With Halkett and Osborne we are reading memoirs (as with Kempe) and letters.... as with no one in this period, except perhaps Spenser writing to Ralegh. What we study in a literature class is dependent on what is defined as literature. In a way, Milton's "subject matter," if you want to call it that, in the sonnets, in Paradise Lost, is political and religious. Lady Anne Halkett's Memoirs (pp. 1732-5), or the piece of them we have in Norton, records events that took place in 1648. She is 26 years old, and has some formed opinions, about her domestic state, about the designs of God. Notwithstanding, she participates in exciting, politically important, adventures. Like Milton's Eve? What we have from Dorothy Osborne are preserved letters (pp. 1748-52), complete with editorial comment in the form of footnotes! These women are upper class. We might ask how their lives, the meaning of those lives, compare with the lives of "everyday" women, of whom we know so little. But then you might observe we know very little about "everyday" men.
My point in asking you to read what is preserved from these two women, in part, is to indicate that while the "great" poets of the period define themselves in terms of the "national epic," these women are concerned with their own lives and daily events. Is Milton really any different in this? The end of Paradise Lost, Book 12 (p. 1618), what we have of it, presents not so much the justification of the ways of God to man, but Milton's thoughts on these matters, a sense, perhaps, of what Milton may have in mind for such people, everyday men and women.
His justification is a "renaissance" position, but it's well to remember the ideologues of the period did nothing (or little) to alter class difference; in fact, they bolstered that difference, insisting, as Halkett and Osborne are aware, on difference. The intellectuals saw themselves breaking new ground, going back to an educated time, skipping the barbaric time of "the church," "advanced thinkers," and yet look at Hobbes' conception of the "natural condition of mankind" (pp. 1661-3). His is not an "enlightened" view of man, rather one that assumes a fallen state, very much as Milton does. During great intellectual ferment, there's always a hangover of ideas from the past.
To get at a sense of the inherent conflict in this age, think of the conclusion of Paradise Lost in contrast to the sentiments expressed in The Wanderer. The author there knows the horrors of living alone, outside society. Milton looks forward to a brave new world, at the same time believing, as Hobbes does, that man's "natural" condition is not the source of happy contemplation.
The "problem" of the renaissance in England is that it comes late, the Reformation is well underway and that represents an entirely different urge, toward so-called freedom of religion, which meant freedom to practise your own, not tolerance. R.H. Tawney's 1926 book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism and Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (translated into English in 1930) have shaped our thinking about the changes from a centralized religion to a diversity of religions, and the societal changes that occurred with this loss of power, and gain of power. More recent post-structuralist theorists see a great many other forces at work. I've tried to introduce a little cultural history (with Pepys' account of the death of General Harrison, for example) to provide some sense of what this world was like.
One way to sum up the literary changes that occur over the period is to look once more at a few sonnets. On Friday, I called your attention to Milton's sonnet "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont," for the way in which Milton has transformed the very form of the sonnet, and used it for a very serious subject. This is not the holocaust he is writing about, but he does deal with religious persecution and death and destruction on a large scale. We have come a long way from Wyatt and Surrey indeed, and their concern with the Petrarchan conventions of love. Shakespeare also can be a writer of "serious" sonnets, as in Sonnet 146 (p. 822) which bears a marked similarity to Donne's Holy Sonnet 10 (p. 1116). But notice the chance in voice. Shakespeare's renaissance assurance, Donne's blunt challenge, all give way to Milton's sense of rightness not to mention righteousness and puritanical wisdom.
Most interesting, perhaps, is to view Shakespeare as Milton does in "L'Allegro" (lines 133-34, p. 1446) probably written some 15 years after Shakespeare's death, while the plays still hold the stage. To see Shakespeare as "fancy's child," that is as a "natural" poet, without the learned skill of Jonson, is to have lost a sense of what writing was about just a few decades earlier. No one now thinks of Shakespeare as an artless wonder; he seems now to rank among the most self-conscious artists, sophisticated in a way that Jonson's and Milton's scholarship deny. This is one of the great periods of English Literature, but it also is a period of remarkable, volatile change.