The Age of Milton and Influence on His Life & Works

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      The life of Milton is seen to be considerably influenced by the age in which he lived; similarly, his poems bear unmistakable traces of the spirit of the age in which he lived. It is a question as to whether it was fortunate or unfortunate that Milton should have been thrown upon an age of clashing principles and sharp controversies. Perhaps like everything else in the world it has got its advantages and its disadvantages for the poet. One tiling is certain that Milton lived in particularly stirring times, and that his intelligence and his imagination were considerably influenced by conflicing principles in politics, in religion and in social life.

      The two great influences that worked upon the poetic career of Milton were the spirit of the Renaissance and the spirit of the Reformation. The Renaissance is the name given to the revival of ancient Greek and Latin learning which took place in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Renaissances brought with it not only an increased interest in Greek and Latin pieces of literature but also an increased interest in Art and a greater zest for life as a whole and a keener appreciation of what is beautiful, bright and joyous in life. Greek literature especially had the influence of making people take a keener zest in life, develop a deeper sense of appreciation of what is beautiful, and at the same time it induced a logical and rationalistic outlook on affairs and institutions. To a certain extent, therefore, the Renaissance was responsible for the religious reformation of Europe, because people who developed a rational outlook on religion began to question the rationale of several beliefs, institutions and practices, connected with the Roman Catholic Church; in other words, the Renaissance developed that spirit of inquiry and that spirit of rational analysis which ultimately led to the breach with the Roman Catholic form of Christianity and to the establishment of Protestantism.

      As far as Milton was concerned the influence of the Renaissance is clearly noticeable in his outlook on life and in his poems. The wealth of classical learning with which his poems are studded, the frequent references to ancient Greek and Latin ideas and ideals, the love of art and the love of music and love of the beautiful and the aesthetic and the sublime-all these are the indications of the influence of the Renaissance.

      By a cross-development of ideas and ideals, this spirit of the Renaissance ultimately developed another spirit that was different from and hostile to the influence of the Renaissance, namely, the spirit of Puritanism. It happened this way. The Reformation, as we have seen, was an indirect result of the Renaissance. As far as England was concerned, the work of the Reformation was carried out by men of markedly conservative temper; that is to say, the reformers of England did not want completely to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, though at the same time they did revolt against certain of its practices and beliefs. It is remarkable that to the last Henry VIII did not break away completely from the Roman Catholic Church, though he repudiated the political and the religious authority of the papacy. When during the regime of his daughter Queen Elizabeth the work of the Reformation was more or less completed, we find that a good deal of the ritual and the ceremonials of the Roman Catholic Church are still retained, though apparently Protestantism has become the established religion of England. This peculiar kind of Protestantism in England, otherwise known as Anglicanism, is a kind of compromise between extreme Catholicism, and extreme Protestantism. Naturally there were two sets of people in England - some who opposed the breach with Rome and others who protested against this half-hearted Protestanism. This latter set of people were known as the Puritans, because they stood for the purest form of Protestantism, or in other words for Christianity based upon the literal wording of the Bible - a Christianity that recognized the supremacy of Christ alone without any temporal or mortal intermediaries. The Puritan stood for an austere, high-principled, God-fearing and blameless kind of life. He was against any form of episcopal government and any sort of autocratic authority by priests. The Bible, as far as he was concerned, contained sufficient guidance for him to direct him through all the walks of life.

      The Puritans were, during the age of Elizabeth, essentially a minority. Queen Elizabeth herself although she had broken away completely from the Roman Catholic Church and persecuted the Roman Catholics, was equally opposed to Puritanism; and Puritans were persecuted with as much rigor as Roman Catholics. The reason for this is to be sought in the fact that the Puritan was taken to be, and to a certain extent was, a rebel against all established authority. He revolted against the Church government or the government by priests as far as his religious life was concerned. It was feared, to a certain extent justifiably, that he would rebel against established authority in political matters as well. This fear was soon to materialize in the succeeding age, the reign of the Stuarts.

      Students of history will note that the struggle between the King and the Parliament which was a characteristic Of the Stuart period originated to some extent in a religious conflict. There were of course political reasons as well, but we might say that the religious dispute shaped and influenced and to some extent accentuated the political differences. The dispute between the extreme Protestants and the established church came to a head in the reign of James I himself. James I by means of a Convocation demanded universal conformity with the mode of religious worship as established by law. This was stoutly opposed by a large mass of Protestants and resulted in a considerable amount of persecution. Janies I’s successor, Charles I, made further and resolute efforts to stamp out the Puritan spirit. However, in the actual result, persecution only gave additional strength to the Puritan spirit. Further, the high ideals of conduct held out and followed by the Puritans were thrown into bold relief by the flippancy and the licentiousness that characterized the court and the aristocracy. Thus the conflict between the King and the Puritans became not merely a religious conflict but also a moral conflict, a conflict of ideals and a conflict regarding correct modes of conduct.

      The repressive policy of the established church under Arch-bishop Laud, combined with the licentious character of the court, induced many people to join the Puritan opposition that was daily gaining in strength and in numbers. When Charles I began to flout the opinion of the Parliament and to rule the country according to his own autocratic principles, when the King began to raise taxes without the consent of the Parliament and to imprison people without trial, when, in short, Charles I advanced the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, the Puritan opposition to the established Church ultimately became also a democratic opposition to autocratic rule. The Puritan who had till now fought against the tyranny of Archbishop Laud became also the center of opposition against the tyranny of a despotic ruler like Charles I. Thus it happened that the Puritan party emerged at a time of serious political crisis as the upholders of the constitutions and the champions of democratic liberty. In this, of course, there is nothing strange, because the same sturdy individuality of the spirit of independence which led the Puritan to oppose religious tyranny made him similarly oppose political tyranny or despotism of any kind.

      The King and the Church had also their own zealous partisans and champions. Political as well as religious reactionaries, people who really believed in the Divine Right of Kings or found it in their interests to believe in it, the earnest votaries of the Anglican Church or of the Roman Catholic church, favorites, sycophants and time-servers, or people who by ideals or by self-interest were led to support the King, fonned themselves into a King’s Party or a Royalist party. These people came to be known as the Cavaliers, people who lived in high style, believed in enjoying life to its utmost and stood for the absolute authority of the King and the Church. The Puritan opposition on the other hand believed in an austere and high-principled life; the Puritans themselves lived simple and abstemious lives; they had a high moral code and lofty ideals of conduct; and they believed in complete religious independence and a limited monarchy, if not absolute democracy. The difference in outlook and ideals between the Puritan and the Cavalier was therefore a difference not merely in politics, not merely in religion, but an essential difference in an outlook on life. To a very great extent, this difference can be noticed and inferred from even a look at any portrait of a Puritan and a Cavalier. The Cavalier with his flowing robes and his embroidered, coat, with his glittering periwig and his jovial and care-free look, is deeply differentiated from the Puritan with his closely cropped head (for this reason the Puritans were generally known as Roundheads) his simple, stiff coat buttoned up to the chin and his deep and serious look. It is in fact an essential difference of outlook on life.

      It is a matter of history how the opposition to Charles I’s despotic rule grew in strength, and intensity, how England was divided into two opposing camps—the Cavaliers and the Roundheads—how the Civil War broke out, how after a series of battles the People’s party or the Puritan party finally got the upper hand, how the King was taken prisoner, tried and executed, how finally the Puritan party came into power under Cromwell. It is also well known how the republican institution established under the regime of Cromwell was short-lived and how shortly after the death of Cromwell there was a powerful reaction in favor of the royalist cause and how the Restoration of Charles II took place, giving apparently the death blow to the Puritan cause.

      It is also worthy of note that Puritanism which was perhaps an indirect and ultimate result of the Renaissance developed certain forces which were actually opposed to the spirit of the Renaissance. The deeply religious aspect of Puritanism tended to become inimical to Art. The one absorbing concern of Puritan’s mind was the salvation of his soul. As this was considered a matter of infinite difficulty and infinite labor calling for all his efforts, for incessant prayers and constant wrestling with evil, anything that distracted a man’s attention from his spiritual life was considered to be evil and an instrument of the Evil One. The arts, the sciences, human culture, anything that helps to beautify, improve or lend happiness to life became therefore taboo in the opinion of the strict Puritan. In short, Puritanism tended to become a kind of unreasonable fanaticism characterized by moroseness and gloom. In other words, Puritanism tended to become fatal to art and almost fatal to literature. The influence of Puritanism on literature, that is, on such literature as it did not succeed in completely suppressing, is seen in such books as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Millon’s Paradise Lost. It need hardly be mentioned that t both these books are dominated by religious ideas and by the central principle of spiritual salvation. That in fact is the outstanding characteristic of the Puritan’s outlook on life.

      Thus we have seen that while the spirit of the Renaissance tended to encourage and foster the study of the arts and the sciences, a study of the humanities and the development of a jovial and light-hearted outlook on life, the spirit of Puritanism tended to develop an attitude of distrust towards all forms of art, of suspicion towards all the sciences, and a deeply serious and almost morose and gloomy outlook on life. This essential conflict between the spirit of the Renaissance and the spirit of Puritanism tended also to accentuate the forces which differentiated Puritanism in the political and religious spheres. Thus also it came about that the votary of the Renaissance spirit became in politics a Cavalier or a royalist and a follower of the established church in religious matters; while the Puritan became essentially not only a kind of melancholy kill-joy as far as ordinary life was concerned but also a rebel in politics as well as in religion.

      In a remarkable and interesting manner the genius of Milton expresses the conflict between the two great forces that held sway over English character and English history. By his natural aptitude, by his education, his training and his intellectual outlook, Milton was a product of the Renaissance. He was deeply versed in literature and the arts, not only of Greece and Rome but also of those of his own country. He had a keen aesthetic sense and loved poetry and drama and music. By his character and by his spiritual temper, in his outlook on life, he was essentially a Puritan—a Puritan deeply obsessed by the idea of his salvation, a Puritan with high ideals of character and conduct, a puritan who molded his life by the directions in the Bible, an austere and deeply religious man in the best puritanical sense. We have already seen how the spirit of Puritanism tended to become absolutely opposed to the spirit of the Renaissance. In Milton, who was the combined product of the two forces, we see the influence of both the forces at work, now the one and next the other spirit claiming the ascendancy. In the twin poems of the first period of his poetical career - L'Allegro and II Penseroso - the two spirits find alternate expression, the former poem standing for a spirit of joy as expressed by the Renaissance and the latter for a spirit of serious melancholy symbolized in Puritanism. In the next poem of Milton, Comus, the literary influence continues to be that of the Renaissance, but the pervading spirit, the condemnation of unrestrained enjoyment of life and the allegory of the mask, with its prophecy of the ultimate triumph of virtue over vice, are definitely puritanical in spirit. In Lycidas, the puritanical spirit gains a still more marked ascendancy; and though the spirit of the Renaissance leaves its influence on the music and the literary grace of the poem, the spirit of puritanism has clearly gained an ascendancy over the Poet’s mind. The advantage thus gained by the Puritan spirit goes on developing and increasing with the growth of the Poet’s genius; and we find in the great poems of his maturer poetic years that the spirit of puritanism has definitely become the dominating spirit and that the spirit of the Renaissance is considerably subordinated, lending only a kind of literary and artistic grace to his poems.

      Similarly, the political and the religious conflict of his day are found to have left unmistakable impressions on the personal and the poetical career of Milton. Comics is supposed to be a veiled attack against the revelry and the licentiousness of the court party. Lycidas is a blunt attack, by no means veiled, against the corrupt priesthood of the established church. The prose pamphlets which unfortunately engaged the best part of his maturer years are seen to ring with the spirit of political and religious independence. Even in Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes there are veiled allegorical hints and occasional outbursts against political and religious tyranny of any kind. An observation of the poet’s life would serve to tell us how some of the best years of his life were devoted to pamphleteering of a not very dignified type. As the Latin Secretary to the Republican Government under Cromwell, Milton considered it his duty to answer all attacks against the Government and the result was a series of anti-royalist, anti-episcopalian prose pamphlets, breathing of fiery and sometimes even vulgar controversy.

      Had Milton lived in a different age, an age of tranquillity and peace, had he not been torn between opposing ideals and conflicting schools of thought, a good deal of his time and the energy wasted in fruitless controversy, might have gone to enrich English poetry. Another Comus or Lycidas might have been written; another epic of the magnitude of Paradise Lost or some great dramatic production, of which there is an indication in Samson Agonistes, might have been written. But it was not to be, because Milton was thrown on an age of violent and bitter controversies, an age of political unrest and bitter religious conflict, a stormy age tom between conflicting outlooks and ideals. But perhaps we should not forget that there is also another side to the question. The poet who entered the arena of life and fought with the combatants of his side, to that extent enriched his poetical genius and his intellectual outlook. Had not Milton mixed with the controversies of his age and taken that active part in life which he did, he might have been more of a recluse and a scholar and less of that great and sublime poet that we recognize in him. To this extent the stormy age in which he lived helped to widen his outlook and enlarge his knowledge of men and affairs. Whether the age in which he lived did more harm or more good to the poet’s genius, one thing is certain—that he was immensely influenced by it and that his poems carry unmistakable traces and impressions of the ideas and the ideals that inspired the age in which he lived.

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