The strength of the religious movement lay rather among the middle and professional classes than among the gentry; and it is in a Puritan of this class that we find the fullest and noblest expression of the new influence which was leavening the temper of the time. John Milton is not only the highest, but the completest type of Puritanism. His life is absolutely contemporaneous with his cause. He was born when it began to exercise a direct power over English politics and English religion; he died when its effort to mould them into its own shape was over, and when it had again sunk into one of many influences to which we owe our English character. His earlier verse, the pamphlets of his riper years, the epics of his age, mark with a singular precision the three great stages in its history. His youth shows us how much of the gaiety, the poetic ease, the intellectual culture of the Renascence lingered in a Puritan home. Scrivener and "precisian" as his father was, he was a skilled musician; and the boy inherited his father's skill on lute and organ. One of the finest outbursts in the scheme of education which he put forth at a later time is a passage in which he vindicates the province of music as an agent in moral training.
His home, his tutor, his school were all rigidly Puritan; but there was nothing narrow or illiberal in his early training. "My father," he says, "destined me while yet a little boy to the study of humane letters; which I seized with such eagerness that from the twelfth year of my age I scarcely ever went from my lessons to bed before midnight." But to the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew he learnt at school, the scrivener advised him to add Italian and French. Nor were English letters neglected. Spenser gave the earliest turn to his poetic genius. In spite of the war between playwright and precisian, a Puritan youth could still in Milton's days avow his love of the stage, "if Jonson's learned sock be on, or sweetest Shakspere, Fancy's child, warble his native woodnotes wild," and gather from the " masques and antique pageantry " of the court-revel hints for his own "Comus " and " Arcades." Nor does any shadow of the coming struggle with the Church disturb the young scholar's reverie, as he wanders beneath " the high embowed roof, with antique pillars massy proof, and storied windows richly dight, casting a dim religious light," or as he hears " the pealing organ blow to the full-voiced choir below, in service high and anthem clear." His enjoyment of the gaiety of life stands in bright contrast with the gloom and sternness which strife and persecution fostered in the later Puritanism. In spite of " a certain reservedness of natural disposition," which shrank from "festivities and jests, in which I acknowledge my faculty to be very slight," the young singer could still enjoy the "jest and youthful jollity " of the world around him, its " quips and cranks and wanton wiles;" he could join the crew of Mirth, and look pleasantly on at the village fair, " where the jolly rebecks sound to many a youth and many a maid, dancing in the chequered shade." But his pleasures were "unreproved." There was nothing ascetic in his look, in his slender, vigorous frame, his face full of a delicate yet serious beauty, the rich brown hair which clustered over his brow; and the words we have quoted show his sensitive enjoyment of all that was beautiful.
But from coarse or sensual self-indulgence the young Puritan turned with disgust: "A certain reservedness of nature, an honest haughtiness and self-esteem, kept me still above those low descents of mind." He drank in an ideal chivalry from Spenser, but his religion and purity disdained the outer pledge on which chivalry built up its fabric of honour. " Every free and gentle spirit," said Milton, " without that oath, ought to be born a knight." It was with this temper that he passed from his London school, St. Paul's, to Christ's College at Cambridge, and it was this temper that he preserved throughout his University career. He left Cambridge, as he said afterwards, " free from all reproach, and approved by all honest men," with a purpose of self-dedication "to that same lot, however mean or high, towards which time leads me, and the will of Heaven".
Even in the still calm beauty of a life such as this, we catch the sterner tones of the Puritan temper. The very height of its aim, the intensity of its moral concentration, brought with them a loss of the genial delight in all that was human which distinguished the men of the Renascence. " If ever God instilled an intense love of moral beauty into the mind of any man," said Milton, " he has instilled it into mine." " Love Virtue," closed his "Comus," " she alone is free!" But this passionate love of virtue and of moral beauty, if it gave strength to human conduct, narrowed human sympathy and human intelligence. Already in Milton we note a certain " reservedness of temper," a contempt for " the false estimates of the vulgar," a proud retirement from the meaner and coarser life around him. Great as was his love for Shakspere, we can hardly fancy him delighting in Falstaff. In minds of a less cultured order, this moral tension ended, no doubt, in a hard unsocial sternness of life. The ordinary Puritan "loved all that were godly, much misliking the wicked and profane." His bond to other men was not the sense of a common manhood, but the recognition of a brotherhood among the elect.
Without the pale of the saints lay a world which was hateful to them, because it was the enemy of their God. It was this utter isolation from the "ungodly" that explains the contrast which startles us between the inner tenderness of the Puritans and the ruthlessness of so many of their actions. Cromwell, whose son's death (in his own words) went to his heart " like a dagger, indeed it did! " and who rode away sad and wearied from the triumph of Marston Moor, burst into horse-play as he signed the death-warrant of the King. A temper which had thus lost sympathy with the life of half the world around it could hardly sympathize with the whole of its own life. Humour, the faculty which above all corrects exaggeration and extravagance, died away before the new stress and strain of existence. The absolute devotion of the Puritan to a Supreme Will tended more and more to rob him of all sense of measure and proportion in common matters. Little things became great things in the glare of religious zeal; and the godly man learnt to shrink from a surplice, or a mince-pie at Christmas, as he shrank from impurity or a lie. Life became hard, rigid, colourless, as it became intense.