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IN 1634, Milton wrote his immortal Mask of Comus,' for John Egerton, first Earl of Bridgewater, then Lord president of Wales, to be presented at Ludlow-castle, which was his Lordship's residence.
The poet's father held his house under the Earls of Bridgewater, at Horton, near Harefield, and not far from Ashridge: thus, perhaps, was the poet introduced to that noble family: he certainly had not yet become a decided puritan and republican. The Countess of Derby, (Alice Spencer) mother-in-law of the Earl of Bridgewater, and also widow of Lord Chancellor Egerton, was a generous patroness of poets, and, among the rest, of her relation, the author of the Faëry Queene.' Such a patroness would be, above all others, grateful to Milton.
'Comus' was acted by the Earl's children, the Lord Brackley, Mr. Thomas Egerton, and the Lady Alice Egerton.
The Egertons were among the most powerful of
the nobility, and lived in the most state. By a marriage with a co-heiress of the great feudal family of Stanley, who were co-heirs to the royal races of Tudor and Plantagenet; they held a sort of demi-regal respect. Their domains were large, and their character for hospitality and accomplishments stood high. This historical house have a century afterwards rendered themselves again immortal by designing and patronizing national works of another class.*
Masks had been common in the time of Ben Jonson. I leave to antiquaries to trace the origin of the subject and design of Comus.' The merit lies not in the hint but in the superstructure. The story is said to have been occasioned by a domestic incident of the Egerton family.
When we open this poem, we seem to enter on the beings and language of another world. Every word is poetry.
The first of the dramatis persona is the Spirit, whose speech runs to ninety-two lines. It is of the deepest interest to the piece, and opens to us the sovereignty of Neptune-the quartering of our island to his blue-haired deities-the parentage of Comus-his dangerous arts, and the Spirit's own protecting intervention.
The canal navigation of the last Duke of Bridgewater, who died in 1803, is celebrated all over the world. The last two Earls, who succeeded him, were indeed less eminent, and dimmed-the former by his mediocrity, the latter by his eccentricities-some of the lustre of the name. The last died in 1829. Such are the chances and changes of time.
Next comes Comus attended by his monstrous rout, whom he thus addresses :—
The star that bids the shepherd fold
Now the top of heaven doth hold, &c.
The noise of their revelry calls the attention of the Lady, who now enters:
This way the noise was, if mine ear be true,
My best guide now.
"By laying the scene of this Mask," Warton observes, "in a wild forest, Milton secured to himself a perpetual fund of picturesque description, which, resulting from situation, was always at hand. He was not obliged to go out of his way for this striking embellishment: it was suggested of necessity by present circumstances. The same happy choice of scene supplied Sophocles in 'Philoctetes,' Shakspeare in As You Like It,' and Fletcher in the Faithful Shepherdess,' with frequent and even unavoidable opportunities of rural delineation; and that of the most romantic kind. But Milton has had additional advantages: his forest is not only the residence of a magician, but is exhibited under the gloom of midnight. Fletcher, however, to whom Milton is confessedly indebted, avails himself of the latter circumstance."
The lady exclaims,
A thousand phantasies
Begin to throng into my memory,
Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire,
On sands, and shores, and desert wildernesses.
Warton says, "I remember these superstitions,
which are here finely applied, in the ancient voyages of Marco Paolo the Venetian, speaking of the vast and perilous desert of Lop in Asia, Cernuntur et audiuntur, in eo interdiu, et sæpius noctu, dæmonum variæ illusiones. Unde viatoribus summe cavendum est, ne multum ab invicem seipsos dissocient, aut aliquis a tergo sese diutius impediat. Alioquin, quamprimum propter montes et calles quispiam comitum suorum aspectum perdiderit, non facile ad eos perveniet: nam audiuntur ibi voces dæmonum, qui solitarie incedentes propriis appellant nominibus, voces fingentes illorum quos comitari se putant, ut a recto itinere abductos in perniciem deducant.'-De Regionib. Oriental. 1. 1. c. 44. But there is a mixture from Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess,' A. 1. S. i. p. 108. The shepherdess mentions, among other nocturnal terrors in a wood, Or voices calling me in dead of night.' These fancies from Marco Paolo are adopted in Heylin's Cosmographie,' I am not sure if in any of the three editions printed before 'Comus' appeared." ""* The song on Echo is more exquisite than any thing of its kind in our language.
"Comus," says Warton, "is universally allowed to have taken some of its tints from the "Tempest."" The following is a beautiful passage:
'Tis most true
That musing meditation most affects
Far from the cheerful haunt of men and herds,
And sits as safe as in a senate-house.
See lib. iii. p. 201., edit. 1652, fol. Sylvestre in Du Bartas. has also the tradition in the text ed. fol. ut supr. p. 274.
On which Warton has the following somewhat singular note :-"Not many years after this was written, Milton's friends showed that the safety of a senate-house was not inviolable: but when the people turn legislators, what place is safe from the tumults of innovation, and the insults of disobedience?" True - if uncontrolled by king and lords, as they have lately attempted to be. The poet, speaking of chastity, says,
Yea, there, where very desolation dwells,
Dr. Joseph Warton remarks, in his Essay on Pope,' that poet's imitation of this and other passages of Milton's juvenile poems. "This is the first instance," adds Thomas Warton, "of any degree even of the slightest attention being paid to Milton's smaller poems by a writer of note since their first publication. Milton was never mentioned or acknowledged as an English poet till after the appearance of 'Paradise Lost;' and long after that time these pieces were totally forgotten and overlooked. It is strange that Pope, by no means of a congenial spirit, should be the first who copied 'Comus' or 'Il Penseroso.' But Pope was a gleaner of the old English poets; and he was here pilfering from obsolete English poetry, without the least fear or danger of being detected."
At 1. 780 the lady says,
To him that dares
Arm his profane tongue with contemptuous words