In what sense Milton is the child of Renaissance and Reformation?
Show the blending of Renaissance and Reformation in Milton’s work.
Answer: Milton’s work reflects the influence of both the reformation and the Renaissance. The Renaissance and the Reformation had their impact on England in the sixteenth century. Generally speaking, they exerted pulls in mutually opposite directions. Most of the Elizabethans came under the classical and humanistic influence of the Renaissance but did not admit the influence of the Reformation on their literary work. Spenser among them, however, tried obviously to reconcile the ‘two enthusiasms.
It was left for Milton…”the poetical son of Spenser”, as Dryden called him..to homogenize these two into a perfect whole. When he started writing, the initial exuberance ushered in by the Renaissance and the Reformation was already on its way out. Milton’s poetry is the first and the last example of the happy and effortless harmonization of the two mutually antagonistic enthusiasms which stirred the England of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In Milton’s poetry the Reformation element is found as his soft and steady Puritanism. Puritans were those who “protested” against even the Protestants who in their turn had protested against the Pope and the Popish religion. The Reformation signifies the great religious revolution of the sixteenth century which gave rise to the various Protestant or Evangelical organizations of Christendom. The movement was European in extent and was widely successful in the reign of Henry VIII, and later Elizabeth I. But some splinter sects rose against the Protestant Church of England which they thought was not yet fully reformed, and who urged to take Christianity back to the religion of Jesus Christ. These Puritans devotedly and rather superstitiously revered the Bible, condemned the Protestant bishop (episcopacy) and every institutionalized religion, emphasized every man’s inner light, hated all arts such as painting, sculpture and music and even ‘drama, all show and luxury, shied at the least appearance of evil, favored highly formalized and rigorous conduct, and, in general, turned against all literature and aesthetic pursuits. Now, Milton was born in a Puritan family. His schooling and surroundings, his social and political affiliations, and a number of other factors combined to instill in him a love of Puritan ideology and way of life. However, he was a man of too strong an individuality to accept any formal “ism” in its totality. He was a deeply religious man, and even at the age of twenty-three he could write:
All is, if I have grace to use it so;
As ever in my great Task Master’s eye.
Milton’s Puritanism has not much to do with the macabresque and stoic creed of ordinary puritans. The Renaissance elements of his intellectual set-up effectively controvert these tendencies and any fanatic adherence to a rigorous code of conduct and ultimate values. His version of Puritanism was tinged by his love of the classics, the love of nature, the love of beauty, and Renaissance humanism insisting on the world of man, and love of “the human face divine.” Moreover, unlike most Puritans, Milton emphasizes the spirit rather than the conduct. And this emphasis brings him into affinity with the Cambridge Platonists who were themselves mostly Puritans. Milton believed that “the Spirit which is given to us is a more certain guide than Scripture.” In his pamphlet Of True Religion he states that along with external Scripture there is an internal Scripture, “the Holy Spirit written in the Hearts of believers”. Milton departed from the Puritan creed even in some important doctrinal points. For instance, he did not subscribe to the doctrine of predestination and refused the Son an equal status with the Father. In more general terms, he tried to reconstruct the puritan creed on the basis of the humanistic ideology of the Renaissance.
The Renaissance in England gave rise to a large number of tendencies. It brought in its wake love and appreciation of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, a keen love of beauty and art, and a new stress on human life and pursuits. Milton is obviously affected by all these ramifications of the spirit of the Renaissance. As early as in 1637 he wrote to his friend Deodati: “Whatever the deity may have bestowed upon me in other respects, he has certainly inspired me, if any ever were inspired, with a passion for the good and the beautiful. Nor did Ceres, according to the fable, ever seek her daughter Proserpine with such unceasing solicitude as I have sought this idea of the beautiful in all the forms and appearance of things, for many are the shapes of things divine. Day and night 1 am wont to continue my search.” Unlike some others, Milton does not stand for atheistic epicureanism or hard-hearted materialism which attracted many (for example, the University Wits). Nor was he a votary of paganism, even though he showed vast knowledge of pagan mythology which came into limelight with the Renaissance. Again, though he respected the dignity of human beings yet he stood for their acquiescence in the will of God. In short, the Renaissance spirit in Milton was influenced and modified by his ingrained Puritanism. The Renaissance elements show themselves in Milton in two wavs:
(i) They provide, as we have already-said, the classical framework for most of his major poetical works.
(ii) Secondly, they leave, humanize, Hellenize, refine, and somewhat secularize his Puritanism and mitigate its severity. Almost all of Milton’s poetic works are embodiments of the Renaissance and the Reformation elements.
Very roughly speaking, the spirit of the Reformation provides the content and spirit of Milton poetry, and the spirit of the Renaissance classicism its molded pattern. Milton did in the seventeenth century what the poets of the French Pleiades had done in the sixteenth. “No poet”, says Grierson in The First Half-of the Seventeenth Century, “realized so completely the Renaissance ideal of poetry cast in classical moulds-carried out so entirely and majestically the programme of the Pleiade. Milton, and Milton only, succeeded in producing living and beautiful poems in correct classical forms. And into these classical forms he poured the in tensest spirit of the Protestant movement.” In fact Milton’s Puritanism (a product of the Reformation) and his Hellenism (a product of the Renaissance) were more closely harmonized in his genius than the formulary division of theme and form would suggest. Just as Addison professed “to enliven morality with wit and to temper wit with morality”. Milton seems to have enlivened Puritanism with Hellenism and tempered his Hellenism with Puritanism. Milton was neither a godless pagan nor a Puritan formalist nor was he both simultaneously. He imbibed the true spirit of both tendencies and wrote under the unified impact of both.
Milton’s mind was shaped and moulded by the influence of the Renaissance and the Reformation. On the one hand, he drank deep of classical poetry and philosophy and inherited all the culture and humanism of the Renaissance, and on the other, he had a deeply religious temperament, and was a profound student of the Bible and the literature of the scripture. Thus at the back of Milton’s mind there were the best fruits of classical scholarship and Biblical learning. He was a lover of art and music, and possessed what may be called an all-round culture of the mind.
Besides, he was full of moral and religious earnestness, and possessed all the piety and devotion of a true Christian. He was however, free from the intensely narrow outlook of a fierce Puritan. He combined in himself the humanism of the Renaissance with the spiritual fervor of Puritanism. These two influences molded all his poetic work.