture, and sought to confine literature within the circumscribed field of its own particular interests. While fatal to art it was thus almost fatal to literature. It was only here and there that a writer arose who was able to absorb all its strength while transcending its limitations. This was emphatically the case with Milton, the greatest product of Puritanism in our literature, in whose genius and work, however, the moral and religious influences of Puritanism are combined with the generous culture of the Renaissance.

      Milton’s Life. John Milton was born in Bread Street, Cheapside, London, on 9th December, 1608, or some four years before Shakespeare’s retirement to Stratford. His father, though strongly Puritan in his sympathies, was nonetheless a lover of literature and art, and the child enjoyed all the advantages of a cultivated home. He was educated at St. Paul’s School, and at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he remained seven years, taking his B.A. in 1629 and his M.A. in 1632. His systematic studies did not, however, close with the close of his college course. Realizing that he could not conscientiously enter the church, for which he had been intended, and feeling no call to any other profession, he decided to give himself up entirely to self-culture and poetry. Fortunately, his father was in a financial position to further his wishes, and on leaving Cambridge he accordingly took up his abode in the country house of the family at Horton, Buckinghamshire, some seventeen miles from London. While a boy at school, as he himself tells us, his books had kept him out of bed till midnight; at the university, he had shown the same untiring devotion to learning; and now during six years of almost uninterrupted seclusion, he was able to pursue his studious way undisturbed. Building steadily upon the firm foundations he had already laid, Milton thus became a very great scholar. This point must be carefully marked, not only because in the breadth and accuracy of his erudition he stands head and shoulders above all our other poets, but also because his learning everywhere nourishes and interpenetrates his poetic work. Having now reached his thirtieth year, he resolved to complete his studies by travel. He, therefore, left London in May, 1638, and went by way of Paris to Italy, whence, however, he was prematurely recalled by news of the critical state of things at home. “While I was preparing to pass over into Sicily and Greece”, he writes, “the melancholy intelligence which I received of the civil commotions in England made me alter my purpose; for I thought it base to be traveling for my amusement abroad while my fellow-citizens were fighting for liberty at home.” He was back in London in August, 1639, after an absence of fifteen months; and from 1640 onward was increasingly active as a supporter of the Puritan cause against the Royalists. As a pamphleteer, he became indeed one of the great pillars of that cause, and on the establishment of the Commonwealth was appointed Latin Secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs. In 1643 he married Mary Powell, the young daughter of a Royalist, but the union proved a most unhappy one. Early in 1653, a terrible calamity overtook him; his sight, which had long been failing, was now ruined entirely by over-stress of work, and he became totally blind. Three years later he married again, but his wife, Catherine Woodcock, died within fifteen months. On the restoration of the monarchy, Milton was arrested and two of his books were publicly burnt by the hangman; but he was soon released and permitted to drop into political obscurity.

      He was now poor and lonely as well as blind; he felt bitterly the failure of the cause for which he had toiled so hard and sacrificed so much; and though his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, brought comfort to his declining years, he was greatly distressed by the unfilial conduct of his daughters by his first marriage. It was in darkness and sorrow, therefore, that he now turned back upon the ambitious poetical designs which he had cherished many years before and had long set aside at the call of practical duty. His Paradise Lost was published in 1667; Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes together in 1671. Three years later—on 8th November, 1674—Milton died.

      Milton’s Earlier Poetry. Milton’s work falls naturally into four periods: (i) the college period, closing with the end of his Cambridge career in 1632; (2) the Horton period, closing with his departure for the Continent in 1639; (3) the period of his prose writings, from 1640 to 1660; and (4) the late poetic period, or period of his greatest achievement.

      His college poems, Latin and English, are for the most part simply a young man’s experimental work, and while interesting to the special student as the expression of his genius during its immaturity, they have little other importance. To this statement, however, one exception must be made in favor of the ode On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, which, though far from perfect and in places sadly marred by conceits and inequalities of style, is still a very remarkable production for a poet of twenty-one. To the Horton period, on the other hand, belong four minor poems of such beauty and power that, even if Paradise Lost had never been written, they would have sufficed to put their author high among the greater gods of English song: L'Allegro and Penserosd (1633), Comas (1634), and Lycidas (1637). Each of these may, of course, be enjoyed to the full for its own sake; but for the student, the most significant thing about them is that, read in the order of their writing, they show that during these years of thoughtful leisure a profound change was taking place in the poet’s mind. I have said that in Milton’s work the moral and religious influences of Puritanism were blended with the generous culture of the Renaissance. It was this combination of elements which gave its distinctive quality to his greatest poetry; he could never have written as he did, had either of them been wanting. But from his earlier poetry, we now learn that he began to write chiefly under the inspiration of the learning and art of the Renaissance; that the Puritan element was at first quite subordinate; and that it gradually gained in strength and depth till it became at last the dominant element. Thus in Allegro and II Penseroso, with their charming contrasted pictures of man, nature, and art as seen through the medium of the mood, in the one case of gladness, and in the other of melancholy, there is little that is characteristically Puritan, and a good deal that is really un-puritan; for the poet dwells frankly upon the pleasures of romance and rustic sports, upon the delights of the playhouse and the Greek drama, and upon the beauty of church architecture and music—all of which things were to the religious fanatic objects of uncompromising hatred. Then with Comas we mark a distinct stage in the development of Milton’s mind. Thus far latent only, the Puritan spirit now makes its influence felt, not alone in the poet’s increased earnestness, but also in the specific quality of his moral teaching. On the literary side, this work too belongs to the Renaissance; for it is an example (and the finest example in our literature) of that type of drama which is called the Mask, which had been brought into this country from Italy, and which had ever since been extremely popular at court and among the nobility. That Milton should be willing to adopt it is proof that he was still far from sharing the intense hostility of the Puritan party to everything connected with the drama. But though he wrote in the forms of Renaissance art, he filled them with a strenuous moral spirit and meaning; for his simple story of the lady lost in the woods, lured away by Comas and his band of revelers, and rescued by her brothers with the help of an attendant spirit and the river nymph, is a patent allegory of virtue attacked by sensuality and conquering by divine aid. Here, then, we see the two streams of influence, by which Milton’s genius was fed, running together, and note that while the drama is loaded with classical learning, the nobility of its tone and the superb faith in God which is expressed through it, testify to the growing power of religious inspiration over the poet’s thought. Finally, in Lycidas we have a Puritanism which is political and ecclesiastical as well as spiritual and ethical. A monody on the death of Milton’s college friend, Edward King, this, like Spenser’s Astrophel (see 25) is in the conventional style of the classic pastoral elegy. In form, therefore, it belongs with Comas to the Renaissance. But the religious accent in it throughout is unmistakably Puritan, while its famous attack upon the corrupt church and the hireling clergy of the time openly proclaims Milton’s adherence to the Puritan cause. Thus through these earlier poems, we can trace the steady growth of the religious element in Milton’s mind. The learning and the art of the Renaissance were not abandoned by him; but they were more and more used for the service of a Puritan philosophy of life.

      Milton’s Prose Writings. On his return to England from the Continent, Milton, then in his 31st year, threw himself into the fierce controversies of the hour, and thus in his own words embarked “ on a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes.” The ambition to write a great epic poem had already taken shape in his mind, but this he laid aside in order that he might give all his strength and industry to the performance of what he conceived to be a great public duty. Involved in political and religious controversies, he thus turned from poetry entirely, and for the next twenty years continued active as a writer of prose. When we remember that Milton was incomparably the greatest poet of his age, and that in the very prime of his manhood, and during a space of time almost equal to the whole period of Shakespeare’s dramatic activity, he produced all told about a dozen sonnets, we can form some idea of what literature must have lost through his pre-occupation with temporary matters. His prose works are not today very interesting in themselves, nor indeed do they make very agreeable reading; for though they are often filled with noble earnestness and are redeemed by occasional bursts of splendid eloquence, they are too often marred by the coarseness of phrase and the intense bitterness of temper which were the prevailing characteristics of the polemical literature of their time. Moreover, their style is heavy and cumbrous. Milton himself said that they were the work of his ‘left hand’, and we can learn from almost every page that his left hand did not possess the cunning of his right. The long trailing sentences, the involved constructions, the parentheses, the Latin inversions, all in fact show that, when Milton wrote, modern English prose had not yet come into existence. One of these treatises, however, stands altogether apart—the great and noble Areopagitica. Directed against an order of Parliament which established a censorship of books, this is essentially a plea for freedom of thought and speech; and it should be read by every lover of literature and of intellectual liberty.

      Milton’s Later Poetry. It was not till the restoration of the monarchy drove him into private life and obscurity that Milton found leisure to accomplish the immense task which year by year he had kept in the background of his mind. Now in Paradise Lost, he produced our greatest English poem. It is in the study of this stupendous masterpiece of intellectual energy and creative power that the full significance of that combination of qualities in his work of which we have spoken, becomes apparent. The inspiration and the subject matter of the poem alike come from Milton’s Puritanism; Paradise Lost is written as an exposition of his theology; upon the foundation of that theology it undertakes to “assert Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to men”. But if as a thinker and moralist he now belonged completely to Puritanism, as an artist he had not ceased to belong to the Renaissance; and in its form and style, its machinery and method, the poem everywhere takes us back to Milton’s avowed models, the great epics of classical antiquity, while the vast and varied learning which is built into its fabric, shows how fondly in the blindness and loneliness of his old age, he recalled the wide secular studies of his happy earlier days. Even now, then, the Puritan in Milton had not killed the humanist. With the zeal for righteousness and the strenuous moral purpose which pertained to the one, there were still blended the love of learning and the passion for beauty which were the characteristics of the other. That Milton should have written the greatest regular epic poem in any modern literature, and should yet have written it, not on a classical but on a theological subject, and as the vehicle of Christian teaching, is thus one fact of capital importance in the consideration of his work.

      In Paradise Lost, he set forth the revolt of Satan against God, the war in heaven, the fall of the rebel angels, the creation of the world and man, the temptation of Eve and Adam, and their expulsion from Eden. Yet, while his central purpose was to show how ‘man’s first disobedience’ brought sin and death in its train, it is characteristic of him that he does not close on the note of evil triumphant, but prophetically introduces the divine work of redemption. Though in this way he had apparently completed his original scheme, however, he was afterward led to add a sequel in four books the substance of which was provided by the temptation of Christ in the wilderness; but, while not without its occasional passages of sublimity and of tenderness, Paradise Regained seems to most modern readers a very slight thing besides its gigantic predecessor. The ‘dramatic poem’ Samson Agonistes (Samson the Wrestler) crowns the labors of these closing years. In this as in Paradise Lost, Milton applies the forms of classic art to the treatment of a biblical subject, for the work is fashioned strictly upon the principles of Greek tragedy, while the matter is, of course, derived from the fate of Samson among the Philistines. This subject had been in Milton’s thought many years before when he had been casting about for a theme for his epic, but it had then been discarded in favor of the fall of man. He returned to it now in all probability because he saw in the hero an image both of himself, blind, disappointed, and surrounded by enemies, and of the Puritan cause, overwhelmed by the might of its foes.

      Characteristics of Milton’s Poetry. After Shakespeare, Milton is the greatest English poet; which means that he is the greatest English poet outside the drama. Moreover, in the almost unanimous judgment of the critics, he is to be regarded as one of the three or four supreme poets of the world. In him, we have a wonderful union of intellectual power and creative power, both at their highest. He is also a consummate literary artist, whose touch is as sure in delicate detail as in vast general effects. While many qualities thus go to the making of his work, however, the one which we most naturally think of, and which indeed we have come to denote by the epithet ‘Miltonic’, is his sublimity. He is the most sublime of English poets, and our one acknowledged master of what Matthew Arnold calls “the grand style”. In sustained majesty of thought and diction, he is unrivaled. His descriptive power, too, is astonishing, as we can learn for ourselves by turning, for example, to the scenes in Hell in the opening books of Paradise Lost; and, while he was entirely lacking in the true dramatic sense, the magnificent debate in the council of the fallen angels, and the whole conduct of the temptation of Eve, show an extraordinary insight into motive and character. Though in theory an epic poem is supposed to be quite impersonal, Milton’s epic is throughout instinct with the spirit of the man himself. Narrow he often is; he is often hard and austere. But there is an intensity of individuality in everything he writes which is singularly impressive; and the loftiness of his temper and passionate moral earnestness make us feel as we read that we are indeed in the presence of one “whose soul was like a star, and dwelt apart”. In connection with the technical side of his poetry special note should be taken of the great and varied beauty of its style and versification. His blank verse in particular deserves the closest study. Though this form, as we now know, had long been used in the drama, it had not thus far been adopted for any important non-dramatic poem. Milton was therefore making an experiment when he took as the measure of Paradise Lost, English heroic verse without rime. Of this measure, he remains our greatest master.

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