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we know by the name of “ Comus "—the name given to it after Milton's death—but which was by him simply entitled “ A Masque presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, before the Earl of Bridgewater, the President of Wales."
The circumstances of its composition and production are extremely interesting. The musical tastes which Milton had inherited from his father naturally brought him into association with others who loved and practised the art. Among these was a young man named Henry Lawes, at that time already well known as an accomplished musician, and later the most famous English composer of his time. The affection between the two appears to have originated in boyhood, when, it is conjectured, Lawes may have been a visitor at the house in Bread Street, and the following sonnet, dated February 1645, shows that it remained unabated in middle life, despite the political differences which in the meanwhile had driven the friends into opposite camps.
TO MR. H. LAWES, ON HIS AIRS
First taught our English music how to scan
With Midas' ears, committing short and long ; Thy worth and skill exempts thee from the throng,
With praise enough for Envy to look wan ;
Thou honour'st Verse, and Verse must lend her wing
To honour thee, the priest of Phæbus' quire,
That tun'st their happiest lines in hymn, or story.
Than his Casella, whom he wooed to sing,
Now Lawes was teaching music to the children of John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, at the time of that nobleman's appointment to the Lord Presidency of Wales and the Marches. It was in 1633 that the Earl took up his official residence at Ludlow Castle, in Shropshire; and, after the fashion of the age, it was decided to celebrate the event by private festivities on a scale of great magnificence, a chief feature of which was
to be a masque. Lawes was entrusted with all the arrangements; he, of course, undertook the musical portions of the dramatic performance; he invited his friend Milton to provide the necessary framework and poetry ; and the writing of “Comus " was the result.
The readiness with which he executed the task is once more signal proof of Milton's complete freedom from the narrowness and fanaticism of the Puritan zealots. Whatever its origin and early history, the masque as a dramatic type was largely the product of those Italian influences which from the time of the Renaissance onward had done so much to shape · Casella was a Florentine friend of Dante, celebrated for his skill
Dante meets him in the second canto of the “Purgatorio,“ and induces him to sing.
and colour our imaginative literature. Many of our professional dramatic writers, notably Fletcher and Jonson, had employed it with admirable effect; by the opening of the seventeenth century its popularity at court and in aristocratic circles was enormous. A number of reasons thus combined to render it as hateful to the Puritan bigot as even the regular stagepiay itself. Yet Milton was willing to use it. That is a point upon which the utmost stress should be laid. A single detail will serve to make its significance clear. In 1633--the very
. year before the production of “Comus "—the famous Puritan William Prynne published a volume entitled “Histrio-Mastix, or Actor's Tragedie.” In this prodigious work of one thousand and six closely printed pages no fewer than four thousand texts of Scripture are cited to prove the absolute sinfulness of all stage-plays, including private theatricals, which are made the object of specially virulent abuse. The coincidence in time between Prynne's book and Milton's poem is certainly striking. Hardly had the violent controversialist delivered his sweeping attack before the great poet gave proof that one of the forms which had been savagely denounced as hopelessly vile could be turned to the service of the highest and purest moral teaching.
The special interest of “Comus " as marking another stage in the development of Milton's mind will now be apparent. Its literary affiliations are entirely with the Renaissance ;
as a piece of art, it belongs to the dramatic traditions of Peele, Fletcher, and Jonson, whom Milton had, it is clear, carefully and lovingly studied, and to all of whom he was more or less indebted for suggestions. Yet though the old form is maintained, the spirit which it embodies is new. No reader of Comus can fail to be impressed by the evidence which it affords of Milton's deepening seriousness. A note is struck which is far more nearly the real Puritan note than we have as yet anywhere heard in his work. A strenuous moral purpose lies at the very core of the action. Conception and details alike are filled with a splendid passion for righteousness. The simple story (plot it can hardly be called) of the lady lost in the dark wood, lured away by Comus and his band, and rescued by her brothers with the help of an attendant spirit and a river nymph, is a patent allegory of virtue, unharmed amid all dangers, invincible amid all trials, overcoming all temptations through its inherent might and the support in dire necessity of never failing divine aid. Faith in the ultimate triumph of good pervades the poem, and finds full utterance in the magnificent outburst in which the Elder Brother declares that virtue is eternal and evil selfconsuming, and that the very foundations of the universe are bound up with that supreme fact. In the contrast of principles and ideals which the movement of the action involves, it must also be remembered that Milton was writing with his thought upon the conditions of his
time ; for while Comus and his crew of insolent revellers represent the growing license of Charles's profligate court and fashionable society, the lady and her brothers are set forward as types of the sobriety and temperance of the true religious life. In the brothers in particular we may see Milton's ideal of Puritanism as it was then conceived by him; an ideal large, generous, humane, combining love of divine philosophy and knowledge with zeal for holiness, and yet pointing to the spirit of holiness always as the overruling and unifying power in life.
To such high uses, then, did Milton's moral spirit bend one of the popular forms of Renaissance art, and the classical learning which he naturally incorporated in it. What we have called the Hellenic and the Hebraic elements in his work are now clearly beginning to change their relative proportions ; for while the vehicle adopted shows the persistence of his Hellenism, the matter and purpose exhibit the growth of his Hebraism. This is a point to which the closest attention should be given.
Let me add that it will lend a fresh interest to “Comus" if in reading we also keep the purely personal aspects of it well in mind. We should remember that the principal actors were the Earl's children, that the two brothers were represented by little Viscount Brackley, aged twelve, and Thomas Egerton, aged eleven, and the heroine by Lady Alice Egerton, a beautiful girl of between fourteen and fifteen. The charming compliments to the young lady and