The Age of Milton in English Literature

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      The century into which Milton was born was one of the most revolutionary periods in our history of English Literature. It is often said that during this century the Middle Ages finally disappeared and the modem world was born. We must be chary of too sweeping historical generalizations but there is no doubt that this was a time of rapid and drastic change—in politics, in religion, in ideas, in literature and the organization of society. The English crown which, at the beginning of the century, had appeared to rest securely on the head of a popular Queen Elizabeth had, within fifty years, been melted down to increase the financial resources of a country ruled by a commoner, Cromwell, who had ensured that there was no royal head to occupy it. And although eleven years after Charles I was beheaded the people returned with relief to the monarchy so many of them had spumed, it was only a generation later than his second son was forced to abdicate and yet another radical constitutional change was accomplished. A century which began with the nation’s acceptance of absolute monarchy ended with the parliamentary principle permanently established: personal rule in Britain was at an end.

      But the fighters in the Civil War were fighting not only about politics. To many on both sides, the fight was a Holy War and it was religion that injected so much fervor and so much bitterness into the struggle. Parliament fought King Charles I not just because the new spirit of the age demanded that the King’s powers should be drastically curbed in the name of liberty. They fought him because of what he represented in religious observance and church government. The King stood for the Church of England with its Prayer Book, its ceremonies and its Bishops; Parliament stood for Puritanism which was hostile to all ceremony, and followed the Genevan fanatic, Calvin, in believing in ‘predestination.’ Either you were chosen by God to be saved by grace or you were condemned to live in incurable sin. Consequently, the Church should be governed by elders and deacons (’presbyters’) who were the ‘elect’ and should impose their divinely inspired will on the unsaved. This Presbyterianism was passionately followed by Scotland. Although the English Parliament for the sake of Scottish military help agreed at one stage to adopt the Scots’ beliefs, many of the greatest Puritans and Parliamentarians, including Cromwell (’the great Independent’), Milton himself; rejected Presbyterianism, for it seemed to them as gross a form of ecclesiastical dictatorship as ‘episcopacy’ (rule by Bishops). Milton even more than Cromwell championed freedom of worship and at one time claimed that a church might consist of one member!

      Yet whatever differences there were between Puritans, all were determined that the royally sponsored church organization bequeathed by Queen Elizabeth must be abolished. Both Royalists and Roundheads thought that Kings and Bishops were inseparable. If you had the one, you must have the other. James I, father of Charles, had a slogan: ‘No Bishop, No King.’ The Puritans might have said: ‘No King, No Bishop’: to destroy the King would be destroy the Bishops and thus to organize religious life correctly. The advance of Puritanism in the first half of the century is a spectacular example of the rapid change mentioned earlier. In 1600 Shakespeare was sure of a ready laugh when he associated Malvolio with Puritanism and in the same play made a gibe against Robert Browne, one of the early Independents (or Congregationalists). In 1610 Ben Jonson in his successful play The Alchemist was able to make the puritan one of his many butts: his Tribulation Wholesome and his Ananias (Bells are profane, a tune may be religious) exposed for the pleasure of his audience and for all time the unlovely character of an unpopular creed. Yet in 1642 all theatres were closed and by 1644 Christmas festivities were forbidden and the Men of Kent were agitating to be allowed their traditional mince pies. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Puritanism was vigorously ousted from its controlling position, but it had left an indelible mark on the English character, while across the Atlantic the sons of the Pilgrim Fathers were consolidating its sway in New England.

      During the century, however, a new force was growing which was in the end to prove a far greater threat to religion than internal conflicts between churchgoers. This was the growth of what we now call the scientific spirit. The herald and prophet of the new age were the philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who became Lord Chancellor of England in 1618. Bacon was not an experimental scientist himself but he was the first Englishman to define systematically the scientific attitude and method. Truth was to be discovered not by working out the implications of principles and explanations laid down for all time by an Authority, but by ‘a laborious and sober inquiry’ into the way things behaved, ‘ascending from experiments to the invention of causes and descending from causes to the invention of new experiments.’ Observation and experiment would wrest Nature’s secrets from her; if the hypotheses resulting from observation and experiment, and tested by further experiment, appeared to disprove accepted beliefs, then the beliefs must be rejected. Bacon’s propaganda for science, together with the discoveries of the great continental astronomers and physicists like Kepler (1571-1630) and especially Galileo (1564-1642) (whom Milton visited during his Italian tour) profoundly altered man’s attitude to and beliefs about the Universe. The Earth was no longer the unmoving center of the celestial system but like the other heavenly bodies moved through space on a fixed orbit according to discoverable fixed laws. The elucidation of these laws was the supreme achievement of one of the very greatest men of the century, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)—’Voyaging’, as Wordsworth said, ‘through strange seas of thought alone.’ Newton’s laws were the foundation of all subsequent physics: by a great leap of imagination as well as of mathematical insight he seemed to have explained the behavior of ‘every particle of matter in the Universe.’ The seventeenth-century change in men’s attitude to scientific investigation, inspired by Bacon and culminating in the discoveries of Newton, was vividly illustrated by the foundation of ‘The Royal Society’ which received its royal charter in 1662 and included in its motto the words ‘We are to be borne wherever experiment drives us.’ The establishment of this august society for the advancement of scientific inquiry shows how far the mood of men had changed from that expressed by Raphael in Book VIII of Paradise Lost—

The rest

From Man or Angel, the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal and not divulge
His secrets to be scann’d by them who ought
Rather admire.

      The members of the Royal Society, which included such diverse geniuses as Wren the architect, Dryden the poet, Locke the philosopher, as well as Newton himself and Boyle, the ‘father of modern chemistry’, were not atheists any more than was Bacon. God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ was unquestionable while the more inquiry revealed the harmony of the Universe the more the glory of its Creator was displayed. Newton might have said with the Greek philosopher Plato: ‘God is always doing Geometry’ while Locke declared that the existence of God was the most ‘obvious truth reason discovers.’ But the framework of belief inherited from the Middle Ages with which the century began was destroyed forever.

      Such changes in ways of thinking and feeling as have been described found their most vital—though not necessarily their most explicit—expression in the literature of the century. Great literature, it has been said, is the point where the growth of the mind shows itself; and to make the most sensitive contact with the spirit of the past we must go to its literature. Milton said that ‘a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit.’ It is also the ‘life-blood’ of an age.

      The seventeenth century was particularly rich in its literature: when Milton was born, the famous ‘Elizabethan’ dramatists: Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Webster, Tourneur, Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher were at the height of their powers; the non-dramatic poetry of Jonson and John Donne was establishing itself as a powerful influence on younger writers; Bacon was writing his masterly and original prose and a host of lesser playwrights, poets and prose-writers were active. By 1611 the Authorised Version of the Bible was published; England was to become ‘the nation of a Book.’

      Milton’s older contemporaries, George Herbert, Thomas Carew, Robert Herrick, and his younger ones, Richard Crashaw, Richard Lovelace, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, would have made the years 1630-1660 distinguished for its poetry without his own contribution, while before he died John Dryden had revealed himself as the first major writer of a new age. Throughout Milton’s lifetime, a flood of pamphlets (including his own), sermons, appeals, diaries, memoirs, theological treatises had given abundant evidence of the vitality of the age’s prose, while the work of Sir Thomas Browne had shown that an interest in new ideas was not incompatible with highly elaborate and richly cadence, writing. It was in prose that the changed spirit of the century symbolised by the Restoration and registered by the foundation of the Royal Society first manifested itself. Thomas Hobbes, whose famous work Leviathan (1651) had applied the scientific attitude to politics, condemned ‘the use of metaphors, tropes and other rhetorical figures, instead of words proper’ and the first historian of the Society, Bishop Spratt, relates how the first associates ‘exacted from their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking.....bringing all things as near to the mathematical plainness as they can.’

      Prose was becoming an instrument of scientific analysis and logical thought rather than a medium for the expression of feeling, although, as Spratt was writing his history, John Bunyan was consummating in his sinewy and superbly expressive language popular traditions of feeling and attitude that went back to the Middle Ages. ‘The same people,’ said Dr. Leavis, ‘that created the English language for Shakespeare’s use speaks in Bunyan, though it is now a people that known its ‘Authorised Version’—a people too, he might have added, whose Puritanism had a strength and indeed a beauty which the repressive enactment of the Long Parliament did their best to obscure. The prose of Bunyan with its capacity for heights and depths of feeling strengthened rather than weakened by its reliance on the vernacular, reminds us more of the poetry of the early part of the century than of the prose of the Age of Dryden. For the poets of the reigns of James I and Charles, I derived much of their strength from the way in which they grafted the lively shoots of their classical learning on to the sturdy trunk of the culture they shared with the people as a whole. Shakespeare partly demonstrates the process in words which might be a description of it:

You see sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceived back of base kind
By bud of nobler rare: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

Winter's Tale, IV iv.

      Shakespeare’s supreme genius developed the expressive resources of the language to a degree never since reached but what he did pre-eminently his contemporaries in their way did, too. In Johnson, the accent is on classical delicacy and poise, but the robustness of native language gave his verse its vigor; in Donne, the Shakespearean idiomatic force is as notable as the range and variety of metaphors and similes which caused Dr. Johnson to call him and his followers ‘Metaphysical.’ These followers were like Ben Jonson too and the remarkable feature of the poets of Charles I (the ‘Caroline’ poets), whatever their individual differences, was the way in which they all blended the courtly with the familiar, wit with profundity, passion and thinking. It was as if they were the spokesmen of a unified culture, a culture which still, after the execution of Charles I, was speaking in civilized accents through the verse of that humane Parliamentarian Andrew Marvell.

      In spite of the century’s disorders, much cultural unity was preserved: there was essentially very much more in common between John Dryden, die poet of the court, and John Bunyan, the dissenting thinker, than there is between (shall we say?) Mr. T.S. Eliot and Mr. Harry Pollitt. Milton, as we shall see, consciously and deliberately set himself to produce a poetic language which would be different from and superior to that of his contemporaries and therefore more suitable to his ‘Things un attempted yet in Prose or Rime’. Milton was a law unto himself and the ‘organ voice’ of his epics perhaps conveys more of him than of his age, even though in his life he entered so fully into that age’s conflicts. These conflicts were no doubt the birth pangs of a new world; they certainly heralded the break up of the old. The equilibrium precariously won under Elizabeth collapsed: the transfer of power from King and noble to squire and merchant culminating in the bloody events that led Charles I to the scaffold was, as we have seen, but one of the forces that fractured the old order. The establishment of Parliamentary rule, the beginnings of religious toleration, the development of the scientific spirit no doubt made the world that emerged from the conflicts of the period a better place. Yet as we contemplate the order affirmed by Pope in the next century we may feel a sense of loss. The idea of a divinely sanctioned harmony—in nature, in society and in human personality - that so powerfully energized the imagination of Shakespeare and his fellows so that its disruption seemed the essence of evil may seem a richer and finer thing than the neat symmetry of eighteenth-century belief.
But whatever the verdict of historians on Milton’s century, all agree that it was a century of genius. Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Dryden, Bunyan; Cromwell; Bacon, Newton, Boyle; Wren; Purcell:—the great names seem unending. And among them, Milton ‘stood like a tower.’

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