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with one Meroe a witch." And chap. iv. "How Meroe the witch turned divers persons into miserable beasts." Of this book there were other editions, in 1571, 1596, 1600, and 1639, all in quarto and the black letter. The translator was of University-college. See also Apuleius in the original. A Meroe is mentioned by Ausonius, Epigr. xix. Peele's play opens thus:-Antieke, Frolicke, and Fantasticke, three adventurers, are lost in a wood, in the night. They agree to sing the old song,
Three me rie men, and three merrie men,
And three merrie men be wee;
I in the wood, and thou on the ground,
They hear a dog, and fancy themselves to be near some village. A cottager appears, 1 with a lantern: on which Frolicke says, "I perceive the glimryng of a gloworme, a candle, or a cats-eye," &c. They entreat him to show the way; otherwise, they say, "wee are like to wander among the owlets and hobgoblins of the forest." He invites them to his cottage; and orders his wife to "lay a crab in the fire, to rost for lambeswool," &c. They sing
When as the rie reach to the chin,
And chop cherrie, chop cherrie ripe within;
And schoole-boyes playing in the streame, &c.
At length, to pass the time trimly, it is proposed that the wife shall tell “a merry winters tale," or "an old wiues winters tale;" of which sort of stories she is not without a score. She begins:-There was a king, or duke, who had a most beautiful daughter, and she was stolen away by a necromancer; who, turning himself into a dragon, carried her in his mouth to his castle. The king sent out all his men to find his daughter; "at last, all the king's men went out so long, that hir Two Brothers went to seeke hir." Immediately the two brothers enter, and speak,
A soothsayer enters, with whom they converse about the lost lady. Sooths. Was she fayre? 2d Br. The fayrest for white and the purest for redde, as the blood of the deare or the driven snowe, &c. In their search, Echo replies to their call: they find, too late, that their sister is under the captivity of a wicked magician, and that she had tasted his cup of oblivion. In the close, after the wreath is torn from the magician's head, and he is disarmed and killed by a spirit in the shape and character of a beautiful page of fifteen years old, she still remains subject to the magician's enchantment: but in a subsequent scene the spirit enters, and declares, that the sister cannot be delivered but by a lady, who is neither maid, wife, nor widow. The spirit blows a magical horn, and the lady appears; she dissolves the charm by breaking a glass, and extinguishing a light, as I have before recited. A curtain is withdrawn, and the sister is seen seated and asleep she is disenchanted and restored to her senses, having been spoken to thrice: she then rejoins her two brothers, with whom she returns home; and the boyspirit vanishes under the earth. The magician is here called "inchanter vile," as in "Comus," v. 907.
There is another circumstance in this play, taken from the old English "Apuleius." It is where the old man every night is transformed by our magician into a bear, recovering in the day-time his natural shape.
Among the many feats of magic in this play, a bride newly married gains a marriage. portion by dipping a pitcher into a well as she dips, there is a voice:
Faire maiden, white and redde,
Combe me smoothe, and stroke my head,
And thou shalt haue some cockell bread!
Gently dippe, but not too deepe,
For feare thou make the golden beard to weepe!
Faire maiden, white and redde,
Combe me sinoothe, and stroke my head,
And euery haire a sheaue shall be,
And euery sheaue a golden tree!
With this stage-direction, "A head comes vp full of gold; she combes it into her lap."
I must not omit, that Shakspeare seems also to have had an eye on this play. It is in the scene where "The Haruest-men enter with a song." Again, "Enter the haruestmen singing, with women in their handes." Frolicke says, "Who have we here, our amourous haruest-starres?" They sing,
Loe, here we come a reaping, a reaping,
To reap our haruest-fruite;
And thus we passe the yeare so long,
And neuer be we mute.
Compare the mask in the "Tempest," a. iv. s. 1, where Iris says,
You sun-burnt sicklemen, of August weary,
Where is this stage-direction:-"Enter certain reapers, properly habited: they join with the nymphs in a graceful dance." The "Tempest" probably did not appear before the year 1612.
That Milton had his eye on this ancient drama, which might have been the favourite of his early youth, perhaps may be at least affirmed with as much credibility, as that he conceived the "Paradise Lost" from seeing a mystery at Florence, written by Andreini a Florentine in 1617, entitled "Adamo."
In the mean time, it must be confessed, that Milton's magician Comus, with his cup and wand, is ultimately founded on the fable of Circe. The effects of both characters are much the same: they are both to be opposed at first with force and violence. Circe is subdued by the virtues of the herb moly which Mercury gives to Ulysses, and Comus by the plant hæmony which the spirit gives to the two brothers. About the year 1615, a mask, called the "Inner Temple Masque," written by William Browne, author of "Britannia's Pastorals," which I have frequently cited, was presented by the students of the Inner Temple; lately printed from a manuscript in the library of Emmanuel College: but I have been informed, that a few copies were printed soon after the presentation. It was formed on the story of Circe, and perhaps might have suggested some few hints to Milton. I will give some proofs of parallelism as we go along. The genius of the best poets is often determined, if not directed, by circumstances and accident. It is natural, that even so original a writer as Milton should have been biassed by the reigning poetry of the day, by the composition most in fashion, and by subjects recently brought forward, but soon giving way to others, and almost as soon totally neglected and forgotten.-T. WARTON.
"Comus" is perhaps more familiar to the modern English reader than any other poems of Milton, except "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso:" its poetical 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 had 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, 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 attendants: 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 the rout; and release the captive, imprisoned by their spells, by the counter-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 bright landscape under the glowing beams of the morning 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: everything of pastoral imagery is brought together with a profusion, a freshness, 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 music: for instance, the Lady's song to Echo:
Sweet Echo, sweetest nymph, that livest unseen
Within thy aery shell,
By slow Meander's margent green;
Where the love-lorn nightingale
Nightly to thee her sad 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 these 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, have reached: but the Mask does not contain, nor did it require to admit this stupendous combination. It was 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 at Ludlow was met, not to weep, nor be awfully moved;-but to smile; they cried, with " "L'Allegro,"
Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful jollity—
Quips, and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Sport, that wrinkled Care derides:
And Laughter, holding both her sides!
The poet had to accommodate himself to an audience of this character; yet so as not to shrink from the display of some of his own high gifts: and, 0, 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 unshadowed 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 "Comus ?"-And here I close, when I recollect how many panegyrists of greater weight than my voice, this perfect composition has already had.