An Excerpt from English Literature by William J. Long
1. In its broadest sense the Puritan movement may be called a second and greater Renaissance, a rebirth of the moral nature of man following the intellectual awakening of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In Italy, whose influence had been greatest in Elizabethan literature, the Renaissance had been essentially pagan and sensuous. It was not based on the moral nature of man, and it also didn’t help from the despotism (tyranny, exercise of absolute power) of rulers. among the German and English peoples, the Renaissance was referred to a moral awakening. It had two chief objects: the first was personal righteousness; the second was civil and religious liberty.
2. Though the spirit of the movement was very religious, the Puritans were not a religious sect; neither were the Puritans narrow-minded and gloomy, as they are still pictured even in the histories. John Milton was among Puritans; and in the long struggle for human liberty there are few names more honoured by freemen everywhere..
3. From a religious viewpoint Puritanism included all shades of belief. The name Puritans was first given to those who advocated certain changes in the form of worship of the reformed English Church but as the ideal of liberty rose in every mind, and opposed to it were the king and the band of intolerant churchmen, then overall Puritanism became a great national movement. Naturally such a movement had its extremes and excesses, and it is from a few fanatics that most of our misconceptions about the Puritans arise. Life was too much stern in at that time, and the intensity of the struggle against despotism made men narrow minded and hard. After that Cromwell’s severe laws were passed. The criticism against this movement is just; but we must not forget its whole spirit. That the Puritan prohibited Maypole dancing and horse racing is of small consequence beside the fact that he fought for liberty and justice, that he overthrew despotism and made a man’s life and property safe from the tyranny of rulers. A great river is not judged by the foam on its surface, and certain strict laws and doctrines which we have been ridiculed are but froth on the surface of the mighty Puritan current that has flowed steadily, like a river of life, through English and American history since the Age of Elizabeth.
4. Changing Ideals. The political upheaval of the period is summed up in the terrible struggle between the king and Parliament, which resulted in the death of Charles at the block and the establishment of the Commonwealth under Cromwell.
5. The age produced many writers, a few immortal books, and one of the world’s great literary leaders. The literature of the age is extremely diverse in character, and the diversity is due to the breaking up of the ideals of political and religious unity. Puritan literature differs from that of the preceding age in three marked ways:
- It has no unity of spirit, as in the days of Elizabeth, resulting from the patriotic enthusiasm of all classes.
- In contrast with the hopefulness and vigour of Elizabethan writings, much of the literature of this period is sombre in character; it saddens rather than inspires us.
- It has lost the romantic impulse of youth, and become critical and intellectual; it makes us think, rather than feel deeply.