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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: IV. The Age of Milton (1616–1660)

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)


THOUGH it can scarcely be said that the Tudor period was one of political quiescence, the disturbances of the succeeding period were much more frequent and disquieting. The national ideals which seemed to actuate Queen Elizabeth and her predecessors gave way under the next dynasty to a more selfish conception of sovereignty. The Stuarts, with a tenacity of purpose equaled only by their lack of understanding of the needs of the country, held to a belief in “the divine right of kings.” Such a conception of the power of the sovereign is fundamentally incompatible with the ideal of parliamentary government which the English people had been steadily developing for several centuries. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that there should be sooner or later a clash between these two irreconcilable conceptions of the functions of the Crown and of Parliament.

Matters were made more serious by the gradual growth of political power on the part of the Puritans who were actuated by the sincerest motives and carried along by the force of intense and energetic convictions. They set for themselves unselfishly and steadfastly the twofold ideal of personal righteousness and of social or civic integrity. Moved by a thorough-going belief in the divine right of individual conscience, which they reverenced as their king, and supported by the word of God as they read it, they found no task too onerous, no encounter too desperate. We should avoid a misconception of the character of the Puritan which is somewhat encouraged by Macaulay’s oft-quoted saying that the Puritans abolished bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. The typical Puritan, such as Cromwell or Milton for example, was a man of high ideals, broad-minded in his conceptions, and tolerant of differences of religious opinion. It was only in matters that seemed to him to involve questions of fundamental right and wrong that his zeal savored of intolerance and became tinged with what seems to be narrow selfishness. We must not forget that Puritanism was a noble and inspiring force in an England which was already beginning to feel the demoralizing influence that comes with the disintegration of political unity and social integrity. We must remember, too, that it was the spirit which inspired the Commonwealth to safeguard English national ideals; that it gave to the Pilgrim Fathers the courage to leave their homes and familiar countryside, and face the perils of an ocean voyage in search of a land where they could worship after their own manner; and that it found for its spokesmen two of the greatest writers of the English language—Milton, who spoke in no uncertain tone for liberty and right in matters of government and who sought not without success to “justify the ways of God to men” in matters of religion, and Bunyan, one of the simplest and most sincere spirits that have ever used the English language to point out the straight and narrow way that leads to the Celestial City.

Poetry. No classification that can be made of the poetry of this period is satisfactory. The old ideals in state and in literature were breaking up and a change was inevitable. New wine was being put into old bottles. As one might expect, those among the poets who were inclined to conservatism, and who were pleased to think that the poets of the last age had reached the ultimate in their craft, gave themselves to a rather selfish and uninspired imitation of the work of the most poetical of their predecessors—Spenser. They lacked his originality, and the technical perfection which they developed, admirable though it may be, is hardly a compensation for the inspiration which one expects to find in work of the first order. Occasionally one comes across the pure gold of poetry in the midst of much that is merely dull dross. The more one reads in the poetry of this age, the more he is impressed with the triviality of its subject-matter, with its superficial emotion, with its graceful metrical facility, and its verbal felicity. Sometimes he will linger at the poetry of Drayton to find a sonnet perfectly turned, or of Wither, who occasionally sings with an original lyric note, or of Herrick, to whom we owe some of the finest gems of English poetry, or of Vaughan, whose love of nature and of little children makes him a precursor of Wordsworth, or of Cowley, whose Pindaric Odes strike a new note in English versification, or of Waller, who showed the possibilities of the closed couplet which was to become so popular in the next age.

While the Elizabethans in the exuberance of their emotion sought new forms of verse, the poets of this period tended rather to simplify the forms of their metrical expression and to polish to the perfection of smoothness those verse forms which suited their fancy. We have, therefore, the gradual development of that ideal of classicism which places the appeal of form higher than that of content, which rates the apt phrase or the quaint conceit or the curious fancy higher than originality of thought or impetuosity of emotion. The old artificiality of Petrarchism and of Euphuism is to give place to the new ideal of “Wit” which we shall find to be the dominating characteristic of the Augustan age which is to follow. The “linkèd sweetness long drawn out” of the singers of Shakespeare’s day will give place gradually to the heroic couplet of Dryden and Pope, practically the only poetic note to make itself heard after the sonorousness of Milton’s organ-music has died away.

Reading Recommended

  • 1563–1631Michael Drayton
  • 1572–1631John Donne
  • 1585–1649William Drummond of Hawthornden
  • 1588–1667George Wither
  • c. 1590–c. 1645William Browne
  • 1591–1674Robert Herrick
  • 1593–1633George Herbert
  • 1595?–1639?Thomas Carew
  • 1606–1687Edmund Waller
  • 1609–1642Sir John Suckling
  • 1608–1674John Milton
  • 1618–1667Abraham Cowley
  • 1621–1678Andrew Marvell
  • 1621–1695Henry Vaughan
  • John Milton (1608–1674)

    Standing beside Chaucer and Shakespeare among those great writers whom one inevitably names in English literature or even in world literature, is Milton, the great champion of freedom of speech and the great poet of Puritanism. In one sense Milton voices the whole Puritan age much as Dante expresses the spirit of his own day. Of him may be said in the words of the Hebrew prophet, “There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding,” for such, indeed, was Milton, going, like Moses, up to the heights where he could commune in the silence of the spirit with his God and returning again to the plains to tell his message unto man. Milton to the highest degree embodied the ideal which he himself expressed: “He that would hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought to be a true poem; that is, a composition and pattern of most honorable things.”

    Milton’s life and his work fall readily into three divisions. There is first of all the early poetical period spent at Cambridge, where he writes ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (1629) and the sonnet ‘On Being Arrived at the Age of Twenty-three,’ and at Horton, where in the comparative peace and retirement of a country-home he writes ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’ (1634) and the masques, ‘Arcades’ (1633) and ‘Comus’ (1634), and ‘Lycidas’ (1637), an elegy of a somewhat conventional kind reminding us much of Theocritus, Virgil, and Spenser, but with none of the tempestuous doubt or the ultimate strength of trusting emotion which we will find later in Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam.’ This was also a period of foreign travel and of poetry written in Italian and in Latin.

    The second period (1640–1660) of Milton’s work covers the twenty years of his prose writing, and of his public service to the state. Apart from his tracts and pamphlets on government and divorce, the most interesting are his ‘Areopagitica’ (1644), which is the first great expression of that journalistic ideal, the liberty of the press, and his essay on ‘Education’ (1644), in which he has expressed a conception of education which still remains an unrealized ideal: “I call that a complete and generous education [says Milton] which fits a man to perform skillfully, justly, and magnanimously all the offices, both public and private, of peace or war.”

    Milton’s last period is the period of his blindness when, withdrawn from the turbulent affairs of the government of the commonwealth, he turned his spiritual eye upon the polity of the City of God. It is to this period that’ Paradise Lost’ (1667), ‘Paradise Regained’ (1671), and ‘Samson Agonistes’ (1671) belong.

    ‘Paradise Lost’ is one of the world’s four greatest nondramatic literary works, and holds in English literature a place which the ‘Iliad’ holds in Greek and the ‘Æneid’ holds in Latin. In a sense, it is an epic, but it is not a folk-epic as ‘Beowulf’ is; rather it is a spiritual epic of the whole human race. As one remembers the Parthenon or one of the splendid Gothic cathedrals as outstanding examples of architectural greatness, or thinks of the Last Judgment or the Sistine Madonna as great paintings that have become part of the artistic heritage of the world, so one thinks of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ of Tasso’s ‘Jerusalem Delivered,’ and of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as three great masterpieces of world literature which are based upon religious belief. Milton very early conceived the idea of writing in English a great work. He seems to have been in doubt at first whether to write it in the form of a drama or of an epic, and we know that he made a list of about one hundred possible subjects based largely upon British history and the Bible. He even contemplated for a time following the example of Spenser and writing a story of British chivalry of which King Arthur was to have been the central figure. He changed his purpose, however, partly perhaps because of his attitude toward kingship and partly because of the increasing moral earnestness of his nature and the loftier spiritual view which came with his blindness.

    Others before Milton had dealt with the subject of the fall of man and with subsequent biblical history. Andreini had written an Italian drama called ‘Adamo’ (1613); Du Bartas’s ‘Divine Week’ had been translated by Sylvester in 1605; Vondel’s Dutch drama ‘Lucifer’ had been written in 1654, and Milton may possibly have known the ‘Adamus Exul’ of Grotius; but the real sources of Milton’s poem are the Bible which he knew almost by heart, the Jewish and Rabbinical writings, theological works, particularly those which were Calvinistic, and the whole body of astronomy, geography, and history which were the property of an educated man in his day. But this “mighty mouthed inventor of harmonies,” as Tennyson called him, owes the ultimate achievement of the greatest epic of the English language to the energy of his own creative genius, to the loftiness of his moral idealism, and to the almost infinite sweep of his imagination. ‘Paradise Lost’ is indeed an epic of the universe. It has a human appeal broader than that of any merely national epic. It deals with imaginary and almost inconceivable scenes. The central figures are that fallen archangel Satan or Lucifer, “who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms,” and Adam, through whom Satan hopes

  • “to confound the race
  • Of mankind in one root, and earth with hell
  • To mingle and involve, done all to spite
  • The great Creator.”
  • Milton uses the story at times as an opportunity to introduce long theological discussions on questions that in his day, or to him, were of interest. Throughout the work he gives continued proof of that extraordinary combination of the Greek love of beauty and the Hebrew love of holiness which were perhaps his most marked characteristics. His poetry is saturated with learning which is incorporated with the story in a much more organic fashion than is the case with the vast erudition of Browning. His mastery of blank verse is shown by the way in which he utters his sonorous and rhythmic speech; and so individual is his point of view that the adjective “Miltonic” has come to be synonymous with the sublime.


    The prose of this period includes partly the scientific work of Bacon which we have already considered in the preceding period. It embraces also controversial and philosophical writing and the beginning of the essay and the novel, both of which are to have a long and honorable history. Among the writers of controversy, Milton stands pre-eminent. Among those who attempt to write philosophy we have the quaint and interesting ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ (1621) by Robert Burton, with its elaborate pseudo-scientific search into the causes, symptoms, and cure of many varieties of melancholy, and the ‘Religio Medici’ (1642) of Sir Thomas Browne, whose ‘Hydriotaphia’ on methods of burial, and whose ‘Garden of Cyrus’ with its reflections on death and immortality were more interesting to the gloomy minds of his day than they are to ours. Politics and history find spokesmen in Thomas Hobbes, whose ‘Leviathan’ is so serious and well-made a consideration of government that it places him among the great English philosophers; in Sir Walter Raleigh’s ‘History of the World’ (1644); in Clarendon’s ‘History of the Great Rebellion’ (c. 1670); and in Thomas Fuller’s ‘History of the Worthies of England’ (1662), which displays a refreshing sense of humor.

    Two of the outstanding figures of this period are Izaak Walton (1593–1683) whose ‘Complete Angler’ (1653) still delights the fisherman of to-day, and takes the modern lover of nature back to the flowery meadows, the quiet brooks, and the shady hedges of the England of nearly three centuries ago, so that he hears in the clear quiet air of the early morning the milkmaid’s song across the fields or the carol of the lark high in air, or sees the silvery flash of the fish as Piscator lands his first catch; and Jeremy Taylor, whose ‘Holy Living’ (1650) and ‘Holy Dying’ (1651) were to be found with the Bible in nearly every English cottage, and who is one of those fine spirits whose prose has a quality of immortality.

    But chief among the books that have come down to us from that day, and one known to every child of the last generation at least, is ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ by John Bunyan (1628–1688). Bunyan’s life is a curious combination of a variety of religious experience amounting to an abnormal terror of soul, a super-sensitive and vivid imagination, a prison life of twelve years for unlicensed religious zeal, and an ultimate popularity as an evangelistic preacher which could bring more than a thousand people to hear him speak early on a winter’s day in the open fields of London. ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ (1678) is a kind of modern ‘Everyman.’ It deals with the journey of Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, and by the straight and narrow way that leads him from one adventure to another, according to the directions in the Bible which he carries with him as a sort of celestial Baedeker. The interest of the narrative, the vividness of the experiences, the power of his emotions, and the simple earnestness of the style make the book one which has been read wherever the English language is spoken, and will make it live long after the simple evangelical theology which it preaches has become part of the past beliefs of men. It is significant also as an early step in the development of the novel, for Bunyan has the power of making his characters live and of telling a story which holds the reader’s interest from first to last.

    Chronological Table

  • 1603Death of Queen Elizabeth and accession of James I.
  • 1604Hampton Court Conference.
  • 1605Gunpowder Plot.
  • 1608Champlain founds Quebec.
  • 1611Authorized version of the English Bible published.
  • 1616Death of Shakespeare.
  • 1619Introduction of negro slavery into Virginia.
  • 1620Pilgrim Fathers land at Plymouth.
  • 1623Wither publishes the first English hymn book.
  • 1625Accession of Charles I.
  • 1626Impeachment of Buckingham.
  • 1628Petition of Right passed by parliament.
  • 1629–1640Charles I. governs without a parliament.
  • 1636Harvard College founded.
  • 1640Long Parliament meets; impeaches Strafford and Laud; abolishes Court of Star Chamber.
  • 1641Grand Remonstrance presented to Charles I.
  • 1642Civil War begins. Battle of Edgehill.
  • 1643Solemn League and Covenant between Parliament and Scotch Presbyterians.
  • 1644Milton’s ‘Areopagitica.’
  • 1644Cromwell victorious at Marston Moor.
  • 1645Parliamentary party win battle of Naseby.
  • 1649Trial and execution of Charles I.
  • 1649–1660England is a commonwealth.
  • 1652–1654Dutch War.
  • 1653Cromwell becomes Lord Protector.
  • 1653Walton’s ‘Complete Angler’ published.
  • 1660Restoration of the Stuarts: Charles II. becomes king.
  • 1667Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’
  • 1678Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’
  • Reading Recommended

  • 1588–1679Thomas Hobbes
  • 1577–1640Robert Burton
  • 1593–1683Izaak Walton
  • 1605–1682Sir Thomas Browne
  • 1608–1661Thomas Fuller
  • 1608–1674John Milton
  • Masques (E. Rhys)
  • 1613–1667Jeremy Taylor
  • 1628–1688John Bunyan