The Age of Milton : Prose & Poetry


Hello everyone. I am very pleased to welcome you to yet another
session of the NPTEL course The History of English Language and Literature. In today’s lecture we shall be taking a look
at the Age of Milton and the literary product of the period. In the previous section we took a look at
how the Age had been featured in terms of the socio-political background and today we
should be focusing more on the literary products of the time and based on which the tendencies
began to shift from one Age to the other. The literature and arts of this period known
as The Age of Milton, it could be classified in these ways. There was prose which included non-fiction
and a bit of fiction which was more like a prototype of fiction. The poetry was of different kinds depending
on who wrote the poetry. There was Caroline religious poetry, Cavalier
poetry, a group of poets classified as a Tribe of Ben and also the Puritan writers. In terms of drama it was not a very fruitful
period. There was a certain set of dramatists who
flourished under this term, the School of Jonson and also in terms of drama it was,
it could be noted that it was a beginning of a period of drought. By 1642 the playhouses were closed by an Act
of Parliament. So that made it almost impossible to even
conceive a drama during that period. So in that sense we shall be focusing more
on prose and poetry of the Period. So let us begin by taking the look at the
features of Caroline prose or the features of the prose written during this Age of Milton. The prose was highly personal in nature and
there was a predominant skepticism about religion and philosophical truth. It was also intellectual in nature. In that sense prose marks a very different
turn from this point onwards where it begins to engage with a lot of socio-political events,
the socio-political background and also it features as a medium which could critique and even analyze the situation of the times. And we also find the mix of science and philosophy
and also a mix of science and religion during this period because we noted in the previous section that the turbulence
of the period was primarily characterized by the problems between the parliament, the
royalty and also in between the features of religion also had crept in. So in that sense it becomes, the prose in
that period also becomes a breeding ground for a lot of controversial articulations in terms of faith and also about
the right kind of religious practices to be followed. And we also find that these debates between
reason and faith, they also marked the early moments in European Enlightenment thought
in England. And we also find that colonialism is at its
high even during this time and we find its reflections in the writings of the times and
we find the writings being influenced by the colonial voyagers and travels and also many
of them, they write about the discoveries being made about other cultures and worlds
in Asia and Africa. These writings are also hugely popular because
people wanted to know and, because people wanted to know more about these distant lands which were getting colonized by England. Perhaps the most important prose writer of
this period was Thomas Browne. He was basically a physician and his most
famous work was ?Religio Medici? which could be translated as
A Doctor’s Religion. This came out in 1642. This work was an attempt to combine Christian
theology and ethics with scientific perception and in that sense it was a hitherto unknown,
hitherto unknown kind of work and treatment that began with ?Religio Medici?. The work was extremely popular because people
were beginning to develop a scientific temper. They also had a lot of interest in trying
to understand the scientific basis of religion and also had a lot of interest in probing
into the depths of medicine, science, religion, faith and such related but apparently dissimilar
factors. So the work was extremely popular. It ran into nine editions even before 1660. Also five editions came out in Latin translation
as well – talking a lot about the kind of popularity and the kind of translation works
that had been happening during that period. The other significant work of Thomas Browne
was Pseudodoxia Epidemica. This was published in 1646 and it addressed
the various errors committed in the popular ideas about minerals, vegetables, diseases,
animals etc. In that sense again a scientific temperament
was being, a scientific kind of intervention was being made into the superstitious
beliefs that existed during the time and he also refuted many of these popular opinions
and warned people against the dangerous practices of accepting
uninformed opinions in the name of science. The other important work which came out in
1658 was Hydrotaphia or Urn Burial. This was a mix of history and science. He gave a detailed scientific report on the
various funeral urns which were discovered near Norwick. Norwick incidentally was the place in which
Thomas Browne practiced his, Thomas Browne carried out his medical practice. And he also concluded this piece with a magnificent
essay on death. So Thomas Browne was not just a physician
or a scientist. He was also a person with a philosophical
bent of mind. This work by Thomas Browne is often quoted
as an example of the greatness of seventeenth century prose style in English. The other major prose writers of the period
include William Chillingworth, Owen Feltham, James Howell and also there was Burton and
Fuller who started writing in the previous age itself. So there is a certain sense of overlap with
writers such as Burton and Fuller who continued publishing even in the Age of Milton. When we come to fiction it is important to
know that the output was fairly insignificant compared to the essays and pamphlets which
were produced during the time. And also it was not a proper kind of fiction. It was only a prototype of the fiction which
was to emerge at a later century. The major writers included Francis Godwin;
his work Man in the Moon was hugely popular because it spoke about a fantasy about an
imaginary voyage to moon. And there was Robert Anton’s Moriomachia which
came out in 1613. John Reynolds’ The Triumphs of God’s Revenge
against Murder, it was a collection of violent and erotic stories which also indicated that
all kinds of genres were becoming popular in the seventeenth century. There was also this writer named Kenelm Digby
whose Loose Fantasies which was published in 1628. It was an autobiographical narrative with
fictional elements and this was also the Age in which people could experiment the lot in
terms of prose writings. So there was a way in which all of these different disciplines came together. One could write about faith and science, faith
and religion, about science and religion, about fiction and autobiography, about imaginary
writings, about real writings, a lot of experiment was happening during this time and this could
be noted in the many works which got produced during those times. But unfortunately many of them were not worthy
enough to survive into the posterity but they merely serve as historical and intellectual
artifacts to indicate the kind of variety and the kind of versatility that existed during
the time. And in terms of poetry we already took a look
at some of the poetic output of the times in terms of metaphysical
poetry. And a particular kind of poetry which could
be loosely classified as religious poetry dominated these times. And they also displayed the complete detachment
from the political interest of the hour. In the previous session we also saw how turbulent
the times were, how the political scenario was not, was not peaceful at all. We saw how English had fallen into a Civil
War. We saw the political and, political uncertainty
which had led to a lot of violence. But we find the group of poets under who were
writing religious poetry maintaining silence about all these activities and remaining quite detached from
the reality of those times. For instance there is this poet Robert Herrick
who preferred to sing of the joys of life when there was hardly anything joyful happening
in England during that time. Andrew Marvell among the Metaphysicals, he
remained mostly secular and one of his poems we had taken a brief look at in of the previous
sessions. The other writers included George Herbert
and Richard Crawshaw, John Davis and Henry Vaughan and also Thomas Traherne. So religious poetry was particularly important
because it played to the sentiments of the Puritans and had also tried to bring about
a kind of, it also tried to bring about a kind of peace among these, amidst these turbulent
times. But however in terms of its literary merit,
apart from the metaphysical poetry we do not find many of them being mentioned by the later
critics or by the later historians. There was another kind of poetry known as
Cavalier poetry which dominated the times. It was mostly courtly poetry and it featured the elements of gallantry
and chivalry. It was also quite witty. It included smart responses and clever repartees. It was also characterized by a lot of complimentary
remarks paid to either a lover or a friend who was getting mentioned in these poems. It included flattery and exaggerated praise
of lovers’ beauty and wisdom and we also find it complaining about the lover’s indifference,
of the agony of separation. So in that sense it was mostly about love
and courtly affairs. And we also find a lot of erotic elements
getting built into these poems at least by some of the writers. Though they were slightly different from the
religious poetry of those times, we do not find them either engaging in serious debates
and in that sense their poetic diction was much simpler than that of the metaphysicals. They used short and precise lines for their
poetry; but nevertheless looking back from the contemporary times, their emergence may
seem a little exaggerated. And the major Cavalier poets included Thomas
Carew, John Suckling, John Cleveland, Richard Lovelace, Robert Herrick, George Wither and
William Drummond. Some of their poems, especially Carew, Suckling,
Cleveland, Lovelace they all were huge popular during those times. But nevertheless this detachment from the turbulent times of the period and this detachment
from – the silence that they maintained during those times by not critiquing or not articulating
certain voices of those times made them a little unpopular with the later critics and
historians. But there was nevertheless a couple of writers who did respond to the
times and particularly we need to talk about the poem by Lovelace titled To Althea, from
Prison. And this was mostly a plea for freedom but
we also find similar kinds of articulation though subtly some other poets. They were influenced by the harsh Puritan
government rule under Oliver Cromwell. When Oliver Cromwell took charge of England
there was initially this hope that he was going to be
the savior of democracy and the savior of England from the absolutist monarchy. But he proved to be a dictator nevertheless
and we do find England falling into terrible times during those, during the decade-old
rule of Oliver Cromwell. There was also instances of violence and instances
of hitherto unseen kind of cruelty getting inflicted to the other Commonwealth nations
such as Ireland and Scotland. So we find Lovelace writing this poem with this oft-quoted line, “Stone walls
do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage”. So in spite of these minor articulations,
we do not find much engagement with the society during those times. There was another set of poets known as the
“Tribe of Ben”. They were mostly Cavalier poets mostly influenced
by the playwright and the satirist Ben Jonson. So these writers include Thomas Randolph and
William Cartwright. And Herrick, Lovelace and Suckling who were
part of the Cavalier poets primarily, they also belonged to the Tribe of Ben because
they do show certain traits of satire and pastoral poetry. They also had lot of naughty wit and elaborate
conceits in their writing style. And, what made them distinct from the other
set of poets during the time was their ability to give a social commentary in a polished
style so that they never got into loggerheads with the, with the authority or the rulers of those
times. And their work was also highly stylized. So in that sense they were considered as the
imitators of the Mannerist paintings of those times – in a sense that they emphasized not
the naturalist mode of depiction but they focused more on the style and artifice rather
than natural kind of depiction. And moving on, it is time to take a look at
drama which really flourished in the Elizabethan and Jacobean times. We find a steady decline from the Caroline
times onwards and by 1642 we do find that the playhouses get
closed. But however there were traces of this before
the closure of theaters in 1642 and this drama was primarily comprised by a set of dramatists
who were influenced by Ben Jonson. So later they were together known as influenced
by this School of Jonson though there was no particular school of thought during those
times. So two major dramatists include Nathan Field
and Richard Brome; and also James Shirley whom we discussed in one of the earlier sessions,
he was the one who marked the transition moment from the Jacobean/Caroline times to the Restoration
period. And as we noted in one of the earlier sessions,
Charles Lamb also spoke about James Shirley as “last of a great race”. Now we move on to this period known as the
Interregnum and the kind of writings that existed during this time. The influence of Puritanism was quite dominant
during these times and the ruler was Oliver Cromwell and we do find many of the writers
either getting crushed under his rule or resorting to a different kind of poetry which would also
cater to the dominant interest of the times. And it was only prose and poetry that flourished
during this time and we do not find any trace of drama in any form during this period of
Interregnum. But at the same time it is important and useful
to note at this point that drama does make in the Restoration times by 1660. It is only a silence of a little more than
a decade that completely phased out drama from England for a short time. When we talk about prose during the Interregnum period
which is also predominantly a Puritan period, we find that prose writers wrote excessively
on moral issues, on themes of virtue, duties and ethics. Some of the important writers of this time
are Jeremy Taylor who was described as the ‘Shakespeare of the Divines’ and Izaak
Walton who wrote The Compleat Angler and Life of John Donne. Izaak Walton’s Life of John Donne continued
to be a reference text kind of a work for a very long time. And Izaak Walton’s life was very interesting
because he was a self-educated shopkeeper from London. He never went to any university. And Richard Baxter, though he had a Puritan
bent of mind, he was considered as a relatively more moderate compared to many other writers. There was a set of writers known as Cambridge
Platonists who knew how to blend Christian faith with scientific reason. Cromwell was also quite fond of them because
they seem to induce a moderate influence during those turbulent times. Some of the prominent Cambridge Platonists
were Benjamin Whichcote, Henry More, John Smith, Ralph Cudworth and Nathaneal Culverwell
So we do find that though this period was quite stifling in terms of drama, in terms
of prose there were worthy things being written, there was a scope for discussion as long as
it fell within the limits permitted by the Puritan government. The most important writer who was also later renowned as a philosopher was perhaps
Thomas Hobbes who lived from 1588 to 1679. His work Leviathan is of supreme importance
and continued to be referred by philosophers and critics even today. It is about the idea of absolutism that he
critiqued. And he was, he is said to have influenced
many generations of social and political thinkers not just in England but also in other parts
of the world. Hobbes was heavily influenced by Descartes. He was a sixteenth century French philosopher
who was also dubbed as the ‘Father of Modern Western philosophy’. In that sense Hobbes began to make an English
contribution to western philosophy and Descartes incidentally was more famous for this quote
which continues to be quoted and misquoted “I think, therefore I am.” So Hobbes was quite a significant prose writer
of that period who rose to prominence beyond the times and began
to define the ways in which English philosophy itself got shaped in the later period. There was also these writers such as Robert
Filmer who wrote a treatise on the origins of the Government,
Gerrard Winstanley who, he wrote on Universal suffrage and regular elections and also about
the need for religious tolerance but we do not find his work becoming quite controversial
or quite significant in the, in the sense that
it did not change the ways in which things were going on during that time. And a significant woman writer of this time was Margaret Cavendish. She incidentally was the first woman to be
allowed into the Royal Society of London which gets formed in England at a later point during
the rule of Charles the Second. Her writings which began to be published during
the Age of Milton were quite neglected and forgotten until about recently. May be at a later point we will also take
a look at the women writers of the Renaissance period who were forgotten and who were forced
to go into oblivion until recent times when there was a, there was a rewriting of literary
histories and revisioning of literary histories which swept the western world from the late
1980s and early 1990s onwards. Now we come to look at John Milton who was
perhaps the greatest product of this period, the age itself gets named as we know as the Age of Milton. He lived from 1608 to 1674. He is considered as a greatest product of
Puritanism. His birth happened about 4 years before Shakespeare
retirement to Stratford. He was born in Bread Street and he is considered
as the greatest after Shakespeare outside drama. In him we find a very fine blend of the moral
and religious influences of Puritanism along with the generous culture of Renaissance. And also he is often seen as the historical
surprise because one could not imagine this kind of literary genius getting produced in
an Age of Puritanism which did not actively promote any kind of finer arts or literature. And in that sense, David Daiches also refers
to him as “a lonely and dedicated figure in the seventeenth century English Literature”. Later biographer William Hayley also talks
about him as the “greatest English author”. However Milton’s critical literary reception
has oscillated from time to time. This was because of the political affiliation that he had. He was predominantly a Republican. Milton’s works can be classified into four periods
– the College Period, the Horton period, the period of his prose writings and his Late
poetic period. The College period was till the end of his
Cambridge career in 1632. During this time he wrote mostly in Latin
and in English. And we also find him publishing his one of
his most famous poems, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” in 1629 when he was barely
21 years old. And he was not a, he was quite an iconoclast
though he was a Puritan himself. We find him quarreling with the Cambridge
authorities because of certain differences in curriculum and we also find
him facing a brief period of rustication and he was later reinstated as well. So right from beginning we find that there
was an unconventional personality in the making who eventually becomes the, perhaps the greatest
kind of genius that the Age of Puritanism produced. The second period was the Horton period. During this time, he was mostly travelling. We find him taking off from London and going
to Paris and Italy. And also he had plans to visit Rome via Sicily And this is the time when he wrote some of
his greater poems such as “L’Allegro”, “Il Penseroso” and “Comus”. However, in 1639 when he decided to go to
Sicily and Rome he comes to know about the kind of mis-happenings back in London and
he decides to come back to England. In his own words, “I thought it base to
be travelling for my amusement abroad while my fellow-citizens were fighting for liberty
at home”. So he comes back and continues to live in
England till the end of his life. And the third period was the period of his
prose writing from 1640 to 1660. And this was also the time when he remained
as an active supporter of the Puritan cause and later he was also appointed as the Latin
Secretary to the Committee of Foreign Affairs. So we do find him rising to a prominent position and also continuing to write during this time. And there was this final period of his late, which is often known as
the Late poetic period this is considered as the period of his greatest achievement
when he wrote his Magnum Opus as well. And we shall come back to take a look of his
works in detail. And after Restoration it was not a happy time
for him. After the Restoration of monarchy in 1660
we do find the Puritans getting haunted in England and we find an impending arrest, he
eventually gets arrested as well. His books were burnt publicly. He was eventually released but he was forced
to move into political obscurity. We do not hear much about him but at the same
time, significantly this is the time when he wrote and published prolifically. And some of his greatest works, such as Paradise
Lost and Paradise Regained were written during this time. He is said to have died poor, lonely and blind. He died in 1674. There were also sonnets that he wrote intermittently throughout his writing career. There is no particular kind of phase dedicated to them. He experimented with various forms – sonnets,
Latin poems, pastorals and epics and he was quite successful in almost all of them. Let’s take a look at Milton’s prose writings
of the period. Milton wrote prose for about twenty years
during his writing career. But these works were considered as the ‘works
of his left hand’ compared to his supreme genius of his poetry. Though he was a Puritan himself, like many
other poets of the time, he did not remain silent or uncontroversial during this time. We find him engaging with fierce controversies
through his writings. And Edward Albert, the literary historian
talks about him, classifies him “among the greatest controversial compositions in the
language”. So in his prose writing we find him engaging
with a range of things which were considered taboo and unacceptable during that time. He published two very strong pamphlets on
the topic of divorce. This was in 1643. These publications in the form pamphlets,
it because quite a controversy during those times and we do find the Parliament
ordering an inquiry into this. However Milton remains quite uneffaced and
he publishes Areopagitica in 1644. This is an argumentative prose directed against
the order of the Parliament. Parliament had imposed a certain kind of pre-publication
censorship on the writers of the times and he does oppose it quite staunchly. This work was generally considered as a plea
for intellectual liberty and also for the liberty of the press. In that sense these sort of ideas against
censorship, or these sort of ideas for liberty, these ideas about press freedom, these sort
of things were quite unknown in the seventeenth century. So it became quite a novel thing and even
a strange thing to do in the seventeenth century. And he had this prominent thing to say in
Areopagitica which is oft-quoted even today: “He who kills a book, he who kills a good
book kills reason itself, kills the image of God as it were in the eye”. So we do see that Milton was a visionary and
revolutionary of a different kind who lived during Puritan times. He had a lot of interest in historical documents. He published the History of Britain in 1670. There was also A Treatise on Educational Reform
that he published and his Christian works were also of supreme importance. There was this particular work of Christian
doctrine in which Milton wrote about his own interpretation of Christianity but however
due to various socio-political and religious reasons and
also the turbulence of the times, the work was not published until much later in 1825. Let us take a look at Milton’s greatest period
ever. In this greatest period – period after Restoration
when he wrote, when he was personally facing a lot of trials and difficulties – in this period we note that the Puritan in
Milton had not killed the humanist in him. So we do find him articulating the complex
nature of his Christian humanist mentality. And one of his best works, Paradise Lost was
published during this time. One of his best works, The Paradise Lost was
published during this time, of his Late poetic period. The work was first published in 1667 and the
revised edition was published in 1674. This
is composed of 12 books and the central purpose of this work is to show how man’s first disobedience
brought sin and death to the world. And also he talks about the active divine
work of Redemption in detail in Paradise Lost. And this work is also considered as a philosophical
debate between free human will and chance and he also engages through the Biblical storyline
the moral consequences of disobedience and also he dramatizes the fall of Adam from a
divine to a human condition. The work was hugely popular then and it continues
to be a much taught work even in the contemporary. The second most important work of this period
was Paradise Regained which could also be considered
as the continuation of Paradise Lost. This was published in 1671. So in this work he tries to dramatize and
he tries to poetically present the devil’s attempted temptation of Jesus Christ. This
was quite an unusual move for the Puritanical age and the age that followed. We do find him rendering his own interpretation
to Biblical events and that was hugely popular then. And even today it continues to be considered
as one of the greatest works by Milton. The third important work of this period was Samson Agonistes. This in a certain way poetically articulated
the element of divine revenge and it also spoke about death in terms of triumph and
also as a redemption. We find him using Christ and Samson as examples
of what humanity ought to be. And this is the last line of Samson Agonistes
which is oft-quoted. “And calm of mind all passion spent” – and
this is perhaps the ideal kind of way in which Milton wanted to spend his life given that
in the couple of years he moves to the end of his life. Milton’s work even today is much discussed
and much quoted and is regarded with much worth primarily because of the ‘sublimity’
that his work possessed. Not just his poetic work but also his prose
had this particular quality which is now referred as ‘Miltonic sublimity’. He was a ‘master of grand style’, thus
thought Matthew Arnold, a later critic and poet. And he was also someone who experimented with
‘blank verse’ and he adopted them for non-dramatic form of poetry. So he is in that sense a pioneer of English
heroic verse without rhyme. There is an intensity of individuality that
we find in John Milton and this is all the more evident in the fact that he lived during
a very turbulent time. He lived under a Puritanical rule. He himself was a believer of the Puritanism but we do not find that shadowing his work
in any way. In fact he knows how to make use of all those
influences and then convert them into a perfect literary genius. Hudson talks about him in a particularly complimentary
way. He says “In the presence of one whose soul was like
a star and dwelt apart”. This is what many historians also later agreed
when they talked about John Milton. So we wind up today’s lecture with this assertion
and we agree with Hudson that “of this measure, he remains our greatest Master”. So we come to an end of our discussion of the various literary forms
and the various artistic forms of the Age of Milton and we also come to an end of a
particular phase in English Literary period, the end of English Renaissance altogether. And we also find that though the period had
begun with much pomp and show with the Elizabethan time, towards the end of this period, just
before Restoration, England had gone through a lot of turbulence, a lot of political uncertainty
and violence and it was merely a shadow of what it had begun with. And in that sense Milton also offers a ray
of hope, a sense of continuity that English Literature could not be forgotten but it would
continue to live even into the posterity in spite of the political and social changes
that overtook England. So with this we come to an end of this lecture. Thank you for listening and we look forward
to seeing you in the next session.

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