The Importance of the Age
The Age of Milton, the age in which the great poet matured and created, covers roughly the first seventy years or so of the 17th century. Thus in a way Milton is the connecting link between the glorious age of Queen Elizabeth, the Puritan age which followed, and the Restoration Age. It was an age of disillusionment, of increasing gloom and pessimism, and this melancholy and gloom of the age colours the literature of the period. In order to appreciate the spirit of Milton’s works it is essential to form an idea of his age.
Puritanism: Its Nature
It was during this period that Puritanism emerged as the great controlling, moral and social force. Let us here first consider what we exactly mean by Puritanism and then proceed to examine the political, social and religious causes that gave rise to it, and its impact on the literature of the period.
In the broadest sense Puritanism may be regarded as the renaissance of the moral sense of man. The Grecio-Roman renaissance of 15th and 16th centuries was largely pagan and sensuous. It did not touch the moral nature of man, it did nothing for his religious, political and social emancipation. The Puritan movement, on the other hand, was the greatest movement for moral and political reform. Its aims were (1) religious liberty i.e., that men should be free to worship according to their conscience, and (2) they should enjoy full civil liberty. The Puritans wanted to make men honest and to make them free. They insisted on the purity of life.
In matters of religion the Puritans were fanatics. They were extremists. There had been Puritans even during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. They did not accept the Anglican Church, which was essentially a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism. They considered its creeds and public worship as too much like Popery. They advocated Church reform. Moreover, they had very strict view about life and conduct. They laid down very austere ideals of life. They were against common pleasures, even innocent ones, like drama, considered singing and dancing as immoral, and hence in the beginning the term ‘Puritan’ was a term of contempt applied to such extremists. We find frequent satirical references to them in the plays of Shakespeare. The general tendency of the Puritan was antisocial. “Beauty in his eyes was a snare and pleasure a sin; the only mode of social intercourse which he approved was a sermon.” As Macaulay puts it, he hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectator. The Puritans thus stood for (1) Church reform, (2) for the reform of social life according to their austere ideals, (3) for the ideal of liberty, both religious and political—man should be free to worship according to his own conscience unhampered by the state.
Causes of Its Rise:
The wise, moderate policies of Queen Elizabeth had appealed to all sections of society and Puritanism could not make much headway. But conditions changed with the coming of James I to the throne; the wise Elizabethan compromise soon broke down. A number of causes led to widespread discontent and the emergence of the Puritans as a strong national force. First, there was the theory of the divine right of kings, the theory that the king could do no wrong. James I had exalted ideals of kingship and aimed at despotic powers, but he was not fitted to play the role of flawless divinity. He was ill-mannered, grotesque, and tactless in appearance, and soon made the English Court the laughing stock of Europe. This divine right theory was not palatable to the English people, it smacked of tyranny and shocked the innate English love of independence. Puritans regarded it as a direct attack upon their personal and political liberty.
(b) Immorality and Corruption
Secondly, the immorality and profligacy of the king and his courtiers also fed the flames of discontent. The corruption in high places did much to alienate the sympathies of the common man, and greatly strengthened the moral and social influence of the Puritans, who despised the Court, “as a place of infamy, alien to all good morals”. Immorality of the king and the Court is a frequent object of satire in the contemporary literature.
Thirdly, James and his ministers were extravagant, they were constantly in debt and constantly in need of money. When James approached the Parliament for money, it demanded more rights and privileges for itself—that it should control religion and finance, and even give advice on foreign policy. James then tried to raise money by granting trade monopolies to his favourites. This raised the hostility of the traders, merchants and manufacturers. It was an encroachment on their rights, and economic virtues of thrift, sobriety and economic living appealed to this middle-class element. Thus emerged a union of interests against James I. This makes the Jacobean Age, a period of stress and strain giving rise to a sense of frustration, and disillusionment.
(d) Internal Dissensions
The absence of foreign wars also did much to foster internal dissensions. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, there was no longer any danger of a foreign attack. A foreign war has the great merit of diverting the attention of the people. Now freed from the fears of foreign war, more and more people turned to the discussion of domestic politics. Criticism of the policies of the King and of the immorality and artificiality of his court was widespread. Thus was fostered the critical and satirical temper which is reflected in the plays of Ben Jonson. Social evils were rampant, and satirical references to the follies of the age are frequent in the literature of the period. The rift between the king and his people widened. The court became more luxurious and extravagant, the people were more and more alienated, the appeal of Puritanism increased, and it became a significant force in national life.
(e) Tactlessness of Charles I
James I was sufficiently clever and died just sufficiently soon, and thus in his reign there was no open conflict between the king and his people. But he left behind him serious problems for his son Charles I (1625). Charles was handsome, cultured and graceful, just such a king as was likely to win the heart of his people. However, he was tactless and did not attach much importance to public sentiments. He surrounded himself with evil counsellors— and with their help tried to enforce the divine right theory of kings. His absolutism roused the apprehensions of the people. In politics he was entirely unscrupulous. Moreover, he had a Catholic queen and was himself suspected of having Catholic leanings. His policies both religious and political, both in Scotland and Ireland, were complete and abject failures. The treasury was already bankrupt and he and his courtiers were not only profligates but also highly extravagant. In dire need of funds, he appealed to the Parliament which demanded even greater privileges for itself. No compromise was possible between the despotic Charles and the Parliament consisting mainly of elements hostile to the King. The stress and strains in national life increased resulting in the Civil War between the King and the Parliament which broke out in 1641.
Frustration and Disillusionment—Loss of Faith
Mrs. Una-Fermor refers to the age of Milton as an age of uncertainty, misgiving, despondency, anxiety, frustration, pessimism and inner gloom, and in all these respects in sharp contrast to the glorious and exuberant age of Elizabeth when the nation marched from achievement to achievement with zest and confidence. She lists a number of political and social causes for this mood of misgiving and apprehension which overtook the nation during this period. The personal unpopularity of the king, James I, uncouth and awkward, who made the English court the laughing stock of all Europe, the lowering of standards of national morality and conduct, loss of national dignity, slackness of discipline, plots and intrigues both political and religious, increasing fear of French and Papal interventions, all contributed to the atmosphere of uncertainty and misgiving, and this in its turn bred pessimism and frustration. Further, there was a clash of ideals and philosophies; the old world, the medieval world, with its scholastic learning and metaphysics was breaking down under the impact of new philosophy. Another cause was the influence of Machiavelli whose work The Prince enjoyed wide popularity. His materialistic doctrines along with his Satanic philosophy—that the world order is not moral, but essentially immoral—caused much bewilderment and confusion, and loss of faith in existing values and ideals. All this finds expression in the literatures of the day, more specially its Drama.
London: The Centre of National Life
In the end, a word may be added regarding the prominence of London during the age and its influence on the literature of the period. It was the centre of the English court and so the abode of the fashionable and cultured upper classes. As the court patronised art and learning, the city was also the haunt of the men of letters of the age. Practically, all the prominent writers of the day made London their home. Shakespeare, Donne, Ben Jonson, Milton—to name only the greatest—were all Londoners. They would meet in taverns, discuss literature or current politics, and frequently come to blows. Tavern brawls were frequent, and even leading personalities were involved in them. The setting of Jonson’s Comedies is London, and London fashions, follies and frivolities are frequent objects of his satire.
The atmosphere of conflict, stress and strain, which enveloped the nation even before the death of Queen Elizabeth, in 1603, had an adverse effect on literature. The decline from the high Elizabethan standard is apparent in several ways, (a) The output, especially of poetry, is much smaller, and the fashion is toward shorter poems, especially the lyric. The poetry of the period is largely lyrical, and Donne and Ben Jonson are the two most outstanding and original lyricists of the age. Milton who links up the Puritan age with the Restoration is a class by himself, (b) There is a marked decay in the exalted poetical fervour of the previous age. In the new poetry there is more of intellectual play than of passion and profundity. And especially in prose, there is a matured melancholy that one is apt to associate with advancing years, (c) There is a marked increase in prose activity, and prose is an almost invariable accompaniment of a decline in poetry.
In an age which, by comparison with the Elizabethan age, produced relatively few great writers, Milton stands as the one man who may claim a place among the very greatest. His prose is among the finest controversial writing in the language, and his poetic achievement has generally been considered to be second only to that of Shakespeare.
Besides Milton, there are the Metaphysicals and the Caroline lyricists. The term Metaphysical was first used by Dr. Johnson, who applied it to Cowley and Donne. It denotes the work of a group of poets who came directly or indirectly under Donne’s influence. Donne’s poetry is a poetry of revolt, revolt against Elizabethan tradition. Usually lyrical in nature, his work shows a surprising blend of passion and thought; his poems are full of learned imagery and striking conceits, and, at their best, reveal great psychological insight and subtlety of thought. To this school belong such great poets as Crashaw, George Herbert, Vaughan, and Marvell.
While most of the Metaphysical poets were of a religious and mystical cast, the Cavalier lyricists best represented by Herrick, Lovelace, and Suckling, deal with the theme of love. They followed Ben Jonson in their classical restraint and concise lucidity. Their work is simple and graceful in structure and finely polished in style.
The prose output during the age is copious and excellent in kind. There is a notable advance in the sermon; pamphlets are abundant; and history, politics, philosophy, and miscellaneous kinds are well represented. Milton’s Areopagetica is an immortal monument of English prose. In addition, there is a remarkable advance in prose style and the dramatists contribute a great deal to this advance. Jonson uses prose in his comedies. The controversies and conflicts of the day, both political and religious, result in the rise of satire and pamphleteering, and this in turn contributes to the advance of prose.
Many things combined to cause the decay of drama at this time. Chief among these was the strong opposition of the Puritans. In temper, the age was not dramatic. The actual dramatic work of the period is small and unimportant and characterised by immorality, obscenity, sensationalism, violence, and a free exploitation of unnatural themes, such as incest. However, Milton’s Samson Agonistes occupies a unique place in the history of English drama. It is the only successful classical Tragedy in the English language.