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with an eye to the stage, or with the expectation of dramatic propriety. Under this restriction the absurdity of the Spirit speaking to an audience in a solitary forest at midnight, and the want of reciprocation in the dialogue, are overlooked. 'Comus' is a suite of speeches, not interesting by discrimination of character; not conveying a variety^)f incidents, nor gradually exciting curiosity; but perpetually attracting attention by sublime sentiment, by fanciful imagery of the richest vein, by an exuberance of picturesque description, poetical allusion, and ornamental expression." To this the critic adds many other excellent observations.
A Mask, written for a private theatre, and to be performed by highly-educated actors, is not like a play to be exhibited to a mixed and common audience: long speeches, therefore, of a tone too lofty for vulgar ears, are not here objectionable. Of the texture of the present composition every word is eminently poetical. Passages of similar beauty may be found in Shakspeare, and even in Fletcher,—but not a uniform and unbroken web. It is true that there is little passion in this dramatic poem; but none is pretended to: while it is enchantingly descriptive, it is at the same time philosophically calm. We are carried into a fairy region of good Spirits and bad: and every thing of rural scenery that is delightful, associated with wild and picturesque beliefs of an invisible world in mountains, valleys, forests, and rivers, is introduced to keep up the magic. Were it a mere description of inanimate nature, it would be comparatively dull. Here, too, a beautiful girl, of high rank, richly accomplished in mind, is introduced, to pour out under alarming circumstances a divine eloquence of exalted and affecting sentiment. Virtue and truth, and purity of intellect and heart, break out at every word. To these strains who can deny poetical invention? What definition of poetry can be given, by which this Mask can be excluded from a very high place? Is it not every where either brilliant and picturesque or lofty fiction? It is said that the characters have no passion; but how is passion a necessary ingredient of poetry? Poetry must create; but it may create beings of tranquil beauty, and calm exaltation. Cavillers say, that the Brothers ought not to philosophize, while the Sister is left alone in the dangers of a solitary forest: but their faith in a protecting Providence will not allow them to think her in great danger. It may be replied that this is an improbable degree of faith. Is it a poetical improbability? It seems as if such censors think that nothing must be represented which does not occur in every-day life. Poetry is literally, and to all extent, the reverse of this.
Minor bards may give occasional touches of outward poetry by illustrations of imagery and description; but the whole structure and soul of Milton's 'Comus' is poetry: not the dress, but the intrinsic spirit, and the essence. The characters of the Attendant Spirit, and of Comus, are exquisite inventions. What is copied from observation, is not always poetry; therefore Dryden and Pope were very often not poets.
There are numerous ideas implanted in our nature, which are not bodily truths, but imaginative truths: even single epithets convey these, as is shown by every part of ' Comus,' while picturesque words point out the leading features of every rural object. No such words ever appear in Dryden or Pope, unless they are borrowed. Their descriptions are general and vague: they convey fine sounds, but no precise ideas. The true poet cannot avoid seeing: images haunt him; he cannot get rid of them: he does not call up his memory to produce empty words, but he draws from the visionary shapes before him.
While Milton was framing the 'Comus,' he, no doubt, lived in the midst of his own creation: he only clothed the tongues of his characters with what it appeared to him in his vision they actually spoke.
ON THE ARCADES.
The 'Arcades' was a Mask, which was part of an entertainment presented to Alice Spencer, Countess Dowager of Derby, and afterwards widow of Lord Chancellor Egerton, at Harefield in Middlesex, and acted by some noble persons of her family.
This celebrated lady was daughter of Sir John Spencer of Althorp, who was then one of the richest commoners of England. Her first husband, Earl Ferdinando, was a most accomplished nobleman, who died in the flower of his age;—it is supposed by poison, because he would not enter into the plots of the Jesuits to claim the crown from Queen Elizabeth, on account of his royal descent; for which see the famous volume, called 'Dolman's Conference,' written by Parsons the Jesuit, and see also Hallam, and Hargrave.
Norden, in his 'Speculum Britanniae,' about 1590, speaking of Harefield, says, "There Sir Edmond Anderson, Knight, Lord-Chief-Justice of the Common Pleas, hath a fair house, standing on the edge of the hill; the river Colne passing near the same, through the pleasant meadows and sweet pastures, yielding both delight and profit." "I viewed this house," says Warton," a few years ago, when it was for the most part remaining in its original state. It has since been pulled down; the porter's lodges on each side of the gateway are converted into a commodious dwelling-house. It is near Uxbridge, and Milton, when he wrote 'Arcades,' was still living with his father at Horton, near Colnebrook, in the same neighbourhood. He mentions the singular felicity he had in vain anticipated in the society of his friend Deodate, on the shady banks of the river Colne:—
Imus, et argute paulum recubamus in umbra,
Amidst the fruitful and delightful scenes of this river the nymphs and shepherds had no reason to regret, as in the third song, the Arcadian 'Ladon's lilied banks.' Unquestionably this Mask was a much longer performance. Milton seems only to have written the poetical part, consisting of these three songs and the recitative soliloquy of the genius: the rest was probably prose and machinery. In many of Jonson's Masques the poet but rarely appears, amid a cumbersome exhibition of heathen gods and mythology."
The Countess of Derby died 26th January, 1635-6, and was buried at Harefield. (See 'Lyson's Environs of London.')