John Milton as A Belated Elizabethan

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      Though Milton was born five years after the death of Queen Elizabeth, yet he has been called an Elizabethan, only born a few years late. Apparently, it looks like an anomaly. But when we look into the characteristics of Milton as a poet, we find that they represent to a great extent a continuation of the tradition of the Elizabethan age. Milton was born when Shakespeare was still producing his great plays; he was then composing those plays which are known as Romances. In fact, Shakespeare was the greatest romantic of his age. In Milton, the romantic element is present though it is mingled with classicism of the purest type. Milton in fact blends in his poetical works the truest elements of romanticism and classicism.

      The age to which Milton belonged was an age of religious controversy, and Milton himself was brought up in a puritan atmosphere. “His childhood”, says Raleigh, “was spent in the very twilight of the Elizabethan age; it was greatly fortunate for him, and for us, that he caught the afterglow of the sunset upon his face. He read Spenser while Spenser was still the dominant influence in English poetry.” He read Shakespeare and Ben Jonson in the first editions. But the greater part of his time and study was devoted to the classics. The result was that with his liberal education combined with his refined nature, he rose above the narrowness of orthodox Puritanism. “Milton’s early poems grew on Elizabethan soil, and drank Elizabethan air.” They fully reveal his love of beauty and romance, a passion for music and art and all that imaginative exuberance, which characterize Elizabethan poetry. He was a profound classical scholar, and all his works are cast in the classical mold. But they are never mere imitations. Milton’s was an original genius; “his indomitable personality and irrepressible originality have left their stamp on all his work.” “Milton is by common consent a classic poet, and the greatest exemplar of the style in the long bead roll of English poets”. (Raleigh). Nevertheless, he had all that spontaneous delight in beauty and art, and that splendor of imagination which we find in Elizabethan poetry.

      A puritan that Milton was, he developed a humanistic outlook which was a dominant characteristic of Elizabethan literature. No doubt he lacked the universal sympathy and breadth of vision which Shakespeare possessed. He was an egoistic, self-centered individual, and his range of sympathies was narrow indeed. But the refinement of his nature, his spirit of adventure, his passion for freedom, his love of art and beauty and music—all clearly show that he was at heart an Elizabethan—but an Elizabethan with some reserve; for there is a suggestion of restraint in his poetic work—slight as it may be in his early productions, but becoming more and more pronounced in his later works.

      Milton’s first substantial poem was the Ode on the Nativity, which, though written on a Biblical subject, glows with imagination and is full of pagan imagery. Milton was only twenty one when he wrote the poem, but he was already an incomparable artist, handling the stanza form with the skill of a master. It shows a rare combination of romantic movement with classical strength. The next two poems, L’ Allegro and II Penseroso so the poet’s joy in life and love of nature which are Elizabethan characteristics. His love of music and dramatic performances is typically Elizabethan. The serious bent of his mind is revealed in II Penseroso. Then he wrote a masque, which was an aristocratic form of entertainment in the Elizabethan age. Though the theme of Comus is ethical—the praise and power of chastity—it has all that glow of imagination, splendor of style, and musical verse, which constitute the glory of Elizabethan poetry. The songs in Comus recall the Elizabethan lyricists. Lines like

Love—darling eyes and tresses like the morn,

      are in the manner of Shakespeare’s early style.

      Lycidas is an elegy in the classical pastoral tradition. In Lycidas “Milton outdistances all previous English elegy almost as easily as in Comus he had outdistanced all the earlier masques. It stands with the great passages of Paradise Lost as the most consummate blending of scholarship and poetry in Milton and therefore in English. All pastoral poetry is in it, Theocritus and Virgil, Spenser and Sidney and Drummond, with memories, too, of Ovid and Shakespeare and the Bible; and yet is pure and undiluted Milton with the signet of his peculiar mind and temper stamped on its every phrase. “Except for the Phoebus and St. Peter passages, Lycidas recalls the Elizabethan elegies (with Milton’s individual impress) in tone and expression; the pagan imagery is diffused throughout the poem, mingled, (though, johnson complains, incongruously) with Christian imagery. Lycidas, in fact, is the first poem of Milton, where the Puritan element shows itself more pronounced than the Elizabethan.

      Though Milton’s genius shows itself fully in a large canvas, yet he wrote a few sonnets. Here also he impressed his individuality, and instead of expressing the conventional sentiment of love as the Elizabethan sonneteers did, he expressed himself in soul-animating strains. “The sonnets deal with various subjects; but each, whether its topic is blindness, the death of his wife or the fame of Fairfax or Cromwell, is the product of a personal experience of his own.” The sonnet was a popular form of poetry in the Elizabethan age, and Milton the belated Elizabethan also wrote a few sonnets, impressing his independent originality upon them, as he did upon everything he wrote.

      Milton’s greatest work is Paradise Lost, which he wrote in his mature age. Though it is the work of a puritan yet, in respect of the adventure of imagination which it shows, and in respect of its glorious style with its picturesque images, it has an affinity with the great works of the Elizabethan age. No doubt there are various other elements in the poem; it cannot be called a ‘romantic epic’ like Spenser’s Faerie Queene. It is severely classical in its form on the one hand and puritan in its thought on the other. But it also reveals a humanistic outlook which is thoroughly at variance with puritanism. The spirit of freedom and individuality shown in the character of Satan has some points in common with the spirit of the Elizabethan age. The two later works of Milton, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, are thoroughly puritan in their outlook. Milton in his youth had thought of writing a tragedy; in fact, he had drafted an outline of a tragedy with the theme of the Fall of Man. But he wrote an epic instead of a tragedy. The last of his poetic works is a tragedy—but a tragedy in the Greek form with a Chorus. The Milton of Samson Agonistes was a very different person from the Milton of Comus, and so the tone, temper and style of the later play are different from those of Comus: "Into this strange drama (Samson Agonistes)”, says Bailey, ‘‘so alien from all the literature of the day, Milton has poured all the thoughts and emotions with which the spectacle of his own life filled him.”

      Thus Milton’s poetry shows a curious blending of many elements of which the Elizabethan element was certainly not negligible. He studied fully the literature of the preceding age, and had a great admiration for Spenser, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. In fact, he declared that Spenser was his poetic father. He paid a glowing tribute to Shakespeare, and would like to go the theatre when

Jonson’s learned sock is on,
Or sweetest Shakespeare Fancy’s child
Warble his native woodnotes wild.

      Milton inherited the legacy of Elizabethan poetry with all its glory and splendor, and he continued the tradition worthily with his stupendous genius. His poetry is remarkable for its grandeur of thought and style, its imaginative splendor, and, last but not least, its lofty moral tone. His was the last voice of the Renaissance, which had produced the splendid outburst of Elizabethan literature.

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