CHAPTER V: THE PURITAN AGE, 1603-1660
History of the Period.—James I. (1603-1625), son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and the first of the Stuart line to reign in England, succeeded Elizabeth. His stubbornness and folly not only ended the intense patriotic feeling of the previous reign, but laid the foundation for the deadly conflict that resulted. In fifty-four years after the defeat of the Armada, England was plunged into civil war.
The guiding belief of James I. was that kings governed by divine right, that they received from the Deity a title of which no one could lawfully deprive them, no matter how outrageously they ruled, and that they were not in any way responsible to Parliament or to the people. In acting on this belief, he first trampled on the religious liberty of his subjects. He drove from their churches hundreds of clergymen who would not take oath that they believed that the prayer book of the Church of England agreed in every way with the Bible. He boasted that he would “harry out of the kingdom” those who would not conform.
During the reign of James I. and that of his son, Charles I. (1625-1649) a worse ruler on the same lines, thousands of Englishmen came to New England to enjoy religious liberty. The Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth in 1620. The exodus was very rapid during the next twenty years, since those who insisted on worshiping God as they chose were thrown into prison and sometimes had their ears cut off and their noses mutilated. In the sixteenth century, the religious struggle was between Catholics and Protestants, but in this age both of the contestants were Protestant. The Church of England (Episcopal church) was persecuting those who would not conform to its beliefs.
Side by side with the religious strife was a struggle for constitutional government, for legal taxes, for the right of freedom of speech in Parliament. James I. and Charles I. both collected illegal taxes. Finally, when Charles became involved in war with Spain, Parliament forced him in return for a grant of money to sign the Petition of Right (1628), which was in some respects a new Magna Charta.
Charles did not keep his promises. For eleven years he ruled in a despotic way without Parliament. In 1642 civil war broke out between the Puritans, on one side, and the king, nobles, landed gentry, and adherents of the Church of England, on the other. The Puritans under the great Oliver Cromwell were victorious, and in 1649 they beheaded Charles as a “tyrant, traitor and murderer.” Cromwell finally became Protector of the Commonwealth of England. The greatest Puritan writer, John Milton, not only upheld the Commonwealth with powerful argumentative prose, but also became the government's most important secretary. Though his blindness would not allow him to write after 1652, he used to translate aloud, either into Latin or the language of the foreign country, what Cromwell dictated or suggested. Milton's under-secretary, Andrew Marvel, wrote down this translation.
From the painting by Ford Madox Brown.]
The Puritans remained in the ascendancy until 1660, when the Stuart line was restored in the person of Charles II.
The Puritan Ideals.—The Renaissance had at first seemed to promise everything, the power to reveal the secrets of Nature, to cause her to gratify man's every wish, and to furnish a perpetual fountain of happy youth. These expectations had not been fulfilled. There were still poverty, disease, and a longing for something that earth had not given. The English, naturally a religious race, reflected much on this. Those who concluded that life could never yield the pleasure which man anticipates, who determines by purity of living to win a perfect land beyond the shores of mortality, who made the New World of earlier dreams a term synonymous with the New Jerusalem, were called Puritans.
Their guide to this land was the Bible. Our Authorized Version (1611), the one which is in most common use to-day, was made in the reign of James I. From this time became much easier to get a copy of theScriptures, and their influence was now more potent than ever to shape the ideals of the Puritans. In fact, it is impossible to estimate the influence which this Authorized Version has had on the ideals and the literature of the English race. Had it not been for this Version, current English speech and literature would be vastly different. Such words and expressions as “scapegoat,” “a labor of love,” “the eleventh hour,” “to cast pearls before swine,” and “a howling wilderness” are in constant use because the language of this translation of the Bible has become incorporated in our daily speech, as well as in our best literature.
The Puritan was so called because he wished to purify the established church from what seemed to him great abuses. He accepted the faith of John Calvin, who died in 1564. Calvinism taught that no earthly power should intervene between a human soul and God, that life was an individual moral struggle, the outcome of which would land the soul in heaven or hell for all eternity, that beauty and art and all the pleasures of the flesh were dangerous because they tended to wean the soul from God.
The Puritan was an individualist. The saving of the soul was to him an individual, not a social, affair. Bunyan's Pilgrim flees alone from the wrath to come. The twentieth century, on the other hand, believes that the regeneration of a human being is both a social and an individual affair,—that the individual, surrounded by the forces of evil, often has little opportunity unless society comes to his aid. The individualism of the Puritan accomplished a great task in preparing the way for democracy, for fuller liberty in church and state, in both England and America.
Our study of the Puritan ideals embodied in literature takes us beyond 1660, the date of the Restoration, because after that time two great Puritan writers, John Milton and John Bunyan, did some of their most famous work, the one in retirement, the other in jail. Such work, uninfluenced by the change of ideal after the Restoration, is properly treated in this chapter. While a change may in a given year seem sufficiently pronounced to become the basis for a new classification, we should remember the literary influences never begin or end with complete abruptness.
THE PROSE OF THE PURITAN AGE
Variety of Subject.—Prose showed development in several directions during this Puritan age:—
I. The use of prose in argument and controversy was largely extended. Questions of government and of religion were the living issues of the time. Innumerable pamphlets and many larger books were written to present different views. We may instance as types of this class almost all the prose writings of John Milton (1608-1674).
II. English prose dealt with a greater variety of philosophical subjects. Shakespeare had voiced the deepest philosophy in poetry, but up to this time such subjects had found scant expression in prose.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is the great philosophical writer of the age. In his greatest work, Leviathan; or, The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, he considers questions of metaphysical philosophy and of government in a way that places him on the roll of famous English philosophers.
III. History had an increasing fascination for prose writers. Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World (1614) and Lord Clarendon's History of the Great Rebellion, begun in 1646, are specially worthy of mention.
IV. Prose was developing its capacity for expressing delicate shades of humor. In Chaucer and in Shakespeare, poetry had already excelled in this respect. Thomas Fuller (1608-1661), an Episcopal clergyman, displays an almost inexhaustible fund of humor in his History of the Worthies of England. We find scattered through his works passages like these:—
“A father that whipped his son for swearing, and swore at him while
he whipped him, did more harm by his example than good by his
Speaking of a pious short person, Fuller says:—
“His soul had but a short diocese to visit, and therefore might the
better attend the effectual informing thereof.”
Of the lark, he writes:—
“A harmless bird while living, not trespassing on grain, and
wholesome when dead, then filling the stomach with meat, as formerly
the ear with music.”
Before Fuller, humor was rare in English prose writers, and it was not common until the first quarter of the next century.
V. Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), an Oxford graduate and physician, is best known as the author of three prose works: Religio Medici (Religion of a Physician, 1642), Vulgar Errors (1646), andHydriotaphia or Urn Burial (1658). In imagination and poetic feeling, he has some kinship with the Elizabethans. He says in the Religio Medici:—
“Now for my life, it is a miracle of thirty years, which to relate
were not a history but a piece of poetry, and would sound to common
ears like a fable... Men that look upon my outside, perusing only
my condition and fortunes, do err in my altitude; for I am above
Atlas's shoulders... There is surely a piece of divinity in
us—something that was before the elements and owes no homage unto
The Religio Medici, however, gives, not the Elizabethan, but the Puritan, definition of the world as “a place not to live in but to die in.”
Urn Burial, which is Browne's masterpiece, shows his power as a prose poet of the “inevitable hour”:—
“There is no antidote against the opium of time... The greater
part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found
in the register of God, not in the record of man... But man is a
Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave,
solemnizing nativities and deaths with equal luster, not omitting
ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.”
Browne's prose frequently suffers from the infusion of too many words derived from the Latin, but his style is rhythmical and stately and often conveys the same emotion as the notes of a great cathedral organ at the evening twilight hour.
VI. The Complete Angler of Izaak Walton (1593-1683) is so filled with sweetness and calm delight in nature and life, that one does not wonder that the book has passed through about two hundred editions. It manifests a genuine love of nature, of the brooks, meadows, flowers. In his pages we catch the odor from the hedges gay with wild flowers and hear the rain falling softly on the green leaves:—
“But turn out of the way a little, good
scholar, towards yonder high honeysuckle
hedge; there we'll sit and sing, whilst this
shower falls so gently on the teeming earth,
and gives yet a sweeter smell to the lovely
flowers that adorn these verdant meadows.”
VII. Of the many authors busily writing on theology, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), an Episcopal clergyman, holds the chief place. His imagination was so wide and his pen so facile that he has been called a seventeenth-century prose Shakespeare. Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying used to be read in almost every cottage. This passage shows his powers of imagery as well as the Teutonic inclination to consider the final goal of youth and beauty:—
“Reckon but from the sprightfulness
of youth, and the fair cheeks and full
eyes of childhood, from the vigorousness
and strong texture of the joints of five-and-twenty,
to the hollowness and dead
paleness, to the loathsomeness and horror of a three days' burial,
and we shall perceive the distance to be very great and very
strange. But so have I seen a rose newly springing from the clefts
of its hood, and at first it was fair as morning, and full with the
dew of heaven as a lamb's fleece ... and at night, having lost some
of its leaves and all its beauty, it fell into the portion of weeds
and outworn faces.”
JOHN BUNYAN, 1628-1688
Life.—The Bedfordshire village of Elstow saw in 1628 the birth of John Bunyan who, in his own peculiar field of literature, was to lead the world. His father, Thomas Bunyan, was a brazier, a mender of pots and pans, and he reared his son John to the same trade. In his autobiography, John Bunyan says that his father's house was of “that rank that is meanest and most despised of all the families in the land.”
The boy went to school for only a short time and learned but little from any books except the Bible. The father, by marrying a second time within a year after his wife's death, wounded the feelings of his sixteen-year-old son sufficiently to cause the latter to enlist as a soldier in the Civil War. At about the age of twenty, Bunyan married, though neither he nor his wife had at the time so much as a dish or a spoon.
Bunyan tells us that in his youth he was very wicked. Probably he would have been so regarded from the point of view of a strict Puritan. His worst offenses, however, seem to have been dancing on the village green, playing hockey on Sundays, ringing bells to rouse the neighborhood, and swearing. When he repented, his vivid imagination made him think that he had committed the unpardonable sin. In the terror that he felt at the prospect of the loss of his soul, he passed through much of the experience that enabled him to write the Pilgrim's Progress.
Bunyan became a preacher of God's word. Under trees, in barns, on the village green, wherever people resorted, he told them the story of salvation. Within six months after the Restoration, he was arrested for preaching without Episcopal sanction. The officers took him away from his little blind daughter. The roisterers of the Restoration thought a brazier was too coarse to have feelings; yet Bunyan dropped tears on the paper when he wrote of “the many hardships, miseries, and wants that my poor family were like to meet with, should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer to my heart than all besides. Oh, the thoughts of the hardship my poor blind one might undergo, would break my heart to pieces.” In spite of his dependent family and the natural right of the freedom of speech, Bunyan was thrust into Bedford jail and kept a prisoner for nearly twelve years. Had it not been for his imprisonment in this “squalid den,” of which he speaks in the Pilgrim's Progress, we should probably be without that famous work, a part of which, at least, was written in the jail.
In 1672, as a step toward restoring the Catholic religion, Charles II. suspended all penal statutes against the dissenting clergy; Bunyan was thereupon released from jail.
After his release, he settled down to his life's work of spreading the Gospel by both pen and tongue. When he visited London to preach, it was not uncommon for twelve hundred persons to come to hear him at seven o'clock in the morning of a week day in winter.
The immediate cause of his death was a cold caught by riding in the rain, on his way to try to reconcile a father and son. In 1688 Bunyan died as he uttered these words, “Take me, for I come to Thee.”
His Work.—Bunyan achieved the distinction of writing the greatest of all allegories, the Pilgrim's Progress. This is the story of Christian's journey through this life, the story of meeting Mr. Worldly Wiseman, of the straight gate and the narrow path, of the Delectable Mountains of Youth, of the valley of Humiliation, of the encounter with Apollyon, of the wares of Vanity Fair, “kept all the year long,” of my lord Time-server, of Mr. Anything, of imprisonment in Doubting Castle by Giant Despair, of the flowery land of Beulah, lying beyond the valley of the Shadow of Death, through which a deep, cold river runs, and of the city of All Delight on the other side. This story still has absorbing interest for human beings, for the child and the old man, the learned and the ignorant.
Bunyan wrote many other works, but none of them equals the Pilgrim's Progress. His Holy War is a powerful allegory, which has been called a prose Paradise Lost. Bunyan also produced a strong piece of realistic fiction, the Life and Death of Mr. Badman. This shows the descent of a soul along the broad road. The story is the counterpart of his great masterpiece, and ranks second to it in point of merit.
General Characteristics.—Since the Pilgrim's Progress has been more widely read in England than any other book except the Bible, it is well to investigate the secret of Bunyan's power.
In the first place, his style is simple. In the second place, rare earnestness is coupled with this simplicity. He had something to say, which in his inmost soul he felt to be of supreme importance for all time. Only a great man can tell such truths without a flourish of language, or without straining after effect. At the most critical part of the journey of the Pilgrims, when they approach the river of death, note that Bunyan avoids the tendency to indulge in fine writing, that he is content to rely on the power of the subject matter, simply presented, to make us feel the terrible ordeal:—
“Now I further saw that betwixt
them and the gate was a river; but
there was no bridge to go over, and the
river was very deep... The Pilgrims
then, especially Christian, began
to despond in their minds, and looked
this way and that, but no way could
be found by them by which they might
escape the river... They then addressed
themselves to the water, and
entering, Christian began to sink...
And with that, a great darkness and
horror fell upon Christian, so that he
could not see before him...”
“Now, upon the bank of the river, on the other side, they saw the
two shining men again, who there waited for them... Now you
must note that the city stood upon a mighty hill; but the Pilgrims
went up that hill with ease, because they had these two men to lead
them up by the arms; they had likewise left their mortal garments
behind them in the river; for though they went in with them, they
came out without them.”
Of all the words in the above selection, eighty per cent are monosyllables. Few authors could have resisted the tendency to try to be impressive at such a climax. One has more respect for this world, on learning that it has set the seal of its approval on such earnest simplicity and has neglected works that strive with every art to attract attention.
Bunyan furthermore has a rare combination of imagination and dramatic power. His abstractions became living persons. They have warmer blood coursing in their veins than many of the men and women in modern fiction. Giant Despair is a living giant. We can hear the clanking of the chains and the groans of the captives in his dungeon. We are not surprised to learn that Bunyan imagined that he saw and conversed with these characters. The Pilgrim's Progress is a prose drama. Note the vivid dramatic presentation of the tendency to evil, which we all have at some time felt threatening to wreck our nobler selves:—
“Then Apollyon straddled quite over the whole breadth of the way,
and said, 'I am void of fear in this matter; prepare thyself to die;
for I swear by my infernal den that thou shall go no further; here
will I spill thy soul.'“
It would be difficult to find English prose more simple, earnest, strong, imaginative, and dramatic than this. Bunyan's style felt the shaping influence of the Bible more than of all other works combined. He knew the Scriptures almost by heart.
THE POETRY OF THE PURITAN AGE
Lyrical Verse.—The second quarter of the seventeenth century witnessed an outburst of song that owed its inspiration to Elizabethan lyrical verse.
Soon after 1600 a change in lyric poetry is noticeable. The sonnet fell into disfavor with the majority of lyrists. The two poets of greatest influence over this period, Ben Jonson and John Donne, opposed the sonnet. Ben Jonson complained that it compels all ideas, irrespective of their worth, to fill a space of exactly fourteen lines, and that it therefore operates on the same principle as the bed of Procrustes. The lyrics of this period, with the exception of those by Milton, were usually less idealistic, ethereal, and inspired than the corresponding work of the Elizabethans. This age was far more imitative, but it chose to imitate Jonson and Donne in preference to Shakespeare. The greatest lyrical poet of this time thus addresses Jonson as a patron saint:—
“Candles I'll give to thee,
And a new altar;
And thou, Saint Ben, shall be
Writ in my psalter.”
Cavalier Poets.—Robert Herrick (1591-1674), Thomas Carew (1598?-1639?), Sir John Suckling (1609-1642), and Richard Lovelace (1618—1658) were a contemporary group of lyrists who are often called Cavalier poets, because they sympathized with the Cavaliers or adherents of Charles I.
By far the greatest of this school is Robert Herrick, who stands in the front rank of the second class of lyrical poets. He was a graduate of Cambridge University, who by an accident of the time became a clergyman. The parish, or “living,” given him by the king, was in the southwestern part of Devonshire. By affixing the title Hesperides to his volume of nearly thirteen hundred poems, Herrick doubtless meant to imply that they were chiefly composed in the western part of England. In the very first poem of this collection, he announces the subject of his songs:—
“I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers;
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes;
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal cakes
* * * * *
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the Fairie-king.
I write of hell; I sing and ever shall,
Of heaven, and hope to have it after all.”
His lyric range was as broad as these lines indicate. The most of his poems show the lightness of touch and artistic form revealed in the following lines from To the Virgins:—
“Gather ye rose-buds while ye may:
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles to-day,
To-morrow will be dying.”
His facility in melodious poetic expression is evident in this stanza from The Litany, one of the poems in Noble Numbers, as the collection of his religious verse is called:—
“When the passing-bell doth toll
And the furies in a shoal
Come to fright a parting soul,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me.”
The lyric, Disdain Returned, of the courtier, Thomas Carew, shows both a customary type of subject and the serious application often given:—
“He that loves a rosy cheek,
Or a coral lip admires,
Or from starlike eyes doth seek
Fuel to maintain his fires,
As old time makes these decay,
So his flames must waste away.”
Carew could write with facility on the subjects in vogue at court, but when he ventures afield in nature poetry, he makes the cuckoo hibernate! In his poem The Spring, he says:—
”...wakes in hollow tree
The drowsy Cuckoo and the Humble-bee.”
In these lines from his poem Constancy, Sir John Suckling shows that he is a typical Cavalier love poet:—
“Out upon it, I have loved
Three whole days together;
And am like to love three more,
If it prove fair weather.”
From Richard Lovelace we have these exquisite lines written in prison:—
“Stone walls do not a prison make
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.”
To characterize the Cavalier school by one phrase, we might call them lyrical poets in lighter vein. They usually wrote on such subjects as the color in a maiden's cheek and lips, blossoms, meadows, May days, bridal cakes, the paleness of a lover, and—
”...wassail bowls to drink,
Spiced to the brink.”
but sometimes weightier subjects were chosen, when these lighter things failed to satisfy.
Religious Verse.—Three lyrical poets, George Herbert (1593-1633), Henry Vaughan (1622-1695), and Richard Crashaw (1612?-1650?), usually chose religious subjects. George Herbert, a Cambridge graduate and rector of Bemerton, near Salisbury, wrote The Temple, a book of religious verse. His best known poem is Virtue:—
“Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky:
The dew shall weep the fall to night;
For thou must die.”
The sentiment in these lines from his lyric Providence has the genuine Anglo-Saxon ring:—
“Hard things are glorious; easy things good cheap.
The common all men have; that which is rare,
Men therefore seek to have, and care to keep.”
Henry Vaughan, an Oxford graduate and Welsh physician, shows the influence of George Herbert. Vaughan would have been a great poet if he could have maintained the elevation of these opening lines fromThe World:—
“I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright.”
Richard Crashaw, a Cambridge graduate and Catholic mystic, concludes his poem, The Flaming Heart, with this touching prayer to Saint Teresa:—
“By all of Him we have in thee
Leave nothing of myself in me.
Let me so read my life that I
Unto all life of mine may die.”
His verse, like that of his contemporaries, is often marred by fantastic conceits which show the influence of Donne. Although much of Crashaw's poem, The Weeper, is beautiful, he calls the eyes of Mary Magdalene:—
“Two walking baths, two weeping motions,
Portable and compendious oceans.”
JOHN MILTON, 1608-1674
His Youth.—The second greatest English poet was born in London, eight years before the death of Shakespeare. John Milton's father followed the business of a scrivener and drew wills and deeds and invested money for clients. As he prospered at this calling, his family did not suffer for want of money. He was a man of much culture and a musical composer of considerable note.
A portrait of the child at the age of ten, the work of the painter to the court, still exists and shows him to have been “a sweet, serious, round-headed boy,” who gave early promise of future greatness. His parents, seeing that he acted as if he was guided by high ideals, had the rare judgment to allow him to follow his own bent. They employed the best teachers to instruct him at home. At the age of sixteen he was fully prepared to enter Christ's College. Cambridge, where he took both the B.A. and M.A. degrees.
His Early Manhood and Life at Horton.—In 1632 Milton left Cambridge and went to live with his father in a country home at Horton, about twenty miles west of London. Milton had been intended for the church; but he felt that he could not subscribe to its intolerance, and that he had another mission to perform. His father accordingly provided sufficient funds for maintaining him for over five years at Horton in a life of studious leisure. The poet's greatest biographer, David Masson, says “Until Milton was thirty-two years of age, if even then, he did not earn a penny for himself.” Such a course would ruin ninety-nine out of every hundred talented young men; but it was the making of Milton. He spent those years in careful study and in writing his immortal early poems.
In 1638, when he was in his thirtieth year, he determined to broaden his views by travel. He went to Italy, which the Englishmen of his day still regarded as the home of art, culture, and song. After about fifteen months abroad, hearing that his countrymen were on the verge of civil war, he returned home to play his part in the mighty tragedy of the times.
Milton's “Left Hand.”—In 1642 the Civil War broke out between the Royalists and the Puritans. He took sides in the struggle for liberty, not with his sword, but with his pen. During this time he wrote little but prose. He regretted that the necessity of the time demanded prose, in the writing of which, he says, “I have the use, as I may account it, but of my left hand.”
With that “left hand” he wrote much prose. There is one common quality running through all his prose works, although they treat of the most varied subjects. Every one of these works strikes a blow for fuller liberty in some direction,—for more liberty in church, in state, and in home relations, for the freedom of expressing opinions, and for a system of education which should break away from the leading strings of the inferior methods of the past. His greatest prose work is the Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.
Much of his prose is poetic and adorned with figures of rhetoric. He frequently follows the Latin order, and inverts his sentences, which are often unreasonably long. Sometimes his “left hand” astonishes us by slinking mud at his opponents, and we eagerly await the loosing of the right hand which was to give us Paradise Lost.
His Blindness.—The English government from 1649 to 1660 is known as the Commonwealth. The two most striking figures of the time were Oliver Cromwell, who in 1653 was styled the Lord Protector, and John Milton, who was the Secretary for Foreign Tongues.
One of the greatest of European scholars, a professor at Leyden, named Salmasius, had written a book attacking the Commonwealth and upholding the late king. The Council requested Milton to write a fitting answer. As his eyes were already failing him, he was warned to rest them; but he said that he would willingly sacrifice his eyesight on the altar of liberty. He accordingly wrote in reply his Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio, a Latin work, which was published in 1651. This effort cost him his eyesight. In 1652, at the age of forty-three, he was totally blind. In his Paradise Lost, he thus alludes to his affliction:—
“Thus with the year
Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom or summer's rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But clouds instead and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Life after the Restoration.—In 1660, when Charles II. was made king, the leaders of the Commonwealth had to flee for their lives. Some went to America for safety while others were caught and executed. The body of Cromwell was taken from its grave in Westminster Abbey, suspended from the gallows and left to dangle there. Milton was concealed by a friend until the worst of the storm had blown over. Then some influential friends interceded for him, and his blindness probably won him sympathy.
During his old age his literary work was largely dependent on the kindness of friends, who read to him, and acted as his amanuenses. His ideas of woman having been formed in the light of the old dispensation, he had not given his three daughters such an education as might have led them to take a sympathetic interest in his work. They accordingly resented his calling on them for help.
During this period of his life, when he was totally blind, he wrote Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. He died in 1674, and was buried beside his father in the chancel of St. Giles, Cripplegate, London.
Minor Poems.—In 1629, while Milton was a student at Cambridge, and only twenty-one years old, he wrote a fine lyrical poem, entitled On the Morning of Christ's Nativity. These 244 lines of verse show that he did not need to be taught the melody of song any more than a young nightingale.
Four remarkable poems were written during his years of studious leisure at Horton,—L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus, and Lycidas. L'Allegro describes the charms of a merry social life, and Il Penserosovoices the quiet but deep enjoyment of the scholar in retirement. These two poems have been universal favourites.
Comus is a species of dramatic composition known as a Masque, and it is the greatest of its class. It far surpassess any work of a similar kind by Ben Jonson, that prolific writer of Masques. Some critics, like Taine and Saintsbury, consider Comus the finest of Milton's productions. Its 1023 lines can soon be read; and there are few poems of equal length that will better repay careful reading.
Comus is an immortal apotheosis of virtue. While in Geneva in 1639, Milton was asked for his autograph and an expression of sentiment. He chose the closing lines of Comus:—
Lycidas, one of the world's great elegies, was written on the death of Milton's classmate, Edward King. Mark Pattison, one of Milton's biographers, says: “In Lycidas we have reached the high-water mark of English poesy and of Milton's own production.”
He is one of the four greatest English sonnet writers. Shakespeare alone surpasses him in this field. Milton numbers among his pupils Wordsworth and Keats, whose sonnets rank next in merit.
Paradise Lost; Its Inception and Dramatic Plan.—Cambridge University has a list, written by Milton before he was thirty-five, of about one hundred possible subjects for the great poem which he felt it was his life's mission to give to the world. He once thought of selecting Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table; but his final choice was Paradise Lost, which stands first on this special list. There are in addition four separate drafts of the way in which he thought this subject should be treated. This proves that the great work of a man like; Milton was planned while he was young. It is possible that he may even have written a very small part of the poem earlier than the time commonly assigned.
All four drafts show that his early intention was to make the poem a drama, a gigantic Miracle play. The closing of the theaters and the prejudice felt against them during the days of Puritan ascendancy may have influenced Milton to forsake the dramatic for the epic form, but he seems never to have shared the common prejudice against the drama and the stage. His sonnet on Shakespeare shows in what estimation he held that dramatist.
Subject Matter and Form.—About 1658, when Milton was a widower, living alone with his three daughters, he began, in total blindness, to dictate his Paradise Lost, sometimes relying on them but more often on any kind friend who might assist him. The manuscript accordingly shows a variety of handwriting. The work was published in 1667, after some trouble with a narrow-minded censor who had doubts about granting a license.
The subject matter can be best given in Milton's own lines at the beginning of the poem:—
“Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse...”
The poem treats of Satan's revolt in heaven, of his conflict with the Almighty, and banishment with all the rebellious angels. Their new home in the land of fire and endless pain is described with such a gigantic grasp of the imagination, that the conception has colored all succeeding theology.
The action proceeds with a council of the fallen angels to devise means for alleviating their condition and annoying the Almighty. They decide to strike him through his child, and they plot the fall of man. In short, Paradise Lost is an intensely dramatic story of the loss of Eden. The greatest actors that ever sprang from a poet's brain appear before us on the stage, which is at one time the sulphurous pit of hell, at another the bright plains of heaven, and at another the Elysium of our first parents.
In form the poem is an epic in twelve books, containing a total of 10,565 lines. It is written in blank verse of wonderful melody and variety.
Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes.—After finishing Paradise Lost, Milton wrote two more poems, which he published in 1671. Paradise Regained is in great part a paraphrase of the first eleven verses of the fourth chapters of St. Matthew. The poem is in four books of blank verse and contains 2070 lines. Although it is written with great art and finish, Paradise Regained shows a falling off in Milton's genius. There is less ornament and less to arouse human interest.
Samson Agonistes (Samson the Struggler) is a tragedy containing 1758 lines, based on the sixteenth chapter of Judges. This poem, modeled after the Greek drama, is hampered by a strict observance of the dramatic unities. It is vastly inferior to the Paradise Lost. Samson Agonistes contains scarcely any of the glorious imagery of Milton's earlier poems. It has been called “the most unadorned poem that can be found.”
CHARACTERISTICS OF MILTON'S POETRY
Variety in his Early Work.—A line in Lycidas says:—
“He touched the tender stops of various quills,”
and this may be said of Milton. His early poems show great variety. There are the dirge notes in Lycidas; the sights, sounds, and odors of the country, in L'Allegro; the delights of “the studious cloister's pale,” in Il Penseroso; the impelling presence of his “great Task-Master,” in the sonnets.
Although Milton is noted for his seriousness and sublimity, we must not be blind to the fact that his minor poems show great delicacy of touch. The epilogue of the Spirit at the end of Comus is an instance of exquisite airy fancy passing into noble imagination at the close. In 1638 Sir Henry Wotton wrote to Milton this intelligent criticism of Comus: “I should much commend the tragical part, if the lyrical did not ravish me with a certain Doric delicacy in your Songs and Odes, whereunto I must plainly confess to have seen yet nothing parallel in our language Ipsa mollities.”
Limitations.—In giving attention to Milton's variety, we should not forget that when we judge him by Elizabethan standards his limitations are apparent. As varied as are his excellences, his range is far narrower than Shakespeare's. He has little sense of humor and less sympathy with human life than either Shakespeare or Burns. Milton became acquainted with flowers through the medium of a book before he noticed them in the fields. Consequently, in speaking of flowers and birds, he sometimes makes those mistakes to which the bookish man is more prone than the child who first hears the story of Nature from her own lips. Unlike Shakespeare and Burns, Milton had the misfortune to spend his childhood in a large city. Again, while increasing age seemed to impose no limitations on Shakespeare's genius, his touch being as delicate in The Tempest as in his first plays, Milton's style, on the other hand, grew frigid and devoid of imagery toward the end of his life.
Sublimity.—The most striking characteristic of Milton's poetry is sublimity, which consists, first, in the subject matter. In the opening lines of Paradise Lost he speaks of his “adventurous song”—
“That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”
Milton succeeded in his intention. The English language has not another poem that approaches Paradise Lost in sustained sublimity.
In the second place, we must note the sublimity of treatment. Milton's own mind was cast in a sublime mold. This quality of mind is evident even in his figures of rhetoric. The Milky Way appears to him as the royal highway to heaven:—
“A broad and ample road, whose dust is gold,
And pavement stars.”
When Death and Satan meet, Milton wishes the horror of the scene to manifest something of the sublime. What other poet could, in fewer words, have conveyed a stronger impression of the effect of the frown of those powers?
“So frowned the mighty combatants, that Hell
Grew darker at their frown.”
George Saintsbury's verdict is approved by the majority of the greatest modern critics of Milton: “In loftiness—sublimity of thought, and majesty of expression, both sustained at almost superhuman pitch, he has no superior, and no rival except Dante.”
Mastery of Verse.—Milton's verse, especially in Paradise Lost, is such a symphony of combined rhythm, poetic expression, and thought; it is so harmonious, so varied, and yet so apparently simple in its complexity, that it has never been surpassed in kind.
His mastery of rhythm is not so evident in a single line as in a group of lines. The first sentence in Paradise Lost contains sixteen lines, and yet the rhythm, the pauses, and the thought are so combined as to make oral reading easy and the meaning apparent. The conception of the music of the spheres in their complex orbits finds some analogy in the harmony of the combined rhythmical units of his verse.
Denied the use of his eyes as a guide to the form of his later verse, he must have repeated aloud these groups of lines and changed them until their cadence satisfied his remarkably musical ear. Lines like these show the melody of which this verse is capable:—
“Heaven opened wide
Her ever-during gates, harmonious sound
On golden hinges moving.”
To begin with, he had, like Shakespeare and Keats an instinctive feeling for the poetic value of words and phrases. Milton's early poems abound in such poetic expressions as “the frolic wind,” “the slumbring morn,” “linked sweetness,” “looks commercing with the skies,” “dewy-feathered sleep,” “the studious cloister's pale,” “a dim religious light,” the “silver lining” of the cloud, “west winds with musky wing,” “the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.” His poetic instinct enabled him to take common prosaic words and, by merely changing the position of the adjective, transmute them into imperishable verse. His “darkness visible” and “human face divine” are instances of this power.
Twentieth century criticism is more fully recognizing the debt of subsequent poetic literature to Milton. Saintsbury writes:—
“Milton's influence is omnipresent in almost all later English
poetry, and in not a little of later prose English literature. At
first, at second, at third, hand, he has permeated almost all his
How the Paradise Lost has affected Thought.—Few people realize how profoundly this poem has influenced men's ideas of the hereafter. The conception of hell for a long time current was influenced by those pictures which Milton painted with darkness for his canvas and the lightning for his brush. Our pictures of Eden and of heaven have also felt his touch. Theology has often looked through Milton's imagination at the fall of the rebel angels and of man. Huxley says that the cosmogony which stubbornly resists the conclusions of science, is due rather to the account in Paradise Lost than to Genesis.
Many of Milton's expressions have become crystallized in modern thought. Among such we may mention:—
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven,
What matter where, if I be still the same?”
“To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
By force hath overcome but half his foe.”
The effect of Paradise Lost on English thought is more a resultant of the entire poem than of detached quotations. L'Allegro and Il Penseroso have furnished as many current quotations as the whole ofParadise Lost.
The Embodiment of High Ideals.—-No poet has embodied in his verse higher ideals than Milton. When twenty-three, he wrote that he intended to use his talents—
“As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye.”
Milton's poetry is not universally popular. He deliberately selected his audience. These lines from Comus show to whom he wished to speak:—
“Yet some there be that by due steps aspire
To lay their just hands on that golden key
That opes the palace of eternity.
To such my errand is.”
He kept his promise of writing something which speaks for liberty and for nobility of soul and which the world would not willingly let die. His ideals react on us and raise us higher than we were. To him we may say with Wordsworth:—
“Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea,
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free.” 
The Puritan age was one of conflict in religious and political ideals. James I. and Charles I. trampled on the laws and persecuted the Puritans so rigorously that many of them fled to New England. Civil war, in which the Puritans triumphed, was the result.
The Puritans, realizing that neither lands beyond the sea nor the New Learning could satisfy the aspirations of the soul, turned their attention to the life beyond. Bunyan's Pilgrim felt that the sole duty of life was to fight the forces of evil that would hold him captive in the City of Destruction and to travel in the straight and narrow path to the New Jerusalem. Life became a ceaseless battle of the right against the wrong. Hence, much of the literature in both poetry and prose is polemical. Milton's Paradise Lost is an epic of war between good and evil. The book that had the most influence in molding the thought of the time was the King James (1611) version of the Bible.
The minor prose deals with a variety of subjects. There are argumentative, philosophical, historical, biographical, and theological prose works; but only the fine presentation of nature and life in The Complete Angler interests the general reader of to-day, although the grandeur of Milton's Areopagitica, the humor of Thomas Fuller, the stately rhythmical prose of Sir Thomas Browne, and the imagery and variety of Jeremy Taylor deserve more readers.
Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is the masterpiece of Puritan prose, written in the simple, direct language of the 1611 version of the Bible. The book is a prose epic of the journey of the Puritan Christian from the City of Destruction to the New Jerusalem.
The Cavalier poets wrote much lyrical verse, mostly in lighter vein, but the religious poets strike a deeper note. The work of these minor poets is often a reflection of the Elizabethan lyrics of Donne and Jonson.
John Milton, who has the creative power of the Elizabethans, is the only great poet of the period. His greatest poems are L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Lycidas, Comus, and Paradise Lost. In sublimity of subject matter and cast of mind, in nobility of ideals, in expression of the conflict between good and evil, he is the fittest representative of the Puritan spirit in literature.
REFERENCES FOR FUTURE STUDY
Read the chapters on this period in Gardiner, Walker, Cheney, Lingard, or Green. For the social life, see Traill, IV. The monumental history of this time has been written in eighteen volumes by Samuel Rawson Gardiner. His Oliver Cromwell, I vol., is excellent, as is also Frederick Harrison's Oliver Cromwell.
The Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol. VII.
Courthope's History of English Poetry, Vol. III.
Masterman's The Age of Milton.
Saintsbury's A History of Elizabethan Literature (comes down to
Dowden's Puritan and Anglican Studies in Literature.
Dictionary of National Biography (for lives of minor writers).
Froude's John Bunyan.
Brown's John Bunyan, his Life, Times, and Works.
Macaulay's Life of Bunyan in Encylopaedia Britannica or in his
Macaulay's Essay on Southey's Edition of the Pilgrim's Progress.
Masson's The Life of John Milton, Narrated in Connection with the
Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary history of his Time (6
Masson's Poetical Works of John Milton, 3 vols., contains
excellent introductions and notes, and is the standard edition.
Pattison's Milton. (E.M.L.)
Woodhull's The Epic of Paradise Lost.
Macaulay's Essay on Milton.
Lowell's Milton (in Among My Books).
Addison's criticisms on Milton, beginning in number 267 of The
Spectator, are suggestive.
SUGGESTED READINGS WITH QUESTIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
Prose.—The student will obtain a fair idea of the prose of this age by reading Milton's Areopagitica, Cassell's National Library (15 cents), or Temple Classics (45 cents); Craik, II., 471-475; the selections from Thomas Hobbes, Craik, II., 214-221; from Thomas Fuller, Craik, II., 377-387; from Sir Thomas Browne, Craik, II., 318-335; from Jeremy Taylor, Craik, II., 529-542; and from Izaak Walton, Craik, II., 343-349. Manly, II., has selections from all these writers; the Oxford Treasury and Century, from all but Hobbes. The student who has the time will wish to read The Complete Anglerentire (Cassell's National Library, 15 cents; or Temple Classics, 45 cents).
Compare (a) the sentences, (b) general style, and ( c) worth of the subject matter of these authors; then, to note the development of English prose, in treatment of subject as well as in form, compare these works with those of (1) Wycliffe and Mandeville in the fourteenth century, (2) Malory in the fifteenth, and (3) Tyndale, Lyly, Sidney, Hooker, and Bacon (e.g. essay Of Study, 1597), in the sixteenth.
Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress should be read entire ( Everyman's Library, 35 cents; Cassell's National Library, 15 cents; Temple Classics, 45 cents). Selections may be found in Craik, III., 148-166; Manly, II., 139-143; Oxford Treasury, 83-85; Century, 225-235.
In what does the secret of Bunyan's popularity consist—in his style, or in his subject matter, or in both? What is specially noteworthy about his style? Point out some definite ways in which his style was affected by another great work. Suppose that Bunyan had held the social service ideals of the twentieth century, how might his idea of saving souls have been modified?
Lyrical Poetry.—Specimens of the best work of Herrick, Carew, Suckling, Lovelace, Herbert, Vaughan, and Crashaw may be found in Ward, II.; Bronson, II.; Oxford Treasury, III.; Manly, I.; andCentury.
What is the typical subject matter of the Cavalier poets? What subject do Herbert, Vaughan, and Crashaw choose? Which lyric of each of these poets pleases you most? What difference do you note between these lyrics and those of the Elizabethan age? What Elizabethan lyrists had most influence on these poets? What are some of the special defects of the lyrists of this age?
John Milton.—L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus, Lycidas (American Book Company's Eclectic English Classics, 20 cents), and Paradise Lost, Books I. and II. (same series), should be read. These poems, including his excellent Sonnets, may also be found in Cassell's National Library, Everyman's Library, and the Temple Classics. Selections are given in Ward, II., 306-379; Bronson, II., 334-423;Oxford Treasury, III., 34-70: Manly, I., and Century, passim.
Which is the greatest of his minor poets? Why? Is the keynote of Comus in accord with Puritan ideals? Are there qualities in Lycidas that justify calling it “the high-water mark” of English lyrical poetry? Which poem has most powerfully affected theological thought? Which do you think is oftenest read to-day? Why? What are the most striking characteristics of Milton's poetry? Contrast Milton's greatness, limitations, and ideals of life, with Shakespeare's.
FOOTNOTES TO CHAPTER V:
[Footnote 1: See Milton's Sonnet: On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.]
[Footnote 2: Robert Herrick's Prayer to Ben Jonson.]
[Footnote 3: Paradise Lost, Book VII., lines 577-578.]
[Footnote 4: Ibid., Book II., lines 719-720.]
[Footnote 5: Paradise Lost, Book VII., lines 207-209.]
[Footnote 6: The Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol. VII., p.156.]
[Footnote 7: Paradise Lost, Book I., line 254.]
[Footnote 8: Ibid, line 262.]
[Footnote 9: Ibid, line 649.]
[Footnote 10: Sonnet: On His Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-three.]
[Footnote 11: Milton: A Sonnet.]
[Footnote 12: For full titles, see list on p. 50.]
[Footnote 13: For full titles, see p.6.]