Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Comus by John Milton

It may surprise you to know that I've never been a great fan of John Milton's. I've tried, and failed, twice, to get all the way through Paradise Lost, and was rather put off to discover that Milton embraced the Arian heresy, seeing Christ as the first-created being rather than the eternal God Himself. However, a spot of heresy doesn't usually prevent me from enjoying a legitimately good book, and when I recently decided on a whim to read Comus, I was astonished how much I enjoyed the thing.

Comus is a masque, maybe the first I've read. The masque was a presentation quite similar to a play, popular through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Comus was written. One of the differences between a masque and a play was that a masque was a very courtly form of entertainment in which it was not unheard-of (as it would have been in the playhouses) for noblemen and noblewomen to take roles or participate in the songs and dances.

Into the Wood

Comus is the story of a young Lady and her two brothers lost in "the blind mazes of [a] tangled wood." I have to admit that it was this specific line which induced me to read the masque. Why? I'll go somewhat off-topic and explain. If that line makes you think of Mirkwood, Narnia, or perhaps As You Like It's Forest of Arden or any King Arthur story at all, then congratulations--you are aware of a venerable literary trope with deep roots in the chivalric/romantic tradition. As Charles Williams observed in The Figure of Beatrice,
The image of a wood has appeared often enough in English verse. It has indeed appeared so often that it has gathered a good deal of verse into itself; so that it has become a great forest where, with long leagues of changing green between them, strange episodes of poetry have taken place. Thus in one part there are lovers of a midsummer night, or by day a duke and his followers, and in another men behind branches so that the wood seems moving, and in another a girl separated from her two lordly young brothers, and in another a poet listening to a nightingale but rather dreaming richly of the grand art than there exploring it, and there are other inhabitants, belonging even more closely to the wood, dryads, fairies, an enchanter's rout. The forest itself has different names in different tongues--Westermain, Arden, Birnam, Broceliande; and in places there are separate trees named, such as that on the outskirts against which a young Northern poet saw a spectral wanderer leaning, or, in the unexplored centre of which only rumours reach even poetry, Igdrasil of one myth, or the Trees of Knowledge and Life of another. So that indeed the whole earth seems to become this one enormous forest, and our longest and most stable civilisations are only clearings in the midst of it.
And that puts it in a nutshell, complete with a reference to Comus itself. To continue, the Lady is separated from her brothers and in looking for them, is captured by the enchanter Comus, who as the story goes, is the son of Bacchus and Circe from Greek myth, a minor deity of wine and lust. Comus attempts to talk the Lady into forsaking her morals, and the Lady, though unable to escape and waiting for rescue, continues to refute all of Comus's arguments.

Although the play is quite a short one, it's so jam-packed with thought-provoking goodness that I could spend a long time discussing it. There are a few very fun aspects of this story that I'd love to bring to your attention...

Pagan Imagery in a Christian Story

First, given the time period, it should come as no surprise to us that we find a good bit of imagery lifted from pagan myth here in this story by a man who, despite being a heretic, was a Christian heretic writing for a Christian audience in a Christian tradition. I've written before about how Milton, Spenser, CS Lewis, and other authors in this tradition justified such borrowing--short story, it's all in Augustine and The City of God--but it was fun to see Milton's take on the same kind of story. At one point, his pagan god argues to the Lady:
If all the world  
Should, in a pet of temperance, feed on pulse,
Drink the clear stream, and nothing wear but frieze,  
The All-giver would be unthanked, would be unpraised,  
Not half his riches known, and yet despised.
The milieu, in other words, does include gods and river-nymphs with powers of their own, but these creatures are imagined no less as subjects (whether obedient or rebellious) of the same God.

I'm not sure if I'd write a story the same way, but when reading classic Christian literature like Comus, it can be helpful to remember that the presence of a few lowercase pagan-derived gods should not be taken as evidence of impiety on the author's part. As we see from this passage, even though it comes from the mouth of the villain, a clear distinction is drawn between God Himself and the created "gods" which, although they may have delegated power, take it for granted that all worship and glory belong to the High God.

Reason and Temperance

As you might infer from the fact that the villain is a god of wine and lust, the whole theme of the poem revolves around the virtue of temperance, which as I mentioned in my review of Book II of The Faerie Queene, was defined at this period in history as right behaviour in the physical world (analogous to and of course inseparable from holiness, which is right spiritual conduct). The war is waged in learned debate; anyone who hasn't been living under a rock his whole life will be unsurprised to find how little the arguments of people like Comus have changed in the last 380 years. Still, all the things he says are hollow sophistry; the Lady's counterarguments, by contrast, are both rational and devastating.
Were it a draught for Juno when she banquets,  
I would not taste thy treasonous offer. None
But such as are good men can give good things;  
And that which is not good is not delicious  
To a well-governed and wise appetite.
One thing we might have a little more difficulty recognising is the poem's emphasis on the trained palate. After 250 years of Enlightenment humanism worshipping at the altar of the sweet innate goodness of humanity, all of us have the "follow your heart" mantra in our bones. To Milton, however, the natural appetites tend toward evil, making training, self-government, and discipline both necessary and beneficial. This is what CS Lewis talked about in The Abolition of Man--well-trained affections.

Another of the benefits of a well-governed character: discipline in the face of danger, fear, or apprehension.
Peace, brother: be not over-exquisite  
To cast the fashion of uncertain evils;  
For, grant they be so, while they rest unknown,  
What need a man forestall his date of grief,  
And run to meet what he would most avoid?  
Or, if they be but false alarms of fear,  
How bitter is such self-delusion!

Feminine Authority

This was one of my favourite things about this poem--as you'll be unsurprised to hear. I found the Lady an incredibly inspiring role model. She has complete calm and unassailable logic under pressure, combined with a total lack of feminist girl-power nonsense. 

To begin with, when her brothers discover that the Lady has been kidnapped by someone who's up to no good, one comforts the other like this:
I do not think my sister so to seek,
Or so unprincipled in virtue’s book,  
And the sweet peace that goodness bosoms ever,  
As that the single want of light and noise
(Not being in danger, as I trust she is not)
Could stir the constant mood of her calm thoughts,
And put them into misbecoming plight.
Modern feminists will try to persuade you, surprisingly often, that women of previous years were regarded as little better than infants, expected to scream and faint at the least sign of danger. But the Lady's Brothers, though understandably concerned for her safety, are sure that she has the strength of mind to meet dangers with courage. As the plot demonstrates, they're quite right.

Despite her courage, however, the Lady is quite in earnest a prisoner of Comus, unable to free herself; she is no omnicompetent action girl. On the other hand, the fact that the Lady is in dire need of a rescuer does not mean that she is without freewill or moral agency. Although physically she is in Comus's power, she is mentally and spiritually capable of resisting him: she is neither hoodwinked by his sophistries, nor enticed by his blandishments.

In other words, Comus's Lady doesn't take the easy way out--she doesn't use duress and coercion as an excuse for wrongdoing. I really think this is a huge error made by a lot of our contemporaries: to assume that every woman in a difficult situation, under any kind of pressure or abuse, is somehow a spotless victim, robbed of all moral agency, and helpless to exercise her own reason, will, and responsibilities. I don't debate that this must be difficult to do; but sometimes it just is difficult to do the right thing. We have to do it anyway. And I don't know about you, but I find that requirement far more empowering than the notion that I could have no moral agency in a moment of coercion or duress.

In Praise of Sensational Plots

Lately I have come to meditate on the fact that the difference between a great book and a terrible book does not lie in how interesting, or sensational, or preposterous, the plot is. Down with the idea that a book, to be truly great, must be as dull as dishwater. Even a potboiler full of romance, war, and melodrama is capable of greatness if written with discipline and virtue--and give me that any day, rather than a book which never dares to be either profound or preposterous. In Comus, Milton couches serious philosophy in a melodramatic tale of villainy versus chastity, and it's delightful. Compare that with the spy story I read recently about a genius art restorer superspy wending his respectable bourgeois way across Europe looking for stolen art. I think at one point he even drove a Volvo. And he didn't face the prospect of losing his immortal soul, not once. Pshaw, even Jane Austen wrote plots with higher stakes than that.

Empty-Vaulted Night

Comus was, to conclude, delightful all the way through. I can't finish without saying something about the writing. This may come as news, but Milton could turn a pretty phrase. Here, luxuriate in this:

Can any mortal mixture of earth’s mould
Breathe such divine enchanting ravishment?  
Sure something holy lodges in that breast,  
And with these raptures moves the vocal air
To testify his hidden residence.  
How sweetly did they float upon the wings
Of silence, through the empty-vaulted night,  

At every fall smoothing the raven down  
Of darkness till it smiled!

Find Comus on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.


Christina Baehr said...

I think you'll love this:
It's even on Open Library!

Kate said...

I think you should give Paradise Lost another try. True, Milton was a heretic, and it really shows at moments, and he also had a horrible theology of women (poor Eve gets blamed for too much), BUT Lewis pulls scads of imagery from Paradise Lost. If you want to understand The Magician's Nephew better, read Paradise Lost. Lewis is clearly interacting with it. For instance, the image of the ground rolling and bubbling and the animals coming out of it, is totally pulled from Paradise Lost. There is also the image of the walled garden and Jadis hopping over the wall, which is very similar to Satan hopping over the wall into the walled garden of Eden.

Kate said...

(This is bonny_kathryn of livejournal - apparently Blogger doesn't like me enough to post a name.)

Suzannah said...

Christina--I'll have to take a look! Thanks!

Kate--rest assured, I certainly do mean to give Paradise Lost another try! And ooh, spotting Things CS Lewis Stole Off Other Authors is definitely one of my favourite indoor sports. He interacts with Malory, Spenser, and MacDonald in much the same way :D.


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