An introduction to one of the first of Milton’s major works, the masque Comus.
Comus was the most substantial work of poetry that Milton had yet written – it might also be considered a work of drama but it is conventional to categorise it among his verse. In form, it follows the convention of the ‘masque,’ which was a courtly entertainment generally written in verse and with jolly tales of mythological beings as well as dancing and song mixed with an occasionally more serious message. In 1632, Milton had written the masque Arcades and, presumably because of the success of this piece, he was then commissioned to write a further work to be presented before the Earl of Bridgewater, John Egerton, at Ludlow Castle on September 29th, 1634. It is not clear exactly what Egerton was expecting from Milton but what he received is a form of radical reworking of a conventional form in terms of meaning and substance, albeit one that retained the outward shape and structure of the masque.
Milton’s Comus is written with narrative sections in unrhymed iambic pentameter interspersed with speeches by the characters, which are generally written in rhymed couplet iambic tetrameter. The story concerns a virtuous Lady who enters into a wood in the company of her two brothers – entering a wood is always or at least nearly always a symbol for entering a state of danger or evil in the literature of the past; perhaps the most famous example of this is the beginning of Dante’s Inferno. The Lady might perhaps have known better or at least been better prepared (in the Christian era, the individual is expected to be aware of the workings of the Devil and to treat with caution any movement away from the safe paths towards God). In any case, she is shortly separated from her brothers and captured by the sinister Comus, who is the son of Bacchus (of the invention of wine fame) and Circe (from the Odyssey and indeed The Tempest) and who is a powerful wizard in his own right. Comus, as is traditional, wishes to separate the Lady from her clothes and her chastity but she resists this. Both make speeches to this effect. Of course, the Lady is not speaking entirely about just a physical act but about her adherence to the life of virtue and goodness and rejection of evil and wantonness in all its forms. The arguments take place on several different levels, which might perhaps have tried the patience of those members of the audience waiting for the concluding happy ending and celebratory jig.
Comus is generally accounted the first of Milton’s major works and it is certainly a sustained piece of invention that has a coherent philosophy and quality of language. However, the form of the masque itself is little regarded these days and so the poem is rarely performed as it was intended.