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THE DECLINE OF THE RENAISSANCE
THE ENGLAND OF MILTON ALTHOUGH Shakespeare and Milton are familiarly linked together in our ordinary speech as the two greatest poets of England, in the whole spirit and nature of their work they have but little in common. It is not merely that they are, for the most part, distinguished in separate provinces. of poetry; that Shakespeare is above all the dramatic, and Milton the epic poet of the literature; the difference lies much deeper, and declares itself unmistakably at almost every point. Now, this is not entirely due to an inborn, personal difference in the genius of these two representative poets; it is due also to the difference in the spirit of the times they represent. For in a sense even Shakespeare was “of an age," as well
for all time.” In the true spirit of the Renaissance, Shakespeare's work is taken up chiefly with this world rather than with any world hereafter; he is interested in
1 The distinction between dramatic and epic poetry is difficult to make clear in any short definition. In the drama, the author presents the characters of the play directly before the spectator, letting them by their own actions and words unfold the plot and disclose their several natures. In the epic, which is essentially a narrative poem, the author relates the story himself, generally a story of some heroic action or conflict, told in a dignified and elevated style. The drama is written for the stage, and is really not complete until it is produced there. The epic is to be read or recited.
life as life, and in men because of their essential humanity; his dramas are alive with the crowding interests and activities of Elizabeth's reign. But the England in which Milton lived and worked was stirred by far different emotions; its finest spirits were inspired by far different ideals. In the time of Milton and his compatriots, England's liberties, which had been fought for as far back as the days of King John and Magna Charta, were threatened with extinction. The Puritans strove to establish civil and religious liberty, the Royalists, or Cavaliers, to uphold the power of the King; and so England was torn by a strife which in Milton's day absorbed the best energies of the nation. Milton interprets and expresses this England of Puritanism, as Shakespeare does the England of Elizabeth; and to understand the difference in the spirit of their poetry, we must turn to history and grasp the broad distinction between the times they respectively represent.
We spoke of the Renaissance as the rebirth of the religious as well as of the intellectual life of Europe, and we saw that while in Italy the new life of the mind took form in what we call the Revival of Learning, in Germany the new life of the spirit had its outcome in that religious awakening we call the Reformation. The Revival of Learning and the Reformation entered into England almost at the same time; but it was at different times that they found full and typical expression in literature. The age of Elizabeth was inspired chiefly by the new learning, and its literature was filled with an intense and high-spirited love of England and England's glory. It reflected the brave new world and all its gaiety, its masques and revels, pageantry and music, its luxury of color. It had something of the fine ardor and spontaneity of youth, and something too of youth's
strong, clear life-blood. But in the period to which we now turn, this element of joyousness becomes less typical, and there appears in literature a new power, more stern and austere, that of Puritanism. Let us see who the Puritans were, and what they stood for.
The Puritans and Puritanism. We have seen that the Reformation in the sixteenth century was largely the result of a new and independent study of the Bible by men who were not contented with the interpretation of Scripture made by the Church, or with the practices followed by it in the name of Christianity. The aim of the reformers or Protestants had been to get back to what they considered a simpler and more real religion. In England, during the reign of Henry VIII, the king had thrown off his allegiance to the Pope and had made himself the head of the Church within his dominions. Although this step had been taken for political reasons, England's freedom from papal authority had afforded new opportunities for the growth of Protestant doctrines. This national or established church came to be known as the Anglican Church or the Church of England. But notwithstanding the changes thus made in England by the English Reformation, there were, even in Elizabeth's reign, some Protestants who wished to depart still further from the doctrines and practices of the Roman Church. They were called Puritans because they aimed to purify their own lives, and to free the Church of what they thought were Popish practices.
Many of the Puritans were eccentric people, but although they were ridiculed for peculiarities of manner and dress for their solemn and often sour visages, their steeple hats and closely cropped hair, and for such strange practices as embroidering Scripture texts on their shirts or petticoats — they were in many
respects the most solid people of the nation. Life was a serious business with them, a preparation for an existence hereafter. Their religion they placed above all else. God was their immediate lord and master, and they felt that allegiance to Him, to truth and the right, was above loyalty to the King. They believed they were responsible directly to God, and therefore they opposed the government of the Church of England and the authority of the bishops. Just as they had learned to interpret the Bible for themselves, and to criticize the teachings of the Church, so afterward, with the same independence, they learned to study political questions for themselves and to discuss the whole theory of government in church and state.
There was thus a close connection between the cause of religious liberty and that of political liberty; and in the first half of the seventeenth century, during the reigns of James I and Charles I, these two causes became one under the name of Puritanism. The Puritans had been active and, among certain classes, even numerous, during Elizabeth's time; we have seen how they opposed the production of plays in the city of London. But in James I's reign they grew even more influential, and in that of Charles I finally became the most powerful party in the realm. The Stuart kings failed to understand the people; they were arbitrary and obstinate, and flaunted before the people's rising sense of personal dignity and independence their theory of the “ Divine Right” of kings. They believed that they were appointed of God to rule over England, and implied that they could do no wrong. But in the eyes of the Puritans the King did many wrongs; he favored the Established Church, with its bishops and its more formal service; he tolerated vice and drunkenness at court, and he trampled upon
their ancient liberties by collecting unjust taxes without their consent. These things were contrary to what the Puritans believed to be the will of God, and when, at the end of the Civil War, Charles I was condemned and beheaded, the Puritans felt that they were but instruments in the hands of God, executing His stern judgment.
There were thus in the England of this time two distinct parties — the Puritans and the Royalists — who were opposed to each other in politics, in religion, and in their private way of life. The former in their extreme moral severity condemned plays and masques, all dancing, archery, and playing at bowls on Sunday, -- games which the young people of England had practised time out of mind on the village green. The Royalists or Cavaliers stood for greater freedom of life; in politics they were stanch supporters of the King and of a strong monarchy, and in religion they favored the more tolerant Established Church of England. They wore their hair long, over the shoulders, and were, in mind as in appearance, more elegant and graceful than the Puritan "Roundheads." With most men of Elizabeth's time, they believed that the world was a very good place, not to be condemned but enjoyed, and that pleasure was a worthy end in itself.
The New Version of the Bible. One of the greatest results of the religious conflicts of the time was the publication of the King James version of the Bible. Both parties felt the need of an accurate translation of the Scriptures. In 1604, therefore, a commission of forty-seven churchmen and Puritan ministers appointed, which, under the supervision of the King, made a careful revision and comparison of the earlier English translations. The work was completed in 1611, and has ever since been an incalculable spiritual force in