The life of Milton is seen to be considerably influenced by the age in which he lived; similarly his poems bear unmistakable traces of the spirit of the age in which he lived. It is a question as to whether it was fortunate or unfortunate that Milton should have been thrown upon an age of clashing principles and sharp controversies. Perhaps like everything else in the world it has got its advantages and its disadvantages for the poet. One thing is certain – that Milton lived in particularly stirring times, and that his intelligence and his imagination were considerably influenced by conflicting principles in politics, in religion and in social life.
Influence of the Spirit of the Renaissance
The two great influences that worked upon the poetic career of Milton were the spirit of the Renaissance and the spirit of the Reformation. The Renaissance is the name given to the revival of ancient Greek and Latin learning which took place in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Renaissance brought with it not only an increased interest in Greek and Latin literatures but also an increased interest in Art and a greater zest for life as a whole and a keener appreciation of what is beautiful, bright and joyous in life. Greek literature especially had the influence of making people take a keener zest in life, develop a deeper sense of appreciation of what is beautiful, and at the same time it induced a logical and rationalistic outlook on affairs and institutions. To a certain extent, therefore, the Renaissance was responsible for the religious reformation of Europe, because people who developed a rational outlook on religion began to question the validity of several beliefs, institutions and practices connected with the Roman Catholic Church; in other words, the Renaissance developed that spirit of enquiry and that spirit of rational analysis which ultimately led to the breach with the Roman Catholic form of Christianity and to the establishment of Protestantism.
As far as Milton was concerned the influence of the Renaissance is clearly noticeable in his outlook on life and in his poems. The wealth of classical learning with which his poems are studded, the frequent references to ancient Greek and Latin ideas and ideals, the love of Art and the love of music and love of the beautiful and the aesthetic and the sublime—all these are indications of the influence of the Renaissance.
Influence of the Spirit of Puritanism
By a cross development of ideas and ideals this spirits of the Renaissance ultimately developed another spirit that was different from and hostile to the influence of the Renaissance, namely, the spirit of Puritanism. It happened this way. The Reformation as we have seen, was an indirect result of the Renaissance. As far as England was concerned, the work of the Reformation was carried out by men of markedly conservative temper, that is to say, the reformers of England did not want completely to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, though at the same time they did revolt against certain of its practices and beliefs. It is remarkable that to the last Henry VIII did not break away completed from the Roman Catholic Church, though he repudiated the political and the religious authority of the Papacy. When during the regime of his daughter Queen Elizabeth the work of the Reformation was more or less completed, we find that a good deal of the ritual and the ceremonials of the Roman Catholic Church are still retained though apparently Protestantism has become the established religion of England. This peculiar kind of Protestantism in England, otherwise known as Anglicanism, is a kind of compromise between extreme Catholicism, and extreme Protestantism. Naturally there were two sets of people in England – some who opposed the breach with Rome and other who protested against this half-hearted Protestantism. This latter of people were known as the Puritans, because they stood for the purest form of Protestantism, or in other words for Christianity based upon the literal wording of the Bible—a Christianity that recognised the supremacy of Christ alone without any temporal or mortal intermediaries. The Puritan stood for an austere, high-principled, God-fearing and blameless kind of life. He was against any form of episcopal government and any sort of autocratic authority by priests. The Bible, as far as he was concerned, contained sufficient guidance for him to direct him through all the walks of life.
The Puritans were, during the age of Elizabeth, essentially a minority. Queen Elizabeth herself although she had broken away completely from the Roman Catholic Church and persecuted the Roman Catholics, was equally opposed to Puritanism; and Puritans were persecuted with as much rigour as Roman Catholics. The reason for this is to be sought in the fact that the Puritan was taken to be, and to certain extent was, a rebel against all established authority. He revolted against Church government or the government by priests as far as his religious life was concerned. It was feared, to a certain extent justifiably, that he would rebel against established authority in political matters as well. This fear was soon to materialise in the succeeding age, the reign of the Stuarts. Milton too was a Puritan and this reflected in his poems. The revolt of Satan in a way the revolt of Puritan against the established authority.
Age of Bitter Controversies and Influence on Milton
Had Milton lived in a different age, an age of tranquility and peace, had he not been torn between opposing ideals and conflicting schools of thought, a good deal of his time and energy wasted in fruitless controversy, might have gone to enrich English poetry. Another Comus or Lycidas might have been written; another epic of the magnitude of Paradise Lost or some great dramatic production, of which there is an indication in Samson Agonists, might have been written. But it was not to be, because Milton was thrown on an age of violent and bitter controversies, an age of political unrest and bitter religious conflict, a stormy age torn between conflicting outlooks and ideals. But perhaps we should not forget that there is also another side to the question. The poet who entered the arena of life and fought with the combatants of his side, to that extent enriched his poetical genius and his intellectual outlook. Had not Milton mixed with the controversies of his age and taken that active part in life which he did, he might have been more of a recluse and a scholar and less of that great and sublime poet that we recognise in him. To this extent the stormy age in which he lived helped to widen his outlook and enlarge his knowledge of men and affairs. Whether the age in which he lived did more harm or more good to the poet’s genius, one thing is certain that he was immensely influenced by it and that his poems carry unmistakable traces and impressions of the ideas and the ideals that inspired the age in which he lived.