Milton’s work reflects the influence of both the reformation and the Renaissance^ The Renaissance and the Reformation had their impact oh England in the sixteenth century. Generally speaking, they exerted pulls in mutually opposite directions. Most of the Elizabethans came under the classical and humanistic influence of the Renaissance but did not admit the influence of the Reformation on their literary work. Spenser among them, however, tried obviously to reconcile the ‘two enthusiasms.
On the one hand, he celebrated the Church of England and condemned the Popish hypocrites in the persons of Duessa and the Wily Archimago, and showed his excessive concern for virtue and the spirit; and on the other, manifested much enthusiasm for beauty (generally of the human figure), a kind of Platonic idealism, reverence for the classical models of Grecian and Roman antiquity and some other characteristics associated with the Renaissance. In spite of his efforts, Spenser could go no farther than effecting a rather superficial synthesis of the Renaissance and the Reformation tendencies. It was left for Milton…”the poetical son of Spenser”, as Dryden called him..to homogenise these two into a perfect whole. When he started writing, the initial exuberance ushered in by the Renaissance and the Reformation was already on its way out. His poetry is the first and the last example of the happy and effortless harmonisation of the two mutually antagonistic^enthusiasms which stirred the England of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Milton Blends the Two:
Very roughly speaking, the spirit of the Reformation provides the content and spirit of Milton poetry, and the spirit 6f the Renaissance classicism its mouldund pattern. Milton did in the seventeenth century what the poets of the French Pleiade had done in the sixteenth. “No poet”, says Grierson in The First Half-of the Seventeenth Century, “realised so completely the Renaissance ideal of poetry cast in classical moulds-carried out so entirely and majestically the programme of the Pleiade. Milton,”and Milton only, succeeded in producing living and beautiful poems in correct classical forms. And into these classical forms he poured the intensest spirit of the Protestant movement.” In fact Milton’s puritanism (a product of the Reformation) and his Hellenism (a product of the Renaissance) were more closely harmonised in his genius than the formular division of theme and form would suggest. Just as Addison professed “to enliven morality with wit and to temper wit with morality”. Milton seems to have enlivened puritanism with Hellenism and tempered his Hellenism with puritanism. Milton was neither a godless pagan nor a Puritan formalist nor was he both simultaneously. He imbibed the true spirit of both tendencies and wrote under the unified impact of both.
The Reformation Elements:
In Milton’s poetry the Reformation element is found as his soft and steady puritanism. Puritans were those who “protested” against even the Protestants who in their turn had protested against the Pope and the Popish religion. The Reformation signifies the great religious revolution of the sixteenth century which gave rise to the various Protestant or Evangelical organisations of Christendom. The movement was European in extent and was widely successful in the reign of Henry VIII, and later Elizabeth I. But some splinter sects rose against the Protestant Church of England which they thought was not yet fully reformed, and who urged to take Christianity back to the religion of Jesus Christ. These Puritans devotedly and rather superstitiously revered the Bible, condemned the Protestant bishop (episcopacy) and every institutionalised religion, emphasised every man’s inner light, hated all arts such as painting, sculpture and music and even’drama, all show and luxury, shied at the least appearance of evil, favoured highly formalised and rigorous conduct, and, in general, turned against all literature and aesthetic pursuits. Now, Milton was born in a Puritan family. His schooling and surroundings, his social and political affiliations, and a number of other factors combined to instil in him a love of Puritan ideology and way of life. However, he was a man of too strong an individuality to accept any formal “ism” in its totality. He was a deeply religious man, and even at the age of twenty-three he could write:
All is, if I have grace to use it so;
As ever in my great Task Master’s eye.
Milton’s puritanism has not much to do with the macabresque and stoic creed of ordinary puritans. The Renaissance elements of his intellectual set-up effectively controvert these tendencies and any fanatic adherence to a rigorous code of conduct and ultimate values. His version of puritanism was tinged by his love of the classics, the love of nature, the love of beauty, and Renaissance humanism insisting on the world of man, and love of “the human face divine.” Moreover, unlike most Puritans, Milton emphasises the spirit rather than the conduct. And this emphasis brings him into affinity with the Cambridge Platonists who were themselves mostly Puritans. Milton believed that “the Spirit which is given to us is a more certain guide than Scripture.” In his pamphlet Of True Religion he states that along with external Scripture there is an internal Scripture, “the Holy Spirit written in the Hearts of believers”. Milton departed from the puritanic creed even in some important doctrinal points. For instance, he did not subscribe to the doctrine of predestination and refused the Son an equal status with the Father. In more general terms, he tried to reconstruct the puritanic creed on the basis of the humanistic ideology of the Renaissance.
The Renaissance Elements:
The Renaissance in England gave rise to a large number of tendencies. It brought in its wake love and appreciation of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, a keen love of beauty and art, and a new stress on human life and pursuits. Milton is obviously affected by all these ramifications of the spirit of the Renaissance. As early as in 1637 he wrote to his friend Deodati: “Whatever the deity may have bestowed upon me in other respects, he has certainly inspired me, if any ever were inspired, with a passion for the good and the beautiful. Nor did Ceres, according to the fable, ever seek her daughter Proserpine with such unceasing solicitude as I have sought this idea of the beautiful in all the forms and appearance of things, for many are the shapes of things divine. Day and night 1 am wont to continue my search.” Unlike some others, Milton does not stand for atheistic epicureanism or hard-hearted materialism which attracted many (for example, the University Wits). Nor was he a votary of paganism, even though he showed vast knowledge of pagan mythology which came into limelight with the Renaissance. Again, though he respected the dignity of human beings yet he stood for their acquiescence in the will of God. In short, the Renaissance spirit in Milton was influenced and modified by his ingrained puritanism. The Renaissance elements show themselves in Milton in two wavs:
(i) They provide, as we have already-said, the classical framework for most of his major poetical works.
(ii) Secondly, they leaven, humanise, hellenise, refine, and somewhat secularise his puritanism and mitigate its severity. Almost ail of Milton’s poetic works are embodiments of the Renaissance and the Reformation elements. Let us see how.
“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”:
The ode On the Morning ‘of Christ’s Nativity “which Milton wrote in 1629 was his first masterpiece. Therein he celebrates the arrival of Jesus Christ and the dismay of pagan deities at his birth. The poem shows that, as Legouis puts it, “Milton was already dedicating his highest art to the service of his religion.” The theme and the tone are both deeply religious. However, the impact of the Renaissance is also visible in:-
(i) the classical form of the poem; and
(ii) Milton’s profound and vast knowledge of pagan mythology (even if with his open disapproval of it).
“L’AHegro” and “II Penseroso”:
Milton’s next important poems L’Allegro and ll Penseroso show in themselves a preponderance of the Renaissance spirit over his puritanism. Basically, these two companion poems are poems ofjoy-U Allegro describing the pleasures sought after by a joyous man, and the other the pursuits desired by a melancholy man. The first poem is the work of a young man who is filled to the brim with thejoie de vivre and who abandons himself to those pleasures which were anathema to the gloomy Puritans. Thus the poem strikes a positively anti-Puritan note. Milton invokes the Goddess ofjoy:
Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks, and wreathed smiles, Such as hang on Hebe s cheek, And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
Ana. Laughter holding both his sides.
Milton expresses his taste for country amusements and the plays of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare-things heartily disliked by the Puritans. In ll Penseroso the tone and spirit are much more subdued, and they put Milton nearer the Puritans. The Goddess of Melancholy is described as a “pensive nun” and has a few definitely Christian associations. But there is the same Renaissance element visible too. Milton likes Plato and Hermes. He loves to read Chaucer and see tragic performances. A critic observes about L ‘Allegro and H Penseroro. “The Renaissance culture and learning were sweeping over these poems. There is no hint here of the fanaticism that would shut the theatres, pull down the maypoles on the village greens, and turn ‘merry England’ into ‘pslam singing England.”
Milton’s next important work is the masque Comus. The genre of the masque was very popular in Renaissance England, and before Milton, Ben Jonson had already written some splendid masques. But whereas the masques before Milton were unalloyed embodiments of the Renaissance spirit (including love of pagan mythology, fun and frivolous merry-making, and eschewing all moral purpose), Milton’s masque is in spirit and purpose highly puritanic. Its only Renaissance characteristic is its form. Milton sets out in highly didactic terms to exalt cold and colourless virtue of the puritanic kind and the way in which it succeeds in circumventing the wily arts of vice.
Lycidas (1637) was a pastoral elegy written on the death of Milton’s friend Edward King who was drowned in a shipwreck near Anglesea. As in Comus, its form and theme are representative of two different cultures. The form of Lycidas is classical but the theme and expression are indicative of a puritanic spirit. We find more of Milton than King in the poem. King’s death prompts Milton to think of the futility of his own poetic craft:
Alas! What boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles ofNeaera ‘s hair?
But Milton expresses his intention to devote himself to serious and religious poetry, as Phoebus tells him that his reward is not fame, “that last infirmity of noble mind/’ He should, rather, “in heaven expect his meed.” Then as a zealous Puritan Milton finds the opportunity to lash the corrupt clergy who lead a comfortable life whereas:
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swollen with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread.
Paradise Lost– Milton’s magnum opus–is, according to L.A. Cormican, “the highest achievement of the Protestant mind looking at the whole created cosmos through faith purified and elevated till it coincides .with the mind of God.” Both in theme and purpose Paradise Lost is a product of the Reformation spirit. Its theme is the fall of Satan and, through him the fall of Man. Its purpose is, in Milton’s own words, “to justify the ways of God to man.” Not that Milton thought for a moment that God’s ways stood any need of justification, but he thought that in the case of some understandings clouded by evil and human frality some pleading might have been helpful. He took up the role of God’s own advocate. It was an assertion of militant Puritanism–intolerant and self-righteous. In the beginning Milton had remained toying for long with the idea of writing an epic on King Arthur and his Round Table, but his puritanism made him gravitate surely and steadily towards a biblical theme. In Paradise Lost he went out of his way to condemn in unmistakable terms the corruption and hedonism of the Cavaliers whom he calls “the sons of Belial flown with insolence and wine” who riot in the streets of London every night.
Some critics have tried to “exculpate” Milton of puritanism by pointing out his covert sympathy with Satan. Blake went so far as to assert that “Milton was the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Some have averred that it is not Adam but Satan who is the hero of Paradise Lost. These views are altogether untenable. Satan is indeed a heroic figure unconquered and almost unconquerable, but he is not a hero, and he is quite definitely an embodiment of all the evil with which Milton has no sympathy at all. Of course, there is something parallel between Satan’s rebellion against God and Milton’s own rebellion against Charles II. but that is almost all. Hardin Craig observes in A History of English Literature (General Editor: Hardin Craig): “One would attribute the excellence of Milton’s picture of Satan not to his sympathy with the heart of the archfiend, but to his great knowledge of the nature, even the power and attractiveness, of evil.”
In its form Paradise Lost conforms quite strictly to the classical epic of the kind of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid. Milton upholds all the conventions of the epic. It has fable, action, characters, and diction as demanded of a classical epic. For the hexameter of the Aeneid Milton effectively substitutes the pentameter of blank verse, which comes close to his model. Instead of the pagan marvels we have “Christian” miracles wrought by God and His Son. Then there is the invocation to the Muse, though Milton’s Muse is not the conventional Muse of epic poetry but the Holy Spirit. In short, it may be said that the form of Paradise Lost reflects the Renaissance spirit, and its theme the Reformation soirit.
There is very little of the Renaissance spirit in Paradise Regained in which is described in four books the temptation of Christ by Satan, but his ultimate failure. From the beginning to the end the work is instinct with the religious spirit so strong in Milton.
Samson Agonistes is a classical tragedy composed strictly on the principles enunciated by Aristotle in his Poetics and, to a great extent, after the practice of the Greek tragedy writers-Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. However, the spirit and the theme are highly religious. Milton put something of himself in the Biblical hero who defied the corrupt rulers of his times and fell a martyr to virtue and integrity. The mould of the tragedy is Hellenic but the spirit is preeminently Hebraic.