ENG-64689 : Milton and Epic Mythology
February 14, 2000
Milton's Development of the Masque and the Pastoral
in "Arcades" and Comus
On Michaelmas Day, 1634,
John Milton's Masque, Comus, was presented for the first time before
the Earl of Bridgewater at Ludlow Castle. Milton's choice to present his
masque at Ludlow was no coincidence if one considers the pastoral element
of the poetic drama and the beautiful nature setting surrounding Ludlow.
The presentation of the masque at Ludlow would enhance the pastoral association
that Milton worked so hard to construct in his masque. In another pastoral
work, "Arcades", Milton again attempts to join the form of the masque with
that of the pastoral. His exploration into creating these two works, Comus
and "Arcades", reveals his desire not to hold to conventions of both the
masque and the pastoral tradition. In addition, after examining the conventions
of the masque and that of the pastoral in the light of these two works,
we can also understand how Milton developed them to his own poetic and
The first generation of masque composers comprising Campion,
When confronted with the
idea of the masque for a first time, a reader probably would be confused
about what it actually is, perhaps because the term is similar to that
of the universal idea of the term, mask. It is true that characters in
a masque wore a mask, and that the title of the masque probably came from
the universal idea of mask, but there are other reasons for a masque's
title. Perhaps the "mask" taken in a metaphorical sense would be a better
explanation of the masque. The masque, as metaphor, was an elaborate form
of court entertainment, which combined poetic drama, music, song, dance,
splendid and stage spectacle, and the plot often slight and
mainly mythological or allegorical-served to hold together these diverse
Milton's plot in his masque,
Comus, is "slight," and even perhaps Aristotelian in structure;
it has a beginning, middle and an end. However slight the plot is, there
is much criticism to whether it is principally a drama or a masque. One
such critic is Samuel Johnson. In his Lives Of The Poets, he believed
Milton's plot in Comus was too "slight." He said, "As a drama it
is deficient. The action is not probable."2 His argument
was mostly concerned with the "beginning" of the plot. Johnson could not
accept "the conduct of the two brothers, who, when their sister sinks with
fatigue in a pathless wilderness, wander both away together in search of
berries too far to find their way back, and leave a helpless Lady to all
the sadness and danger of solitude. This, however, is a defect overbalanced
by its convenience." Is Milton's "beginning" in Comus fragmented?
Or is Johnson imposing dramatic criticism on a supposedly non-dramatic
work? There is evidence to support both assumptions. If we do impose dramatic
criticism on Milton's masque, and more specifically, Renaissance dramatic
criticism, then there is some evidence that would support Johnson's opinion.
First, the subject to his
criticism is information antecedent to the "action" of the drama, that
apparently makes the action in the drama seem illogical to him. Technically,
the problem between Johnson and Milton's "beginning" arises from a misunderstanding
of what Aristotle called "Complication" or "desis." For example, Hutton
defines the Aristotelian notion of "desis" as "the events outside the play
itself and often also some of the events within the play."3
He also recognizes it as constituting the antecedent and consequent components
in dramatic structure. For his part, Lucas associates the antecedent and
consequent elements of dramatic structure with events. He says that these
"desis" are "events which happen between the beginning of the story and
the beginning of the action of the play.... These are the antecedents,
which are described as outside the play...if we press the definition...it
would appear that the beginning of a play should coincide with the beginning
of the complication."4 Hutton
and Lucas describe how the complication of a drama is related to antecedent
events outside the play and to consequent events inside it. The complication
happens when the antecedent event [ or events]
are linked to the consequent event within the play's action. By examining
this process of binding or joining together – of what occurs before the
play opens and what happens while it progresses – we can see more clearly
how the cause and effect component of a dramatic structure would make the
action appear "probable" and not deficient.
The Aristotelian idea of
"tying the knot" well is what makes a drama believable, and it appears
that the "beginning" of Comus is not "tied" well. Perhaps this is
so because Johnson was not expecting to be told about an antecedent situation,
that would make the drama less "probable," but rather shown it in order
to make it more credible. Johnson's complaint would be equivalent to that
of Shakespeare not showing the hatred between two families in the beginning
scene of Romeo and Juliet, but instead telling the audience about
it. In the prologue of Comus, the Attendant Spirit does tell the
audience about antecedent material, which we never see. The material is:
"the conduct of the two brothers, who, when their sister sinks with fatigue
in a pathless wilderness, wander both away together in search of berries
too far to find their way back, and leave a helpless Lady to all the sadness
and danger of solitude." In addition to this "defect" there could be another.
The Attendant Spirit tells us also about the corrupt nature of Comus, which
is his ability to change forms to deceive naïve strangers wondering
in the forest. Later on, however, we do see him performing his deceptive
deeds, and one wonders whether Milton needed to add this part to his prologue
Once the antecedent material
is established, or accepted, Milton provides us with a good "consequent"
to the masque's "Complication", thus salvaging his 'Beginning.' We see
the temptation of The Lady by Comus, and that he does excel "his mother
at her mighty art" of deception. He takes on the form of 'Gentle Villager'
who offers to help her find her brothers. The Lady does not discern his
real intention, and is consequently tempted by "His orient liquor in a
crystal glass." She is naive. The tension rises. The question "Will she
accept his offer" and therefore be seduced arises, making the masque more
dramatic. Finally she does say, "Shepherd I take thy word…Shepherd lead
on." By this point in the masque, an Aristotelian complication is firmly
established by Milton. However, Milton does demand much of his audience
especially in the prologue.
Milton's choice to incorporate
the two other components of the Aristotelian notion of structure, namely
that of the "middle" and the "end", into his masque reveals also his interest
in an Aristotelian plot within the masque. He provides his audience with
a good middle or crisis. The girl is brought to Comus' palace and Milton's
choice to do so heightens the tension, since Comus has the Lady to her
disadvantage and we now see the Lady as a victim not only of Comus' deception
but also of her own naiveté. Furthermore, the ending is resolved
fully when Milton invokes the Greek device of deus ex machina. It
is evoked when The Attendant Spirit rescues the Lady from Comus. Perhaps
Milton's attempt to incorporate an Aristotelian plot within his masque
gave Johnson enough evidence to argue against Comus as being a unified
drama, especially when the masque elements of Comus are considered,
namely that of the music, song, and dance.
Milton's masque is different
from a conventional masque because Milton creates his masque with a different
type of music, Baroque music. Instead of the Renaissance styles of music
used by the earlier masquers, namely Ben Jonson, Milton chose to work with
Henry Lawes, who preferred the new Baroque. Bukofzer, in his Music in
the Baroque Era, makes this distinction between the two different styles,
Coperario, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Giles, and Robert Johnson was
on the whole obligated to the late renaissance style. Of these,
Ferrabosco was exalted by Ben Jonson as 'mastering all the
spirits of music.' In the music of the second generation the early
baroque style is clearly apparent in the adaptations of the stile
rappresentativo to the English language…. The masters to be
mentioned here are Nicholas Lanier (d.1666), William Lawes
(d.1645), [and] Henry Lawes (d.1662).5
The evolution towards a new
type of music also reveals how innovative Milton was, in attempting to
create Comus with Baroque music. He did not go with convention,
but followed his creative impulses and perhaps risked his reputation by
doing so. Furthermore, by asking Lawes to compose his music, Milton was
perhaps asserting an English nationalistic spirit. Because, Bukofzer refutes
that Lawes's compositions…indicate the wide gap between Italian and English
conceptions of musical declamations.6 It is interesting to add
here too that Henry Lawes composed the music for the first English opera,
The Siege of Rhodes (1656). So Milton played an important part in
English history when the foundations for opera were being established in
England and perhaps in Europe too.7
…Hail foreign wonder
Henry Lawes' impulse for
Baroque music also transformed the dance of Milton's time. The dance style
was partly liberated from its traditional decorum. The dance music in the
second generation masque "consisted, like that of the ballet de cour,
of simple…melodies in bipartite form that stood outside of the stereotyped
rhythmic patterns of ballroom dances [emphasis added]."8
The typical masque hinged round three specially designed ballets or stage
dances of the masquers: "entry," "main dance," and "going off." The "going
off," traditionally was followed by the revels, in which the masquers took
out the noble ladies of the audience for a series of ballroom dances.9
There seems to be no evidence in the text to suggest that Milton's
Comus ended with a revel or whether the noble ladies of the audience
took part in a ballroom dance at all. Unfortunately, there is not enough
evidence left to our generation to help us understand whether Milton followed
this convention or not, but what we do know is that Lawes probably utilized
the ballet de cour instead of the more rigid form followed by those
of the first generation of masquers.
When considering Milton's
"Arcades" the idea of a dance revel, or the lack of it, has caused critics
to believe "Arcades' in not a masque at all. One such critic, Brown, develops
this argument. He says, "Milton's piece lacks the one feature most essential
to proper masque: it does not seem to me that the action leads into a dance
or revels within the compass of Milton's text."10 However, in
the text there is some evidence to suggest that Brown's point of view may
not be absolute. In the third and last song of "Arcades" the following
is stated, "Nymphs and shepherds dance no more / By sandy Ladon's lilied
banks." The Genius of the Wood gives this command to halt a (previous?)
dance, which might have occurred in Song II. That song states, "Follow
me as I sing…Follow me, I will bring you where she sits." If this is not
a call to dance, then Brown could be right about Milton's "Arcades" not
being a masque in the traditional sense. Furthermore, Milton in the stage
notes of "Arcades" has said it is a part of an entertainment
presented to the Countess Dowager of Derby at Harefield.
Milton's desire to transform
the masque was not only limited to the dance, plot, structure, and music,
but he also altered elements of the pastoral within the masque. There are
at least four elements of the pastoral tradition he modified for his own
poetic and idealistic ends. First, in the conventional pastoral, the hero
is usually portrayed as a shepherd and a prefiguration of the poet. Also,
the setting of a pastoral idealizes nature as a place of solitude and peace
and therefore good for reflection. In addition to these two commentators,
Abrams mentions that the pastoral is also "a deliberately conventional
poem expressing an urban poet's nostalgic image of the peace and simplicity
of the life" contrasted to the complex urban life, and "often describing
the pastoral life as possessing features of the mythical golden age."11
In Milton's Comus
there is no quest to return to a "mythical golden age." The Lady's quest
or longing is to be united with her brothers and perhaps more specifically,
her Christian brothers. The poet's modification is evident in a dialogue
between the Lady and Comus he says:
Whom certain these rough shades did never breed
Unless the goddess that in rural shrine
Dwell'st here with Pan, or Sylvan, by blest song
Forbidding every bleak unkindly fog
To touch the prosperous growth of this tall wood.
Lady. Nay gentle shepherd ill is lost that praise
That is addressed to unattending ears,
Not any boast of skill, but extreme shift
How to regain my severed company
Compelled me to awake the courteous Echo
To give me an answer from her mossy couch (ll.265-276).
First, Comus recognizes that
the Lady is not a product of the pagan woods when he says, "Hail foreign
wonder/Whom certain these rough shades did never breed." In addition to
the Lady being an urban creature, she is not visiting the "rural shrine"
to worship a goddess or commune with nature by touching "the prosperous
growth of this tall wood." Nor does she want to be worshipped when she
says, "ill is lost that praise/That is addressed to unattending ears."
It is true that Comus is showering her with flattery too, but as well he
tries to convince the Lady of the assumption that nature and Pan are supernatural
beings, to which the girl gives no ear. By doing so, Milton reinforces
the Christian doctrine that humans should not commune or worship other
demigods in these "rural shrines," i.e. Pan, Sylvan, or for that matter
nature itself, but should seek solace in the company of Christian fraternity,
which is the Lady's quest. In choosing this allegorical "path" Milton reveals
his refusal to idealize either humans or nature or even a quest to return
to the classical ideas of them.
Two such I saw…
The dichotomy between the
pagan past and the Christian ideal future "golden age" is also reinforced
by Milton's examination of the role of the shepherd in pastoral. In Comus,
we have two shepherds: one who disguises himself as a shepherd, Comus,
and the other, The Attendant Spirit. In creating these two characters in
this manner, Milton returns to his dichotomy between the pagan and Christian
idea of the shepherd in order to confront his audience to question which
is the better. Comus represents the pagan element or vice and The Attendant
Spirit, the ideal Christian response, or virtue, which Milton prefers.
By creating two different types of shepherds, who both profess to be the
true one, is Milton imitating an idea that is also raised in the Bible
between Christ and Satan? For example, in the Bible, Rev. 22:16 states,
"I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these
things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright
and Morning Star." And in Isaiah 14:12,
the prophet says, "How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the
If so, it appears that Milton
is attempting to educate his audience who can not discern between the good
shepherd and the bad one. For example, when the Lady refuses Comus' flattery
and his ideas of the supernatural element of the forest, she says, "Nay
gentle shepherd ill is lost that praise." Even though she is virtuous enough
to refuse Comus' seduction, she does however accept him as a "gentle" shepherd.
His disguise has worked, and now he sets out to seduce her in the guise
of honesty. Comus, then attempts to lead her astray, away from her Christian
brothers to his palace. He says:
And as I passed, I worshipped; if those you seek
It were a journey like the path to heaven,
To help you find them…
I can conduct you lady to a low
But loyal cottage, where you may be safe
Till further quest
Lady. Shepherd I take thy word. (ll.291-322 emphasis
The Lady accepts his offer in
kindness. There is little doubt here that Milton is playing with the small
case "w" of 'word,' since Jesus is the "Word made flesh." In contrast,
Comus is not an example of the Christian shepherd. First, because Comus
lies to achieve his purpose, "Two such I saw," which is not true. Second,
even when he recognizes the virtue in the Lady, he uses it to his advantage
against her, "It were a journey like the path to heaven,/ To help you find
them." This scene brings to mind the scene in Genesis when Satan tempts
Eve to disobey God. Furthermore, Milton, in doing so, might be developing
the notion of similarity between Satan and Jesus further, if Luke chapter
four is taken into consideration too. In Luke chapter four, Satan tries
to use a Biblical virtue against Jesus for Satan's desire for power.13
For know by lot from Jove I am the power
In "Arcades" Milton also
examines the dichotomy between the pagan and Christian role of the shepherd
in pastoral. Milton presents his audience with a true and false image of
the shepherd, and perhaps for the same reasons as he does in Comus,
namely political and religious. The Genius of the Wood tells us, "For know
by lot from Jove I am the power/ Of this fair wood, and live in oaken bower."
In addition, Brown adds that "The Genius of the Wood, a musician who seems
to be either part of the establishment or familiar with it, acts the part
of guide through the park, and he adds to the celebration by describing
his protective and healing activities."14 Unlike the pagan
shepherds, The Genius of the Wood heals nature. Milton states in "Arcades":
Of this fair wood, and live in oaken bower
To nurse the saplings tall, and curl the grove
…And heal the harms of thwarting thunder blue (ll.44-51).
The Genius of the Wood not only heals a fallen nature, but even tries to
reconcile the pagan deities perhaps to Milton's type of Christianity:
Nymphs and shepherds dance no more
By sandy Ladon's lilied banks
…Bring your flocks, and live with us
Here you shall have greater grace
…Though Syrinx your Pan's mistress were,
Yet Syrinx well might wait on her.
Such a rural queen
All Arcadia hath not seen (Third Song, emphasis added).
Furthermore, Brown attributes to this passage a political dimension when
he says, "Charles, like James before him, would be Pan, and the upstaged
mistress would be the queen."15
Shepherd I take thy word,
Milton develops the pastoral
to his own political liking in Comus, too, when he draws from another
type of tradition, namely the "pastourelle" tradition. The pastourelle
"is a lyric of courtly origin; in it a poet describes how…he met a shepherd
girl (not an Arcadian nymph, but a real peasant) and made love to her…often
bringing the whole of the girl's family into action against him."16
Usually the poet in the pastourelle tradition represents a courtly poet.
In addition, "it began as a rustic revenge on the rich, developed into
a courtly vante [sic] at the expense of the ignoble, and survived
as a poetic theme interesting in itself to the primitive and cultivated
alike."17 By Milton creating Comus as a disguised shepherd who
tries to seduce the Lady at his "stately palace" in the country, Milton
perhaps at the same time was constructing a commentary about the court
of his time.
Another pastoral convention
is the poet's nostalgic image of peace and simplicity of life contrasted
to that of the complex urban life. Milton does not offer his audience this
convention either. First, because the dilemma in Comus is raised
in the country, where the Lady gets "lost," and furthermore, the tension
of seduction is heightened when the Lady is taken back to the stately palace
in the country where she held against her will. The poet's change of this
convention is noticeable even further when Comus offers his assistance
to bring the Lady to a "loyal cottage." The Lady says:
And trust thy honest-offered courtesy,
Which oft is sooner found in lowly sheds
With smoky rafters, than in tap'stry halls
And courts of princes, where if first was named,
And yet is most pretended: in a place
Less warranted than this, or less secure
I cannot be, that I should fear to change it (ll.322-28).
This passage provides good dramatic
irony, since the audience knows that the Lady has no idea that she is being
deceived by Comus. Furthermore, this passage could be doubly ironic since
Comus does take the Lady back to "tap'stry halls." In addition, all the
virtuous characters in this masque come from outside Comus' domain, but
in contrast, the seductive, base, characters, namely Comus, Pan and Sylvan,
reside in the wilderness. Furthermore, when Comus deceives the Lady, he
does not take her further into the forest, but back to a palace, which
is probably closer to a representation of the court than the country. If
this is so, then Milton's choice to do so strengthens his commentary against
the noble court while at the same time changing the convention of pastoral
since Comus is a king, living in a palace and not a shepherd living in
a lowly "cottage."
Cursed is the ground for your sake;
The notion of the forest
as a setting for evil in Comus is a change from the traditional
view of pastoral. Nature, or the simple meditative life, is not idealized
in Comus, but put in its proper place, if we consider Milton's Christian
influence. Kermode discusses the Puritan reaction to the conventions of
the pastoral, when he says, "Essentially an urban growth, it [Puritanism]
was suspicious of country matters, and its hatred for the maypole
and its associated sports, which Puritans rightly conjectured to be descended
from pagan religious rites (emphasis added)."18
Second, Kermode recognizes
that there were those who tried to understand nature in its proper context.
He says, "On the other hand there is the deeper examination of Nature and
its true relationship to Art and Grace which Spenser in The Fairy Queen,
Shakespeare in his last comedies, and Milton in Comus undertook."19
Kermode argues that Comus does rule over the realm of Nature, and attempts
to deprave the lady, who is clad in the magical armour of nobility and
chastity, by using the very arguments of the 'naturalist.'20
Milton, in doing so, does not offer his audience a simple view of nature,
or this convention of the golden age, but a more complex one that is in
constant conflict with man, and will not be reconciled to man until a future
"golden age" is established by Christ's return.
Milton's view of nature agrees
logically with Protestant Christianity, if we consider the Biblical frame
of this dilemma. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve have caused the fall
of Mankind, God reaffirms the consequences of their choice. God says:
In toil you shall eat of it.
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles
It shall bring forth for you.
Biblically, it is Man who has caused Nature to be 'cursed' and as a result,
the two are enemies, and since Satan is also an enemy of Man, Nature, along
with Satan, makes this revenge more destructive. In the Apostle's epistle
to the Romans, Paul reiterates the consequence of Adam and Eve's free will
of disobedience, he says:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are
not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be
revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation
eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the
creation…itself also will be delivered from the bondage of
corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
For we know that the whole creation groans and labors
with birth pangs together until now.21
Here in this passage,
we read the same dilemma between Nature and Man that we understand in Comus.
So Milton does not idealize nature nor does he promote the worship of it.
And it isn't until the time of redemption or the future "golden age, through
Christ, that Nature and Man will be reconciled. In the last book of the
Bible, the book of Revelations states that the harmony lost between Nature
and Man (And God too) will be restored, but only after Christ's return.
It reads as follows:
And God will wipe away ever tear from their eyes; there
shall be no more death, nor Sorrow, nor crying; and there
shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed
away…. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne
of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants
shall serve Him.22
Milton's idea of Nature and
its eventual redemption is also revealed in Comus. The ending to
Comus is characterized by the power of the supernatural over the
natural. When the Attendant Spirit calls on Sabrina, she "descends, and
the Lady rises out of her seat," where the natural Comus has chained her.
The Supernatural takes precedent over the natural in Comus, as a
redeeming force, and this redeeming force can not be found in a past golden
age, but only when the golden age of Christ's return is established.
1 M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms,
2 Samuel Johnson, Lives Of The Poets,
3 James Hutton, Aristotle's Poetics,
4 D.W. Lucas, Aristotle's Poetics,
5 Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque
6 Ibid. p.184.
7 Ibid. pp.187-8.
8 Ibid. p. 182.
9 Ibid., p.181.
10 Cedric Brown, “Milton's Arcades: Context,
Form, and Function,” 261.
11 M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms,
12 New International Version. The King
James does not add 'star' after morning.
13 Luke 4:10-11. Here, Satan refers to
Psalm 91:11,12, but he uses it for a different context.
14 Cedric Brown, “Milton's Arcades: Context,
Form, and Function,” 246.
15 Ibid., p.258.
16 Frank Kermode, English Pastoral Poetry,
17 Ibid., pp.33-34.
18 Ibid., p.37.
19 Ibid., p.40.
21 Romans 8:18-22.
22 Revelations 21:4, 22:3.
Abrams, M.H., A
Glossary of Literary Terms.
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 6th ed., 1993.
Brown, Cedric. “Milton's
Arcades: Context, Form, and Function.” Renaissance Drama.
Leonard Barkan, Ed. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press,
Bukofzer, Manfred. Music in the Baroque Era.
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1947.
Milton and The Masque Tradition.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1968.
Poetics. James Hutton, Trans.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.
Johnson, Samuel. The Lives Of The Poets:
Coulee to Prior.
New York: Dolphin Books, Doubleday & Company, nd.
Kermode, Frank. English Pastoral Poetry.
New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., nd.
Text copyright ©2000 Gilbert McInnis. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.
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Essay copyright ©2000 Gilbert McInnis. Published by express written permission of the author.
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