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Church, the Puritans were led to define more clearly and emphasize more strongly their points of difference. Partly, perhaps, through the animus of controversy, partly through logical necessity, these points of difference increased in number and apparent importance. They began to appear in fields that had at first been quite remote from the dispute. Thus, in the earlier part of the seventeenth century, there had been many English gentlemen, Puritan in theology, who were lovers of the beautiful in art, in literature, and, like Milton's father, in music; and who, whilė rigorously pure in their private morals, were yet generous in their culture and cheerful in their attitude towards life. But it was by the Cavalier that the pleasure-giving sides of life were most assiduously cultivated; and when the Puritans found themselves forced by the ecclesiastical and political issues of the time to take sides against the Cavaliers, they were led by the violence of the more extreme members of their party to relegate to the background those æsthetic tastes which they held in common with the more refined men of the opposite party, and finally, in many cases, to regard all such things as wiles of the devil. Thus became predominant that narrow and unlovely type of Puritanism which to-day is so often regarded as the only one; while, as a matter of fact, it was only the triumph of an extreme party brought about
by the open rupture with those who, whatever may have been their vices, were generous in their view of the place of beauty in life.
Now Milton, by upbringing and by temperament, belonged to the more moderate and cultured group of Puritans. He was brought up in a refined home, his father was a man of artistic sensibilities, and the poet himself received, as we have seen, a most liberal education. His purpose, cherished till manhood, of becoming a clergyman, along with the passage in Il Penseroso which shows his appreciation of beautiful architecture and music in the services of the Church, is sufficient to disprove any natural aversion to the English Church itself. Further, he deliberately chose an artistic career; and after the turmoil of the Puritan Revolution was over, he returned to it. For nothing are the poems in the present volume more notable than for their artistic qualities.
But keen as was Milton's love of art, there were things for which he cared still more. Throughout these earlier productions we find him constantly awake to the moral questions suggested by his subject. Comus, a poem written ostensibly for the entertainment of a festive gathering, is really an expression of his convictions on fundamental moral problems. The degradation from sensual indulgence, the necessity of the strictest personal purity for the best results, whether in thinking or
living, the conviction that Virtue must in the long run triumph—these things, and not the celebration of the inauguration of the Earl of Bridgewater, are the real themes of the masque. The passion in Lycidas rises to its highest pitch, not in expressions of grief over the death of his friend, but in an almost irrelevant burst of righteous indignation over the degradation of the holy office, and the falsehood and hypocrisy and selfishness which were undermining the foundations of the Church.
When he was on the threshold of his career, national events turned this moral enthusiasm into a new channel. The sacred principle of liberty was in danger. Without hesitation, Milton laid aside his poetry and turned to the service of the cause which seemed to him to call most loudly for help; and since the upholders of that cause had in many cases no sympathy with those other interests to which he had expected to devote himself, the period of his active association with them is almost barren of poetical production.
Yet the old ideal was before him still; and when, old, blind, and disappointed of the results of his long hope and endeavor, he retired to his obscure corner, it was not like Swift,“ to die like a poisoned rat in a hole,” but to take up the task that he had always regarded as his, and to carry it to a glorious consummation. Paradise Lost may be the epic of
a dead or dying theology; Samson Agonistes may be the grim deathsong of the ruined Roundhead; but in both Milton is the artist still, and the lasting proof of the possibility of the combination of Puritànism and culture.