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REMARKS ON COMUS.
“Coxus” is perhaps more familiar to the modern English reader than any other of Milton's poems, except “ L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso :" its peetical 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 bad 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,t 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 attend. ants : 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 tho rout; and release the captive, imprisoned by their spells, by the counter
* Sir Egerton Brydges, in his edition of Milton, has a long genealogical dissertation upon the Egerton family. This is natural and pardonable, for who would not be proud to have his family inseparably connected with one of the most beautiful poetical productions of the human mind. But then he closes his dissertation with these fine remarks, which, considering how much he has done for English Literature, are eminently applicable to himse f-"DESCENT IS NOTHING UNLESS IT STIMULATES TO ACCOMPLISH THE MIND WITH HIGH DECORATIONS, TO NURSE HIGA PURSUITS, AND TO CHERISH HIGH EMOTIONS OF THE HEART. WHO SLEEPS UPON HIS HONOURS-WHO RELIES ONLY ON REFLECTED GLORY,-18 AN IMBECILE AND CULPABLE CIPHER."
† Ludlow Castle, was in the old town of Ludlow, in the county of Shropshire, about one hundred and forty miles west-north-west of London. The ancient castle, immortalized as the theatre of the first display of the poetical powers of Milton, and long a place of great strength and celebrity, is now in ruins.
(The Mask, or Masque, was a kind of theatrical drama much in favour in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For an account of these entertainments, seo Warton's History of English Poetry, vol. iii. page 224, &c.]
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, philosophical, virtuous, and wise. The chaste and graceful eloquence of the Lady is enchanting ;-the language flowing, harmonious, elegant, and almost ethereal. As 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 compass'd round. The latter therefore are bolder, deeper, grander, more heavenward, and more instructive; the smile-loving taste of blooming youth may, and will, for these reasons, relish “Comus" most.
“Comus” is almost all description ; a large portion of the epics is argumentative grandeur: the sentiments of the Mask have a platonic fancifulness; those of the epics have an awful, religious, and scriptural solemnity: the rebellion of angels, the fall of man, and the wily temptations of Satan in the wilderness, fill us with grave and sorrowful imaginations; but " Comus" is all pleasure; and the cool shadows of the leafy woods, the dewy morning, and the fragrant evening, and all the laughing scenery of rural nature,—the murmurs of the streams, and the enchanting songs of Echo,--the abodes of fairies, and sylvan deities,-convey nothing but cheerfulness and joy to the eyes or the heart. In the epics we enter into the realms of trial and suffering : there all is mightiness,--but mainly overshadowed by the darkness of crime, and regrets at the forfeiture of a state of heavenly and inexpressible enjoyment. When life grows sober from experience, and misfortunes, and wrongs, we take pleasure in these representations, because they are more congenial to the gloom of our own bosoms: we require stronger and deeper excitements: and we become more intellectual, and less fascinated by external beauty: we are no longer contented with mere description, but seek what will satisfy the reason, the soul, and the conscience; we examine the depths of learning, and the authorities which cannot deceive. But “Comus” glitters like a bright landscape under the glowing beams of the orning sun, when they first disperse the vapours of night: the scenery is such as youthful bards dream in their slumbers on the banks of some haunted river: every thing of pastoral imagery is brought together with a profusion, a fresh. ness, a distinctness, a picturesque radiance, which enchants like magic: every epithet is chosen with the most inimitable felicity, and is a picture in itself. Perhaps every word may be found in Shakspeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, Spenser, Jonson, Drayton, or other predecessors; but the array of all these words is nowhere else to be found in such close and happy combination. In all other poets these descriptions are patches ;there is no continued web. Thomson is beautiful in rural description, but he has not the distinctness and fairyism of Milton. Add to this the magic inventiveness of the spiritual beings, by which all this landscape is
inhabited and animated. The mind is thus kept in a sort of delicious dream.
This Mask has every quality of genuine poetry. Here is a beautiful fable of pure invention : here is character, sentiment, and rich and harmonious language. The author carries us out of the world of mere matter, and places us in an Elysium. Shakspeare shows an equal imagination in the “Tempest;" but he has always coarseness intermixed: I am not sure that he ever continues two pages together of pure poetry: he sullies it by descending to colloquialities.
Milton is never guilty of the wanton and eccentric sports of imagination: he deals in what is consistent with our belief, and the rules of just taste: he never is guilty of extravagance or whim. Minor poets resort to this for the purpose of raising a false surprise. It is easy to invent, where no regard is had to truth or probability.
The songs of this poem are of a singular felicity: they are unbroken streams of exquisite imagery, either imaginative or descriptive, with a dance of numbers, which sounds like aerial musio: for instance, the Lady's song to Echo:
Sweet Echo, sweetest nymph, that liv'st unseen
Within thy aery shell,
Where the love-lorn nightingale
Nightly to thee her saci song mourneth well. The more we study this poem, the more pleasure we shall find in it: it illuminates and refines our fancy; and enables us to discover in rural scenery new delights, and distinguish the features of each object with a clearness which our own sight would not have given us: it presents to us those associations which improve our intellect, and spiritualize the material joys of our senses. The effect of poetical language is to convey a sort of internal lustre, which puts the mind in a blaze : it is like bringing a bright lamp to a dark chamber.
But let it not be understood that I put this Mask upon a par with the epics, or the tragedy: there are of a still sublimer tone: their ingredients are still more extensive and more gigantic. The garden of Eden is vastly richer than woods and forests inhabited by dryads, wood-nymphs, and shepherds, and other sylvan crews, spiritual or embodied. Contemplate the intensity of power, which could delineate the creation of the world, the flight of Satan through Chaos, or our Saviour resisting Satan in the wilderness! To arrive at the highest rank of this divine art, requires a union of all its highest essences: there must be a creation, not only of beauty, but of majesty and profound sensibility, and great intellect and moral wisdom, and grace and grandeur of style, all blended. This the epics, and even the tragedy, bave reached: but the Mask does not contain, nor did it require or admit this stupendous combination. intended as a sport of mental amusement and refined cheerfulness: no tragedy, nor tale coloured with the darker hues of man's contemplations, was designed. In the gay visions of youthful hope the stronger colours and forms of sublimity and pathos do not come forth : the court nt Ludluw was met, not to weep, nor be awfully moved ;-but to smile: they cried, with “ L'Allegro,"
Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee
And Laughter, holding both her sides!
yet so as not to shrink from the display of some of his own high gifts : and, oh, with what inimitable brilliance and force he has performed his task! It is true that there is a mixture of grave philosophy in this poem :-—but how calm it is !-how dressed with flowers !-how covered with graceful and brilliant imagery! Other feelings of a more sombre kind are awakened by the descriptions of the scenery of nature in the greater poems, except during the period before the serpent's entry into Eden.
There are hours and seasons, when, in the midst of the blackness of our woes, we can dally a little while with our melancholy, our regrets, and our anxieties;--when we are willing to delude ourselves by an escape into Elysian gardens ;—to look upon nothing but the joys of the creation : and to see the scenery of forests, mountains, valleys, meadows, and rivers, in all their unshawdowed delightfulness; where echo repeats no sounds but those of joyful music; and gay and untainted beauty walks the woods; and cheerfulness haunts the mountains and the glades; and labour lives in the fresh air in competence and content:-delusions, indeed, not a little excessive, but innocent and soothing delusions. Fallen man cannot so enjoy this breathing globe of inexhaustible riches and splendour; but poets may so present it to him: and the charms they thus supply to our fearful and dangerous existence, are medicines and gifts which deserve our deep gratitude; and will not let the memory of the givers be forgotten by posterity. What gift of this kind has our nation had so full of charms and excellence as “Čomus ?”—And here I close, when I recollect how many panegyrists of greater weight than my voice, this perfect composition has already had.
SIR EGERTON BRYDGES.