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All the swains that there abide
Come, let us haste! the stars grow high,
Thyrsis, the Lady, and the two Brothers, here leave the stage, and are supposed to be gradually wending their way through the wood, while it is still night, or very early morning, towards Ludlow Castle. While the spectators are imagining this, the journey of some furlongs is actually achieved; for straightway "the scene changes, presenting Ludlow Town and the President's Castle: then come in country dancers; after them the Attendant Spirit, with the two Brothers and the Lady." In this stage-direction it seems to be implied that the spectators now looked on some canvas at the back of the stage, representing Ludlow Town, and the exterior of the very castle they were sitting in, all bright on a sunshiny morning, and that, as they looked, there came in first a bevy of rustic lads and lasses, or representatives of such, dancing and making merry, till their clodhopping rounds were interrupted by the appearance among them of the guardian Thyrsis and the three graceful young This is confirmed by what Thyrsis says to the dancers in the song which stands fourth in the printed masque, but must have been the fifth in the actual performance :—
Back, shepherds, back! Enough your play
So dismissed, the clodhoppers vanish; and there remain on the stage, facing the Earl and Countess and the audience, only (we may drop the disguise now, as doubtless the audience did in their cheering) the musician Lawes, the Lady Alice, and her brothers Viscount Brackley and Master Thomas Egerton. Advancing towards the Earl and Countess, Lawes presents to them his charge, with this continuation of his last song :
"Noble Lord and Lady bright,
I have brought ye new delight.
There seems still to have been a dance at this point, to show off the courtly grace of the young people after the thumping energy of the clodhoppers; for at the end of Lawes's song there comes this last stage-direction, "The dances ended, the Spirit epiloguizes.' That is to say, Lawes, relapsing into his character of the Attendant Spirit, who had descended from Heaven at the beginning of the piece, and had acted so beneficially through it in the guise of the shepherd Thyrsis, winds up the whole by a final speech or song as he slowly recedes or reascends. In our printed copies the Epilogue is a longish speech; but part of that speech, as we have seen, had been transferred, in the actual performance, to the beginning of the masque, as the Spirit's opening song. Therefore in the actual performance the closing lines of the Epilogue as we now have it served as the Spirit's song of reascent or departure, in two stanzas :—
"Now my task is smoothly done :
Quickly to the green Earth's end,
"Mortals that would follow me,
Or, if Virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her."
And so, "with these sounds left on the ear, and a final glow of angelic light on the eye, the performance ends, and the audience rises and disperses through the Castle. The Castle is now a crumbling ruin, along the ivy-clad walls and through the dark passages of which the visitor clambers or gropes his way, disturbing the crows and the martlets in their recesses: but one can stand yet in the doorway through which the parting guests of that night descended into the inner court; and one can see where the stage was, on which the sister was lost by her brothers, and Comus revelled with his crew, and the Lady was fixed as marble by enchantment, and the swains danced in welcome of the Earl, and the Spirit ascended gloriously to his native
heaven. More mystic still it is to leave the ruins, and, descending one of the winding streets of Ludlow that lead from the Castle to the valley of the Teme, to look upwards to Castle and Town seen as one picture, and, marking more expressly the three long pointed windows that gracefully slit the chief face of the wall towards the north, to realise that it was from that ruin and from those windows in the ruin, that the verse of Comus was first shaken into the air of England."- -So I wrote a good many years ago, when the impressions of a visit I had made to Ludlow were fresh and vivid; and as I copy the words now, they bring back, as it were in a dream, the pleasant memory of one bygone day. I remember my first sight of the hilly town as I walked into it early on a summer's morning, when not a soul was astir, and the clean streets were all silent and shuttered; then my ramble at my own will for an hour or so over the Castle ruins and the green knoll they crown, undisturbed by guide or any figure of fellow-tourist; then my descent again, past and round the great church and its tombs, into the steep town streets, now beginning their bustle for a marketday; and, finally, the lazy circuit I made round the green outskirts of the town, through I know not what glens and up their sloping sides, the ruined Castle always finely distinct close at hand, and in the distance, wherever the eye could range unopposed, a fairy horizon of dim blue mountains.
There is no evidence that Milton himself had taken the journey of 150 miles from London or Horton in order to be present at the performance. It is possible that he had done so; but it is just as possible that he had not, and even that the authorship of the masque was kept a secret at the time of its performance, known only to Lawes, or to Lawes and the Earl's family. But the Earl of Bridgewater's masque began to be talked of beyond Ludlow; as time passed, and the rumour of it spread, and perhaps the songs in it were carried vocally into London society by Lawes and his pupils of the Bridgewater family, it was still more talked of; and there came to be inquiries respecting its authorship, and requests for copies of it, and especially of the songs. All this we learn from Lawes. His loyalty to his friend Milton in the whole affair was admirable; and he appears to have been more proud, in his own heart, of his concern with the comparatively
quiet Bridgewater masque than with his more blazoned and well-paid co-operation in the London masques of the same year. There were many friends of his, it appears, who were not satisfied with copies of the songs and their music only, but wanted complete copies of the masque. To relieve himself from the trouble so occasioned, Lawes resolved at length to print the masque. He did so in 1637 in a small, and now very rare, quarto of forty pages, with this titlepage:
"A Maske presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, on Michaelmasse Night, before the Right Honourable John, Earle of Bridgewater, Viscount Brackley, Lord President of Wales, and one of His Majesties most honourable Privy Counsell.
'Eheu quid volui misero mihi! floribus Austrum
London: Printed for Humphrey Robinson, at the signe of the Three Pidgeons in Paul's Churchyard, 1637."
The volume was dedicated by Lawes to the Earl's son and heir, young Viscount Brackley, who had acted the part of Elder Brother in the masque. The Dedication complete will be found prefixed to Comus in the present edition. We learn from it that the proposal of publication was Lawes's own, and that Milton still preferred the shelter of the anonymous. That Lawes had Milton's consent, however, is proved by the motto on the title-page. It is from Virgil's Second Eclogue, and must certainly have been supplied by Milton. "Alas! what have I chosen for my wretched self; thus on my flowers, infatuated that I am, letting in the rude wind!" So says the shepherd in Virgil's Eclogue; and Milton, in borrowing the words, hints his fear that he may have done ill in letting his Comus be published. Though he was now twenty-eight years of age, it was, with hardly an exception, his first public venture in print.
He had no reason to regret the venture. Hallam, 'was sufficient to convince any one of taste and feeling that a great poet had arisen in England, and one partly formed in a different school from his contemporaries." Such a strong judgment is easily formed now; but there may have been some in England capable of forming it when it was a merit to form it, ¿.e. in 1637 (the year of Ben Jonson's death), when modest copies of Lawes's edition, without the
author's name, were first in circulation. We know of one Englishman, at all events, who did then form it and express it. This was Milton's neighbour at Horton, Sir Henry Wotton, Provost of Eton College. Born in 1568, mixed up with political affairs in Elizabeth's reign, and in the height of his active career through that of James,—when he had been English Ambassador to various foreign Courts, but had resided, in that capacity, most continuously at Venice,—Sir Henry, since Charles came to the throne, had been in veteran retirement in the quiet post of the Eton provostship, respected by all England for his past diplomatic services, but living chiefly on his memories of those services, his Italian experiences in particular, and in the delights of pictures, books, and scholarly society. Some chance introduction had brought Milton and the aged Knight together for the first time early in 1638, when Milton was preparing for his journey to Italy; and on the 6th of April in that year Milton, by way of parting acknowledgment of Sir Henry's courtesy, sent him a letter with a copy of Lawes's edition of his Comus. Sir Henry, it appears, had read the poem in a previous copy, without knowing who was the author; and, writing in reply to Milton, on the 13th of April, just in time to overtake him before he left England, he mentioned this fact, and expressed his pleasure at finding that a poem that he had liked so singularly well was by his neighbour and new acquaintance. "A dainty piece of entertainment," he calls it, "wherein I should much commend the tragical part [i.e. the dialogue] if the lyrical did not ravish me with a certain Doric delicacy in your songs and odes; whereunto I must plainly confess to have seen yet nothing parallel in our language." Here was praise worth having, and which did, as we know, gratify Milton. He was actually on the move towards Italy when he read Sir Henry Wotton's letter.
When, in 1645, six years after his return from Italy, Milton, then in the very midst of his pamphleteering activity, and of the ill-will which it had brought him, consented to the publication by Moseley of the first collective edition of his Poems, Comus was still, in respect of length and merit, his chief poetical achievement. Accordingly, he not only reprinted it in that edition, but gave it the place of honour there. came last of the English Poems, with a separate title-page, thus:"A Mask of the same Author, presented at Ludlow