Renaissance & Reformation Element in John Milton's Poetry

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      Milton has been called a Humanist among Puritans, and a Puritan among Humanists. Though he lived in an age dominated by puritanism, he had inherited all the art, learning culture and humanism of the Elizabethan age. Thus the two elements—viz. the spirit of the Renaissance, and that of the Reformation—is diffused through all his works from the beginning to the end. Only their proportions vary in the different periods of his life.

      The spirit of the Renaissance may be identified with Humanism—viz. “a due respect for human nature in all fullness (therefore including all our natural desires and instincts)”; it especially denotes refinement of mind, love of beauty and art, culture and knowledge. The spirit of the Reformation represents religious zeal, moral earnestness and love of virtue. The spirit of the Renaissance includes all that Hellenism stands for—viz. love of beauty and art, culture of the mind and cultivation of feelings. The spirit of the Reformation, on the other hand, includes all that Hebraism stands for—viz. spiritual discipline, moral austerity, and other worldly outlook. In Milton these two elements are harmoniously blended. On the one hand, he was deeply versed in classical literature, and drank deep of Greek poetry and Greek philosophy; on the other hand, he was a profound student of the Bible and scriptural literature, and his life-long endeavor was to live up to the standard of life as set down in the scriptures. Thus, in short, love of beauty on the one hand, and love of virtue on the other, were the two great sources of his poetic inspiration. All his poems can be traced to this two-fold inspiration.

      In his early poems, it is the Renaissance or Hellenic element that predominates. His love of beauty, art and music is revealed in both L’ Allegro and II Penseroso. In L’ Allegro there are echoes of romance, dancing and rural amusements, visits to the theatre and references to Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. In II Penseroso, there are references to Greek tragedy and Greek philosophy. Both these poems reveal Milton’s love of beauty and deep interest in nature. The visit to a cathedral instead of a play-house in II Penseroso, shows the religious learning of the young poet. The ideal of chastity and triumph of virtue over vice—form the theme of Comus. Here also we find the two strains—love of beauty and love of virtue—very harmoniously combined, the Lady in Comus represents chastity, and she is exposed to temptation just as Milton himself felt in his heart of hearts. The triumph of the Lady symbolizes the triumph of Milton himself over the grosser pleasures of the senses. The Renaissance element in Comus is evidenced by its gorgeous style, wonderful music, its employment of pagan imagery and by its masque form. The next poem, Lycidas is in the form of a pastoral elegy, which is derived from Greek literature. While the use of pagan imagery and the elaborate description of flowers shows Milton a classical humanist, the introduction of St. Peter denouncing the corruptions of the clergy, reveals the growing puritanism of Milton.

      The next twenty years of Milton’s literary life were spent more or less in prose pamphleteering, and Milton was growing more and more puritanic. A few sonnets, belonging to this period, show his righteousness and deep religious fervor.

      Paradise Lost is Milton’s greatest work, and its greatness is due both the sublimity of its theme and to its treatment. The theme of Paradise Lost is based on the Bible. Milton had abandoned the subject of King Arthur and his Round Table, which had attracted him for some time. But the puritan and republican Milton could not possibly make the story of a legendary king the theme of his great epic. His epic was to be a Christian epic and the story of the Fall of Man, as told in the Bible, was to be its theme, and for the Puritan Milton every incident connected with the Fall of Man, as described in the Bible, was historically and literally true. He had implicit faith in the authenticity of the Bible. To the puritan Milton again, God’s ways are always just; therefore he emphatically declared that his aim was to assert ‘eternal Providence’ and justify the ways of God to man. Thus the theme of Paradise Lost is directly traceable to the puritan element in Milton. But its treatment is thoroughly classical. He employs the form of the classical epic and brings in the pagan deities as fallen angels. And he presses to the service of his poetry all the art and culture of the Renaissance.

      The two poems that followed—Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes— are completely dominated by the spirit of puritanism. Paradise Regained, though an epic, is not in the classical tradition, for it is not based upon action, but upon the spiritual conflict between good and evil. There is hardly any action in Paradise Regained; the spiritual conflict between Christ and Satan is shown by means of arguments, in which Satan is completely defeated. Samson Agonistes is the last work of Milton. It is only classical in form, but in its theme, outlook and temper, it is Hebraic. There is in Samson Agonistes no trace of that poetic opulence and splendor that had characterized Comus: it is Hebraic in its simplicity and severity. Samson Agonistes presents, as Comus does, a story of temptation, to which virtue is exposed, but what a difference! It appears as though the poet had completely shed all his Renaissance equipment, and reduced himself to an austere Puritan.

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