and Religious Imagery in Comus
II. Character Studies
iii. Sabrina and Spirit
iv. The Two Brothers
The blending of imagery in the Maske represents an interesting mesh of Milton's varied intellectual, political, and religious beliefs. Milton was, of course, a great humanist scholar, intimately versed in the Greco-Roman mythological tradition. In addition, he was deeply committed to the parliamentary side of the English Civil War, acting as the Latin Secretary under Cromwell, while using his humanist education to further various causes of the republican government. Furthermore, despite much critical debate regarding the exact nature of his religious beliefs, Milton was also clearly an adherent of the Protestant religion. In the Maske, Milton combines a variety of classical and British myths with pastoral imagery and Christian allegory to create a political and moral vision directed not only to the Earl of Bridgewater, but to a wider public audience across England. In so doing, he continues a long tradition of exploring literature's potential both to delight and instruct. His characters, their dialogue, and the descriptions of scenery all evidence this blending, as they combine to create a multi-layered allegory that expands Milton's commentary to encompass the political, social, and religious realms.
II. Character Studies
Critics have often examined Comus as a prototypical figure for Satan in Paradise Lost. The connections are clear: Comus seeks to tempt the Lady to drink his "orient liquor" and join him in sins of intemperance, pride, and lust, just as Satan would tempt Eve into similar failings with the apple. Here the Christian allegory is readily apparent. Comus lurks with other deities of night and debauchery, (Coytto and Hecate, for example), and the true Christian must ever be wary of the traps they provide.
As he tries to entice the Lady away from the true path, Comus also represents a political allegory. His temptation requires that she abandon her duties to her family, and, presumably, to the people she, as a member of the nobility, will later help to govern. Maryann McGuire notes in Milton's Puritan Masque that "Comus reflects more specifically the Puritan sense that the upper classes, because of their obsession with comfort and position, failed to fulfill either their specific callings as traditional governors or their general callings as God's righteous people" (82). Through this level of Christian imagery, Milton thus expands the scope of the masque's political commentary.
However, Comus is no mere reveller in the woods seeking to find new people to join his band of pleasure-seekers. Instead he is a powerful magician, the son of Circe and Bacchus, and, as the Attendant Spirit's description indicates, "Much like his Father, but his Mother more" (1637, 64). Comus is thus clearly placed in the tradition of Circe, whom the Renaissance audience would recognize as a symbol of spiritual degradation, of intemperance coupled with idle pleasure (Brodwin 22). He, like, his mother, seeks to transform people into bestial unconsciousness, and "roule with pleasure in a sensuall stie" (1637, 84).
In the Lady's opening speech, she calls on the attendant guardians of faith, hope, and chastity, "O welcome pure-eyd Faith, white-handed Hope/Thou flittering Angel girt with golden wings,/And thou unblemish't forme of Chastitie/I see yee visibly" (228-30). By thus clearly evoking and altering the traditional biblical trio of faith, hope, and charity, Milton places strong emphasis on the Lady's chastity as a central characteristic of her identity. Then, throughout the masque, he employs a variety of references to virginity to establish the figure of the Lady as a locus for several different points of intercession in the allegory.
In addition to the Pauline reference, the Lady also extolls the "Sun-clad power of Chastitie" in her argument with Comus (816). Her audience would hear or read a pun on "sun" and "Son" that continues to place the Lady in a Christian milieu. Moreover, the intersection between Christian and classical mythology continues in this line: sun-clad, a reference to Apollo, the god of the sun. Various critics have interpreted this choice as a direct counterpoint to the Lady's earlier invocation of the moon while lost in the woods before meeting Comus. The moon, as chaste Diana, is inconstant, and insufficient to protect the Lady. Rather, she needs both chastity and the charity, or love, of the Son/sun to withstand Comus's temptation (Hollis 165). Milton, through a simple pun, again underscores the overlap between the Christian and classical traditions.
The mythological references continue. The Elder Brother declares that, through her chastity, his sister is "clad in compleat steele,/And like a quiver'd nymph with arrowes keene" (442). Later in the speech, he makes the reference even more clear, comparing her to "Dian with her dred bow" and "wise Minerva…unconquer'd virgin" (461, 467). Such references highlight the Lady's strength, self-reliance, and intelligence. By contrast, Comus attempts to emphasize her weakness as he reminds the Lady of the story of Daphne and Apollo while he binds her to the chair (693-4). The Lady's chastity thus serves as a central focus in both religious and pagan discourses.
Furthermore, the Lady also appears as a wandering pilgrim; the true Christian must remain firmly on the journey, and thus, she is vulnerable to Comus's attack. McGuire notes that although the Lady and her brothers make mistakes, because they remain intent on their goal, "Their wanderings indicate not active immorality, but the limitations of uniformed virtue" (84). The Lady's danger recalls the Christian emphasis on the importance of vigilance against sin and the need to seek God continually. However, given the associations of Comus and Circe, the image of the Lady as wandering pilgrim also recalls the Odyssey, casting the Lady as a feminine Odysseus forced to endure trials before reaching her goal. Once again, Milton uses the Lady to explore the intersections between Christian morality and virtuous paganism.
iii. Sabrina and the Spirit
These two deities provide the chief means by which Milton introduces both British mythology and the pastoral into the poem, while still linking them to classical and Christian imagery. Sabrina, for instance, is a virginal deity who baptizes the Lady, using the water from her fountain to purify her from the defilement she suffered at Comus's hands. Similarly, the Spirit, fulfilling a guardian angel role, helps to rescue the Egerton children and assist them in their fight against sin and temptation.
Yet, at the same time, Sabrina is also the incarnation of the Severn River, the boundary between Wales and England (which further recalls the figure of the Earl, since the masque was given to celebrate his being appointed the President of Wales). In British history, notes Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, Sabrina is the daughter of Locrine and his concubine Estrildis, whom he married after divorcing his wife Guendolen. After the former Queen gathered an army and killed Locrine, she ordered that Estrildis and Sabrina be thrown into the Severn, but that the river be named to commemorate Sabrina, given that she was Locrine's daughter (77). However, according to British mythology, the water deity Nereus took pity on Sabrina and made her the river goddess. Given Nereus's role, as well as the fact that the Spirit conjures her by calling on the names of classical deities like Oceanus, Nereus, and Thetis, Sabrina is also a part of the classical mythic tradition. Furthermore, her father Locrine is the great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy, thus linking her to the great classical epics of Homer and Virgil.
The Spirit (or Dæmon in the BMS and TMS) tells the audience in his opening speech that he is sent by Jove to protect the Earl's children. After shedding his "skie robes of Iris wooffe," he takes the appearance of a shepherd named Thyrsis, whom the children knew (90). Thus, in his opening speech, the Spirit places himself in a classical pastoral tradition, which he underscores when explaining to the brothers that he met them while searching for a lost sheep (526). This reference in turn circles back to the Christian religion and the image of Christ as the good shepherd.
iv. The Brothers
Like their sister, the two brothers represent pilgrims lost in the wilderness. As they hunt for their sister, they engage in philosophical debate, with the Elder brother convincing his sibling that their sister does indeed possess some form of defense against danger. In his argument, the Elder brother blends mythology with Christianity, affirming the power of virtue to withstand evil immediately after praising Minerva and claiming that a "a thousand liveried angels" will attend the Lady because she is chaste (468, 475). He goes on to discourse thoroughly on the power of chastity until his brother agrees with his conclusions. However, they too must be tested, and learn that while they must always guard against sin, they cannot fight evil without divine aid. For instance, the Spirit explains to the Elder brother that he is vulnerable to Comus's spells without the aid of the herb haemony (635). Equally, they cannot free their sister completely without Sabrina's help.
As the two brothers search for their sister, their dialogue employs a variety of allusions; most often, the Elder brother refers to myth, claiming, for instance, that Chaos reigns in the woods or that their sister is like Diana (351, 461). The younger brother introduces most of the pastoral imagery, such as when he wistfully longs to "heare/The folded flocks pen'd in their watled cotes,/Or sound of pastoral reed with oaten stops,/Or whistle from the Lodge, or village cock/Count the night watches to his featherie Dames" (360-4). In this fashion, the two boys continue the religious and classical discourses utilized by the other characters in the masque. Such a demonstration is particularly important, since they represent the next generation of noble lords, who thus show that they are being well-educated in both culture and religion, and will be able to assume their responsibilities as Christian governors in the future.
Various mythological references underscore the themes of the masque throughout. For instance, when the Lady is separated from her brothers in the early scenes of the play, she sings to Echo, hoping her siblings will hear and find her. In the song, she asks Echo, "Canst thou not tell me of a gentle Paire/That likest thy Narcissus are?" (253). The Lady's choice of comparison is interesting; Narcissus of course, symbolizes the destructive power of excessive self-love. Milton is not imputing faults to her brothers, but rather, reminding the audience of the dangers of such conceit. Moreover, the link continues since it is directly through this song that the Lady attracts Comus's intense interest. Comus, who will later attempt to lure the Lady into the sin of pride by complimenting her physical beauty, thus appealing to her vanity, continues the subtle moralizing theme (773-9).
In addition, the characters make numerous allusions to mythic figures, seemingly in passing. However, the audience, familiar with the various stories attached to these figures, would recognize that, for many of them, virginity (or lack thereof) was a central issue to their histories. For example, the Spirit conjures Sabrina with a long catalogue of oceanic deities, including Ligea, Parthenope, and other Sirens. Ligea was one of the Sirens named in Virgil's Georgics (Smith). Legend states that Parthenope was a maiden who fell in love, but who did not wish to break her vow of chastity, so she cut off her hair and went into exile. However, Aphrodite turned her into a Siren out of anger at being rejected (Grimal). Although the Sirens typically represented the temptation of lust, according to Renaissance beliefs, Stella Revard argues that Milton in fact rehabilitates them by making them help Sabrina to save the lady (146-8). Regardless of which interpretation one favors, however, using them to conjure Sabrina foregrounds issues of chastity and lust.
Lastly, there are two episodes that use mythology to foreground the idea of appropriate marriage. The first occurs in the debate between Comus and the Lady, when he tries to persuade her to join him, and become his Queen. Leonora Brodwin, in her essay "Milton and the Renaissance Circe," argues that Comus alters his mother's tricks, and actually attempts to convince the Lady to forsake virginity for marriage, for "mutuall and partaken blisse" (775). She contends that his offer tempts the Lady to settle for an ordinary marriage, rather than high virginity (50). Interestingly, the Lady refuses Comus's offer repeatedly, at one point even declaring, "Were it a draft for Iuno when she banquests/I would not tast thy treasonous offer" (735-6). Juno is, of course, the Roman goddess of marriage, and perhaps significantly, this is the only allusion to Juno throughout a masque positively laden with classical references. It seems clear that the Lady is rejecting any semblance of marriage that would not place her firmly within the sphere of obedience to both Christ and her family.
Milton carries the point further in the masque's epilogue when the audience hears the episode of Cupid and Psyche, which has traditionally been seen as a paean to marriage. There are numerous possible parallels between Psyche and the Lady, especially given that Milton notes that Psyche suffered long before being allowed to marry Cupid, recalling the Lady's struggles with Comus (1056). Notably, it is only when the gods (specifically Jove and Venus, Cupid's mother) agree, that the two lovers are allowed to wed. Perhaps, in the end, Milton uses the last major mythological reference within the masque to underscore one final time that true morality for the Lady lies in obedience to Christ and her family.
I have used the 1637 version exclusively for line number references.
Brodwin, Leonora Leet. "Milton and the Renaissance Circe." Milton Studies 6 (1975): 21-84.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. Lewis Thorpe.
London: Penguin, 1966.
Grimal, Pierre. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Trans. A.K. Maxwell-Hyslop.
Oxford: Maxwell-Hyslop. 1986.
Harding, Davis P. Milton and the Renaissance Ovid. Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
Hollis, Hilda. "Without Charity: an Intertextual Study of Milton's Comus." Milton Studies 34
Lindheim, Nancy. "Milton's Garden of Adonis: The Epilogue to the Ludlow Masque." Milton
Studies 35 (1997): 21-41.
McGuire, Maryann Cale. Milton's Puritan Masque. Athens: University of Georgia Press,
Mulryan, John. "Through a Glass Darkly:" Milton's Reinvention of the
Mythological Tradition. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1996.
Revard, Stella P. Milton and the Tangles of Neaera's Hair: The Making of the 1645
Poems. Columbia, MI: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
Smith, Eric. A Dictionary of Classical Reference in English Poetry. Totowa, NY: Barnes
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Woodhouse, A.S.P. The Heavenly Muse: A Preface to Milton. Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1972.
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