As a Christian, one must live a meaningful, yet balanced existence, teetering somewhere between being IN the world, but not OF the world. Surely John Milton expressed this duplicity throughout his works of prose and literature, as it is a struggle which penetrates the inner core of the religious man. Appropriately enough, this same dichotomy is represented throughout Biblical teachings, yet unionized through faith in God. Milton suggests this same internal struggle in three of his works, “Il Penseroso”, Comus and “Lycidas”, using different characters and situations that are ultimately represented in specific Bible passages.

The contrast between Milton’s somewhat bi-polar tendencies in “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” are highly religious. His thoughts flow from the exuberant Mirth, ready to experience the bounty of earthly life, to the depths of Melancholy, where he eventually chooses to reside. But why does he make this choice? In the midst of these manic depressive digressions lay a hint to his convictions: serving God must come before the selfish pleasures of human life and existence. In “Il Peseroso”, he makes his final decision to “choose” to live with Melancholy, an idea that resonates through the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, likely written by King Solomon. Like Solomon, Milton begins to see the importance of leading a life which invests time in more than just transient pleasures, but that which is eternal, pondering deeper, philosophical ideas that do not seem to be conducive with Mirth. He states:
Of every Star that Heav’n doth shew,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like Prophetic strain.
These pleasures Melancholy give,
And I with thee will choose to live. (171-176)

As one reads the book of Ecclesiastes, a recurring theme of the transience of life emerges. Similar to Milton, the author takes stock of his life and concludes that it is, in the end, better to be pensive and careful in life, harboring a deep trust in God (the eternal), than to live in a state of perpetual joy and pleasure. The entire premise of the book is a man’s philosophical discussion and reflection on his life. Solomon reiterates that everything is meaningless, and everything has been done before, and will continue to be done: “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:8,9). Solomon recognized the same dichotomy as Milton, struggling with the anguish of wanting to live for today, while also knowing that he awaits judgment from God: “Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you judgment” (Ecclesiastes 11:9). Ultimately, Milton knows that the human growth process remains stagnant in an environment without thought or trials. Milton and Solomon seem to be kindred spirits of sorts, Milton calling joy the “brood of folly”, and Solomon saying, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:3).

The Mask, Comus, is a lengthy digression on the temptations in life and how to overcome them. Reading through Comus, one becomes fascinated by the hearty character of the Lady, likened to Christ being tempted by Satan in the desert. Clearly, Milton is trying to represent the human fluctuations between hedonistic passions and Godly wisdom, a struggle that is emphasized through the power struggle of Comus and the Lady. Comus is seen as the gluttonous traitor, while the Lady seems to represent a sort of divine reason. As a Christian, Milton was quite aware of his conduct and the way it would affect him. What became most important, though, was that whatever sin or temptation may seize his body, as long as his heart and mind remain steadfast in the Lord, no harm could permanently befall him. The Lady clarifies this when she is trapped in the chair, insisting: “Thou canst not touch the freedom of my minde/ With all thy charms, although this corporal rinde/ Thou haste immanacl’d, while Heav’n sees good” (663-665). Temptation, in the Bible is not considered sin. Milton surely knew this, especially upon study of Jesus’ experience with the devil in the fourth chapter of the Book of Matthew. While Jesus was famished with hunger and thirst, the devil tried to convince him to use his divine powers to nourish himself. Jesus’ answer was, “Man cannot live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). With God, one can surpass all temptations, thus ending the struggle between human desires and Godly desires. The Godly desires WILL win, as they did for the Lady. In Corinthians, Paul seems to embody the Lady’s statements, saying, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

“Lycidas” is a deceptive poem. Upon first reading it seems to simply be an elegy for a lost friend. But upon closer inspection resides another theme of duplicity, that of the Godly, and that of the pharisaic clergy. Furthermore, is the idea that common man, not just clergy, can harbor sinful tendencies and power, thus becoming “double-minded”. First, Milton digresses about the transgressions of the clergy, exclaiming, “Blind mouthes! That scarce themselves know how to hold/ A Sheep-hook, or have learn’d ought els the least/ That to the faithfull Herdmans art belongs!” (121-122). The men of the clergy ought to know the proper ways to treat humans, more so than any other man. Yet they fail to recognize their own sin, thus perpetuating their failure as God’s witnesses. Similarly, James warns common men to remain alert to their humanity, stating, “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded men” (James 4:8). Like Milton coyly states throughout his works, man is cursed with a tormented mind, not knowing which way to turn. There is one thing that can save man, whether he be clergy or layman, and that is the hand of God. One of the most curious passages in “Lycidas” involves the “two-handed engine at the door” (129), which most likely represents some form of divine judgment. Although a sword connotes something violent and painful, the sword of God also has a duplicitous quality, not of hatred or sin, but of cutting through to the heart of man, softening it with love, yet also with the ability to judge. The two-handed engine encapsulates all the duplicity seen throughout Milton, that of man, and of God, but summed up best in Hebrews: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

As a reader, one must come to realize what the true distinctions are in Milton’s work: life with God, and life separate from God. With great wisdom, John Milton attempted to siphon out what it truly meant to be a man of God. What it seems he found is that humans cannot simply be one or the other, sinner or saint, joyful or melancholic, pure or stained, but will always (so long as one is physically alive on earth) harbor a duplicitous spirit. His poems are an agonizing example of his struggle as a human, but also a triumph to the dedication he had to his faith and his God. The Bible, too, is littered with stories of duplicitous men and women and their plights. It is from there that Milton ultimately draws his influences, his inspirations, but most of all, his life.