Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry: A Student's Guide

By Isabel Rivers | Go to book overview

1

The Golden Age and the Garden of Eden

Both classical and Christian cultures shared a belief in an original state of human perfection, in which man lived effortlessly and in complete harmony with nature, free from time, change and death. In classical culture this period was known as the golden age. The idea goes back to a very early Greek poem, Hesiod's Works and Days, which describes five races of men succeeding one another chronologically: golden (ideal), silver (impious), brazen (warlike and cruel), the race of heroes (demigods who approached the perfection of the golden race), and iron (the present race, who lead a miserable and laborious life). In some later versions there are only two races, the golden and the iron. Cronos (later identified with the Roman Saturn) ruled during the golden age; when his son Zeus (the Roman Jupiter) deposed him the golden age ended and man's troubles began (1, 5). The goddess of justice, Astraea, has a significant part in the story; in one version she flees to the mountains during the silver age, and finally abandons mankind during the age of bronze.

This myth of the ages of mankind locates the ideal in the distant past and implies the progressive degeneration of the species. But classical myth also describes two other kinds of ideal existence, one present, but distant in space, one future, to be attained after death. In Hesiod's story the race of heroes did not entirely die out; a few live on in the Isles of the Blest, somewhere in the Atlantic. Similarly in Homer some of the heroes are promised an immortal and happy life on earth; Menelaus is told that he will join others favoured by the gods in the Elysian plain, also situated in the west (Odyssey IV) (2). The garden of the Hesperides (whose trees bore golden fruit which were stolen by Hercules as one of his labours) was sometimes linked in the Renaissance with these islands. In classical literature after Homer Elysium becomes the reward for the souls of the just after death. The best-known classical account is in Aeneid VI; Aeneas, led through the underworld by the Sibyl, comes to the Elysian fields where he observes the Blest, dancing and singing, still taking pride in their chariots and horses, and meets his dead father Anchises. These states of existence, whether conceived of as past, present or future, are both physically and morally perfect.

In Christian myth there are similar temporal distinctions. The ideal

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Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry: A Student's Guide
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface to the Second Edition vi
  • Preface to the First Edition viii
  • Introduction: Renaissance Poetry and Modern Readers 1
  • 1 - The Golden Age and the Garden of Eden 9
  • 2 - The Pagan Gods 20
  • 3 - Platonism and Neoplatonism 33
  • 4 - Stoicism 44
  • 5 - Views of History 54
  • 6 - Cosmology 68
  • 7 - Reformation and Counter-Reformation 88
  • 8 - Protestant Theology 106
  • 9 - Humanism 125
  • 10 - Biblical Exegesis and Typology 140
  • 11 - Theories of Poetry 150
  • 12 - Allegory 160
  • 13 - Numerology 170
  • A Note on the Division of Historical Periods 183
  • Abbreviations 184
  • References 185
  • Further Reading 193
  • Bibliographical Appendix 205
  • Author Index 229
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