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The Masque of Comus is one of the most constantly read and referred to of all the poems of Milton; it was written in 1634, when the poet was twenty-six years of age; and through every line it presents gleam after gleam of extraordinary beauty. As soon as we open the poem, we are introduced to a fairy world, peopled by beings who move across its pages with all the dignity and majesty of humanised philosophy. The poem is affluent in sentiment, images, and diction, yet founded upon a most simple circumstance. It was written for presentation at Ludlow Castle, where the Earl of Bridgewater kept his court as Lord President of Wales.— The earl's two sons, and his daughter, Lady Alice, were benighted, and lost their way in Haywood Forest, and the two brothers, to explore their path, left their sister alone in a tract
of country inhabited by boors and savage peasants.
On these simple facts, the poet raised a superstructure of fairy spells and poetical delight.* The poem abounds in allegory; it is ethical and didactic: it discourses of the nature of virtue, of the true character of temperance, of the method of the seductions of vice. Nor less does it abound in figures delineative of country life, with its scenes and occupations. Let the reader linger over the rich fullness of descriptions that bring before us
"The grey-hooded Even,
or those hints so suggestive of evening life in the country.
"Might we but hear
Comus is the great arch-reveller, the tempter of the poem; he is impersonated Sensuality.
• Sir Egerton Brydges.
To him everything that is exists only for enjoyment and lust. He is fabled to hold his reign in the woods, with his rude Bacchic rout of fellow-revellers; there they quaff the cups which transform the express resemblance of the gods to brutish forms of wolves, or bears; of ounce, or tiger; of hog, or bearded goat; while the victims of the enchantment, (so perfect in their misery) not once perceive their foul disfigurement: and, as Comus is impersonated Sensuality, so the lost Lady of the masque is impersonated Virtue. No better description can be given of the general idea of the poem than the discussion between Comus and the Lady who has fallen into his power. In reply to the invitation of Comus to taste of his charmed cup, she says :—
But such as are good men can give good things,
Ouiius.—Oh foolishness of men ! that lend their ears
• "Budge," furred.
Covering the earth with odours, fruits, and flocks,
Thronging the seas with spawn innumerable,
But all to please, and sate the curious taste?
And set to work millions of spinning worms.
That in their green shops weave the smooth-hair'd silk
To deck her sons; and that no corner might
Be vacant of her plenty, in her own loins
She hutcht+ th' all-worshipp'd ore, and precious gems
To store her children with: if all the world
Should in a pet of temp'rance feed on pulse,
Drink the clear stream, and nothing wear but frieze,
Th' All-giver would be unthank'd, would be unpraised,
Not half his riches known, and yet despised,
And we should serve him as a grudging master,
As a penurious niggard of his wealth,
And live like Nature's bastards, not her sons,
Who would be quite surcharged with her own weight,
And strangled with her waste fertility,
Th' earth cumber'd, and the wing'd air dark'd with plumes,
The sea o'erfraught would swell, and th' unsought
Ladt.—I had not thought to have unlock'd my lips
\ "Hutcht," concealed, or kept at in a coffer.
With her abundance; she, good catereas,
Comus may stand as the god of all those who make enjoyment the great leading and central principle of life; to whom nothing lives, and brightens, and blooms, but it has a sensual meaning, and intention, and application, Man is subject to the temptation of two devils —the devil of sensuality and sense, the devil of intellectuality and spirit. The delineation of the first is in Comus, of the other in Satan. The latter is a rare subtle, abstracting spirit; the other is a universal, visible, and materialising one. The reasonings of Comus lie on the surface,—they are their own end; the reasonings of Satan lie deeper, and all things are