Humanist and Puritan Traditions in Milton's Pastoral Poetry: Syncretic Shepherds Upholding Religious Liberty for Dissenting Protestant Groups

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Pagel, Michael Adam
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Middle Tennessee State University
Humanist and Puritan Traditions in Milton’s Pastoral Poetry: Syncretic
Shepherds Upholding Religious Liberty for Dissenting Protestant Groups
By Michael Pagel
This study examines John Milton’s purpose for writing pastoral poetry in the 1630s. Trained in the liberal arts at Cambridge University and raised in a devout Puritan household, Milton creates exemplars of his shepherds in his pastoral poetry by juxtaposing the pastoral traditions of antiquity with the political and spiritual realities of Early Modern England. Within the satiric and critical traditions of the pastoral, Milton criticizes the rigid, traditional Christian doctrines pervasive in his own time, as well as the morals of church and courtly hierarchies; however, he expresses common human dignity in his shepherds, thus advocating through them for the values of his own Puritan humanism. In these portrayals Milton reaches into the mythological past to symbolize the shepherds’ ancient pagan traditions. Engaging his audiences to act in the same ethical ways as his syncretic shepherds, Milton addresses Puritan audiences like the Egertons and his classmates at Cambridge University, as well as his learned Italian humanist friends. Following the Renaissance humanist tradition of conjoining the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions, Milton asserts that he is not a paranoid Puritan but rather a dignified Puritan humanist. Broadly concerned with the way in which syncretic shepherds create an ethic of religious liberty for dissenting Protestant groups, this study examines the Nativity Ode in each of the five major chapters to trace Milton’s consistent assertion of the dignity of his syncretic shepherds by blending in them the best aspects of Greco-Roman pastoral and Puritan humanist traditions. The study seeks to establish that, in Arcades and in A Mask, pagan wisdom informs shepherds who deliver characters from harm and lead them to safety. Finally, the study maintains that Milton’s syncretic shepherds in Lycidas and Epitaphium Damonis achieve the highest rewards of apotheosis and entry into heaven in both pagan and Christian traditions, symbolizing the sainthood Puritans were denied by the strict doctrinal enforcement of the Catholic and Anglican churches’ bishops. In sum, in his early poetry, Milton creates dignified syncretic shepherds in order to blend Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions and to serve as moral and ethical examples that assert that dissenting Protestant groups deserve religious liberty.
Lycidas, Milton, Pagan and Christian, Pastoral, Syncretic shepherds, Thyrsis