Comus (1634) by John Milton,
edited by A W Verity.
Cambridge University Press 1927 (1909)
Come, Lady, while Heaven lends us grace,
Let us fly this cursed place,
Lest the sorcerer us entice
With some other new device.
With these words we’re taken to the nub of John Milton’s masque, which is that a wicked magician has entrapped a maiden, and that rescue may be at hand if nothing further awful happens. This is the stuff of fairytales, and we may expect a happy-ever-after ending, but this isn’t necessarily a given: after all it’s from the Stuart period, when nearly every bit of art had a political dimension, as it had been in the Tudor era.
And we may consider the audience of this intended narrative, the Earl of Bridgewater, lately ensconced in a castle on the Welsh borders where he might oversee a people possibly still uppity about being absorbed into English culture through new laws and a new official language. How would Milton bestride the fence between his Puritan leanings and the royalist sponsor it was written for?
This critical edition of the text has a certain historical value, it being more than a century old, but it still has much to say of worth, I think. Still, the play’s the thing, as another playwright wrote; and whomsoever’s conscience is caught Comus retains a certain curiosity for its poetry and for its concession to the masque genre with, admittedly, a rather sober frivolity.
So, Milton’s Comus is a masque, a curious piece of theatre to our modern sensibilities. In some ways masques are total theatre: there’s a story acted out, there are also fantastic costumes, music, dances, songs, along with visual and sound effects. Yet also there is high-flown language, and classical allusions, and frequent instances of what we’d now call virtue signalling (which may seem the whole point). And Comus has all this in abundance.
What’s the story? Comus is a sorcerer, the son of Bacchus and Circe, who has inherited his father’s debauched nature as well his mother’s skill for transforming humans into beasts. His name is from the Greek word for revelry which is one of the roots of our word ‘comedy’. When a Lady from Ludlow gets separated from her two brothers in a wood Comus tries to persuade her to swallow a potion, to no avail for she is virtuous beyond her years; her distraught brothers fortunately meet a spirit in the form of the shepherd Thyrsis who gives them a botanical charm to protect them from Comus’s wand.
However, when they rush forward to thwart the sorcerer’s design they fail to seize his wand, and so it is left for Thyrsis to invoke Sabrina, the nymph of the River Severn which flows past Ludlow Castle, to lift the stasis that keeps the Lady to her seat: she affirms that it’s “my office best to help ensnarèd chastity.” The Lady and her brothers are restored to their parents in the Castle and we are left with a dance, a song, and a moral from Milton in the guise of Thyrsis:
Mortals, that would follow me,
Love Virtue: she alone is free;
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the sphery chime;
Or if Virtue feeble were,Heaven itself would stoop to her.
This is a rare example of the use of trochaic tetrameter in Comus which, along with rhyming couplets is left to songs and scenes of a pastoral nature. Mostly, however, the masque consists of blank verse in iambic pentameter, as when the bespelled Lady says of Comus
I had not thought to have unlocked my lips
In this unhallowed air, but that this juggler
Would think to charm my judgement, as mine eyes,
Obtruding false rules pranked in reason’s garb.
Such phrases as this suits its lofty subject and its characters, since the siblings being originally acted by the sons and daughter of the Lord-Lieutenant of Wales and the Borders, namely Lord Brackley, Thomas Egerton and Lady Alice Egerton. The one and only performance took place at Ludlow Castle in the Marches, on Michaelmas Eve in 1634.
As a drama Comus is as static as the Lady’s forced entrapment in her seat, and for this reason some critics consider this as belonging with Milton’s other poems of around the same period, at a time when the phoney war preceding the English Civil War was ratcheting up. However, though Milton couldn’t help moralising (he even added improving lines to later printed editions) the fairytale framework underlying the flowery diction shines through, with jeopardy and villainy, as in any fantasy script, moving the narrative forward to its eventual resolution. In the skilled hands of a professional company Comus might even work as a modern musical, with or without the original music by Henry Lawes.
I first read this some years ago as I thought it might be a counterpart to Shakespeare’s The Tempest — both have a magician centre stage, there is a young heroine in both and the action of both takes place in an enchanted locale (one an island, the other a “wild wood”). But any resemblance is superficial: Prospero is benign, Comus malign; Miranda is rather more than an innocent pawn but the Lady is both steadfast in her virtue and determinedly assertive in the face of Comus’s importuning; and Prospero’s Isle “full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not” is the obverse of Comus’s “adventurous glade”, described in the stage directions:
COMUS enters, with a charming-rod in his hand, his glass in the other; with him a rout of monsters, headed like sundry sorts of wild beasts, but otherwise like men and women, their apparel glistering: they come in making a riotous and unruly noise, with torches in their hands.
In his introduction to this edition Arthur Verity suggests a parentage for this tale of sister lost in a wood, trapped by a sorcerer and rescued by brothers, namely George Peele’s Old Wives’ Tales, the name Comus borrowed from a masque by Ben Johnson, and further details from a Dutch play called Comus written by a Puteanus. My mind went straight away, however, to the Scottish fairytale of Childe Rowland and his sister Burd Helen which, with its similar storyline involving the King of Elfland, hints at a traditional tale lost in the mists of time.
A final word about this edition is in order. Verity’s 1909 volume went through several printings before and after the First World War, attesting to its usefulness; forty pages of introduction plus notes, glossary, appendix, other critiques and an index means the student can fully immerse themself into the poem, its background and its import; and its small format means the reader can easily carry it about in order to increase their familiarity, as I have been doing.
I’ve reviewed this as a contribution to Lory’s Reading the Theatre this March; also its connections with Ludlow in the Welsh Marches make it of peripheral relevance to Paula’s Dewithon, the Welsh Readathon. More, this is a classic play from my Back to the Classics challenge, another book ticked off on my Classics Club list and one more of my #21TBRbooksin2021