Define Puritan Poetry

The Puritans had their songsters who included Andrew Marvell and John Milton. The Civil War made a breach in the historical continuity of English literature and the period of conflict and controversy between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II forms a kind of hiatus between Elizabethan and Restoration literature. Milton, the greatest writer of that period, belongs in spirit to the earlier age, when books were written to be read by scholars, and when classical learning gave form and pressure to English style. Marvell, too. Is a writer who says in one age what belongs in spirit to another. Would Milton have been the same Milton had there been no ecclesiastical upheaval, no Civil War, no execution, no Commonwealth?

Andrew Marvell (1621-78) was the most inspired and affectionate of Cromwell’s panegyrists, and after the Restoration he carried on in verse and prose the struggle for religious and political liberty. Yet it must be admitted that no one could be less like than Marvell to the conventional harsh and gloomy Puritan, the enemy of all worldly and artistic amusement. Even in the poems of Marvell’s maturity the gaiety is apparent of a jovial and mirth- loving spirit. While he wrote many verses which witness to the sincerity of his faith, he made numerous poems filled with the joyous humanism, and the cordial, vital quality which prove him to be a son of Renaissance. He revered the Bible, but he also loved wine, woman and song.

Marvell relates his own feelings in the longest of his poems Upon Appleton House, in which he shows that he is familiar with the aspects of the country and its trees and birds. He anticipates Wordsworth in preferring the song of the dove to that of the nightingale. His feeling for animals is voiced with infinite gracefulness in his semi-mythological poem The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn. Marvell’s Garden foreshadows Keats by its sensuousness and Wordsworth by its optimistic and serene meditative mood. Although love poems are not numerous in Marvell’s work, several are graceful (The Gallery) or slightly ironical-denouncing woman’s tricks, artifices, and coquetry (Mourning, Daphnis and Chloe)-a few hold us by their passion. His lines To His Coy Mistress have Donne’s strength and passion.

John Milton (1608-74) is supposed to have lived his books and wrote himself into them. When Marvell was numbered among the Puritans more by force of circumstances that as the result of his temperament, Milton was the poet who identified himself with Puritanism. As a poet, Milton truly dominates his century from so great an altitude that he cannot be merged into it. He endeavoured to blend the spirit of the Renaissance and of the Reformation. Spenser had tried this superficially, writing moral and religious legends beneath the pictures which he painted like a great sensuous artist, but his juxtaposition of the two elements only made their incompatibility more glaring. Milton was the first to conceive, from the outset of his career, a work which combined the perfection of ancient art and the intimate moral ardour of the Bible. No other English poet can be said to be at once so profoundly religious and so much an artist.

His Ode On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity was written when he was only twenty years old. This poem contains hardly a trace of the ‘metaphysical’ strangeness then so popular, and so seductive to a young mind. It is admirable when it depicts the straightening of Satan’s kingdom at the Nativity, and an incomparable series of stanzas celebrates the end of paganism. In L’ Allegro and II Penseroso Milton is discovered in search of the greatest of pure pleasures, or rather making a diptych to represent the two aspects in which pleasure appears to him at different times, the alternation of his mirth and gravity. The theme of L’Allegro and II Penseroso is the search for the pleasures to which Milton was most susceptible, and his final preference is for the solitary and unsociable of them, for melancholy. Curiously, this young man of twenty-five excludes love from his source of felicity. Milton had already turned his gaze heavenward and almost dreamt of a hermit’s cell.

Meanwhile in England, the struggle between the king and the Parliament had begun, and this awoke Milton’s dormant religious ardour. For twenty years the realization of all his great poetic dreams was suspended, at the cost of a sacrifice which cannot be exaggerated. Henceforth, until the Restoration, he wrote only prose. In 1660, the Restoration forced Milton to return to private life. Both his life and his liberty were at first time in some danger, but he finally enjoyed security in his retreat where he was able to return to the poetic projects of his youth. They resulted in his three great works Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671) and Samson Agonistes (1671).

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Paradise Lost can best be described as the fruit of a Puritan’s prolonged meditations on the Bible. The “hero” of the poem is Man; the “villain” is Satan; the subject is the Fall of Man and the promise of his redemption. Those who maintain that Satan, the rebel, is the real hero fail to understand that the adversary of God and Man must be presented in majesty and magnitude if he is to be worthy of his place in the story. In the story, Milton’s Satan is a failure and Milton draws him as a failure. The essential doctrine of the poem is eternal. The temptations of man, his conflicts with evil, his aspirations, his failures, and his repentances-these abide.

Paradise Regained tells a different kind of story in a different kind of blank verse, and shows us a perceptibly older Milton even more orthodox than before. Its theme is taken from the first verses of the fourth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel-Christ withstanding Satan’s temptations after forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Milton traces the Redemption back to this triumph. Paradise was lost by Eve when she yielded to Satan’s temptation, regained by Christ when he got the better of the same tempter. This poem does not have the greatness of its predecessor, but it arrests our interest by its revelations of Milton.

With Paradise Regained in 1671 was published Milton’s last work Samson Agonistes. The parallel of Samson and Milton himself is extraordinary, and the poet, with his strong autobiographical tendency, has brought it out still further. The blindness, the triumph of political enemies, the failing strength and closing life, the unbroken and undaunted resolution-all are in both. From the purely literary point of view, Samson Agonistes is a poem of the highest interest and of the greatest beauty. In form, the poem is a completely regular tragedy after Sophocles. The action of the drama passes in one place and during a single day. The drama is all Samson-the sadness of his lot, his remorse for his errors, his grief that his cause and his nation have been laid low, his impotence in a world in which he has become the slave of those whom he conquers and whom he despises.

This drama, with its strong, naked language was a noble conclusion to Milton’s poetic career. It confirmed what was evident from the first, that his work proceeded from a pride which reached sublimity and from a heroic egoism. It proceeded also from his incomparable art, shown equally, although diversely, in the delicate rhymed poetry of his youth and in the powerful blank verse of his maturity.



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