The influence of the poetry of Edmund Spenser upon the poetry of John Milton
Nothnagle, Claribel May
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Scholars commonly assert that Edmund Spenser, the great poet of the Elizabethan Age, exerted influence upon John Milton, the Puritan poet of the next century. The purpose of this paper is to report the findings of a study of this influence, the reasons for it, and the kind and extent of it. There were certain parallels in the natures, lives, and beliefs of these two men which are possible grounds for a close sympathy between them. They both had extremely sensitive natures, both were well acquainted with the city of London, both lived in periods of history that were politically difficult, and both knew unhappiness in love. Both were much disturbed by these mental and emotional conflicts in their lives. Both were idealists, and both were disillusioned. These parallels wove a mysterious chain between the two poets. There is much proof to show that the influence of Spenser on Milton does exist. Felix Schelling, James Hanford, and John Dryden make statements that Spenser's influence was of great importance. Milton's own testimony is the best proof. He acknowledges his debt to Spenser in "Areobagitica" and in "Apology for Smectymnus." He refers to him also in "Fikonoklastes". This influence was expressed in Milton's poetry in thought and in form. Some of the ways in which Spenser seems to have influenced Milton in thought are in his ideas about poetry, in his Platonism, in his belief of freedom of the human will, in his cosmology, and in his Renaissance ideas. Both Spenser and Milton believed that it was the duty of the poet to teach. They both conceived a lofty Christian-Platonic ideal as the goal toward which to aim, and the purpose of their poetry was to teach this ideal. They believed poetry must be virtuous in intent and on lofty subjects. They believed it was produced by divine inspiration. The Platonism of Spenser and Milton was, as has already been suggested in the preceding paragraph, modified by Christian doctrines. Spenser and Milton believed that love is beauty and that all that is good is beautiful, but they also believed that God is Love and that beauty emanates from Him. They believed in the Platonic conception of the spirit working upward above the physical to a realm of its own, and in the conception of two kinds of love, earthly and heavenly. Plato believed in the three-fold life of philosophy, action, and passion. Spenser and Milton illustrate a like belief in this three-fold life in which temperance must control passion, wisdom must govern philosophy, and courage govern action. Other elements of Platonism are inseparable from other distinguishing characteristics of the two poets. Spenser and Milton also believed in free will. The similarity of wording in expressing this idea suggest that Milton may have influenced in this belief of Spenser. Spenser's cosmology in a mixture of the beliefs of Ptolemy, Dionysius, and the Bible. Hu uses the Ptolemaic system of the earth as the center of the universe, but adapts the nine orders of the angels from Dionysius. Milton expresses a like mixture of ideas. Both suggest that the world was built out of Chaos at the bidding of Love. The descriptions of Spenser's Bower of Bliss and Milton's Garden of Eden on this created world are comparable. It is quite possible these parallels are partly due to Spenser's influence. Spenser might be considered a link between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and Milton between the Renaissance and Neo-Classicism. The Renaissance elements in both might have been a common ground upon which they could meet. They both show interest in new discovered land, scientific curiosity as to the origin of things, and beliefs in the possibility of habitation on the stars. Spenser's epic was the only one written in the classic tradition before Milton's time which revealed the curious exploring mind of the new era. Spenser also seems to have influences Milton in the structure of his work. In their great epics, The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost, both poets follow the epic tradition, but Spenser uses a certain amount of originality in treatment which is found also in Milton. Both introduce autobiographical material into the invocation to the muse. Both call upon two types of muse, a pagen one and a Christian one. There is a noticeable likeness in the description by the two poets of a battle scene, and Milton's treatment of the three day temptation of Christ in the wilderness in Paradise Regained is much like Spenser's handling of Cuyon's temptation in the Cave of Mammon. There are similar uses of the supernatural in the work of both poets, and both make use of a like simile at the close of the first book of each of their great epics. These parallels seem to indicate that Milton may have owed a debt to Spenser, as well as to Virgil and Homer, for his epic. Another form employed by both poets is the pastoral. There are, in Milton's Lycidas, passages of description and of satire which parallel passages in Spenser's Shephearde's Calender. Felix Schelling states his belief that Lycidas can be traced back to Spenser. Spenser and Milton both make use of allegory. Milton's description of "foule errour" in The Faerie Queene. Both poets used archaisms, invented symbolic names, and used similar connotations of words. These parallelisms imply the possibility of extended influence in detail as well as in general structure and in thought content. In both Spenser and Milton can therefore be found a similarity in form and a common acceptance of such beliefs and attitudes as scientific curiosity, Platonism, Puritanism, and Renaissance love of beauty.
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