When I announced my Reading the Theatre project, Chris of Calmgrove kindly offered to contribute a guest post on Milton’s Comus, an oddity of English literature that I’ve heard of but never read in full. It first came to my attention in the pages of E. Nesbit’s Wet Magic, in which the lines beginning “Sabrina fair …” become a charm to call up a mermaid. Maybe you have also encountered some bits of this seldom staged verse drama in other contexts.
Read on to learn more about Milton’s “curious piece,” and you may become curious enough to look into it yourself! Thanks so much, Chris, for this intriguing glance into an obscure and fantastical corner of the theatrical world.
Milton’s Comus is a masque, a curious piece of theatre to our modern sensibilities. In some ways masques are total theatre: there’s a story acted out, there are also fantastic costumes, music, dances, songs, along with visual and sound effects. Yet also there is high-flown language, and classical allusions, and frequent instances of what we’d now call virtue signalling (which may seem the whole point). And Comus has all this in abundance.
What’s the story? Comus is a sorcerer, the son of Bacchus and Circe, who has inherited his father’s debauched nature as well his mother’s skill for transforming humans into beasts. His name is from the Greek word for revelry which is one of the roots of our word ‘comedy’. When a Lady from Ludlow gets separated from her two brothers in a wood Comus tries to persuade her to swallow a potion, to no avail for she is virtuous beyond her years; her distraught brothers fortunately meet a spirit in the form of the shepherd Thyrsis who gives them a botanical charm to protect them from Comus’s wand.
However, when they rush forward to thwart the sorcerer’s design they fail to seize his wand, and so it is left for Thyrsis to invoke Sabrina, the nymph of the River Severn which flows past Ludlow Castle, to lift the stasis that keeps the Lady to her seat.
The Lady and her brothers are restored to their parents in the Castle and we are left with a dance, a song, and a moral from Milton in the guise of Thyrsis:
Mortals, that would follow me,
Love Virtue: she alone is free;
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the sphery chime;
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her.
This is a rare example of the use of trochaic tetrameter in Comus which, along with rhyming couplets is left to songs and scenes of a pastoral nature. Mostly, however, the masque consists of blank verse in iambic pentameter, as when the bespelled Lady says of Comus
I had not thought to have unlocked my lips
In this unhallowed air, but that this juggler
Would think to charm my judgement, as mine eyes,
Obtruding false rules pranked in reason’s garb.
Such phrases as this suits its lofty subject and its characters, since the siblings being originally acted by the sons and daughter of the Lord-Lieutenant of Wales and the Borders, namely Lord Brackley, Thomas Egerton and Lady Alice Egerton. The one and only performance took place at Ludlow Castle in the Marches, on Michaelmas Eve in 1634.
As a drama Comus is as static as the Lady’s forced entrapment in her seat, and for this reason some critics place this with Milton’s poems of around the same period, just as the phoney war preceding the English Civil War was ratcheting up. However, though Milton couldn’t help moralising (he even added improving lines to later printed editions) the fairytale framework underlying the flowery diction shines through, with jeopardy and villainy, as in any fantasy script, moving the narrative forward to its eventual resolution. In the skilled hands of a professional company Comus might even work as a modern musical!