A History of English Literature
by Robert Huntington Fletcher
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Chapter VII. Period V. The Seventeenth Century, 1603-1660. Prose And Poetry
The first half of the seventeenth century as a whole, compared with the Elizabethan age, was a period of relaxing vigor. The Renaissance enthusiasm had spent itself, and in place of the danger and glory which had long united the nation there followed increasing dissension in religion and politics and uncertainty as to the future of England and, indeed, as to the whole purpose of life. Through increased experience men were certainly wiser and more sophisticated than before, but they were also more self-conscious and sadder or more pensive. The output of literature did not diminish, but it spread itself over wider fields, in general fields of somewhat recondite scholarship rather than of creation. Nevertheless this period includes in prose one writer greater than any prose writer of the previous century, namely Francis Bacon, and, further, the book which unquestionably occupies the highest place in English literature, that is the King James version of the Bible; and in poetry it includes one of the very greatest figures, John Milton, together with a varied and highly interesting assemblage of lesser lyrists.
FRANCIS BACON, VISCOUNT ST. ALBANS, 1561-1626. [Footnote: Macaulay's well-known essay on Bacon is marred by Macaulay's besetting faults of superficiality and dogmatism and is best left unread.] Francis Bacon, intellectually one of the most eminent Englishmen of all times, and chief formulator of the methods of modern science, was born in 1561 (three years before Shakespeare), the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Queen Elizabeth and one of her most trusted earlier advisers. The boy's precocity led the queen to call him her 'little Lord Keeper.' At the age of twelve he, like Wyatt, was sent to Cambridge, where his chief impression was of disgust at the unfruitful scholastic application of Aristotle's ideas, still supreme in spite of a century of Renaissance enlightenment. A very much more satisfactory three years' residence in France in the household of the English ambassador was terminated in 1579 (the year of Spenser's 'Shepherd's Calendar') by the death of Sir Nicholas. Bacon was now ready to enter on the great career for which his talents fitted him, but his uncle by marriage, Lord Burghley, though all-powerful with the queen, systematically thwarted his progress, from jealous consciousness of his superiority to his own son. Bacon therefore studied law, and was soon chosen a member of Parliament, where he quickly became a leader. He continued, however, throughout his life to devote much of his time to study and scholarly scientific writing.
On the interpretation of Bacon's public actions depends the answer to the complex and much-debated question of his character. The most reasonable conclusions seem to be: that Bacon was sincerely devoted to the public good and in his earlier life was sometimes ready to risk his own interests in its behalf; that he had a perfectly clear theoretical insight into the principles of moral conduct; that he lacked the moral force of character to live on the level of his convictions, so that after the first, at least, his personal ambition was often stronger than his conscience; that he believed that public success could be gained only by conformity to the low standards of the age; that he fell into the fatal error of supposing that his own preeminent endowments and the services which they might enable him to render justified him in the use of unworthy means; that his sense of real as distinguished from apparent personal dignity was distressingly inadequate; and that, in general, like many men of great intellect, he was deficient in greatness of character, emotion, fine feeling, sympathy, and even in comprehension of the highest spiritual principles. He certainly shared to the full in the usual courtier's ambition for great place and wealth, and in the worldling's inclination to ostentatious display.
Having offended Queen Elizabeth by his boldness in successfully opposing an encroachment on the rights of the House of Commons, Bacon connected himself with the Earl of Essex and received from him many favors; but when Essex attempted a treasonable insurrection in 1601, Bacon, as one of the Queen's lawyers, displayed against him a subservient zeal which on theoretical grounds of patriotism might appear praiseworthy, but which in view of his personal obligations was grossly indecent. For the worldly prosperity which he sought, however, Bacon was obliged to wait until the accession of King James, after which his rise was rapid. The King appreciated his ability and often consulted him, and he frequently gave the wisest advice, whose acceptance might perhaps have averted the worst national disasters of the next fifty years. The advice was above the courage of both the King and the age; but Bacon was advanced through various legal offices, until in 1613 he was made Attorney-General and in 1618 (two years after Shakespeare's death) Lord High Chancellor of England, at the same time being raised to the peerage as Baron Verulam. During all this period, in spite of his better knowledge, he truckled with sorry servility to the King and his unworthy favorites and lent himself as an agent in their most arbitrary acts. Retribution overtook him in 1621, within a few days after his elevation to the dignity of Viscount St. Albans. The House of Commons, balked in an attack on the King and the Duke of Buckingham, suddenly turned on Bacon and impeached him for having received bribes in connection with his legal decisions as Lord Chancellor. Bacon admitted the taking of presents (against which in one of his essays he had directly cautioned judges), and threw himself on the mercy of the House of Lords, with whom the sentence lay. He appears to have been sincere in protesting later that the presents had not influenced his decisions and that he was the justest judge whom England had had for fifty years; it seems that the giving of presents by the parties to a suit was a customary abuse. But he had technically laid himself open to the malice of his enemies and was condemned to very heavy penalties, of which two were enforced, namely, perpetual incapacitation from holding public office, and banishment from Court. Even after this he continued, with an astonishing lack of good taste, to live extravagantly and beyond his means (again in disregard of his own precepts), so that Prince Charles observed that he 'scorned to go out in a snuff.' He died in 1626 from a cold caught in the prosecution of his scientific researches, namely in an experiment on the power of snow to preserve meat.
Bacon's splendid mind and unique intellectual vision produced, perhaps inevitably, considering his public activity, only fragmentary concrete achievements. The only one of his books still commonly read is the series of 'Essays,' which consist of brief and comparatively informal jottings on various subjects. In their earliest form, in 1597, the essays were ten in number, but by additions from time to time they had increased at last in 1625 to fifty-eight. They deal with a great variety of topics, whatever Bacon happened to be interested in, from friendship to the arrangement of a house, and in their condensation they are more like bare synopses than complete discussions. But their comprehensiveness of view, sureness of ideas and phrasing, suggestiveness, and apt illustrations reveal the pregnancy and practical force of Bacon's thought (though, on the other hand, he is not altogether free from the superstitions of his time and after the lapse of three hundred years sometimes seems commonplace). The whole general tone of the essays, also, shows the man, keen and worldly, not at all a poet or idealist. How to succeed and make the most of prosperity might be called the pervading theme of the essays, and subjects which in themselves suggest spiritual treatment are actually considered in accordance with a coldly intellectual calculation of worldly advantage.
The essays are scarcely less notable for style than for ideas. With characteristic intellectual independence Bacon strikes out for himself an extremely terse and clear manner of expression, doubtless influenced by such Latin authors as Tacitus, which stands in marked contrast to the formless diffuseness or artificial elaborateness of most Elizabethan and Jacobean prose. His unit of structure is always a short clause. The sentences are sometimes short, sometimes consist of a number of connected clauses; but they are always essentially loose rather than periodic; so that the thought is perfectly simple and its movement clear and systematic. The very numerous allusions to classical history and life are not the result of affectation, but merely indicate the natural furnishing of the mind of the educated Renaissance gentleman. The essays, it should be added, were evidently suggested and more or less influenced by those of the great French thinker, Montaigne, an earlier contemporary of Bacon. The hold of medieval scholarly tradition, it is further interesting to note, was still so strong that in order to insure their permanent preservation Bacon translated them into Latin--he took for granted that the English in which he first composed them and in which they will always be known was only a temporary vulgar tongue.
But Bacon's most important work, as we have already implied, was not in the field of pure literature but in the general advancement of knowledge, particularly knowledge of natural science; and of this great service we must speak briefly. His avowal to Burghley, made as early as 1592, is famous: 'I have taken all knowledge to be my province.' Briefly stated, his purposes, constituting an absorbing and noble ambition, were to survey all the learning of his time, in all lines of thought, natural science, morals, politics, and the rest, to overthrow the current method of a priori deduction, deduction resting, moreover, on very insufficient and long-antiquated bases of observation, and to substitute for it as the method of the future, unlimited fresh observation and experiment and inductive reasoning. This enormous task was to be mapped out and its results summarized in a Latin work called 'Magna Instauratio Scientiarum' (The Great Renewal of Knowledge); but parts of this survey were necessarily to be left for posterity to formulate, and of the rest Bacon actually composed only a fraction. What may be called the first part appeared originally in English in 1605 and is known by the abbreviated title, 'The Advancement of Learning'; the expanded Latin form has the title, 'De Augmentis Scientiarum.' Its exhaustive enumeration of the branches of thought and knowledge, what has been accomplished in each and what may be hoped for it in the future, is thoroughly fascinating, though even here Bacon was not capable of passionate enthusiasm. However, the second part of the work, 'Novum Organum' (The New Method), written in Latin and published in 1620, is the most important. Most interesting here, perhaps, is the classification (contrasting with Plato's doctrine of divinely perfect controlling ideas) of the 'idols' (phantoms) which mislead the human mind. Of these Bacon finds four sorts: idols of the tribe, which are inherent in human nature; idols of the cave, the errors of the individual; idols of the market-place, due to mistaken reliance on words; and idols of the theater (that is, of the schools), resulting from false reasoning.
In the details of all his scholarly work Bacon's knowledge and point of view were inevitably imperfect. Even in natural science he was not altogether abreast of his time--he refused to accept Harvey's discovery of the manner of the circulation of the blood and the Copernican system of astronomy. Neither was he, as is sometimes supposed, the inventor of the inductive method of observation and reasoning, which in some degree is fundamental in all study. But he did, much more fully and clearly than any one before him, demonstrate the importance and possibilities of that method; modern experimental science and thought have proceeded directly in the path which he pointed out; and he is fully entitled to the great honor of being called their father, which certainly places him high among the great figures in the history of human thought.
THE KING JAMES BIBLE, 1611. It was during the reign of James I that the long series of sixteenth century translations of the Bible reached its culmination in what we have already called the greatest of all English books (or rather, collections of books), the King James ('Authorized') version. In 1604 an ecclesiastical conference accepted a suggestion, approved by the king, that a new and more accurate rendering of the Bible should be made. The work was entrusted to a body of about fifty scholars, who divided themselves into six groups, among which the various books of the Bible were apportioned. The resulting translation, proceeding with the inevitable slowness, was completed in 1611, and then rather rapidly superseded all other English versions for both public and private use. This King James Bible is universally accepted as the chief masterpiece of English prose style. The translators followed previous versions so far as possible, checking them by comparison with the original Hebrew and Greek, so that while attaining the greater correctness at which they aimed they preserved the accumulated stylistic excellences of three generations of their predecessors; and their language, properly varying according to the nature of the different books, possesses an imaginative grandeur and rhythm not unworthy--and no higher praise could be awarded--of the themes which it expresses. The still more accurate scholarship of a later century demanded the Revised Version of 1881, but the superior literary quality of the King James version remains undisputed. Its style, by the nature of the case, was somewhat archaic from the outset, and of course has become much more so with the passage of time. This entails the practical disadvantage of making the Bible--events, characters, and ideas--seem less real and living; but on the other hand it helps inestimably to create the finer imaginative atmosphere which is so essential for the genuine religious spirit.
MINOR PROSE WRITERS. Among the prose authors of the period who hold an assured secondary position in the history of English literature three or four may be mentioned: Robert Burton, Oxford scholar, minister, and recluse, whose 'Anatomy of Melancholy' (1621), a vast and quaint compendium of information both scientific and literary, has largely influenced numerous later writers; Jeremy Taylor, royalist clergyman and bishop, one of the most eloquent and spiritual of English preachers, author of 'Holy Living' (1650) and 'Holy Dying' (1651); Izaak Walton, London tradesman and student, best known for his 'Compleat Angler' (1653), but author also of charming brief lives of Donne, George Herbert, and others of his contemporaries; and Sir Thomas Browne, a scholarly physician of Norwich, who elaborated a fastidiously poetic Latinized prose style for his pensively delightful 'Religio Medici' (A Physician's Religion--1643) and other works.
LYRIC POETRY. Apart from the drama and the King James Bible, the most enduring literary achievement of the period was in poetry. Milton--distinctly, after Shakespeare, the greatest writer of the century--must receive separate consideration; the more purely lyric poets may be grouped together.
The absence of any sharp line of separation between the literature of the reign of Elizabeth and of those of James I and Charles I is no less marked in the case of the lyric poetry than of the drama. Some of the poets whom we have already discussed in Chapter V continued writing until the second decade of the seventeenth century, or later, and some of those whom we shall here name had commenced their career well before 1600. Just as in the drama, therefore, something of the Elizabethan spirit remains in the lyric poetry; yet here also before many years there is a perceptible change; the Elizabethan spontaneous joyousness largely vanishes and is replaced by more self-conscious artistry or thought.
The Elizabethan note is perhaps most unmodified in certain anonymous songs and other poems of the early years of James I, such as the exquisite 'Weep you no more, sad fountains.' It is clear also in the charming songs of Thomas Campion, a physician who composed both words and music for several song-books, and in Michael Drayton, a voluminous poet and dramatist who is known to most readers only for his finely rugged patriotic ballad on the battle of Agincourt. Sir Henry Wotton, [Footnote: The first o is pronounced as in note. ] statesman and Provost (head) of Eton School, displays the Elizabethan idealism in 'The Character of a Happy Life' and in his stanzas in praise of Elizabeth, daughter of King James, wife of the ill-starred Elector-Palatine and King of Bohemia, and ancestress of the present English royal family. The Elizabethan spirit is present but mingled with seventeenth century melancholy in the sonnets and other poems of the Scotch gentleman William Drummond of Hawthornden (the name of his estate near Edinburgh), who in quiet life-long retirement lamented the untimely death of the lady to whom he had been betrothed or meditated on heavenly things.
In Drummond appears the influence of Spenser, which was strong on many poets of the period, especially on some, like William Browne, who continued the pastoral form. Another of the main forces, in lyric poetry as in the drama, was the beginning of the revival of the classical spirit, and in lyric poetry also this was largely due to Ben Jonson. As we have already said, the greater part of Jonson's non-dramatic poetry, like his dramas, expresses chiefly the downright strength of his mind and character. It is terse and unadorned, dealing often with commonplace things in the manner of the Epistles and Satires of Horace, and it generally has more of the quality of intellectual prose than of real emotional poetry. A very favorable representative of it is the admirable, eulogy on Shakespeare included in the first folio edition of Shakespeare's works. In a few instances, however, Jonson strikes the true lyric note delightfully. Every one knows and sings his two stanzas 'To Celia'--'Drink to me only with thine eyes,' which would still be famous without the exquisitely appropriate music that has come down to us from Jonson's own time, and which are no less beautiful because they consist largely of ideas culled from the Greek philosopher Theophrastus. In all his poems, however, Jonson aims consistently at the classical virtues of clearness, brevity, proportion, finish, and elimination of all excess.
These latter qualities appear also in the lyrics which abound in the plays of John Fletcher, and yet it cannot be said that Fletcher's sweet melody is more classical than Elizabethan. His other distinctive quality is the tone of somewhat artificial courtliness which was soon to mark the lyrics of the other poets of the Cavalier party. An avowed disciple of Jonson and his classicism and a greater poet than Fletcher is Robert Herrick, who, indeed, after Shakespeare and Milton, is the finest lyric poet of these two centuries.
Herrick, the nephew of a wealthy goldsmith, seems, after a late graduation from Cambridge, to have spent some years about the Court and in the band of Jonson's 'sons.' Entering the Church when he was nearly forty, he received the small country parish of Dean Prior in the southwest (Devonshire), which he held for nearly twenty years, until 1647, when he was dispossessed by the victorious Puritans. After the Restoration he was reinstated, and he continued to hold the place until his death in old age in 1674. He published his poems (all lyrics) in 1648 in a collection which he called
'Hesperides and Noble Numbers.' The 'Hesperides' (named from the golden apples of the classical Garden of the Daughters of the Sun) are twelve hundred little secular pieces, the 'Noble Numbers' a much less extensive series of religious lyrics. Both sorts are written in a great variety of stanza forms, all equally skilful and musical. Few of the poems extend beyond fifteen or twenty lines in length, and many are mere epigrams of four lines or even two. The chief secular subjects are: Herrick's devotion to various ladies, Julia, Anthea, Perilla, and sundry more, all presumably more or less imaginary; the joy and uncertainty of life; the charming beauty of Nature; country life, folk lore, and festivals; and similar light or familiar themes. Herrick's characteristic quality, so far as it can be described, is a blend of Elizabethan joyousness with classical perfection of finish. The finish, however, really the result of painstaking labor, such as Herrick had observed in his uncle's shop and as Jonson had enjoined, is perfectly unobtrusive; so apparently natural are the poems that they seem the irrepressible unmeditated outpourings of happy and idle moments. In care-free lyric charm Herrick can certainly never be surpassed; he is certainly one of the most captivating of all the poets of the world. Some of the 'Noble Numbers' are almost as pleasing as the 'Hesperides,' but not because of real religious significance. For of anything that can be called spiritual religion Herrick was absolutely incapable; his nature was far too deficient in depth. He himself and his philosophy of life were purely Epicurean, Hedonistic, or pagan, in the sense in which we use those terms to-day. His forever controlling sentiment is that to which he gives perfect expression in his best-known song, 'Gather ye rosebuds,' namely the Horatian 'Carpe diem'--'Snatch all possible pleasure from the rapidly-fleeting hours and from this gloriously delightful world.' He is said to have performed his religious duties with regularity; though sometimes in an outburst of disgust at the stupidity of his rustic parishioners he would throw his sermon in their faces and rush out of the church. Put his religion is altogether conventional. He thanks God for material blessings, prays for their continuance, and as the conclusion of everything, in compensation for a formally orthodox life, or rather creed, expects when he dies to be admitted to Heaven. The simple naivete with which he expresses this skin-deep and primitive faith is, indeed, one of the chief sources of charm in the 'Noble Numbers.'
Herrick belongs in part to a group of poets who, being attached to the Court, and devoting some, at least, of their verses to conventional love-making, are called the Cavalier Poets. Among the others Thomas Carew follows the classical principles of Jonson in lyrics which are facile, smooth, and sometimes a little frigid. Sir John Suckling, a handsome and capricious representative of all the extravagances of the Court set, with whom he was enormously popular, tossed off with affected carelessness a mass of slovenly lyrics of which a few audaciously impudent ones are worthy to survive. From the equally chaotic product of Colonel Richard Lovelace stand out the two well-known bits of noble idealism, 'To Lucasta, Going to the Wars,' and 'To Althea, from Prison.' George Wither (1588-1667), a much older man than Suckling and Lovelace, may be mentioned with them as the writer in his youth of light-hearted love-poems. But in the Civil War he took the side of Parliament and under Cromwell he rose to the rank of major-general. In his later life he wrote a great quantity of Puritan religious verse, largely prosy in spite of his fluency.
The last important group among these lyrists is that of the more distinctly religious poets. The chief of these, George Herbert (1593-1633), the subject of one of the most delightful of the short biographies of Izaak Walton, belonged to a distinguished family of the Welsh Border, one branch of which held the earldom of Pembroke, so that the poet was related to the young noble who may have been Shakespeare's patron. He was also younger brother of Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury, an inveterate duellist and the father of English Deism. [Footnote: See below, p. 212.] Destined by his mother to peaceful pursuits, he wavered from the outset between two forces, religious devotion and a passion for worldly comfort and distinction. For a long period the latter had the upper hand, and his life has been described by his best editor, Professor George Herbert Palmer, as twenty-seven years of vacillation and three of consecrated service. Appointed Public Orator, or showman, of his university, Cambridge, he spent some years in enjoying the somewhat trifling elegancies of life and in truckling to the great. Then, on the death of his patrons, he passed through a period of intense crisis from which he emerged wholly spiritualized. The three remaining years of his life he spent in the little country parish of Bemerton, just outside of Salisbury, as a fervent High Church minister, or as he preferred to name himself, priest, in the strictest devotion to his professional duties and to the practices of an ascetic piety which to the usual American mind must seem about equally admirable and conventional. His religious poems, published after his death in a volume called 'The Temple,' show mainly two things, first his intense and beautiful consecration to his personal God and Saviour, which, in its earnest sincerity, renders him distinctly the most representative poet of the Church of England, and second the influence of Donne, who was a close friend of his mother. The titles of most of the poems, often consisting of a single word, are commonly fantastic and symbolical--for example, 'The Collar,' meaning the yoke of submission to God; and his use of conceits, though not so pervasive as with Donne, is equally contorted. To a present-day reader the apparent affectations may seem at first to throw doubt on Herbert's genuineness; but in reality he was aiming to dedicate to religious purposes what appeared to him the highest style of poetry. Without question he is, in a true if special sense, a really great poet.
The second of these religious poets, Richard Crashaw, [Footnote: The first vowel is pronounced as in the noun crash.] whose life (1612-1649) was not quite so short as Herbert's, combined an ascetic devotion with a glowingly sensuous esthetic nature that seems rather Spanish than English. Born into an extreme Protestant family, but outraged by the wanton iconoclasm of the triumphant Puritans, and deprived by them of his fellowship, at Cambridge, he became a Catholic and died a canon in the church of the miracle-working Lady (Virgin Mary) of Loretto in Italy. His most characteristic poetry is marked by extravagant conceits and by ecstatic outbursts of emotion that have been called more ardent than anything else in English; though he sometimes writes also in a vein of calm and limpid beauty. He was a poetic disciple of Herbert, as he avowed by humbly entitling his volume 'Steps to the Temple.'
The life of Henry Vaughan [Footnote: The second a is not now sounded.] (1621-1695) stands in contrast to those of Herbert and Crashaw both by its length and by its quietness. Vaughan himself emphasized his Welsh race by designating himself 'The Silurist' (native of South Wales). After an incomplete university course at Jesus College (the Welsh college), Oxford, and some apparently idle years in London among Jonson's disciples, perhaps also after serving the king in the war, he settled down in his native mountains to the self-denying life of a country physician. His important poems were mostly published at this time, in 1650 and 1655, in the collection which he named 'Silex Scintillans' (The Flaming Flint), a title explained by the frontispiece, which represents a flinty heart glowing under the lightning stroke of God's call. Vaughan's chief traits are a very fine and calm philosophic-religious spirit and a carefully observant love of external Nature, in which he sees mystic revelations of God. In both respects he is closely akin to the later and greater Wordsworth, and his 'Retreat' has the same theme as Wordsworth's famous 'Ode on Intimations of Immortality,' the idea namely that children have a greater spiritual sensitiveness than older persons, because they have come to earth directly from a former life in Heaven.
The contrast between the chief Anglican and Catholic religious poets of this period has been thus expressed by a discerning critic: 'Herrick's religious emotions are only as ripples on a shallow lake when compared to the crested waves of Crashaw, the storm-tides of Herbert, and the deep-sea stirrings of Vaughan.'
We may give a further word of mention to the voluminous Francis Quarles, who in his own day and long after enjoyed enormous popularity, especially among members of the Church of England and especially for his 'Emblems,' a book of a sort common in Europe for a century before his time, in which fantastic woodcuts, like Vaughan's 'Silex Scintillans,' were illustrated with short poems of religious emotion, chiefly dominated by fear. But Quarles survives only as an interesting curiosity.
Three other poets whose lives belong to the middle of the century may be said to complete this entire lyric group. Andrew Marvell, a very moderate Puritan, joined with Milton in his office of Latin Secretary under Cromwell, wrote much poetry of various sorts, some of it in the Elizabethan octosyllabic couplet. He voices a genuine love of Nature, like Wither often in the pastoral form; but his best-known poem is the 'Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland,' containing the famous eulogy of King Charles' bearing at his execution. Abraham Cowley, a youthful prodigy and always conspicuous for intellectual power, was secretary to Queen Henrietta Maria after her flight to France and later was a royalist spy in England. His most conspicuous poems are his so-called 'Pindaric Odes,' in which he supposed that he was imitating the structure of the Greek Pindar but really originated the pseudo-Pindaric Ode, a poem in irregular, non-correspondent stanzas. He is the last important representative of the 'Metaphysical' style. In his own day he was acclaimed as the greatest poet of all time, but as is usual in such cases his reputation very rapidly waned. Edmund Waller (1606-1687), a very wealthy gentleman in public life who played a flatly discreditable part in the Civil War, is most important for his share in shaping the riming pentameter couplet into the smooth pseudo-classical form rendered famous by Dryden and Pope; but his only notable single poems are two Cavalier love-lyrics in stanzas, 'On a Girdle' and 'Go, Lovely Rose.'
JOHN MILTON, 1608-1674. Conspicuous above all his contemporaries as the representative poet of Puritanism, and, by almost equally general consent, distinctly the greatest of English poets except Shakespeare, stands John Milton. His life falls naturally into three periods: 1. Youth and preparation, 1608-1639, when he wrote his shorter poems. 2. Public life, 1639-1660, when he wrote, or at least published, in poetry, only a few sonnets. 3. Later years, 1660-1674, of outer defeat, but of chief poetic achievement, the period of 'Paradise Lost,' 'Paradise Regained,' and 'Samson Agonistes.'
Milton was born in London in December, 1608. His father was a prosperous scrivener, or lawyer of the humbler sort, and a Puritan, but broad-minded, and his children were brought up in the love of music, beauty, and learning. At the age of twelve the future poet was sent to St. Paul's School, and he tells us that from this time on his devotion to study seldom allowed him to leave his books earlier than midnight. At sixteen, in 1625, he entered Cambridge, where he remained during the seven years required for the M. A. degree, and where he was known as 'the lady of Christ's' [College], perhaps for his beauty, of which all his life he continued proud, perhaps for his moral scrupulousness. Milton was never, however, a conventional prig, and a quarrel with a self-important tutor led at one time to his informal suspension from the University. His nature, indeed, had many elements quite inconsistent with the usual vague popular conception of him. He was always not only inflexible in his devotion to principle, but--partly, no doubt, from consciousness of his intellectual superiority--haughty as well as reserved, self-confident, and little respectful of opinions and feelings that clashed with his own. Nevertheless in his youth he had plenty of animal spirits and always for his friends warm human sympathies.
To his college years belong two important poems. His Christmas hymn, the 'Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity,' shows the influence of his early poetical master, Spenser, and of contemporary pastoral poets, though it also contains some conceits--truly poetic conceits, however, not exercises in intellectual cleverness like many of those of Donne and his followers. With whatever qualifications, it is certainly one of the great English lyrics, and its union of Renaissance sensuousness with grandeur of conception and sureness of expression foretell clearly enough at twenty the poet of 'Paradise Lost.' The sonnet on his twenty-third birthday, further, is known to almost every reader of poetry as the best short expression in literature of the dedication of one's life and powers to God.
Milton had planned to enter the ministry, but the growing predominance of the High-Church party made this impossible for him, and on leaving the University in 1632 he retired to the country estate which his parents now occupied at Horton, twenty miles west of London. Here, for nearly six years, amid surroundings which nourished his poet's love for Nature, he devoted his time chiefly to further mastery of the whole range of approved literature, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and English. His poems of these years also are few, but they too are of the very highest quality.
'L'Allegro' and 'Il Penseroso' are idealized visions, in the tripping Elizabethan octosyllabic couplet, of the pleasures of suburban life viewed in moods respectively of light-hearted happiness and of reflection.
'Comus,' the last of the Elizabethan and Jacobean masks, combines an exquisite poetic beauty and a real dramatic action more substantial than that of any other mask with a serious moral theme (the security of Virtue) in a fashion that renders it unique. 'Lycidas' is one of the supreme English elegies; though the grief which helps to create its power sprang more from the recent death of the poet's mother than from that of the nominal subject, his college acquaintance, Edward King, and though in the hands of a lesser artist the solemn denunciation of the false leaders of the English Church might not have been wrought into so fine a harmony with the pastoral form.
Milton's first period ends with an experience designed to complete his preparation for his career, a fifteen months' tour in France and Italy, where the highest literary circles received him cordially. From this trip he returned in 1639, sooner than he had planned, because, he said, the public troubles at home, foreshadowing the approaching war, seemed to him a call to service; though in fact some time intervened before his entrance on public life.
The twenty years which follow, the second period of Milton's career, developed and modified his nature and ideas in an unusual degree and fashion. Outwardly the occupations which they brought him appear chiefly as an unfortunate waste of his great poetic powers. The sixteen sonnets which belong here show how nobly this form could be adapted to the varied expression of the most serious thought, but otherwise Milton abandoned poetry, at least the publication of it, for prose, and for prose which was mostly ephemeral. Taking up his residence in London, for some time he carried on a small private school in his own house, where he much overworked his boys in the mistaken effort to raise their intellectual ambitions to the level of his own. Naturally unwilling to confine himself to a private sphere, he soon engaged in a prose controversy supporting the Puritan view against the Episcopal form of church government, that is against the office of bishops. There shortly followed the most regrettable incident in his whole career, which pathetically illustrates also the lack of a sense of humor which was perhaps his greatest defect. At the age of thirty-four, and apparently at first sight, he suddenly married Mary Powell, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a royalist country gentleman with whom his family had long maintained some business and social relations. Evidently this daughter of the Cavaliers met a rude disillusionment in Milton's Puritan household and in his Old Testament theory of woman's inferiority and of a wife's duty of strict subjection to her husband; a few weeks after the marriage she fled to her family and refused to return. Thereupon, with characteristic egoism, Milton put forth a series of pamphlets on divorce, arguing, contrary to English law, and with great scandal to the public, that mere incompatibility of temper was adequate ground for separation. He even proceeded so far as to make proposals of marriage to another woman. But after two years and the ruin of the royalist cause his wife made unconditional submission, which Milton accepted, and he also received and supported her whole family in his house. Meanwhile his divorce pamphlets had led to the best of his prose writings. He had published the pamphlets without the license of Parliament, then required for all books, and a suit was begun against him. He replied with 'Areopagitica,' an, eloquent and noble argument against the licensing system and in favor of freedom of publication within the widest possible limits. (The name is an allusion to the condemnation of the works of Protagoras by the Athenian Areopagus.) In the stress of public affairs the attack on him was dropped, but the book remains, a deathless plea for individual liberty.
Now at last Milton was drawn into active public life. The execution of the King by the extreme Puritan minority excited an outburst of indignation not only in England but throughout Europe. Milton, rising to the occasion, defended the act in a pamphlet, thereby beginning a paper controversy, chiefly with the Dutch scholar Salmasius, which lasted for several years. By 1652 it had resulted in the loss of Milton's eyesight, previously over-strained by his studies--a sacrifice in which he gloried but which lovers of poetry must always regret, especially since the controversy largely consisted, according to the custom of the time, in a disgusting exchange of personal scurrilities. Milton's championship of the existing government, however, together with his scholarship, had at once secured for him the position of Latin secretary, or conductor of the diplomatic correspondence of the State with foreign countries. He held this office, after the loss of his eyesight, with Marvell as a colleague, under both Parliament and Cromwell, but it is an error to suppose that he exerted any influence in the management of affairs or that he was on familiar terms with the Protector. At the Restoration he necessarily lost both the position and a considerable part of his property, and for a while he went into hiding; but through the efforts of Marvell and others he was finally included in the general amnesty.
In the remaining fourteen years which make the third period of his life Milton stands out for subsequent ages as a noble figure. His very obstinacy and egoism now enabled him, blind, comparatively poor, and the representative of a lost cause, to maintain his proud and patient dignity in the midst of the triumph of all that was most hateful to him, and, as he believed, to God. His isolation, indeed, was in many respects extreme, though now as always he found the few sympathetic friends on whom his nature was quite dependent. His religious beliefs had become what would at present be called Unitarian, and he did not associate with any of the existing denominations; in private theory he had even come to believe in polygamy. At home he is said to have suffered from the coldness or more active antipathy of his three daughters, which is no great cause for wonder if we must credit the report that he compelled them to read aloud to him in foreign languages of which he had taught them the pronunciation but not the meaning. Their mother had died some years before, and he had soon lost the second wife who is the subject of one of his finest sonnets. In 1663, at the age of fifty-four, he was united in a third marriage to Elizabeth Minshull, a woman of twenty-four, who was to survive him for more than fifty years.
The important fact of this last period, however, is that Milton now had the leisure to write, or to complete, 'Paradise Lost.' For a quarter of a century he had avowedly cherished the ambition to produce 'such a work as the world would not willingly let die' and had had in mind, among others, the story of Man's Fall. Outlines for a treatment of it not in epic but in dramatic form are preserved in a list of a hundred possible subjects for a great work which he drew up as early as 1640, and during the Commonwealth period he seems not only to have been slowly maturing the plan but to have composed parts of the existing poem; nevertheless the actual work of composition belongs chiefly to the years following 1660. The story as told in Genesis had received much elaboration in Christian tradition from a very early period and Milton drew largely from this general tradition and no doubt to some extent from various previous treatments of the Bible narrative in several languages which he might naturally have read and kept in mind. But beyond the simple outline the poem, like every great work, is essentially the product of his own genius. He aimed, specifically, to produce a Christian epic which should rank with the great epics of antiquity and with those of the Italian Renaissance.
In this purpose he was entirely successful. As a whole, by the consent of all competent judges, 'Paradise Lost' is worthy of its theme, perhaps the greatest that the mind of man can conceive, namely 'to justify the ways of God.' Of course there are defects. The seventeenth century theology, like every successive theological, philosophical, and scientific system, has lost its hold on later generations, and it becomes dull indeed in the long expository passages of the poem. The attempt to express spiritual ideas through the medium of the secular epic, with its battles and councils and all the forms of physical life, is of course rationally paradoxical. It was early pointed out that in spite of himself Milton has in some sense made Satan the hero of the poem--a reader can scarcely fail to sympathize with the fallen archangel in his unconquerable Puritan-like resistance to the arbitrary decrees of Milton's despotic Deity. Further, Milton's personal, English, and Puritan prejudices sometimes intrude in various ways. But all these things are on the surface. In sustained imaginative grandeur of conception, expression, and imagery 'Paradise Lost' yields to no human work, and the majestic and varied movement of the blank verse, here first employed in a really great non-dramatic English poem, is as magnificent as anything else in literature. It cannot be said that the later books always sustain the greatness of the first two; but the profusely scattered passages of sensuous description, at least, such as those of the Garden of Eden and of the beauty of Eve, are in their own way equally fine. Stately and more familiar passages alike show that however much his experience had done to harden Milton's Puritanism, his youthful Renaissance love of beauty for beauty's sake had lost none of its strength, though of course it could no longer be expressed with youthful lightness of fancy and melody. The poem is a magnificent example of classical art, in the best Greek spirit, united with glowing romantic feeling. Lastly, the value of Milton's scholarship should by no means be overlooked. All his poetry, from the 'Nativity Ode' onward, is like a rich mosaic of gems borrowed from a great range of classical and modern authors, and in 'Paradise Lost' the allusions to literature and history give half of the romantic charm and very much of the dignity. The poem could have been written only by one who combined in a very high degree intellectual power, poetic feeling, religious idealism, profound scholarship and knowledge of literature, and also experienced knowledge of the actual world of men.
'Paradise Lost' was published in 1677. It was followed in 1671 by 'Paradise Regained,' only one-third as long and much less important; and by 'Samson Agonistes' (Samson in his Death Struggle). In the latter Milton puts the story of the fallen hero's last days into the majestic form of a Greek drama, imparting to it the passionate but lofty feeling evoked by the close similarity of Samson's situation to his own. This was his last work, and he died in 1674. Whatever his faults, the moral, intellectual and poetic greatness of his nature sets him apart as in a sense the grandest figure in English literature.
JOHN BUNYAN. Seventeenth century Puritanism was to find a supreme spokesman in prose fiction as well as in poetry; John Milton and John Bunyan, standing at widely different angles of experience, make one of the most interesting complementary pairs in all literature. By the mere chronology of his works, Bunyan belongs in our next period, but in his case mere chronology must be disregarded.
Bunyan was born in 1628 at the village of Elstow, just outside of Bedford, in central England. After very slight schooling and some practice at his father's trade of tinker, he was in 1644 drafted for two years and a half into garrison service in the Parliamentary army. Released from this occupation, he married a poor but excellent wife and worked at his trade; but the important experiences of his life were the religious ones. Endowed by nature with great moral sensitiveness, he was nevertheless a person of violent impulses and had early fallen into profanity and laxity of conduct, which he later described with great exaggeration as a condition of abandoned wickedness. But from childhood his abnormally active dramatic imagination had tormented him with dreams and fears of devils and hell-fire, and now he entered on a long and agonizing struggle between his religious instinct and his obstinate self-will. He has told the whole story in his spiritual autobiography, 'Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners,' which is one of the notable religious books of the world. A reader of it must be filled about equally with admiration for the force of will and perseverance that enabled Bunyan at last to win his battle, and pity for the fantastic morbidness that created out of next to nothing most of his well-nigh intolerable tortures. One Sunday, for example, fresh from a sermon on Sabbath observance, he was engaged in a game of 'cat,' when he suddenly heard within himself the question, 'Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?' Stupefied, he looked up to the sky and seemed there to see the Lord Jesus gazing at him 'hotly displeased' and threatening punishment. Again, one of his favorite diversions was to watch bellmen ringing the chimes in the church steeples, and though his Puritan conscience insisted that the pleasure was 'vain,' still he would not forego it. Suddenly one day as he was indulging in it the thought occurred to him that God might cause one of the bells to fall and kill him, and he hastened to shield himself by standing under a beam. But, he reflected, the bell might easily rebound from the wall and strike him; so he shifted his position to the steeple-door. Then 'it came into his head, "How if the steeple itself should fall?"' and with that he fled alike from the controversy and the danger.
Relief came when at the age of twenty-four he joined a non-sectarian church in Bedford (his own point of view being Baptist). A man of so energetic spirit could not long remain inactive, and within two years he was preaching in the surrounding villages. A dispute with the Friends had already led to the beginning of his controversial writing when in 1660 the Restoration rendered preaching by persons outside the communion of the Church of England illegal, and he was arrested and imprisoned in Bedford jail. Consistently refusing to give the promise of submission and abstention from preaching which at any time would have secured his release, he continued in prison for twelve years, not suffering particular discomfort and working for the support of his family by fastening the ends onto shoestrings. During this time he wrote and published several of the most important of his sixty books and pamphlets. At last, in 1672, the authorities abandoned the ineffective requirement of conformity, and he was released and became pastor of his church. Three years later he was again imprisoned for six months, and it was at that time that he composed the first part of 'The Pilgrim's Progress,' which was published in 1678. During the remaining ten years of his life his reputation and authority among the Dissenters almost equalled his earnest devotion and kindness, and won for him from his opponents the good-naturedly jocose title of 'the Baptist bishop.' He died in 1688.
Several of Bunyan's books are strong, but none of the others is to be named together with 'The Pilgrim's Progress.' This has been translated into nearly or quite a hundred languages and dialects--a record never approached by any other book of English authorship. The sources of its power are obvious. It is the intensely sincere presentation by a man of tremendous moral energy of what he believed to be the one subject of eternal and incalculable importance to every human being, the subject namely of personal salvation. Its language and style, further, are founded on the noble and simple model of the English Bible, which was almost the only book that Bunyan knew, and with which his whole being was saturated. His triumphant and loving joy in his religion enables him often to attain the poetic beauty and eloquence of his original; but both by instinct and of set purpose he rendered his own style even more simple and direct, partly by the use of homely vernacular expressions. What he had said in 'Grace Abounding' is equally true here: 'I could have stepped into a style much higher ... but I dare not. God did not play in convincing of me ... wherefore I may not play in my relating of these experiences.' 'Pilgrim's Progress' is perfectly intelligible to any child, and further, it is highly dramatic and picturesque. It is, to be sure, an allegory, but one of those allegories which seem inherent in the human mind and hence more natural than the most direct narrative. For all men life is indeed a journey, and the Slough of Despond, Doubting Castle, Vanity Fair, and the Valley of Humiliation are places where in one sense or another every human soul has often struggled and suffered; so that every reader goes hand in hand with Christian and his friends, fears for them in their dangers and rejoices in their escapes. The incidents, however, have all the further fascination of supernatural romance; and the union of this element with the homely sincerity of the style accounts for much of the peculiar quality of the book. Universal in its appeal, absolutely direct and vivid in manner--such a work might well become, as it speedily did, one of the most famous of world classics. It is interesting to learn, therefore, that Bunyan had expected its circulation to be confined to the common people; the early editions are as cheap as possible in paper, printing, and illustrations.
Criticism, no doubt, easily discovers in 'Pilgrim's Progress' technical faults. The story often lacks the full development and balance of incidents and narration which a trained literary artist would have given it; the allegory is inconsistent in a hundred ways and places; the characters are only types; and Bunyan, always more preacher than artist, is distinctly unfair to the bad ones among them. But these things are unimportant. Every allegory is inconsistent, and Bunyan repeatedly takes pains to emphasize that this is a dream; while the simplicity of character-treatment increases the directness of the main effect. When all is said, the book remains the greatest example in literature of what absolute earnestness may make possible for a plain and untrained man. Nothing, of course, can alter the fundamental distinctions. 'Paradise Lost' is certainly greater than 'Pilgrim's Progress,' because it is the work of a poet and a scholar as well as a religious enthusiast. But 'Pilgrim's Progress,' let it be said frankly, will always find a dozen readers where Milton has one by choice, and no man can afford to think otherwise than respectfully of achievements which speak powerfully and nobly to the underlying instincts and needs of all mankind.
The naturalness of the allegory, it may be added, renders the resemblance of 'Pilgrim's Progress' to many previous treatments of the same theme and to less closely parallel works like 'The Faerie Queene' probably accidental; in any significant sense Bunyan probably had no other source than the Bible and his own imagination.
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