[This is taken from William J. Long's Outlines of English and American Literature.]
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters; altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Wordsworth, “Sonnet on Milton”
The period from the accession of Charles I in 1625 to the Revolution of 1688 was filled with a mighty struggle over the question whether king or Commons should be supreme in England. On this question the English people were divided into two main parties. On one side were the Royalists, or Cavaliers, who upheld the monarch with his theory of the divine right of kings; on the other were the Puritans, or Independents, who stood for the rights of the individual man and for the liberties of Parliament and people. The latter party was at first very small; it had appeared in the days of Langland and Wyclif, and had been persecuted by Elizabeth; but persecution served only to increase its numbers and determination. Though the Puritans were never a majority in England, they soon ruled the land with a firmness it had not known since the days of William the Conqueror. They were primarily men of conscience, and no institution can stand before strong men whose conscience says the institution is wrong. That is why the degenerate theaters were not reformed but abolished; that is why the theory of the divine right of kings was shattered as by a thunderbolt when King Charles was sent to the block for treason against his country.
The struggle reached a climax in the Civil War of 1642, which ended in a Puritan victory. As a result of that war, England was for a brief period a commonwealth, disciplined at home and respected abroad, through the genius and vigor and tyranny of Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell died (1658) there was no man in England strong enough to take his place, and two years later “Prince Charlie,” who had long been an exile, was recalled to the throne as Charles II of England. He had learned nothing from his father’s fate or his own experience, and proceeded by all evil ways to warrant this “Epitaph,” which his favorite, Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, pinned on the door of his bedchamber:
Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King,
Whose word no man relies on,
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
The next twenty years are of such disgrace and national weakness that the historian hesitates to write about them. It was called the period of the Restoration, which meant, in effect, the restoration of all that was objectionable in monarchy. Another crisis came in the Revolution of 1688, when the country, aroused by the attempt of James II to establish another despotism in Church and state, invited Prince William of Orange (husband of the king’s daughter Mary) to the English throne. That revolution meant three things:
the supremacy of Parliament, the beginning of modern England, and the final triumph of the principle of political liberty for which the Puritan had fought and suffered hardship for a hundred years.
Among the writers of the period three men stand out prominently, and such was the confusion of the times that in the whole range of our literature it would be difficult to find three others who differ more widely in spirit or method. Milton represents the scholarship, the culture of the Renaissance, combined with the moral earnestness of the Puritan. Bunyan, a poor tinker and lay preacher, reflects the tremendous spiritual ferment among the common people. And Dryden, the cool, calculating author who made a business of writing, regards the Renaissance and Puritanism as both things of the past. He lives in the present, aims to give readers what they like, follows the French critics of the period who advocate writing by rule, and popularizes that cold, formal, precise style which, under the assumed name of classicism, is to dominate English poetry during the following century.
* * * * *
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.
In these words of the Attendant Spirit in Comus we seem to hear Milton speaking to his readers. To such as regard poetry as the means of an hour’s pleasant recreation he brings no message; his “errand” is to those who, like Sidney, regard poetry as the handmaiden of virtue, or, like Aristotle, as the highest form of human history.
LIFE. Milton was born in London (1608) at a time when Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists were in their glory. He grew up in a home where the delights of poetry and music were added to the moral discipline of the Puritan. Before he was twelve years old he had formed the habit of studying far into the night; and his field included not only Greek, Latin, Hebrew and modern European literatures, but mathematics also, and science and theology and music. His parents had devoted him in infancy to noble ends, and he joyously accepted their dedication, saying, “He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well ... ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things.”
From St. Paul’s school Milton went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, took his master’s degree, wrote a few poems in Latin, Italian and English, and formed a plan for a great epic, “a poem that England would not willingly let die.” Then he retired to his father’s country-place at Horton, and for six years gave himself up to music, to untutored study, and to that formal pleasure in nature which is reflected in his work. Five short poems were the only literary result of this retirement, but these were the most perfect of their kind that England had thus far produced.
Milton’s next step, intended like all others to cultivate his talent, took him to the Continent. For fifteen months he traveled through France and Italy, and was about to visit Greece when, hearing of the struggle between king and Parliament, he set his face towards England again. “For I thought it base,” he said, “to be traveling at my ease for culture when my countrymen at home were fighting for liberty.”
To find himself, or to find the service to which he could devote his great learning, seems to have been Milton’s object after his return to London (1639). While he waited he began to educate his nephews, and enlarged this work until he had a small private school, in which he tested some of the theories that appeared later in his Tractate on Education. Also he married, in haste it seems, and with deplorable consequences. His wife, Mary Powell, the daughter of a Cavalier, was a pleasure-loving young woman, and after a brief experience of Puritan discipline she wearied of it and went home. She has been amply criticized for her desertion, but Milton’s house must have been rather chilly for any ordinary human being to find comfort in. To him woman seemed to have been made for obedience, and man for rebellion; his toplofty doctrine of masculine superiority found expression in a line regarding Adam and Eve, “He for God only, she for God in him,”—an old delusion, which had been seriously disturbed by the first woman.
For a period of near twenty years Milton wrote but little poetry, his time being occupied with controversies that were then waged even more fiercely in the press than in the field. It was after the execution of King Charles (1649), when England was stunned and all Europe aghast at the Puritans’ daring, that he published his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, the argument of which was, that magistrates and people are equally subject to the law, and that the divine right of kings to rule is as nothing beside the divine right of the people to defend their liberties. That argument established Milton’s position as the literary champion of democracy. He was chosen Secretary of the Commonwealth, his duties being to prepare the Latin correspondence with foreign countries, and to confound all arguments of the Royalists. During the next decade Milton’s pen and Cromwell’s sword were the two outward bulwarks of Puritanism, and one was quite as ready and almost as potent as the other.
It was while Milton was thus occupied that he lost his eyesight, “his last sacrifice on the altar of English liberty.” His famous “Sonnet on his Blindness” is a lament not for his lost sight but for his lost talent; for while serving the Commonwealth he must abandon the dream of a great poem that he had cherished all his life:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent, which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask; but Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
With the Restoration (1660) came disaster to the blind Puritan poet, who had written too harshly against Charles I to be forgiven by Charles II. He was forced to hide; his property was confiscated; his works were burned in public by the hangman; had not his fame as a writer raised up powerful friends, he would have gone to the scaffold when Cromwell’s bones were taken from the grave and hanged in impotent revenge. He was finally allowed to settle in a modest house, and to be in peace so long as he remained in obscurity. So the pen was silenced that had long been a scourge to the enemies of England.
His home life for the remainder of his years impresses us by its loneliness and grandeur. He who had delighted as a poet in the English country, and more delighted as a Puritan in the fierce struggle for liberty, was now confined to a small house, going from study to porch, and finding both in equal darkness. He who had roamed as a master through the wide fields of literature was now dependent on a chance reader. His soul also was afflicted by the apparent loss of all that Puritanism had so hardly won, by the degradation of his country, by family troubles; for his daughters often rebelled at the task of taking his dictation, and left him helpless. Saddest of all, there was no love in the house, for with all his genius Milton could not inspire affection in his own people; nor does he ever reach the heart of his readers.
In the midst of such scenes, denied the pleasure of hope, Milton seems to have lived largely in his memories. He took up his early dream of an immortal epic, lived with it seven years in seclusion, and the result was Paradise Lost. This epic is generally considered the finest fruit of Milton’s genius, but there are two other poems that have a more personal and human significance. In the morning of his life he had written Comus, and the poem is a reflection of a noble youth whose way lies open and smiling before him. Almost forty years later, or just before his death in 1674, he wrote Samson Agonistes, and in this tragedy of a blind giant, bound, captive, but unconquerable, we have a picture of the agony and moral grandeur of the poet who takes leave of life:
I feel my genial spirits droop, ...
My race of glory run, and race of shame;
And I shall shortly be with them that rest.
THE EARLY POEMS. Milton’s first notable poem, written in college days, was the “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” a chant of victory and praise such as Pindar might have written had he known the meaning of Christmas. In this boyish work one may find the dominant characteristic of all Milton’s poetry; namely, a blending of learning with piety, a devotion of all the treasures of classic culture to the service of religion.
Among the earliest of the Horton poems (so-called because they were written in the country-place of that name) are “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” two of the most widely quoted works in our literature. They should be read in order to understand what people have admired for nearly three hundred years, if not for their own beauty. “L’Allegro” (from the Italian, meaning “the cheerful man”) is the poetic expression of a happy state of mind, and “Il Penseroso” [Footnote: The name is generally translated into “melancholy,” but the latter term is now commonly associated with sorrow or disease. To Milton “melancholy” meant “pensiveness.” In writing “Il Penseroso” he was probably influenced by a famous book, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which appeared in 1621 and was very widely read.] of a quiet, thoughtful mood that verges upon sadness, like the mood that follows good music. Both poems are largely inspired by nature, and seem to have been composed out of doors, one in the morning and the other in the evening twilight.
Comus (1634), another of the Horton poems, is to many readers the most interesting of Milton’s works. In form it is a masque, that is, a dramatic poem intended to be staged to the accompaniment of music; in execution it is the most perfect of all such poems inspired by the Elizabethan love of pageants. We may regard it, therefore, as a late echo of the Elizabethan drama, which, like many another echo, is sweeter though fainter than the original. It was performed at Ludlow Castle, before the Earl of Bridgewater, and was suggested by an accident to the Earl’s children, a simple accident, in which Milton saw the possibility of “turning the common dust of opportunity to gold.”
The story is that of a girl who becomes separated from her brothers in a wood, and is soon lost. The magician Comus [Footnote: In mythology Comus, the god of revelry, was represented as the son of Dionysus (Bacchus, god of wine), and the witch Circe. In Greek poetry Comus is the leader of any gay band of satyrs or dancers. Milton’s masque of Comus was influenced by a similar story in Peele’s Old Wives’ Tale, by Spenser’s “Palace of Pleasure” in The Faery Queen (see above “Sir Guyon” in Chapter IV), and by Homer’s story of the witch Circe in the Odyssey.] appears with his band of revelers, and tries to bewitch the girl, to make her like one of his own brutish followers. She is protected by her own purity, is watched over by the Attendant Spirit, and finally rescued by her brothers. The story is somewhat like that of the old ballad of “The Children in the Wood,” but it is here transformed into a kind of morality play.
In this masque may everywhere be seen the influence of Milton’s predecessors and the stamp of his own independence; his Puritan spirit also, which must add a moral to the old pagan tales. Thus, Miranda wandering about the enchanted isle (in Shakespeare’s The Tempest) hears strange, harmonious echoes, to which Caliban gives expression:
The isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices, That, if I then had waked after long sleep, Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, The clouds methought would open and show riches Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked I cried to dream again.
The bewildered girl in Comus also hears mysterious voices, and has glimpses of a world not her own; but, like Sir Guyon of The Faery Queen, she is on moral guard against all such deceptions:
A thousand phantasies Begin to throng into my memory, Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire, And airy tongues that syllable men’s names On sands and shores and desert wildernesses. These thoughts may startle well but not astound The virtuous mind, that ever walks attended By a strong-siding champion, Conscience.
Again, in The Tempest we meet “the frisky spirit” Ariel, who sings of his coming freedom from Prospero’s service:
Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On a bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily:
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
The Attendant Spirit in Comus has something of Ariel’s gayety, but his joy is deeper-seated; he serves not the magician Prospero but the Almighty, and comes gladly to earth in fulfilment of the divine promise, “He shall give His angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways.” When his work is done he vanishes, like Ariel, but with a song which shows the difference between the Elizabethan, or Renaissance, conception of sensuous beauty (that is, beauty which appeals to the physical senses) and the Puritan’s idea of moral beauty, which appeals to the soul:
Now my task is smoothly done,
I can fly or I can run
Quickly to the green earth’s end,
Where the bowed welkin slow doth bend,
And from thence can soar as soon
To the corners of the moon.
Mortals, that would follow me,
Love Virtue; she alone is free:
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the sphery chime;
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her.
Lycidas (1637), last of the Horton poems, is an elegy occasioned by the death of one who had been Milton’s fellow student at Cambridge. It was an old college custom to celebrate important events by publishing a collection of Latin or English poems, and Lycidas may be regarded as Milton’s wreath, which he offered to the memory of his classmate and to his university. The poem is beautifully fashioned, and is greatly admired for its classic form; but it is cold as any monument, without a touch of human grief or sympathy. Probably few modern readers will care for it as they care for Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a less perfect elegy, but one into which love enters as well as art. Other notable English elegies are the Thyrsis of Matthew Arnold and the Adonais of Shelley.
MILTON’S LEFT HAND. This expression was used by Milton to designate certain prose works written in the middle period of his life, at a time of turmoil and danger. These works have magnificent passages which show the power and the harmony of our English speech, but they are marred by other passages of bitter raillery and invective. The most famous of all these works is the noble plea called Areopagitica: a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing (1644).
There was a law in Milton’s day forbidding the printing of any work until it had been approved by the official Licenser of Books. Such a law may have been beneficial at times, but during the seventeenth century it was another instrument of tyranny, since no Licenser would allow anything to be printed against his particular church or government. When Areopagitica was written the Puritans of the Long Parliament were virtually rulers of England, and Milton pleaded with his own party for the free expression of every honest opinion, for liberty in all wholesome pleasures, and for tolerance in religious matters. His stern confidence in truth, that she will not be weakened but strengthened by attack, is summarized in the famous sentence, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.”
Two interesting matters concerning Areopagitica are: first, that this eloquent plea for the freedom of printing had to be issued in defiance of law, without a license; and second, that Milton was himself, a few years later, under Cromwell’s iron government, a censor of the press.
Milton’s rare sonnets seem to belong to this middle period of strife, though some of them were written earlier. Since Wyatt and Surrey had brought the Italian sonnet to England this form of verse had been employed to sing of love; but with Milton it became a heroic utterance, a trumpet Wordsworth calls it, summoning men to virtue, to patriotism, to stern action. The most personal of these sonnets are “On Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-three,” “On his Blindness” and “To Cyriack Skinner”; the most romantic is “To the Nightingale”; others that are especially noteworthy are “On the Late Massacre,” “On his Deceased Wife” [Footnote: This beautiful sonnet was written to his second wife, not to Mary Powell.] and “To Cromwell.” The spirit of these sonnets, in contrast with those of Elizabethan times, is finely expressed by Landor in the lines:
Few his words, but strong,
And sounding through all ages and all climes;
He caught the sonnet from the dainty hand
Of Love, who cried to lose it, and he gave the notes
MILTON’S LATER POETRY. It was in 1658, the year of Cromwell’s death, when the political power of Puritanism was tottering, that Milton in his blindness began to write Paradise Lost. After stating his theme he begins his epic, as Virgil began the Æneid, in the midst of the action; so that in reading his first book it is well to have in mind an outline of the whole story, which is as follows:
The scene opens in Heaven, and the time is before the creation of the world. The archangel Lucifer rebels against the Almighty, and gathers to his banner an immense company of the heavenly hosts, of angels and flaming cherubim. A stupendous three days’ battle follows between rebel and loyal legions, the issue being in doubt until the Son goes forth in his chariot of victory. Lucifer and his rebels are defeated, and are hurled over the ramparts of Heaven. Down, down through Chaos they fall “nine times the space that measures day and night,” until they reach the hollow vaults of Hell.
In the second act (for Paradise Lost has some dramatic as well as epic construction) we follow the creation of the earth in the midst of the universe; and herein we have an echo of the old belief that the earth was the center of the solar system. Adam and Eve are formed to take in the Almighty’s affection the place of the fallen angels. They live happily in Paradise, watched over by celestial guardians. Meanwhile Lucifer and his followers are plotting revenge in Hell. They first boast valiantly, and talk of mighty war; but the revenge finally degenerates into a base plan to tempt Adam and Eve and win them over to the fallen hosts.
The third act shows Lucifer, now called Satan or the Adversary, with his infernal peers in Pandemonium, plotting the ruin of the world. He makes an astounding journey through Chaos, disguises himself in various forms of bird or beast in order to watch Adam and Eve, is detected by Ithuriel and the guardian angels, and is driven away. Thereupon he haunts vast space, hiding in the shadow of the earth until his chance comes, when he creeps back into Eden by means of an underground river. Disguising himself as a serpent, he meets Eve and tempts her with the fruit of a certain “tree of knowledge,” which she has been forbidden to touch. She eats the fruit and shares it with Adam; then the pair are discovered in their disobedience, and are banished from Paradise.
It is evident from this outline that Milton uses material from two different sources, one an ancient legend which Cædmon employed in his Paraphrase, the other the Bible narrative of Creation. Though the latter is but a small part of the epic, it is as a fixed center about which all other interests are supposed to revolve. In reading Paradise Lost, therefore, with its vast scenes and colossal figures, one should keep in mind that every detail was planned by Milton to be closely related to his central theme, which is the fall of man.
In using such diverse materials Milton met with difficulties, some of which (the character of Lucifer, for example) were too great for his limited dramatic powers. In Books I and II Lucifer is a magnificent figure, the proudest in all literature, a rebel with something of celestial grandeur about him:
“Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,”
Said then the lost Archangel, “this the seat
That we must change for Heaven? this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: farthest from him is best,
Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor, one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
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,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence;
Here we may reign secure; and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
In other books of Paradise Lost the same character appears not as the heroic rebel but as the sneaking “father of lies,” all his grandeur gone, creeping as a snake into Paradise or sitting in the form of an ugly toad “squat at Eve’s ear,” whispering petty deceits to a woman while she sleeps. It is probable that Milton meant to show here the moral results of rebellion, but there is little in his poem to explain the sudden degeneracy from Lucifer to Satan.
The reader will note, also, the strong contrast between Milton’s matter and his manner. His matter is largely mythical, and the myth is not beautiful or even interesting, but childish for the most part and frequently grotesque, as when cannon are used in the battle of the angels, or when the Almighty makes plans,
Lest unawares we lose
This our high place, our sanctuary, our hill.
Indeed, all Milton’s celestial figures, with the exception of the original Lucifer, are as banal as those of the old miracle plays; and his Adam and Eve are dull, wooden figures that serve merely to voice the poet’s theology or moral sentiments.
In contrast with this unattractive matter, Milton’s manner is always and unmistakably “the grand manner.” His imagination is lofty, his diction noble, and the epic of Paradise Lost is so filled with memorable lines, with gorgeous descriptions, with passages of unexampled majesty or harmony or eloquence, that the crude material which he injects into the Bible narrative is lost sight of in our wonder at his superb style.
THE QUALITY OF MILTON. If it be asked, What is Milton’s adjective? the word “sublime” rises to the lips as the best expression of his style. This word (from the Latin sublimis, meaning “exalted above the ordinary”) is hard to define, but may be illustrated from one’s familiar experience.
You stand on a hilltop overlooking a mighty landscape on which the new snow has just fallen: the forest bending beneath its soft burden, the fields all white and still, the air scintillating with light and color, the whole world so clean and pure that it seems as if God had blotted out its imperfections and adorned it for his own pleasure. That is a sublime spectacle, and the soul of man is exalted as he looks upon it. Or here in your own village you see a woman who enters a room where a child is stricken with a deadly and contagious disease. She immolates herself for the suffering one, cares for him and saves him, then lays down her own life. That is a sublime act. Or you hear of a young patriot captured and hanged by the enemy, and as they lead him forth to death he says, “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country.” That is a sublime expression, and the feeling in your heart as you hear it is one of moral sublimity.
The writer who lifts our thought and feeling above their ordinary level, who gives us an impression of outward grandeur or of moral exaltation, is a sublime writer, has a sublime style; and Milton more than any other poet deserves the adjective. His scenes are immeasurable; mountain, sea and forest are but his playthings; his imagination hesitates not to paint Chaos, Heaven, Hell, the widespread Universe in which our world hangs like a pendant star and across which stretches the Milky Way:
A broad and ample road, whose dust is gold,
And pavement stars.
No other poet could find suitable words for such vast themes, but Milton never falters. Read the assembly of the fallen hosts before Lucifer in Book I of Paradise Lost, or the opening of Hellgates in Book II, or the invocation to light in Book III, or Satan’s invocation to the sun in Book IV, or the morning hymn of Adam and Eve in Book V; or open Paradise Lost anywhere, and you shall soon find some passage which, by the grandeur of its scene or by the exalted feeling of the poet as he describes it, awakens in you the feeling of sublimity.
The harmony of Milton’s verse is its second notable quality. Many of our poets use blank verse, as many other people walk, as if they had no sense of rhythm within them; but Milton, by reason of his long study and practice of music, seems to be always writing to melody. In consequence it is easy to read his most prolix passages, as it is easy to walk over almost any kind of ground if one but keeps step to outward or inward music. Not only is Milton’s verse stately and melodious, but he is a perfect master of words, choosing them for their sound as well as for their sense, as a musician chooses different instruments to express different emotions. Note these contrasting descriptions of so simple a matter as the opening of gates:
Heaven opened wide
Her ever-during gates, harmonious sound,
On golden hinges moving. On a sudden open fly
With impetuous recoil and jarring sound
Th’ infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
In dealing with a poet of such magnificent qualities one should be wary of criticism. That Milton’s poetry has little human interest, no humor, and plenty of faults, may be granted. His Paradise Lost especially is overcrowded with mere learning or pedantry in one place and with pompous commonplaces in another. But such faults appear trivial, unworthy of mention in the presence of a poem that is as a storehouse from which the authors and statesmen of three hundred years have drawn their choicest images and expressions. It stands forever as our supreme example of sublimity and harmony,--that sublimity which reflects the human spirit standing awed and reverent before the grandeur of the universe; that harmony of expression at which every great poet aims and which Milton attained in such measure that he is called the organ-voice of England.
* * * * *
There is a striking contrast between the poet and the prose writer of the Puritan age. Milton the poet is a man of culture, familiar with the best literature of all ages; Bunyan the prose writer is a poor, self-taught laborer who reads his Bible with difficulty, stumbling over the hard passages. Milton writes for the cultivated classes, in harmonious verse adorned with classic figures; Bunyan speaks for common men in sinewy prose, and makes his meaning clear by homely illustrations drawn from daily life. Milton is a solitary and austere figure, admirable but not lovable; Bunyan is like a familiar acquaintance, ruddy-faced, clear-eyed, who wins us by his sympathy, his friendliness, his good sense and good humor. He is known as the author of one book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, but that book has probably had more readers than any other that England has ever produced.
LIFE. During Bunyan’s lifetime England was in a state of religious ferment or revival, and his experience of it is vividly portrayed in a remarkable autobiography called Grace Abounding to the Chief of inners. In reading this book we find that his life is naturally separated into two periods. His youth was a time of struggle with doubts and temptations; his later years were characterized by inward peace and tireless labor. His peace meant that he was saved, his labor that he must save others. Here, in a word, is the secret of all his works.
He was born (1628) in the village of Elstow, Bedfordshire, and was the son of a poor tinker. He was sent to school long enough to learn elementary reading and writing; then he followed the tinker’s trade; but at the age of sixteen, being offended at his father’s second marriage, he ran away and joined the army.
As a boy Bunyan had a vivid but morbid imagination, which led him to terrible doubts, fears, fits of despondency, hallucinations. On such a nature the emotional religious revivals of the age made a tremendous impression. He followed them for years, living in a state of torment, until he felt himself converted; whereupon he turned preacher and began to call other sinners to repentance. Such were his native power and rude eloquence that, wherever he went, the common people thronged to hear him.
After the Restoration all this was changed. Public meetings were forbidden unless authorized by bishops of the Established Church, and Bunyan was one of the first to be called to account. When ordered to hold no more meetings he refused to obey, saying that when the Lord called him to preach salvation he would listen only to the Lord’s voice. Then he was thrown into Bedford jail. During his imprisonment he supported his family by making shoe laces, and wrote Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim’s Progress.
After his release Bunyan became the most popular writer and preacher in England. He wrote a large number of works, and went cheerfully up and down the land, preaching the gospel to the poor, helping the afflicted, doing an immense amount of good. He died (1688) as the result of exposure while on an errand of mercy. His works were then known only to humble readers, and not until long years had passed did critics awaken to the fact that one of England’s most powerful and original writers had passed away with the poor tinker of Elstow.
WORKS OF BUNYAN. From the pen of this uneducated preacher came nearly sixty works, great and small, the most notable of which are: Grace Abounding (1666), a kind of spiritual autobiography; The Holy War (1665), a prose allegory with a theme similar to that of Milton’s epic; and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1682), a character study which was a forerunner of the English novel. These works are seldom read, and Bunyan is known to most readers as the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). This is the famous allegory [Footnote: Allegory is figurative writing, in which some outward object or event is described in such a way that we apply the description to humanity, to our mental or spiritual experiences. The object of allegory, as a rule, is to teach moral lessons, and in this it is like a drawn-out fable and like a parable. The two greatest allegories in our literature are Spenser’s Faery Queen and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.] in which, under guise of telling the story of a pilgrim in search of a city, Bunyan portrays the experiences of humanity in its journey from this world to the next. Here is an outline of the story:
In the City of Destruction lives a poor sinner called Christian. When he learns that the city is doomed, he is terrified and flees out of it, carrying a great burden on his back. He is followed by the jeers of his neighbors, who have no fear. He seeks a safe and abiding city to dwell in, but is ignorant how to find it until Evangelist shows him the road.
As he goes on his journey Mr. Worldly Wiseman meets him and urges him to return; but he hastens on, only to plunge into the Slough of Despond. His companion Pliable is here discouraged and turns back. Christian struggles on through the mud and reaches the Wicket Gate, where Interpreter shows him the way to the Celestial City. As he passes a cross beside the path, the heavy burden which he carries (his load of sins) falls off of itself. Then with many adventures he climbs the steep hill Difficulty, where his eyes behold the Castle Beautiful. To reach this he must pass some fearful lions in the way, but he adventures on, finds that the lions are chained, is welcomed by the porter Watchful, and is entertained in the castle overnight.
Dangers thicken and difficulties multiply as he resumes his journey. His road is barred by the demon Apollyon, whom he fights to the death. The way now dips downward into the awful Valley of the Shadow. Passing through this, he enters the town of Vanity, goes to Vanity Fair, where he is abused and beaten, and where his companion Faithful is condemned to death. As he escapes from Vanity, the giant Despair seizes him and hurls him into the gloomy dungeon of Doubt. Again he escapes, struggles onward, and reaches the Delectable Mountains. There for the first time he sees the Celestial City, but between him and his refuge is a river, deep and terrible, without bridge or ford. He crosses it, and the journey ends as angels come singing down the streets to welcome Christian into the city.
Such an outline gives but a faint idea of Bunyan’s great work, of its realistic figures, its living and speaking characters, its knowledge of humanity, its portrayal of the temptations and doubts that beset the ordinary man, its picturesque style, which of itself would make the book stand out above ten thousand ordinary stories. Pilgrim’s Progress is still one of our best examples of clear, forceful, idiomatic English; and our wonder increases when we remember that it was written by a man ignorant of literary models. But he had read his Bible daily until its style and imagery had taken possession of him; also he had a vivid imagination, a sincere purpose to help his fellows, and his simple rule of rhetoric was to forget himself and deliver his message. In one of his poems he gives us his rule of expression, which is an excellent one for writers and speakers:
Thine only way, Before them all, is to say out thy say In thine own native language.
* * * * *
For fifty years Dryden lived in the city of Milton, in the country of John Bunyan; but his works might indicate that he inhabited a different planet. Unlike his two great contemporaries, his first object was to win favor; he sold his talent to the highest bidder, won the leading place among second-rate Restoration writers, and was content to reflect a generation which had neither the hearty enthusiasm of Elizabethan times nor the moral earnestness of Puritanism.
LIFE. Knowledge of Dryden’s life is rather meager, and as his motives are open to question we shall state here only a few facts. He was born of a Puritan and aristocratic family, at Aldwinkle, in 1631. After an excellent education, which included seven years at Trinity College, Cambridge, he turned to literature as a means of earning a livelihood, taking a worldly view of his profession and holding his pen ready to serve the winning side. Thus, he wrote his “Heroic Stanzas,” which have a hearty Puritan ring, on the death of Cromwell; but he turned Royalist and wrote the more flattering “Astræa Redux” to welcome Charles II back to power.
In literature Dryden proved himself a man of remarkable versatility. Because plays were in demand, he produced many that catered to the evil tastes of the Restoration stage,--plays that he afterwards condemned unsparingly. He was equally ready to write prose or verse, songs, criticisms, political satires. In 1670 he was made poet laureate under Charles II; his affairs prospered; he became a literary dictator in London, holding forth nightly in Will’s Coffeehouse to an admiring circle of listeners. After the Revolution of 1688 he lost his offices, and with them most of his income.
In his old age, being reduced to hackwork, he wrote obituaries, epitaphs, paraphrases of the tales of Chaucer, translations of Latin poets,--anything to earn an honest living. He died in 1700, and was buried beside Chaucer in Westminster Abbey.
Such facts are not interesting; nor do they give us a true idea of the man Dryden. To understand him we should have to read his works (no easy or pleasant task) and compare his prose prefaces, in which he is at his best, with the comedies in which he is abominable. When not engaged with the degenerate stage, or with political or literary or religious controversies, he appears sane, well-balanced, good-tempered, manly; but the impression is not a lasting one. He seems to have catered to the vicious element of his own age, to have regretted the misuse of his talent, and to have recorded his own judgment in two lines from his ode “To the Memory of Mrs. Killigrew”:
O gracious God, how far have we
Profaned thy heavenly grace of poesy!
WORKS OF DRYDEN. The occasional poems written by Dryden may be left in the obscurity into which they fell after they had been applauded. The same may be said of his typical poem “Annus Mirabilis,” which describes the wonderful events of the year 1666, a year which witnessed the taking of New Amsterdam from the Dutch and the great fire of London. Both events were celebrated in a way to contribute to the glory of King Charles and to Dryden’s political fortune. Of all his poetical works, only the odes written in honor of St. Cecilia are now remembered. The second ode, “Alexander’s Feast,” is one of our best poems on the power of music.
Dryden’s numerous plays show considerable dramatic power, and every one of them contains some memorable line or passage; but they are spoiled by the author’s insincerity in trying to satisfy the depraved taste of the Restoration stage. He wrote one play, All for Love, to please himself, he said, and it is noticeable that this play is written in blank verse and shows the influence of Shakespeare, who was then out of fashion. If any of the plays are to be read, All for Love should be selected, though it is exceptional, not typical, and gives but a faint idea of Dryden’s ordinary dramatic methods.
In the field of political satire Dryden was a master, and his work here is interesting as showing that unfortunate alliance between literature and politics which led many of the best English writers of the next century to sell their services to the Whigs or Tories. Dryden sided with the later party and, in a kind of allegory of the Bible story of Absalom’s revolt against David, wrote “Absalom and Achitophel” to glorify the Tories and to castigate the Whigs. This powerful political satire was followed by others in the same vein, and by “MacFlecknoe,” which satirized certain poets with whom Dryden was at loggerheads. As a rule, such works are for a day, having no enduring interest because they have no human kindness, but occasionally Dryden portrays a man of his own time so well that his picture applies to the vulgar politician of all ages, as in this characterization of Burnet:
Prompt to assail and careless of defence,
Invulnerable in his impudence,
He dares the world, and eager of a name
He thrusts about and justles into fame;
So fond of loud report that, not to miss.
Of being known (his last and utmost bliss),
He rather would be known for what he is.
These satires of Dryden were largely influential in establishing the heroic couplet, which dominated the fashion of English poetry for the next century. The couplet had been used by earlier poets, Chaucer for example; but in his hands it was musical and unobtrusive, a minor part of a complete work. With Dryden, and with his contemporary Waller, the making of couplets was the main thing; in their hands the couplet became “closed,” that is, it often contained a complete thought, a criticism, a nugget of common sense, a poem in itself, as in this aphorism from “MacFlecknoe”:
All human things are subject to decay,
And when Fate summons, monarchs must obey.
In his prose works Dryden proved himself the ablest critic of his time, and the inventor of a neat, serviceable style which, with flattery to ourselves, we are wont to call modern. Among his numerous critical works we note especially “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” “Of Heroic Plays,” “Discourse on Satire,” and the Preface to his Fables. These have not the vigor or picturesqueness of Bunyan’s prose, but they are written clearly, in short sentences, with the chief aim of being understood. If we compare them with the sonorous periods of Milton, or with the pretty involutions of Sidney, we shall see why Dryden is called “the father of modern prose.” His sensible style appears in this criticism of Chaucer:
“He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation in his age. Not a single character has escaped him.... We have our fathers and great-grand-dames all before us as they were in Chaucer’s days: their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in England, though they are called by other names than those of monks and friars and canons and lady abbesses and nuns; for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature though everything is altered.”
* * * * *
PURITAN AND CAVALIER VERSE. The numerous minor poets of this period are often arranged in groups, but any true classification is impossible since there was no unity among them. Each was a law unto himself, and the result was to emphasize personal oddity or eccentricity. It would seem that in writing of love, the common theme of poets, Puritan and Cavalier must alike speak the common language of the heart; but that is precisely what they did not do. With them love was no longer a passion, or even a fashion, but any fantastic conceit that might decorate a rime. Thus, Suckling habitually made love a joke:
Why so pale and wan, fond lover,
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well won't move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?
Crashaw turned from his religious poems to sing of love in a way to appeal to the Transcendentalists, of a later age:
Whoe’er she be,
That not impossible she
That shall command my heart and me.
And Donne must search out some odd notion from natural (or unnatural) history, making love a spider that turns the wine of life into poison; or from mechanics, comparing lovers to a pair of dividers:
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth if the other do.
Several of these poets, commonly grouped in a class which includes Donne, Herbert, Cowley, Crashaw, and others famous in their day, received the name of metaphysical poets, not because of their profound thought, but because of their eccentric style and queer figures of speech. Of all this group George Herbert (1593-1633) is the sanest and the sweetest. His chief work, The Temple, is a collection of poems celebrating the beauty of holiness, the sacraments, the Church, the experiences of the Christian life. Some of these poems are ingenious conceits, and deserve the derisive name of “metaphysical” which Dr. Johnson flung at them; but others, such as “Virtue,” “The Pulley,” “Love” and “The Collar,” are the expression of a beautiful and saintly soul, speaking of the deep things of God; and speaking so quietly withal that one is apt to miss the intensity that lurks even in his calmest verses. Note in these opening and closing stanzas of “Virtue” the restraint of the one, the hidden glow of the other:
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky!
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night;
For thou must die.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But, though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
In contrast with the disciplined Puritan spirit of Herbert is the gayety of another group, called the Cavalier poets, among whom are Carew, Suckling and Lovelace. They reflect clearly the spirit of the Royalists who followed King Charles with a devotion worthy of a better master. Robert Herrick (1591-1674) is the best known of this group, and his only book, Hesperides and Noble Numbers (1648), reflects the two elements found in most of the minor poetry of the age; namely, Cavalier gayety and Puritan seriousness. In the first part of the book are some graceful verses celebrating the light loves of the Cavaliers and the fleeting joys of country life:
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers,
Of April, May, of June and July flowers;
I sing of Maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal cakes.
In Noble Numbers such poems as “Thanksgiving,” “A True Lent,” “Litany,” and the child’s “Ode on the Birth of Our Saviour” reflect the better side of the Cavalier, who can be serious without pulling a long face, who goes to his devotions cheerfully, and who retains even in his religion what Andrew Lang calls a spirit of unregenerate happiness.
Samuel Butler (1612-1680) may also be classed with the Cavalier poets, though in truth he stands alone in this age, a master of doggerel rime and of ferocious satire. His chief work, Hudibras, a grotesque caricature of Puritanism, appeared in 1663, when the restored king and his favorites were shamelessly plundering the government. The poem (probably suggested by Don Quixote) relates a rambling story of the adventures of Sir Hudibras, a sniveling Puritan knight, and his squire Ralpho. Its doggerel style may be inferred from the following:
Besides, ‘tis known he could speak Greek
As naturally as pigs squeak;
That Latin was no more difficle
Than to a blackbird ‘tis to whistle:
Being rich in both, he never scanted
His bounty unto such as wanted.
Such was the stuff that the Royalists quoted to each other as wit; and the wit was so dear to king and courtiers that they carried copies of Hudibras around in their pockets. The poem was enormously popular in its day, and some of its best lines are still quoted; but the selections we now meet give but a faint idea of the general scurrility of a work which amused England in the days when the Puritan’s fanaticism was keenly remembered, his struggle for liberty quite forgotten.
PROSE WRITERS. Of the hundreds of prose works that appeared in Puritan times very few are now known even by name. Their controversial fires are sunk to ashes; even the causes that produced or fanned them are forgotten. Meanwhile we cherish a few books that speak not of strife but of peace and charity.
Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a physician, vastly learned in a day when he and other doctors gravely prescribed herbs or bloodsuckers for witchcraft; but he was less interested in his profession than in what was then called modern science. His most famous work is Religio Medici (Religion of a Physician, 1642), a beautiful book, cherished by those who know it as one of the greatest prose works in the language. His Urn Burial is even more remarkable for its subtle thought and condensed expression; but its charm, like that of the Silent Places, is for the few who can discover and appreciate it.
Isaac Walton (1593-1683), or Isaak, as he always wrote it, was a modest linen merchant who, in the midst of troublous times, kept his serenity of spirit by attending strictly to his own affairs, by reading good books, and by going fishing. His taste for literature is reflected with rare simplicity in his Lives of Donne, Wotton, Hooker, George Herbert and Bishop Sanderson, a series of biographies which are among the earliest and sweetest in our language. Their charm lies partly in their refined style, but more largely in their revelation of character; for Walton chose men of gentle spirit for his subjects, men who were like himself in cherishing the still depths of life rather than its noisy shallows, and wrote of them with the understanding of perfect sympathy. Wordsworth expressed his appreciation of the work in a noble sonnet beginning:
There are no colours in the fairest sky So fair as these. The feather whence the pen Was shaped that traced the lives of these good men Dropped from an angel’s wing.
Walton’s love of fishing, and of all the lore of trout brooks and spring meadows that fishing implies, found expression in The Compleat Angler, or Contemplative Man’s Recreation (1653). This is a series of conversations in which an angler convinces his friends that fishing is not merely the sport of catching fish, but an art that men are born to, like the art of poetry. Even such a hard-hearted matter as impaling a minnow for bait becomes poetical, for this is the fashion of it: “Put your hook in at his mouth, and out at his gills, and do it as if you loved him.” It is enough to say of this old work, the classic of its kind, that it deserves all the honor which the tribe of anglers have given it, and that you could hardly find a better book to fall asleep over after a day’s fishing.
No such gentle, human, lovable books were produced in Restoration times. The most famous prose works of the period are the diaries of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. The former was a gentleman, and his Diary is an interesting chronicle of matters large and small from 1641 to 1697. Pepys, though he became Secretary of the Admiralty and President of the Royal Society, was a gossip, a chatterbox, with an eye that loved to peek into closets and a tongue that ran to slander. His Diary, covering the period from 1660 to 1669, is a keen but malicious exposition of private and public life during the Restoration.
* * * * *
SUMMARY. The literary period just studied covers the last three quarters of the seventeenth century. Its limits are very indefinite, merging into Elizabethan romance on the one side, and into eighteenth century formalism on the other. Historically, the period was one of bitter conflict between two main political and religious parties, the Royalists, or Cavaliers, and the Puritans. The literature of the age is extremely diverse in character, and is sadly lacking in the unity, the joyousness, the splendid enthusiasm of Elizabethan prose and poetry.
The greatest writer of the period was John Milton. He is famous in literature for his early or Horton poems, which are Elizabethan in spirit; for his controversial prose works, which reflect the strife of the age; for his epic of Paradise Lost, and for his tragedy of Samson.
Another notable Puritan, or rather Independent, writer was John Bunyan, whose works reflect the religious ferment of the seventeenth century. His chief works are Grace Abounding, a kind of spiritual biography, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory of the Christian life which has been more widely read than any other English book.
The chief writer of the Restoration period was John Dryden, a professional author, who often catered to the coarser tastes of the age. There is no single work by which he is gratefully remembered. He is noted for his political satires, for his vigorous use of the heroic couplet, for his modern prose style, and for his literary criticisms.
Among the numerous minor poets of the period, Robert Herrick and George Herbert are especially noteworthy. A few miscellaneous prose works are the Religio Medici of Thomas Browne, The Compleat Angler of Isaac Walton, and the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. Minor poems of Milton, and parts of Paradise Lost, in Standard English Classics, Riverside Literature, and other school series (see Texts, in General Bibliography). Selections from Cavalier and Puritan poets in Maynard’s English Classics, Golden Treasury Series, Manly’s English Poetry, Century Readings, Ward’s English Poets. Prose selections in Manly’s English Prose, Craik’s English Prose Selections, Garnett’s English Prose from Elizabeth to Victoria. Pilgrim’s Progress and Grace Abounding in Standard English Classics, Pocket Classics, Student’s Classics. Religio Medici and Complete Angler in Temple Classics and Everyman’s Library. Selections from Dryden in Manly’s English Prose and Manly’s English Poetry. Dryden’s version of Palamon and Arcite (the Knight’s Tale of Chaucer) in Standard English Classics, Riverside Literature, Lake Classics.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. For texts and manuals dealing with the whole field of English history and literature see the General Bibliography. The following works deal chiefly with the Puritan and Restoration periods.
HISTORY. Wakeling, King and Parliament (Oxford Manuals of English History); Gardiner, The First Two Stuarts and the Puritan Revolution (Great Epochs Series); Tulloch, English Puritanism; Harrison, Oliver Cromwell; Hale, The Fall of the Stuarts; Airy, The English Restoration and Louis XIV.
LITERATURE. Masterman, The Age of Milton; Dowden, Puritan and Anglican; Wendell, The Temper of the Seventeenth Century in English Literature; Clark Lectures Given at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the Year 1902-1903. ; Gosse, Seventeenth-Century Studies; Schilling, Seventeenth-Century Lyrics (Athenæum Press Series); Isaac Walton, Lives of Donne, Wotton, Hooker, Herbert and Sanderson.
Milton. Life, by Garnett (Great Writers Series); by Pattison (English Men of Letters). Corson, Introduction to Milton; Raleigh, Milton; Stopford Brooke, Milton. Essays, by Macaulay; by Lowell, in Among My Books; by M. Arnold, in Essays in Criticism.
Bunyan. Life, by Venables (Great Writers); by Froude (E. M. of L.). Brown, John Bunyan; Woodberry’s essay, in Makers of Literature.
Dryden. Life by Saintsbury (E. M. of L.). Gosse, From Shakespeare to Pope; an Inquiry Into the Causes and Phenomena of the Rise of Classical Poetry in England.
FICTION AND POETRY. Shorthouse, John Inglesant; Scott, Old Mortality, Peveril of the Peak, Woodstock; Blackmore, Lorna Doone. Milton, Sonnet on Cromwell; Scott, Rokeby; Bates and Coman, English History Told by English Poets.
Disclosure: We are independently owned and the opinions expressed here are our own. We do have advertisements with links to other sites on our pages, and may receive compensation when you click on one of those links and/or purchase something from one of those sites.
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved