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John Milton was born twenty years after the defeat of the Armada. That deliverance had been regarded as little less than miraculous, and had been accepted as the token of Divine favour to the English nation and its sovereign. More than once in his prose writings does Milton recur to it, in language that shews how vivid was the remembrance of eightyeight' in the popular mind, till the troubles and turmoil of succeeding years partially effaced the impression.
Looking at the Elizabethan era as reflected in and interpreted by Spenser's great poem, we can have no difficulty in thinking of the victory over Spain as the reward, if not as the result, of the exercise of high virtues and mighty energies. A poem so truly heroic could only have been written in an heroic time. In no mean or narrow generation could such an ideal as is there set forth have been conceived, expressed, or accepted.
The England of his own day is ‘Spenser's lond of Faërie,' and he feels that his theme exalts rather than is exalted by his imagination. He thinks, indeed, that his wit and tongue are too weak and dull for the worthy fulfilment of his great work. But to us it is, with one sole exception, the most noble literary monument of the Elizabethan age, and amply justifies the traditional reverence with which that age has been regarded. The gorgeous allegory expresses in apt similitudes the fulness, energy, and beauty of the national life. In Elizabeth, her subjects reverenced the visible head and symbol of the divine order and society of which they were members by right of birth. The defects of her personal character were scarcely discernible in the blaze of ideal splendour that surrounded her throne, while her nobler qualities had full scope and instant recognition. ‘Domestic treason' had been crushed, if not annihilated, in the overthrow of the 'foreign levy.' Englishmen were fulfilling and transcending the aspirations of chivalry. A spiritual fire fused their individual efforts into a unity of result that no explicit terms of agreement could have secured. The reactionary scheme of the Jesuits, to give greater glory to God by the degradation of men into machines, with all its expedients for utilizing the faculties and rigidly organizing the wills of its victims, never secured more zealous, unhesitating obedience than our countrymen of that day paid to the object of their loyalty. With the Elizabethan worthies it was an instinct to uphold, each in his own person and in the performance of the task assigned him, the honour of the English name, to heed no cost, sacrifice, or danger where that was concerned; thus living a vigorous life, doing daily duty, and leaving the issue, in simple faith, to Him of whose presence they needed no reminder, as it was to them an abiding fact and not an occasional reflection.
But the twenty years from 1588 to 1608, had turned into a totally different channel the current of English thought and feeling.
In the latter years of Elizabeth, Spenser, with a poet's sensitive apprehension of differences in the moral and intellectual atmosphere, had bitter pangs of misgiving, and bore emphatic testimony to the truth of Dante's plaint, that
A sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things.' And this feeling was not the common yearning after an unattainable ideal transferred from the future to the past. The difference was real, and the harbinger of greater change to
The dazzling glory environing the lives of such men as Drake and Raleigh had begun to fade into the light of common day. The lower aims of rapine and revenge alloyed the purer patriotic impulse. The interest of that New World which had so powerfully aroused the imagination and the energies of Englishmen, became commercial mainly. So in the 'Tempest,' when the princes prepare to set sail for Naples, Prospero resolves to bury fathoms deep his rod and book of power; and as the Old World associations resume their sway, the spell which entranced us is broken, and the receding island is left lonely and disenchanted.
In 1608, James I. had borne that title five years. In his veins ran the blood of the rulers of Scotland and of France, the traditional foes of England. With the English people he had as little sympathy as affinity. With no better endowment of heart than a coarse and uncertain good-nature, with no better claim to wisdom than a vein of shrewd common-sense, he regarded the country he came to rule as his private estate, to be governed according to his personal interest and inclination. One consequence of the littleness and selfishness of his character was that, in the highest region of politics, the mean shifts and petty subterfuges, resorted to even in Elizabeth's reign, on the principle of meeting deceit by deceit (and contrasting strangely with the ideal aspect of that time), were now avowed and digested into an art, which its royal patron and self-styled author regarded as the true craft of a king.
The acquiescence of Englishmen in such a rule excited the contemptuous surprise of Continental statesmen. When Milton was ten years old, the abandonment of the Elizabethan political traditions was complete. Sir Walter Raleigh, 'the Shepherd of the Ocean,' sacrificed to the resentment of Spain, came with a broken heart' to die in Palace Yard.
In the people at large, the respectful loyalty which surrounded the throne of the last Tudor survived without any touch of the old enthusiasm. The fervent phrases of hearty homage once fitly addressed to the ‘Lady whom Time had surprised,' the King's 'new courtiers' exaggerated into rhetorical and unmeaning adulation. In this they had the ready help of the churchmen, who made their eulogy of the 'bright occidental star' serve to enhance their panegyric upon James, ' appearing like the sun in his strength.'
The political decadence is reflected and explained by the state of literature under the first Stuart, as contrasted with
those melodious bursts, that fill The spacious times of great Elizabeth
With sounds that echo still.
Shakespeare, indeed, yet wrote or revised his plays, but their inspiration is derived from the impulse of the Queen's time, notwithstanding the fact that Hamlet and the Tempest are affected by the new era. It is Bacon and Ben Jonson whom. we naturally regard as the leaders and exponents of the literature of James's reign.
Bacon happily compared literature to the eye of Polyphemus.' But he regarded it rather as an educational instrument than as itself the embodiment and the interpretation of the national life. Though brought up in the Queen's reign, he imbibed the subtlety of the time without being touched by its fervour, and remained insensible to what we regard as its crowning glories. Poetry to him is no flower, but a weed; and when he has occasion to speak of the drama, the form in which some of the best English thought had already found expression, he vouchsafes it but a brief and slighting notice. The discoveries in the New World he considers with reference to the addition thus made to the domain of human knowledge, and their influence in expanding the minds of men for the reception of new ideas. But there is no indication of sympathy with the spirit in which the voyages had been undertaken, or with the chivalrous ardour that flamed so high in Raleigh and in Sidney. He says, in his letter to Prince Henry, 'I have divided my life into the contemplative and active part.' The division resulted in some startling contrasts between the severed portions. One leading characteristic he preserved in both. Prudence was his ideal as well in philosophy as in life. Men had miscalculated the extent and direction of their powers, and he would correct their errors and prevent the waste of energy misapplied. Deliberate choice of a road, of a goal, is the first necessity. The conscious observance of a rigid method was in Bacon's own eyes the most valuable part of his philosophy. All that we esteem most highly in his writings was to him but the preface to experiments like those recorded in his Natural History. His caution and practical keenness reflect one phase of the time.
In the works of his friend Ben Jonson, the drama has undergone a complete change. It had been an exhibition of humanity from its highest nobility to its lowest degradation, in subordination indeed to art, but to art instinctive, so working in and through its creations, that these have a life and being of their own. Jonson presents us with a certain amount of humorous or of didactic matter cast into dramatic moulds as fixed as the ancient masks of comedy and tragedy. By his own confession, this was the ever-recurring cause of quarrel with his public, who had been educated in Shakespeare's school. But he was not in permanent disfavour with his countrymen. His pedantry became less conspicuous as the age became more pedantic. In conjunction with his better qualities of mind, it at last ensured him an acknowledged headship over the contemporary men of letters—a presidency since held by Dryden and by Johnson. His plays retained possession of the stage long after his death, and with those of Beaumont and Fletcher were performed much oftener than the works of Shakespeare.
Thus the chief poet of the new reign yielded to the dominant tendency, and by his deliberate obedience to a system of definite rules shewed 'the very age and body of the time its form and pressure.' For a reaction had taken place from poetic impulse and heroic achievement to prosaic weariness and worldly wisdom. As the spiritual tension of the nation relaxed, the free healthy belief-the faith which had removed mountains-was replaced by questioning hesitation or by narrow dogmatism. In devout souls, the clear inspiration of simple duty was exchanged for aspiration after some model of supposed perfection. As the sense of an actual Divine government became weaker, the problem of the best possible form of polity became more urgent. The principal interest of the coming time centres in the Puritan, as the most prominent and consistent representative of this great change. By taking a view of Milton's poems in chronological order, we may trace the operation of the new influences, pervading his nature, moral and artistic, and giving the tone and direction to his whole life and work.
Milton's writings fall naturally into three periods, each having a distinct character. These are: