Comus is John Milton's masque, written for the Earl of Bridgewater and performed by the nobleman's children in 1634. It's all about a demonic figure who tries to seduce a virginal maiden in the woods after she gets lost and separated from her brothers. It's really good. First published in 1637. For a full version of the text, look at http://www.uoregon.edu/~rbear/comus.html. This here's a discussion of temptation and self-denial and classical allusion as themes in the text.




Superficially, Comus is straightforwardly reverent of the classical pantheon. It repeatedly refers to mythic figures, some of whom come into the narrative; it is set in what seems to be a kind of pre-Christian Albion with many of the hallmarks of a classical forest setting; it believes in magic and charms and metamorphosis and spirits.

Conversely, the morality of the piece seems at first glance to be Christian. A young woman defends her chastity against a devilish suitor; thanks to the intervention of a higher power and her refusal to bow to Comus’ advances, she remains pure and is saved.

But all is not as it seems. Comus is a much more complicated beast than a Christian morality tale in a classical setting: upon close reading, it becomes apparent that the ambiguities at its heart are deep and, for a seventeenth century reader especially, deeply unsettling.

Comus refers to two classical myths: that of Daphne, and that of Pygmalion. By using one to subvert the other, as Mary Loeffenholz suggests, Milton calls in to question his heroine’s defences, or even whether she wishes to defend herself; and by doing so makes the poem a much less straightforwardly Christian narrative.

In the story of Daphne, the heroine’s chastity is under threat from rape: she prays to the Gods, and is turned into a tree. Thus, at the cost of becoming an inanimate object, she is able to keep her virginity intact. On the other hand, in the myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor crafts a statue (Galatea) of such beauty that he falls in love with it; the Gods take pity on him, and transform the statue into a woman, So we have a figure of chastity remaining pure by becoming inanimate; and an inanimate figure becoming unchaste in gaining humanity. These apparently opposite legends - one memorialising a young woman’s desperate desire to remain pure, the other a love so powerful that even stony limits could not hold it out - are in Comus intertwined and shown to be parallel. The ‘sticky chair’ preserves the lady’s purity while she is ‘in stony fetters fixed and motionless’; but if she wishes to be free she must accept the price of her chastity. The great difference from the ancient myths which it refers to is that in this situation, she is already safe from attack, but has a choice about whether or not to cease to be a ‘statue’. So it takes elements from each and combines them to create a disturbing new fable.

Disturbing because it is a decision she is having a great deal of difficulty making. Eventually her chastity is preserved, but only because of a real deus ex machina provided by Milton; and this serves to underline to the attentive reader how very close our heroine was to taking the ‘wrong’ path. In Seventeenth century terms, this is a scary idea even to float, since chastity traditionally represented (in women at least) all that was good - as is underlined by the way, as Gordon Campbell points out, lines 213 to 215 -

O welcome pure-eyed Faith, white-handed Hope,
Thou hovering angel girt with golden wings,
And Thou unblemished form of Chastity!
- place the virtue as part of a trinity in place of the expected charity, its aural sister. In such a context, for the heroine even to flirt with the possibility of abandoning it is extraordinary.

And flirt with it she does, almost unable to resist Comus’ honeyed words:

I had not thought to have unlocked my lips
In this unhallowed air, but that this juggler
Would think to charm my judgement,as mine eyes,
Obtruding false rules, pranked in reason’s garb.
i hate when vice can bolt her arguments
And virtue has no tongue to check her pride.

This is the verbal equivalent of vigourously shaking one’s head to try and snap out of a trance, and suggests that the Lady came very close to succumbing. Though she is superficially the winner of the argument - as Comus concedes, implicitly, in what Don Cameron Allen calls a shift from 'crystal like lucidity’ to ‘dogmatic objectionability’:


This is mere moral babble...
I must not suffer this
- in lyrical and rhetorical terms, Comus is endowed with all the most extraordinary language in the exchange.

Many of the Lady’s arguments sound as if she is trying to convince herself as well as Comus. Take

...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.
But we know that she is hungry and thirsty, since she has previously said that the very reason she is alone is that her brothers went
to bring me berries, or such cooling fruit
As the kind hospitable woods provide.
It is not unreasonable to see a connection between these two moments. Whilst her appetites were ‘well-governed’ - that is, not excessive - she is doubtless famished by the time she is arguing with Comus. Similarly, whilst we have no reason to think her sexual appetite excessive, there is no evidence that it is non-existent, either: indeed, if it were, chastity would be a false denial and therefore a false virtue. (Still, we must remember that this is what it ultimately is - a denial - and that the Lady does not eat, in a literal or figurative sense, when she is Comus’ captive: she recognises that her own appetite is not ‘wise’ and resists it.)

Another hint at how close she has come to succumbing lies in the form of spell which Sabrina casts to break the enchantment:

Thus I sprinkle on thy breast
Drops that from my fountain pure
I have kept of precious cure;
Thrice upon thy finger’s tip,
Thrice upon thy rubied lip...
These images - along with the ‘gums of glutinous heat’ that follow, which are strongly contrasted with Sabrina’s ‘chaste palms moist and cold’ - are extremely sensual and physical, and the breasts, lips, and fingers may all be viewed in a sexual context. It is telling, too, that the drops are ‘precious cure’: the implication is that the Lady has already been in some way defiled, and needs to have her chastity reasserted on her behalf. Whether this means simply by being forced to be in Comus’ presence or in a more active way is ambiguous; but the latter is certainly at the very least a possibility.

One must balance all this with the fact that much of the evidence in the masque strongly argues in favour of the preservation of chastity. What Milton is saying is perhaps not that chastity is absurd in itself - he was, definitively, an intensely Christian man - but that the underlying hungers which it fights against must not be denied to exist. In the comparison with the metamorphic myths he refers to, Milton powerfully insinuates that the sins of the flesh will not cease to exist until the flesh itself cease to exist, and that to assert otherwise is the utmost folly.

There is an argument, too, against the idea that the Lady must take a difficult decision between freedom and chastity: it can very well be asserted that, faced with these options, she insists on excluding neither and instead argues with her captor. Thus, she fights against the very fabric of the poem - and, it has been suggested, against her classical antecedents as well. And in the end this policy is demonstrably successful, since she is able to regain her freedom without giving up her chastity.

This argument is fundamentally flawed, however, since it ignores the vital point that her saviour is a deus ex machina who has played no part in the poem up until now. Thus, her salvation comes not because of her stance but in spite of, or at least in ambivalence towards, it. (This is one of many points, incidentally, at which a feminist critic might raise an eyebrow. The woman’s attitude is, ultimately, irrelevant: all through the masque, her fate is decided for her by others. Even if one of these others is a female, Sabrina is also a spirit, and she still has to be invoked by a man! On the other hand, for the Lady even to verbally defend herself with a degree of success is some distance from the myths which are Milton’s source. Feminist critics might also take issue with the way chastity is only explicitly considered a mark of virtue where women are concerned...)

Even if she tries to ignore it, and try she does, the Lady is still going to have to make a decision at some point. Until outside intervention, there are only two real options open to her: the third -arguing - is little more than a trick for time. In many ways her victory is a hollow one, since it has not been achieved by her, and since at points she has been perilously close to slipping from her pedestal of virtue.

Even so, this point of view does raise one arresting question: is Milton making a conscious and pointed break with classical tradition? His fable starts off parallel to those he refers to, and then takes a radically different turn. The Lady has the audacity and courage to argue with Comus, who is cast as a a God. The expected ending - the acceptance of metamorphosis as the price of virginity - does not materialise. And we are left with a decidedly Christian morality winning out. Milton denies the ancient idea that the Gods may have their way with women as they please: Comus, who perhaps represents the classical pantheon of Gods, is denied by a combination of human endeavour and Godly assistance. For, whilst Sabrina is an idolatrous figure, her morality is profoundly based in the Christian realm - and very deliberately so: Milton skewed the traditional background of the figure considerably so that she might convincingly be a figure of chastity and purity.

What Milton does, then, is reject classical morality, but embrace its literary tradition. We therefore see Christian figures peopling a classical world: it is not unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or even King Lear, in this respect. Nature, through the woods, is portrayed as an essentially malign presence - though only because of the presence of evil in others: when it is ‘posessed’ by the Lady it returns to the Christian world. Compare Comus’ posession of the language of nature in his long speech beginning at line 706 - which includes three explicit references to nature as part of an argument that the Lady should sleep with him, and the highly visual line

if you let slip time, like a neglected rose
It withers on the stalk with languished head
amongst others - with the Lady’s response
Do not charge most innocent nature,
As if she would her children should be riotous
With her abundance. She, good cateress
Means her provision only to the good...

This is manifestly inaccurate, of course. Nature is practically a character in the early ‘riot and ill-managed merriment’ of the poem. Nature colludes in hiding Comus’ ‘rout of monsters’ in ‘shrouds within these brakes and trees’; and Comus himself may ‘hurl his dazzling spells into the spongy air.’ Nature might even be suspected of collusion in getting the brothers lost:

Envious darkness, ere they could return,
had stolen them from me
could easily have been phrased in such a way to avoid the suggestion of an active role on night’s part, and it is no coincidence that it is not.

So this is once again denial on the Lady’s part. But it is defiant denial, a denial which refuses to accept the traditions of mythic literature and tries to replace them with a more active, human genre. Even if she needs a spirit to help her do this, Sabrina is a spirit who empowers her to self-government, rather than taking control of her herself,a s Comus wished to do: this is a radical departure.

We are left, finally, with a deeply uncertain ending. We are not sure if goodness would have prevailed without divine intervention; we are not sure what is going on in the Lady’s head, and exactly how close she came to giving in to her captor; we are not sure what has happened to Comus, who, in the best tradition of nefarious villains, has escaped in defeat. The morality is ambiguous, the setting is ambiguous - even the existence of God is uncertain, since the human figures live by his laws but do not acknowledge him except in a circumlocutory way by references to heaven. It is a strikingly modern way of looking at the world for the seventeenth century,a nd, curiously, has a great deal in common with Knut Hamsun’s almost nihilistic masterpiece Hunger. Whilst the differences between the two works are enormous and obvious, they share, at the very least, a determination to fight on in the face of adversity, and in their central characters determination despite being, apparently, entirely alone. For there is, at least, one certainty in Comus: in the Lady, we have a figure who encapsulates the human struggle with morality against internal and external temptation. Even in an era with radically different moral priorities, there is something universal and extraordinary in our nameless heroine’s labours to do the right thing.

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