THE AGE OF MILTON (1625-1660)

THE AGE OF MILTON (1625-1660) | Characteristics of the Age of Puritanism | NET Exam Notes


The Puritan Age

THE AGE OF MILTON : The period between 1625 and 1675 is known as the “Puritan Age (or John Milton’s Age)”, because during the period, Puritan standards prevailed in England, and also because the greatest literary figure John Milton (1608-1674) was a Puritan. The Puritans struggled for righteousness and liberty.

General Characteristics of the Age of Milton

(i) Civil War: 

The entire period was dominated by the civil war, which divided the people into two factions, one loyal to the King and the other opposed to him. English people had remained one and united and loyal to the sovereign. The crisis began when James I, who had recogined the right of royalty from an Act of Parliament, gave too much premium to the Divine Right and began to ignore Parliament which had created him.

The Puritans, who had become a potent force in the social life of the age, heralded the movement for constitutional reforms. The hostilities, which began in 1642, lasted till the execution of Charles I in 1649. There was little political stability during the interregnum of eleven years which followed. These turbulent years saw the establishment of the Common­wealth, the rise of Oliver Cromwell, the confusion which followed upon his death, and, finally, the restoration of monarchy in 1660.

(ii) The Puritan Movement: 

The Renaissance, which exercised immense influence on Elizabethan literature, was essentially pagan and sensuous. It did not concern the moral nature of man, and it brought little relief from the despotism of rulers. “The Puritan movement,” says W. J. Long, “may be regarded a second and greater Renaissance, a rebirth of the moral nature of man following the intellectual awakening of Europe in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries.”

In Germany and England the Renaissance was accompanied by a moral awakening, “that greatest moral and political reform which ever swept ‘over a nation in the short space of half a century”, which is meant by the Puritan movement. Puritanism had two chief objects: the first was personal righteousness; the second was civil and personal liberty. In other words, it aimed to make men honest and to make them free.

“Though the spirit of the Puritan movement was profoundly religious, the Puritans were not a religious sect; neither was the Puritan a narrow-minded and gloomy dogmatist, as he is still pictured in the histories.” Hampden, Eliot, Milton, Hooker and Cromwell were Puritans.

From a religious viewpoint Puritanism included all shades of belief. In course of time “Puritanism became a great national movement. It included English Churchmen as well as extreme Separatists, Calvinists, Covenanters, Catholic noblemen,— all bound together in resistance to despotism in Church and State, and with a passion for liberty and righteousness such as the world has never since seen,” says W. J. Long.

During the Puritan rule of Cromwell severe laws were passed, simple pleasures were forbidden, theatres were closed, and an austere standard of living was forced upon an unwilling people. So there was rebellion against Puritanism, which ended with the Restoration of King Charles ll.

Literary Characteristics of the Age of Milton

(i) Influence of Puritanism: 

The influence of Puritanism upon English life and literature was profound. The spirit which it introduced was fine and noble but it was hard and stern. The Puritan’s integrity and uprightness is unquestionable but his fanaticism, his moroseness and the narrowness of his outlook and sympathies were deplorable. In his over-enthusiasm to react against prevailing abuses, he denounced the good things of life, condemned science and art, ignored the appreciation of beauty, which invigorates secular life. Puritanism destroyed human culture and sought to confine human culture within the circumscribed field of its own particular interests. It was fatal to both art and literature.

Puritanism created confusion in literature. Sombreness and pensiveness pervaded poetry of this period. The spirit of gaiety, of youthful vigour and vitality, of romance and chivalry which distinguished Elizabethan literature was conspicuous by its absence. In the words of W. J. Long: “Poetry took new and startling forms in Donne and Herbert, and prose became as sombre as Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

The spiritual gloom which sooner or later fastens upon all writers of this age, and which is unjustly attributed to Puritan influence, is due to the breaking up of accepted standards in religion and government. This so-called gloomy age produced some minor poems of exquisite work­manship, and one great master of verse whose work would glorify any age or people, —John Milton, in whom the indomitable Puritan spirit finds its noblest expression.”

(ii) Want of Vitality and Concreteness: 

The literature of this period lacks in concreteness and vitality. Shakespeare stands first and foremost for the concrete realities of life; his words and phrases tingle with vitality and thrill with warmth. Milton is concerned rather with theorising about life, his lines roll over the mind with sonorous majesty, now and again thrilling us as Shakespeare did with the fine excess of creative genius, but more often impressing us with their stateliness and power, than moving us by their tenderness and passion. Puritanism began with Ben Jonson, though it found its greatest prose exponent in Bunyan. W. J. Long writes: “Elizabethan literature is generally inspiring; it throbs with youth and hope and vitality. That which follows speaks of age and sadness; even its brightest hours are followed by gloom, and by the pessimism inseparable from the passing of old standards.”

(iii) Want of the Spirit of Unity: 

Despite diversity, the Elizabethan literature was marked by the spirit of unity, which resulted from the intense patriotism and nationalism of all classes, and their devotion and loyalty to the Queen who had a singleminded mission to seek the nation’s welfare. During this period James I and Charles II were hostile to the interests of the people. The country was divided by the struggle for political and religious liberty; and the literature was as divided in spirit as were the struggling parties.

(iv) Dominance of Critical and Intellectual Spirit: 

The critical and intellectual spirit, instead of the romantic spirit which prevailed on Elizabethan literature, dominates the literature of this period. W. J. Long writes: “In the literature of the Puritan period one looks in vain for romantic ardour. Even in the lyrics and love poems a critical, intellectual spirit takes its place, and whatever romance asserts itself is in form rather than in feeling, a fantastic and artificial adornment of speech rather than the natural utterance of a heart in which sentiment is so strong and true that poetry is its only expression.”

(v) Decay of Drama: 

This period is remarkable for the decay of drama. The civil disturbances and the strong opposition of the Puritans was the main cause of the collapse of drama. The actual dramatic work of the period was small and unimportant. The closing of the theatres in 1642 gave a final jolt to the development of drama.

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