Page images


In Fletcher's “ Faithful Shepherdess," an Arcadi. Milton found many touches of pastoral and superst his own conceptions : many of these, yet with the transferred into • Comus ;' together with the gene piece. He catched also from the lyric rhymes of with which Sir Henry Wootton was so much delig drama. Fletcher's comedy was coldly received the but it had ample revenge in this conspicuous and i approbation : it was afterwards represented as a mas queen on Twelfth Night, in 1633. I know not, ir mendation to Milton ; who, in the “ Paradise Lost," interludes, which had been among the chief divers monarch, b. iv. 767 :

court-amours, Mix'd dance and wanton mask, or midnig And in his “Ready and easy way to establish a fri 1660, on the inconveniences and dangers of readmit to counteract the noxious humour of returning to bo be adored as a demi-god, with a dissolute and hau expense and luxury, masks and revels, to the debau male and female, not in their pastimes only,” &c. “ ) whole compliment was paid to the genius of Fletc should be remembered, that Milton had not yet con and court amusements; and that in “L'Allegro,” m nor could he now disapprove of a species of entert: he was giving encouragement. The royal masks did always abound with Platonic recommendations of thi

The ingenious and accurate Mr. Reed has pointed Milton seems partly to have sketched the plan of “ Biograph. Dramat.” ii. p. 441. It is an old play, Tale, a pleasant conceited Comedie, plaied by the Written by G. P. [i. e. George Peele.] Printed at are to be sold by Ralph Hancocke and John Hardie, scarce and curious piece exhibits, among other pa wandering in quest of their sister, whom an ench magician had learned his art from his mother Meroe, by his mother Circe : the brothers call out on the la the enchanter had given her a potion which susper superinduces oblivion of herself : the brothers after who is also skilled in magic ; and, by listening to h their lost sister ; but not till the enchanter's wreath his sword wrested from his hand, a glass broken, an names of some of the characters, as Sacrapant, Ch from the “Orlando Furioso.” The history of Mer “ The xi Bookes of the Golden Asse, containing t Apuleius, interlaced with sundrie pleasant and dele

out of Latin into English by William Adlington. Lond. 1566." See chap. iii. * How Socrates in his return from Macedony to Larissa was spoyled and robbed, and how he fell acquainted with one Meroe a witch.” And chap. iv. “How Meroe the witch turned divers persons into miserable beasts.” Of this book there were other editions, in 1571, 1596, 1600, and 1639, all in quarto and the black letter, The translator was of University-college. See also Apuleius in the original. A Meroe is mentioned by Ausonius, Epigr. xix.

Peele's play opens thus :- Anticke, Frolicke, and Fantasticke, three adventurers, are lost in a wood, in the night. They agree to sing the old song,

Three merrie men, and three merrie men,
And three merrie men be wee;
I in the wood, and thou on the ground,

And Jack sleeps in the tree.
They hear a dog, and fancy themselves to be near some village.

A cottager appears, with a lantern : on which Frolicke says, “ I perceiue the glimryng of a gloworme, a candle, or a cats-eye,” &c. They intreat him to show the way; otherwise, they say, “ wee are like to wander among the owlets and hobgoblins of the forest." He invites them to his cottage ; and orders his wife to “lay a crab in the fire, to rost for lambes-wool," &c. They sing

When as the rie reach to the chin,
And chop cherrie, chop cherrie ripe within ;
Strawberries swimming in the creame,

And schoole-boyes playing in the streame, &c. At length, to pass the time trimly, it is proposed that the wife shall tell “ a merry winters tale," or, "an old wiues winters tale;" of which sort of stories she is not without a score. She begins :- There was a king, or duke, who had a most beautiful daughter, and she was stolen away by a necromancer ; who, turning himself into a dragon, carried her in his mouth to his castle. The king sent out all his men to find his daughter ; "at last, all the king's men went out so long, that hir Two Brothers went to seeke hir." Immediately the two brothers enter, and speak,

FIRST BR. V pon these chalkie cliffs of Albion,

We are arriued now with tedious toile, &c.

To seek our sister, &c. A soothsayer enters, with whom they converse about the lost lady. Sooths. Was she fayre ? 2nd Br. The fayrest for white and the purest for redde, as the blood of the deare or the driven snowe, &c. In their search, Echo replies to their call : they find, too late, that their sister is under the captivity of a wicked magician, and that she had tasted his cup of oblivion. In the close, after the wreath is torn from the magician's head, and he is disarmed and killed by a spirit in the shape and character of a beautiful page of fifteen years old, she still remains subject to the magician's enchantment : but in a subsequent scene the spirit enters, and declares, that the sister cannot be delivered but by a lady, who is neither maid, wife, nor widow. The spirit blows a magical horn, and the lady appears ; she dissolves the charm by breaking a glass, and extinguishing a light, as I have before recited. A curtain is withdrawn, and the sister is seen seated and asleep : she is disenchanted and restored to her senses, having been spoken to thrice : she then rejoins her two brothers, with whom she returns home; and the boy-spirit vanishes under the earth. The magician is here called “inchanter vile," as in “Comus," v. 907.

There is another circumstance in this play, taken from the old English “Apuleius." It is where the old man every night is transformed by our magician into a bear, recovering in the day-time his natural shape.

Ainong the many feats of magic in this play, a bride newly married gains a marriage-portion by dipping a pitcher into a well : as she dips, there is a voice :

Faire maiden, white and redde,
Combe me smoothe, and stroke my head,
And thou shall haue some cockell bread!
Gently dippe, but not too deepe,
For feare thou make the golden beard to weepe!

Faire maiden, white and redde, Combe me smoothe, and stroke my he And euery haire a sheaue shall be, And euery sheaue a golden tree!

With this stage-direction, “A head comes vp full of lap."

I must not omit, that Shakspeare seems also to ha is in the scene where “ The haruest-men enter with haruest-men singing, with women in their handes." here, our amourous haruest-starres ?" They sing,

Loe, here we come a reaping, a r
To reape our liaruest-fruite ;
And thus we passe the yeare so

And neuer be we mute. Compare the mask in the “ Tempest,” a. iv. s. I. wh

You sun-burnt sicklemen, of August
Come hither from the furrow, and by
Make holy-day: your rye-straw hats
And these fresh nymphs encounter e

In country footing. Where is this stage-direction :-“ Enter certain re join with the nymphs in a graceful dance.” The appear before the year 1612.

That Milton had his eye on this ancient dram: favourite of his early youth, perhaps may be at leas bility, as that he conceived the “ Paradise Lost” fron written by Andreini a Florentine in 1617, entitled “

In the mean time, it must be confessed, that Milt cup and wand, is ultimately founded on the fable characters are much the same : they are both to be violence. Circe is subdued by the virtues of the h to Ulysses, and Comus by the plant hæmony which thers. About the year 1615, a mask, called the “ I by William Browne, author of “ Britannia's Pastor cited, was presented by the students of the Inner manuscript in the library of Emmanuel College : bu few copies were printed soon after the presentation. Circe, and perhaps might have suggested some fe some proofs of parallelism as we go along. The g determined, if not directed, by circumstance and ac so original a writer as Milton should have been bia the day, by the composition most in fashion, and forward, but soon giving way to others, and almost forgotten.-T. WARTON.


Comus” is perhaps more familiar to the modern English reader than any other poems of Milton, except “ L'Allegro” and “Il Penseroso :” its poetical merits are generally felt and acknowledged : its visionary and picturesque inventiveness give it a full title to a prime place in our admiration. Thyer and Warburton both remark that the author has here imitated Shakspeare's manner more than in the rest of his compositions.

The spirits of the air were favourite idols of Milton : he had from early youth become intimately acquainted with all that learning, all that superstition, and all that popular belief had related regarding them ; and he had added all that his own rich and creative imagination could combine with it.

It seems that an accidental event, which occurred to the family of his patron, John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, then keeping his court at Ludlow Castle, as lord president of Wales, gave birth to this fable. The earl's two sons and daughter, Lady Alice, were benighted, and lost their way in Haywood-forest; and the two brothers, in the attempt to explore their path, left the sister alone, in a track of country rudely inhabited by sets of boors and savage peasants. On these simple facts the poet raised a superstructure of such fairy spells and poetical delight, as has never since been equalled.

Masks, as I have already remarked, were then in fashion with the court and great nobility; and when the lord president entered upon the state of his new office, this entertainment was properly deemed a splendid mode of recommending himself to the country in the opening of his high function. Milton was the poet on whom Lord Bridgewater would naturally call; the bard having already produced the “ Arcades" for the countess's mother, Lady Derby, at Harefield, in Middlesex.

Comus discovers the beautiful Lady in her forlorn and unprotected state ; and, to secure her as a prize for his unprincipled voluptuousness, addresses her in the disguised character of a peasant, offering to conduct her to his own lowly but loyal cottage, until he hears of her stray attendants : meanwhile, the brothers, unable to find their way back to their sister, become dreadfully uneasy lest some harm should befall her: nevertheless, they comfort themselves with the protection which Heaven affords to innocence; but the good Spirit, with whom the poem opens, now enters, and informs them of the character of Comus, and his wicked designs upon their sister. Under his guidance, they rush in on Comus and his crew, who had already carried off the Lady; put them to the rout; and release the captive, imprisoned by their spells, by the counter-spells of Sabrina. She is then carried back to her father's court, received in joy and triumph ; and here the Mask ends.

Who but Milton, unless perhaps Shakspeare, could have made this the subject of a thousand lines,-in which not only every verse, but literally every word, is pure and exquisite poetry? Never was there such a copiousness of picturesque rural images brought together : every epithet is racy, glowing, beautiful, and appropriate. But this is not all : the sentiments are tender, or lofty, refined, philo. sophical, virtuous, and wise. The chaste and graceful eloquence of the Lady is enchanting ;-the language flowing, harmonious, elegant, and almost ethereal. Cowper said of his feelings when he first perused Milton, we, in reading these dialogues, “ dance for joy."

But almost even more than this part, the contrasted descriptions given by the good Spirit and Comus, of their respective offices and occupations, by carrying us into a visionary world, have a surprising sort of poetical magic.

This was the undoubted forerunner of that sort of spiritual invention, which more than thirty years afterwards produced “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained;" but with this characteristic and essential difference : that “Comus” was written in youth, in joy and hope, and buoyancy, and playfulness ; and those majestic and sublime epics, in the shadowed experience of age, in sorrow and disappointment,

With darkness and with dangers com pass'd round.

[ocr errors]

The latter therefore are bolder, deeper, grander, m structive : the smile-loving taste of blooming youth r relish * Comus " most.

* Comus” is almost all description; a large portio grandeur : the sentiments of the Mask have a Platı «pies have an awful, religious, and scriptural solen the fallof man, and the wily temptations of Satan in u and :orrowful imaginations ; but “ Comus” is all pl of the leafy woods, the dewy morning, and the fragra seenery of rural nature,-the murmurs of the strea of Echo,-the abodes of fairies, and sylvan deities,-r and joy to the eyes or the heart. In the epics we e. suffering ; there all is mightiness, but mainly ove crime, and regrets at the forfeiture of a state of her ment. When life grows sober from experience, an take pleasure in these representations, because th gloom of our own bosoms : we require stronger and

become more intellectual, and less fascinated by exti 1 contented with mere description, but seek what w

and the conscience : we examine the depths of lear cannot deceive. But “ Comus” glitters like a brigh beams of the morning sun, when they first dispe scenery is such as youthful bards dream in their s. haunted river: everything of pastoral imagery is bro a freshness, a distinctness, a picturesque radianc every epithet is chosen with the most inimitable feli Perhaps every word may be found in Shakspeare, Be Jonson, Drayton, or other predecessors; but the arra else to be found in such close and happy combinat descriptions are patches ;-there is no continued u rural description, but he has not the distinctness to this the magic inventiveness of the spiritual k scape is inhabited and animated. The mind is thus k

This Mask has every quality of genuine poetry. pure invention : here is character, sentiment, and r The author carries us out of the world of mere matt Shakspeare shows an equal imagination in the “ coarsenesses intermixed: I am not sure that he eve of pure poetry : he sullies it by descending to colloq

Milton is never guilty of the wanton and eccentric in what is consistent with our belief, and the rules of of extravagance or whim. Minor poets resort to th false surprise. It is easy to invent where no regart

The songs of this poem are of a singular felicity : exquisite imagery, either imaginative or descriptis which sounds like aerial music : for instance, the L

Sweet Echo, sweetest nymph, that li

Within thy aery shell,
By slow Meander's margent green
And in the violet-embroider'd vale,

Where the love-lorn nighting

Nightly to thee her sad song mournet The more we study this poem, the more pleasur nates and refines our fancy ; and enables us to d delights, and distinguish the features of each object ! sight would not have given us : it presents to us tho our intelleet, and spiritualize the material joys of our language is to convey a sort of internal lustre, which is like bringing a bright lamp to a dark chamber.

But let it not be understood that I put this Mask the tragedy : these are of a still sublimer tone : the

« PreviousContinue »