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CIVIL WAR PERIOD.
General Survey. — Though short, this period is worthy of careful study. It is characterized by a great conflict that absorbed every other important interest. The antagonistic elements in England were at last brought into an armed contest for supremacy. Charles I. ascended the throne in 1625, and moulded his policy according to high notions of the divine right of kings. He sought to establish an absolute monarchy. He assumed a haughty tone in addressing the Commons, telling them to "remember that parliaments were altogether in his power for their calling, sitting, or dissolution, and that, therefore, as he should find the fruits of them good or evil, they were to be, or not to be."
Two Parliaments were convened in rapid succession, but showed themselves unyielding to the royal will. When the king demanded supplies, the Commons clamored for redress of grievances. In each case the king dissolved Parliament, and proceeded to levy taxes in defiance of law. Resistance to the royal demands led to immediate imprisonment; and in order to exercise his tyranny the better, he billeted soldiers among the people, and in some places established martial law.
A third Parliament was called in 1629. Finding it still more determined in resisting his arbitrary and tyrannical rule, the king resolved upon a change of tactics. After many attempted evasions, he was at last brought to ratify the Petition of Right, the second great charter of English liberty, which bound him not to levy taxes without the consent of Parliament, not to imprison any person except by due course of law, and not to govern by martial law.
The rejoicing of the Commons over this victory was of short duration. The king was by nature insincere and false, and, on principle, did not feel himself bound to keep faith with the people. After collecting the supplies that had been granted him, he violated the solemn pledge of the Petition of Right, and dissolved Parliament with every mark of royal displeasure. For the following eleven years no Parliament was called together, and the king ruled as a despot.
Throughout the whole course of his usurpation, the king was surrounded by bad advisers. Among them was the Duke of Buckingham, whom the Commons considered "the grievance of grievances ;" Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, who hated the Puritans more than he hated the Catholics; and Thomas Wentworth, Earl Strafford, who had been won from the side of Parliament by bribes and honors, and to whom Mr. Pym suggestively remarked, "You have left us, but we will never leave you while your head is upon your shoulders." In natural sympathy with the king were the nobility of the realm and the prelates of the Established Church. With the supremacy of the crown, the position of the nobility would be guaranteed against republican tendencies. Since Charles I. was a zealous Episcopalian, the bishops had every thing to gain from his absolutism. They warmly defended the divine right of kings. Here, then, we find two influential classes which were bound to the king by common sympathies and common interests. They were called Royalists.
The opposition, as we have seen, centred in the House of Commons, who represented the great middle class of England. They stood for constitutional government. For the most part they were Independents in religion, and looked upon the usages and episcopal organization of the Anglican Church as savoring of Romanism. They made the individual congregation the source of authority, and, rejecting all human traditions, appealed to the Scriptures alone as the standard of faith and practice. Their form of worship was simple.
In emancipating men from the arbitrary rule of an external authority in religion, their principles were favorable to human dignity and freedom. Though persecuted to a greater or less degree during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I., the Independents had increased. Their trials had made them an earnest and determined body. In contrast with what they regarded the formalism and worldliness of the Established Church, many of them had gone to the opposite extreme of ascetic rigor. They denounced every kind of amusement, excluded music and art from the churches, acquired a stern solemnity of countenance, and affected a Scriptural style of speech.
To escape the annoyances and persecutions to which they were exposed in England, thousands had voluntarily exiled themselves in Holland, or braved the trials and dangers of the New World. It will be readily understood that men of this character — men of deep conviction, of high conceptions of individual liberty, and of fearless courage — could not be friendly to royal despotism. When placed in power in the House of Commons, they were stubborn and unyielding in their defence of constitutional liberty. They could not be deceived by promises nor terrified by threats. Thus constitutional government in the Commons was arrayed against despotism in the king.
At last the resources of peace were exhausted, and in 1642 an appeal was made to arms. It is not necessary to follow the course of the Civil War. The gay Cavaliers about the king were no match for the serious Puritans. "I raised such men as had the fear of God before them," said Cromwell, "and made some conscience of what they did, and from that day forward, I must say to you, they were never beaten, and wherever they engaged against the enemy they beat continually."
In 1649 Charles I. was brought to the block. England became a commonwealth, and with Cromwell as Lord Protector occupied a commanding position among European nations. The Protector was everywhere feared. He subjugated Ireland; from Spain he demanded the right of free trade with the West Indies; he suppressed the Barbary pirates of the Mediterranean; he forced the Pope and Catholic rulers to cease their persecutions of Protestants. In treating with foreign sovereigns, he insisted on receiving the formal honors paid to the proudest monarchs of Europe. He returned two letters to Louis XIV. of France because they were not, as he thought, properly addressed. "What," exclaimed the French king to Cardinal Mazarin, "must I call this base fellow * Our dear Brother Oliver ?'" "Aye," replied the crafty minister, "or your father, if it will gain your ends; or you will have him at the gates of Paris!"
This was not a period favorable to literature. The genius of the nation was occupied with practical questions of the highest importance. The people were divided in sympathy between the king and Parliament. Much ability was absorbed in controversial writings of only temporary value. Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Independents, and Puritans were constantly in conflict. The Royalist poets, writing in the atmosphere of the court, could not easily be more than graceful versifiers. There was no leisure nor inspiration for great works.
On the other hand, Puritan poets were not more favorably situated. In the austere atmosphere of Puritanic piety, there is little encouragement for the grace and delicacy of poetry. The aesthetic sentiment is suppressed by ascetic views of life. The literary impulse finds expression only in devotional manuals, unadorned history, or severely logical theology. "The idea of the beautiful is wanting," says Taine, "and what is literature without it? The natural expression of the heart's emotions is proscribed, and what is a literature without it? They abolished as impious the free stage and the rich poesy which the Renaissance had brought them. They rejected as profane the ornate style and the ample eloquence which had been established around them by the imitation of antiquity and of Italy."
We find, however, one great exception. It is John Milton. Though a Puritan at heart, and a participator in the religious controversies and political movements of the period, he was able to rise above the narrowness of party spirit, and stands out as the one great literary figure of his age.
With the exception of Milton the poetic writers of this