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John Milton

Excerpt from Comus (a masque) >

Comus (1645, 37)
composed 1634 (26)

Comus enters with a charming-rod in one 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.


The star that bids the shepherd fold
Now the top of heav’n doth hold,
And the gilded car of day
His glowing axle doth allay
In the steep Atlantic stream;
And the slope sun his upward beam
Shoots against the northern pole,
Pacing toward the other goal
Of his chamber in the east.
Meanwhile welcome joy and feast,
Midnight shout and revelry,
Tipsy dance and jollity.
Braid your locks with rosy twine
Dropping odors, dropping wine.

Rigor now is gone to bed,
And Advice with scrupulous head,
Strict Age, and sour Severity,
With their grave saws in slumber lie.
We that are of purer fire
Imitate the starry quire,
Who in their nightly watchful spheres
Lead in swift round the months and years.
The sounds and seas with all their finny drove
Now to the moon in wavering morris move,
And on the tawny sands and shelves
Trip the pert fairies and the dapper elves;
By dimpled brook and fountain brim
The wood-nymphs, decked with daisies trim,
Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:
What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove,
Venus now wakes, and wakens Love.
Come let us our rites begin;
“Tis only daylight that makes sin,
Which these dun shades will ne’er report.
Hail, goddess of nocturnal sport,
Dark-veiled Cotytto, t’whom the secret flame
Of midnight torches burns; mysterious dame,
That ne’er art called but when the dragon womb
Of Stygian darkness spets her thickest gloom,
And makes one blot of all the air,
Stay thy cloudy ebon chair
Wherein thou rid’st with Hecat', and befriend
Us thy vowed priests, till utmost end
Of all thy dues be done, and none left out,
Ere the blabbing eastern scout,
The nice Morn on th'Indian steep,
From her cabined loop-hole peep,
And to the tell-tale Sun descry
Our concealed solemnity.
Come, knit hands, and beat the ground,
In a light fantastic round.

Comus was a masque performed before the President of Wales, the Earl of Bridgewater, at Ludlow, Shropshire (near the border between England and Wales) in 1634, to music by Henry Lawes.
Star : Hesperus (Venus), the evening star.  Gilded car : in Roman mythology, the sun god was seen as driving a chariot across the sky each day.
Allay : temper or cool.
Slope sun...: elaborate metaphors for the movement of the sun.
Northern : later changed to ‘dusky’, which fits oddly with ‘pole’.
Welcome : is here a verb (not an adjective).
Dropping odors, dropping wine : evokes ideas of intoxication with fragrances and drink.
Grave saws : serious maxims, not  implements to cut up graves.
Swift round : fast succession.
Sounds : passages of water connecting two seas.
Finny drove : fish.
Morris : as in morris dance, an elaborate dance with pipes, handkerchiefs, bells and clapping, usually performed on village greens by men in hobnailed boots.
Cotytto was a Thracian divinity who was celebrated in licentious nocturnal rites.  Stygian : according to Roman mythology, the river Styx ran through the underworld.
Spets : spits
Ebon chair : ebony (black) carriage
Hecat’ : Hecate, goddess of the underworld.
Indian steep : the Himalayas.

 

Commentary

'But the taste for this poetry is an acquired one, and in the acquisition usually costs efforts quite alien to the prevailing conceptions of reading as a pleasurable recreation.' The difficulties of Milton's poetry 'grow sometimes out of the diction, sometimes out of the syntax, and sometimes out of the poet’s figures and allusions.' Samuel Thurber, Introduction, Milton's Minor Poems. True, but there is enough delight in the wordplay here that there is much encouragement to the task. It's difficult to select parts to quote, but perhaps 'and makes one blot of all the air' to describe the darkness, or the seas which 'Now to the moon in wavering morris move', or the wonderfully well-turned reflections contained in the lines 'What hath night to do with sleep? / Night hath better sweets to prove, / Venus now wakes, and wakens Love,' or the very Ovidian 'Tis only daylight makes sin'. The thoughts represent, of course, the anti-thesis of true virtue, and are personified in Comus, the son of Bacchus (Dionysos), the god of wine and riot, and Calypso, the sorceress who turned Ulysses' (Odysseus) men into swine, and detained Ulysses on her island.

Masques (or masks) were, in general, aristocratic entertainments staged by musicians (in this case Henry Lawes), poets (in this case Milton), playwrights (most notably Ben Jonson) and stage designers (most notably the architect Inigo Jones) with the help of some of the aristocrats themselves, or their children, to play the principle roles, and to provide the setting and occasions. Here the setting is Ludlow Castle, the occasion the arrival of the Earl of Bridgewater at Ludlow to take up his functions as 'Lord President of the Council in the Principality of Wales and the Marches of the same'. The office included military and civil jurisdiction over Wales and the four contiguous counties of England: ie Gloucerster, Worcester, Shropshire and Hereford.

The family of the Earl of Bridgewater had long been patrons of the arts. Alice, Countess Dowager of Derby, for whom a preceding masque, Arcades, also written by Milton with music by Lawes, performed probably in 1631 at Harefield House, was his mother-in-law, and had been first married to Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, patron of a troupe of actors in Shakespeare's time. The poet Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare's contemporary, had dedicated important works to her. His own children were students of music under Henry Lawes, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and one of the king's private musicians.

Comus represents the most significant poetry that Milton produced and allowed to be published before unleashing the magnum opus of Paradise Lost on the world in 1667 (59). It is fully indicative of his extraordinary talent as a poet.

Milton's relationship with Henry Lawes (1595-1662) was close and cordial with both men respecting the other's talent, and it was probably Lawes who involved Milton in the production of masques for the family of the Earl of Bridgewater. Milton's Sonnet XIII, entitled To Mr Lawes on his Airs, dated 1645 (47), gives a good idea of the esteem in which Milton held the musician. 'Thy worth and skill exempts thee from the throng/ With praise enough for envy to look wan.' And Lawes must have been impressed with Milton's poetic ability, to entrust him with the writing of the two important masques.

External links:

A performance of five songs from Comus sung by Stephanie Friedman.

 

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