English Prose in the Age of Milton

The age of Milton (that is, 1625-1660, comprising the Caroline age and the Commonwealth) was an age of singular activity in the field of English prose. The central events of the age-political struggles culminating in the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth-exerted both a hampering and an encouraging influence on the prose writers of the age. Much was written by them in sheer party spirit to promote either of the two conflicting parties-the Puritans and the Cavaliers.

Thus the air was thick with party pamphlets most of which proved only of ephemeral interest. Further, this age was remarkable for its production of some very eloquent and compelling sermons of the first rank in the language. The age of Milton has been very aptly called “the Golden Age of English Pulpit.” The names of such powerful writers as Taylor, Robert South, Fuller, Isaac Barrow, and Richard Baxter are associated with this department of writing. In the field of moral, social, and political philosophy the age was enriched by the works of Sir Thomas Browne, John Hales, and Hobbes. Clarendon and Fuller wrote distinguished histories. Isaac Walton composed the quaint work The Compleat Angler-a work of its own kind. And then there was the almighty Milton who distinguished himself almost as eminently in the field of prose as that of poetry. In a word, the age of Milton was a period of prolific activity in the field of English prose touching many departments of life.

The Baroque Style:
As regards prose style, the writers of the age of Milton exhibit a curious retrogressive tendency. Every past age in England had in some measure advanced literature from antiquity to modernity. But the age of Milton does not seem to have advanced English prose fromthe extravagance and antiquity of the prose of the Elizabethan period towards the ideal of simplicity, comprehensibility, and lucidity associated with the prose of the writers of the age of Queen Anne (1702-14). Right in the Jacobean age (1603-25) we come across some important writers like Bacon and the character writers who look to the future and dissociate themselves from the ornateness, prolixity, involvedness, arid diffuseness of the prose of their contemporaries. The Gothic” style of most Elizabethans influenced a sizable proportion of  the prose writer of the age of Milton. The lesson of simplicity and sententiousness set forth by Bacon and the character writers was forgotten, with the result that a kind of “baroque” style was cultivated during the age of Milton. It was at the end of the age that the Restoration writers like Dryden stemmed the retrogressive tide and furthered the advance towards simplicity and lucidity which came fully and effectively to be realised by such writers as Addison and Swift after the close of the seventeenth century. However, it may be admitted with H.C.J. Grierson that the progress towards simplicity and modernity cost the English prose some “freshness, harmony, dignity, and poetic richness of phraseology.” When prose becomes strictly functional in nature these qualities have to be done without.
With these preliminary remarks let us proceed to examine the work of the major prose writers of the age.
Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682):
Sir Thomas Browne was a quaint figure, though a very typical prose writer of his age. He may be compared with Burton before him. But whereas Burton was by profession a clergyman with a deep interest in medicine, Browne was by profession a physician, with a very deep interest in religion. As a thinker and writer he was a surprising blend of the medieval and modern characteristics. He had a scientific love of investigating the physical truths, the qualities of both a mystic and a sceptic, was a crusader for a rationalistic appraisal of both the work and the word of God, a great supporter of religious tolerance, a zealous campaigner for the removal of errors in all fields of learning and divinity, but himself tenaciously wedded to such errors as belief in witchcraft and the mystic supremacy of the number five. His works reveal his attractively quaint personality in its fullness, and therein lies the reason of his perpetual appeal to the readers of all ages. The modern reader may justly scoff at the pomposity and the occasional absurdity of the learned doctor, but he has to admit with the Earl of Dorset that “assuredly, he is the owner of a strong generous heart.”
Browne’s Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor) which was published in 1642 immediately achieved Continental fame, and was translated into several languages. The work may be called” an autobiography of the soul”. But apart from its importance in revealing the personality of the writer, the work intended a curative effect on the “sick” society of the age. “It is likely,” says Tucker Brooke in A Literary History of England, edited by Albert C. Baugh, “that Dr. Browne, in all his estimable career, never prescribed a better medicine than when he wrote Religio Medici. The world was sick of horrors, on the brink of civil war, and in the throes of a harsh theology. The book is a prophylactic against totalitarian damnation, and the world took it to its heart.”
Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Vulgar Errors), which comprised seven books, attempted to correct the common errors in the fields of mineral and vegetable bodies, animals, men, misrepresentations in pictures etc. geography, and history, However, the author himself is not altogether free from errors. In his Hydriotaphia or Urn-Burial and The Garden vf Gyrjus (both published 1658), the emphasis is clearly on style. The former was opcasioned by the recovery of a few sepulchral urns in Norwich, the habitat of the writer. As Leaouis savs “it treats of the oblivion which covers the traces of men, even though famous and with this subject he plays as a dilettante.” The latter work is concerned with the supremacy of the number five (the quincunx). Browne’s Christian Morals, published posthumously, is written in the character of a fairly orthodox Christian.
Browne’s prose style-though there are passages of rare lucidity charged with incisive energy-is representative of the baroque style. He has love of Latinised expressions and poetic cadences and sonorous words. “The interweaving of his harmonies”, says Legouis, “offers an enchantment to the ear scarcely less than that of the finest lyrics.”
The Anglican Clergy: Taylor and Others:
The prose of the age of Milton is remarkable for its pronounced religious slant. The secular interest of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods seem to have yielded considerable place to religious interests. Legouis remarks in this connexion: “The rich humanity, the widespread curiosity, the intermingling of comedy with tragedy in the portrayal of life, were replaced by a passionate controversy on the forms of Christian religion and a search-which became almost an obsession~for the way of salvation.” In the Caroline period there was a complete polarisation of religious affiliations and the Puritans and the Protestants (Anglicans) emerged as two groups irreconcilably opposed to each other. Both of them had eminent men of letters among their ranks. Whereas Milton was the most important of the Puritans, Jeremy Taylor was the best among the Protestants. Let us consider briefly the prose of the Anglicans first.
Among the Anglicans the important prose writers were George Herbert, Thomas Traherne, John Hales, William Chiliingworth, John Gauden, and Jeremy Taylor (1613-67). Most of them mainly wrote sermons. The last named was the most distinguished and the most tolerant of all of them. Along with his sermons he gave Liberty of Prophesying (1646) and his most famous works Holy Living and Holy Dying (1650-51). Like Browne, Taylor is preoccupied with the thought of human mortality. Like him, again, he is not afraid of death; he considers it as “nothing but a middle-point between the.two lives.” The then recent death of his wife prompted him further to enter into the contemplation of mortality and the holy practice of prayer as also the importance of faith and patience.
Taylor’s style is a good example of the baroque style. His prose is a collection of long, rich, rolling sentences each of which goes like the river Alph in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion.
The structure is Ciceronian and highly Latinised. Taylor’s prcse is characterised by a love of fancy at the cost of logic. Like the verse of the metaphysicals, TayIor’s prose manifests what T. S. Eliot calls the 2S3ociation of sensibility. He is very close to the Elizabethans, and has re-en called—not without justice “the Shakespeare of English prose” and “the Spenser of the pulpit.” According to Legouis, in Taylor’s case “the logician becomes lost in the poet.” Nevertheless, his prose is not without its beauty of harmony and dignity when he dwells on a theme rear to him, such as death or human frailty.
The Puritans: Baxter, Milton and Others:
The Puritan camp was dominated by Milton. But there were also some other important figures such as Baxter and Prynne. As: crnpared to the prose works of the Anglicans, those of the Puritans are marked by violence and coarseness and, not unoften, downright lack of good taste. In his Histriomastix (1632) Prynne made a violent attack m the allesed immoralitv of the stase. Elsewhere, he lashed at the Anglican bishops. Richard Baxter (1615-91), however, is not so intolerant. He wrote two manuals of practical religion-TTze Saints’Everlasting Rest (1650) and Call to the Unconverted (1657) which remained for long very important books in the Puritan tradition :n both England and America. His style is quite simple but has few rther qualities to recommend itself. The prose of John Owen (1616-S3), another Puritan divine, is again, as Legouis remarks, “rather dull and uninviting.”
Milton from the age of thirty-one .Jo fifty-wrote a number of pamphlets on political and ecclesiastical themes. In this period his poetic activity remained suspended except for the production of a dozen sonnets. On his return from the Continent to England he found the country “on a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes.” But he plunged into the “sea” and made his appearance felt. Milton’s prose is the work of an excellent poet who looked upon prose as something contemptible and the work of but his “ibft hand.” His prose is generally rhetorical and too highly Latinised, but is not without its rocky strength and overwhelming grandeur, tor one thing, it has the quality of high seriousness plus sincerity. Milton always has a point to make and does make it, and quite often, effectively. But some bitterness does become manifest here and there. Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing (1644) is Milton’s most outstanding prose work. It was an eloquent plea for the liberty of the press. Regarding Milton‘s style, Legouis observes : “The remorseless length, ofhis sentences renders them formidable at first to the reader, but’ from their troubled vehemence breaks forth at times a scathing irony or a sudden splendour. They reveal the impetuous idealist, unpractical and thorough-going.”
Philosophy: Hobbes, Harrington, etc:
The prose of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) rises above all political and religious controversies. Hobbes was Bacon’s secretary and Decartes’ correspondent. He combines in his philosophic work the empiricism of the former and the mechanistic rationalism of the latter. His important work Leviathan (1651) sets forth his totalitarian, materialistic, and rationalistic philosophy. Leviathan, says Legouis, “is written in strong, logical, massive prose, exempt from the oratorical vehemence and ornaments of his great contemporaries, and heralding the prose of the classical period.”
James Harrington in his Utopian work Oceana (1656) offered to controvert the views of Hobbes favouring absolute monarchy. The Cambridge Platonists, Henry More (1614-87) and Ralph Cudworth (1617-88) wrote in opposition to Hobbes’s rationalism. The prose of all these writers is fanciful and devoid of lucidity and exactness-the hallmarks of Hobbes’s style.
The Eccentrics:
Lastly, we come across some “eccentrics” who wrote about the middle of the seventeeth century. Of them Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611-60) translated the first two books of Rabelais Gargantua (1653). In giving free play to fancy he outdid even Browne Thomas Fuller (1608-61), an Anglican clergyman, wrote the Church History of Britain (1655-56), Holy and Prophane State (1642), and The History of the Worthies of England (1662). Fuller’s prose is somewhat quaint, but has an element of wit, even the wit of the metaphysical kind. At any rate, he is delightful, even though in patches. He wittily describes a negro as “an image of God cut in ebony.” “The soldier”, Fuller writes at a place, “at the same time shoots out his prayers to God and his pistol at his enemy.”
Izaac Walton (1593-1683) falls in a class by himself. He is known for his biographies of Donne, Henry Wotton, Hooker, George Herbert, and Bishop Sanderson written between 1640 and 1678. They are, says Hardin Craig in A History of English Literature, ed. Hardin Craig, “masterpieces, not of biography, but of style and temper, hearty sincerity, cheerfulness and good nature, and personal interest in the men treated. His mistakes as a biographer, for example in the case of ‘ Hooker, have to be guarded against, but his pictures are essentially true.”
Walton’s more important work, however, is The Compleai Angler (1653) which is essentially a treatise on fishing, but has alongside many incidental attractions for the student of literature. Walton was an ironmonger by profession and he spent all of his leisure on fishing, of which sport he acquired an almost uncanny knowledge. He sets forth this knowledge in this book. “Its charm,” says Hardin Craig, “rests also on its background which is made up of natural scenery, life at inns, fishermen’s tales and casual conversations with fishermen, and of casually interspersed songs and lyrics”.
“He”, says Legouis in his A Short History of English Literature “serves as a link between Marlowe and Dryden.” We can easily perceive in his prose, even though it is the prose of an ironmonger, a marked Elizabethan quality. “He describes”, says Legouis, “these healthful pleasures in a prose, limpid, if a little slow; still redolent of the artificial pastoral here and there but wherein lies the witchery of the English countryside.”

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