Lecture 4

 - Poetry and Virginity


Milton’s first publication, A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, is examined. Milton’s vision of a poet’s heaven in Ad Patrem, paired with the letter to Charles Diodati, with its particular emphasis on the need for chastity in poets, is used as a springboard to a discussion of the depiction of sexual ideals in the masque. Revelation 14, 1 Corinthians, and the Apology for Smectymnuus are also discussed at length, as are the poet’s biography and the history of the masque’s title.

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ENGL 220 - Lecture 4 - Poetry and Virginity

Chapter 1. Ad Patrem: A Poem to Milton’s Father [00:00:00]

Professor John Rogers: In the poem that we looked at last time – that was the poem Ad Patrem that Milton had addressed to his father – Milton was attempting, as you remember, to justify to his father his own interest in becoming a poet. And so I’m going to ask you to turn back to Ad Patrem. This is page eighty-three of the Hughes edition. This is where Milton is accounting for himself in his choice of a poetic career. In the second verse paragraph, Milton tells his father: “do not despise divine poetry, creation of the prophetic bard. Nothing better shows our heavenly origins, our divine seed, our human intellect, those holy traces of Promethean fire.”

And look a little further down in the same paragraph. Milton continues his defense of what he calls the poet’s task. Poets are not only due the highest respect imaginable here on earth, Milton’s explaining to his dad. Poets are rewarded as well in heaven. And so Milton writes (this is page eighty-three): “And when we return to our native Olympus” – and in a classically oriented poem such as this a phrase like “our native Olympus” would always serve to signify the Christian heaven.

[And w]hen we return to our native Olympus and the everlasting ages of immutable eternity are established, we [and he means “we poets”] shall walk, crowned with gold, through the temples of the skies and with the harp’s soft accompaniment we shall sing sweet songs to which the stars shall echo and the vault of heaven from pole to pole.

Unbelievable. Now Milton – and he’s being serious here, and we are given every rhetorical cue possible that Milton is being serious – has conjured one of the most extraordinary rewards conceivable for a poet. Forget the paltry crown of laurel placed atop the heads of great writers in the classical tradition. What good is that going to do you? Milton is actually talking about heaven here. And the reward for the poet’s sacrifice here on earth is not simply eternal fame that had long been a privileged image. It’s a priority status in the great hereafter. This is Milton’s argument. And if heaven is going to be segregated, as Milton seems to believe it would be, into hierarchies and classes, then surely poets would enjoy the privileges of the highest class of all as they “walk, crowned with gold, through the temples of the skies” and “with the harp’s soft accompaniment… sing sweet songs.”

Now we have to ask: where could Milton have come by such an idea as this? This image of a special reward in heaven for certain types of behavior does of course have some sort of scriptural basis, but there’s certainly nothing in the Bible to suggest that it’s poets who are issued the crowns of gold and, especially, a prominent place as they enter the pearly gates. And so often, and this is something that we’ll get very used to here, Milton is incorporating into his own text a biblical text on a subject almost entirely different from the one of his own idiosyncratic poem. And as so often Milton has no choice but to wrench and to violate the biblical text to force it to say what he wants it to say, or to force it to say what he needs it to say.

Now this allusion here in this verse epistle to his father is to a passage from the book of Revelation. Milton’s alluding to what he took to be the divinely inspired prophesy of Saint John the Divine that ends the New Testament. I’ve put this on the handout. This is from chapter 14 of the book of Revelation.

…I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps:

And they sung as it were a new song before the throne… and no man could learn that song. [I’ve skipped a little bit.] but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.

These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins.

So according to John, the presumed author of Revelation, it’s not poets who get to wed their songs to the soft voice streams. It’s not poets who are crowned with gold as they learn the song no other men could learn. These are honors reserved exclusively for virgins, honors reserved only for those who do not defile themselves with the sins of the flesh. And so it’s as if something in the figurative world of Milton’s poem to his father has – I don’t know, how do we put it? – has gone awry and unless we’re willing to concede, and we’re probably not, that all poets are necessarily male virgins, you can pretty much safely say that there’s a significant disjunction here between Milton’s own text and the passage, the text in the book of Revelation, that he’s alluding to. This is an opportunity for us – this is what I get paid to do and what you’re getting credit [laughs] for learning to do – it’s this type of signifying gap that compels us as literary critics to dive in and to begin to explore.

So the first question is, how do we understand the slippage here from the biblical virgin to the Miltonic poet – and more generally, what could poetry possibly have to do with virginity? I hope you remember from the Sixth Elegy, the Sexta Elegia, that we read a few classes ago that Milton had told his friend Charles Diodati that an aspiring epic poet should only drink water; two, should refrain from eating meat; and three, should keep his body chaste. And the figure of the poetic rewards for chastity continues to surface throughout Milton’s early works. You remember the “Letter to a Friend” that we looked at for the last time. Milton seemed to have decided against marriage as he was making the decision to wed himself to his poetry instead. And in the group of poems that were assigned for a section last week, you saw Milton alluding to just this passage, although you might not have known it, in Revelation 14 whenever he would speak of the music of the spheres. So in “At a Solemn Music” and in the poem “Arcades,” Milton turns to what he considered to be the greatest song of all: the music of the heavenly spheres. And he indicated that there are only a few just men – just, honorable men – who can even hear those celestial notes. It would appear that Milton’s suggesting that it’s chastity that actually establishes something like a precondition for hearing and learning that inspired song that’s actually sung before the throne of God in Revelation. So true poetry for Milton, true prophetic poetry, the kind of song that can actually vie with the most perfect music of the spheres, is only accessible, and presumably only producible, by the virgin.

Now we can’t neglect the first question here, which is at least for me: did Milton really believe this? Could Milton actually have believed that poetic success was in some way contingent on what it is that you do, or what it is you don’t do, with your body? And obviously we don’t have him here. Who knows the degree of honesty that he would bring to our question if he were here? We can never know the answer to the question of Milton’s actual beliefs; but we know how Milton wanted to represent those youthful beliefs, which is exactly what he does in the prose treatise with the wonderful title An Apology [for] Smectymnuus. Don’t be put off by the name. Smectymnuus is a made-up name, though Milton didn’t make it up. It’s an acronym comprised of the initials of five Presbyterian ministers, which, when combined, forms the name – it almost sounds obscene – Smectymnuus.

Chapter 2. An Apology for Smectymnuus [00:08:33]

So the Apology [for] Smectymnuus was written in 1642. It’s about eight years after Comus. I know we haven’t gotten to Comus yet, but I’m trying to put this in to context. In this pamphlet, this prose treatise, Milton is looking back at this exuberant affection for the very idea of chastity that he had held in his youth. You’ll note – and there’s no reason you need to read more of this, but the Hughes edition only includes a small portion of the actual pamphlet. So this treatise as a whole is Milton’s defense of these six Presbyterian ministers who wrote a treatise criticizing the authoritarian structure of the English church. Milton was also at this time becoming an opponent of the Anglican church government, and he was writing and publishing attacks on the church alongside those of the Smectymnuus group.

Now the Church of England establishment always countered these puritan treatises in attack of their position. In a particularly vicious critique of so-called Smectymnuus, an anonymous Anglican opponent attacked not only these six Presbyterian ministers but attacked Milton as well. I think this might be the first time that John Milton is actually attacked or brought to the attention of the English people in print. So we have this anonymous attacker who dismisses Milton’s earlier political treatises, especially The Reason of Church Government and other early works. He dismisses Milton in an unscrupulous ad hominem attack. He argued that this John Milton fellow simply couldn’t be heeded on matters of the church, or on matters of the state, because Milton himself had absolutely no moral authority. He accused Milton of frequenting playhouses, and also of frequenting … bordellos. We ask ourselves, “Milton?! Our John Milton frequent a bordello?!” You must agree with me that although Milton may have had some wayward, bordello-oriented thoughts, there is no way in hell that this unspeakably self-controlled young man would actually find himself in a whorehouse.

The accusation is absurd, and Milton knew it was absurd, but he loves the attack nonetheless. You can tell he does because it gives him this extraordinarily happy opportunity of defending himself and justifying himself, which is what he does with a special vigor – this is on page 695 of the Hughes – in the Apology. Milton explains the preposterous of the idea that he has ever visited a prostitute. In fact, he claims, he was so far from such debauchery that he had devoted his entire early life to the ideal of virginity. Now Milton knows that this might sound a little silly coming from a young man. And he acknowledges here finally that the ideal of virginity is an ideal for which women are typically praised – and of course this goes without saying. In patriarchal societies there tends to be an inordinate degree of interest placed on the virginity of young women. It matters more for women than for men. It’s as if the commodity of the bride is deemed truly valuable only if it can be guaranteed pure and untouched.

Milton recognizes that way of thinking as a double standard, and he isn’t satisfied with this vulgar double standard; so he comes up with a vulgar double standard of his own. This is the argument: Since men are clearly what he calls “the perfecter sex,” surely they should be held to even higher standards of bodily purity even than women. So given the elevated status of men, it’s all the more important that men should remain pure and chaste. And so we have Milton arguing – this is on the top of page 695 and I’m quoting here:

[I]f unchastity in a woman, whom St. Paul terms the glory of man, be such a scandal and dishonor, then certainly in a man, who is both the image and glory of God, it must, though commonly not so thought, be much more deflowering and dishonorable; in that he sins both against his own body, which is the perfecter sex, and his own glory, which is in the woman, and that which is worst, against the image and glory of God, which is in himself. Nor did I slumber over that place [and he’s referring to that text in the Bible that we just looked at] expressing such high rewards of ever accompanying the Lamb with those celestial songs to others inapprehensible, but not those who were not defiled with women…

Now the place in the Bible over which Milton couldn’t slumber was obviously the passage from Revelation 14. It has to be said that the young Milton lost a lot of sleep over this passage. Milton, we know, was seriously looking forward – or we have to assume he was seriously looking forward – to high rewards in heaven as a virgin and as a poet. He would hear and sing those songs to others inapprehensible, the celestial music. We can see that Milton astutely exploits – it’s brilliant – the sexist implications of Saint John’s treatment of virginity. For both John of the book of Revelation and for John Milton, it’s the superior male of the species that’s been singled out for the glorious practice of sexual abstinence.

Now this passage that we’re looking at, the passage from the Apology, has been written, well, after all of the poems that we’re reading for today. Milton is writing here from a slightly different – we can think of it as a more mature – perspective. So in 1642, you see Milton softening a bit, in part because he’s interested in getting married himself and, in fact he’s married within a month of the actual publication of this treatise. This is why he tells us parenthetically that marriage must not be called a defilement. He’s beginning to change his mind. But at the time period that we are examining, the period in which he writes Comus, the early 1630s, Milton seems very much interested in remaining virginal forever, avoiding even the sanctioned loss of virginity which is the state of marriage. Milton’s college nickname as he tells us in the Prolusion Six – this is a college exercise – Milton’s college nickname was the Lady. Now it’s true that Milton’s skin – and he tells us this innumerable times, and it’s vouched by others – his skin was very fair and he to an unusual degree wore his hair quite long. He must have had, it is conjectured, a rather ladylike appearance as a young man. But I suspect that it was primarily Milton’s intense interest in his college years in his own virginity that led our young poet’s classmates at Christ’s College, Cambridge to call him The Lady of Christ’s.

Chapter 3. Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle [00:16:34]

It’s too easy – and you know where I’m going with this – it’s too easy but it’s also too delicious to take this little biographical fact of Milton’s college nickname and use it in some way as a tool for reading A Mask. This is a brief theatrical piece that Milton writes in 1634 and which he publishes in 1637. The heroine of the mask, as you know, doesn’t seem to have a Christian name. She’s not Britney or Lindsay. We’re only asked to think of her as the Lady, by her title. And while it would be ridiculous for us to read the entire mask as the poet’s own completely unfettered autobiographical fantasy, there is clearly – and this is undeniable – a Miltonic set of interests and a Miltonic set of anxieties charging and fueling this work.

But first we need to establish a few things about the occasion for this piece and about the genre, the literary genre of the mask in general. Milton’s mask was the product of a commission and as its full title suggests – A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle – it was commissioned to be performed at a specific locale, obviously, Ludlow Castle, which is in the west of England, still there, near Wales – on the border of England and Wales, and this piece was performed only once on the religious holiday of Michelmas night. Now the theatrical form of the mask differs in a number of ways from the more familiar dramatic form of the play, with which we’re all obviously much more comfortable with. In the first place, a mask is nearly always occasional. It’s nearly always commissioned by the king to be performed at court before a private audience of select nobility, or it’s commissioned – as in the case of this mask – it’s commissioned by an aristocratic family to be performed at the aristocratic family’s estate to honor or to celebrate a specific occasion. And so in the case of A Mask here, it’s the Lord John Egerton, the Earl of Bridgewater who commissioned Milton to write a piece honoring his own inauguration in his new role as the Lord President of Wales.

So Milton wrote this mask with a specific cast and a specific audience in mind. He wrote it to be performed by Bridgewater’s three children: the Lady Alice, who obviously played the Lady, and Bridgewater’s two sons – they’re John and Thomas – and they play the Elder Brother and the second brother, respectively. Alice is fifteen years old at the time, not an entirely unreasonable age for an actress or an amateur actress playing the maidenly but strong-headed Lady of Milton’s mask. But her brothers were – and this is a little sillier – her brothers were eleven and nine: unusually young actors, we might think, to be engaged in such high-flying philosophical debates as these two characters find themselves in. Whatever awkwardness of casting we have in this original performance we’ll cast that aside. We have no choice but to understand that Milton’s mask is serious business.

The whole production is one of the utmost seriousness. The music for the mask, which still exists at least, the melody still exists, was written by Henry Lawes, the most important musician working in England. He had just come from writing the music for a number of masks by the celebrated playwright and mask-writer Ben Johnson. It seems that Lawes himself actually played the role of the attendant spirit, that beneficent, slightly frightening figure who hovers over the entire landscape of the mask. Now it’s been conjectured – this is for 100 or 150 years now – that the actor playing Comus in this first and only performance in the seventeenth century was none other than our John Milton himself. I am quite sure that there are no historical grounds whatsoever for this conjecture other than our perfectly perverse desire to imagine the young, self-described virginal Milton uttering the wanton and absolutely beautifully lascivious speeches of the magician and, of course, would-be molester Comus. And who could deny the satisfaction of hearing our buttoned-up young Milton [laughs] speaking one of Comus’ magnificently sly and suggestive lines such as – with all that false innocence: “What hath night to do with sleep?” he asks – Comus asks – the Lady. As excited – as aroused – as we might find ourselves by this imagining of Milton actually playing Comus, of course his performance in that role can’t be asserted in any way definitively.

Now as I mentioned, the title of this piece was originally A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, and it seems actually to have been known by the reading public by this title for a good hundred years or so. But at some point in the eighteenth century, the mask seemed informally to acquire an alternative title, Comus, and it’s as Comus that all readers since have almost always referred to the mask – and this, of course, is a mistake. It’s a misnomer, but the historical transmutation of Milton’s title we have to take as instructive. So I want to propose that the literary traditions’ renaming of this piece from A Mask to Comus is more than just a slip, or more than just a random shift of terms or of names. On the face of things, to call this mask Comus is absurd. Comus is obviously the villain. And for those of you who have read Paradise Lost, you’ll notice that the characterization of Comus prepares Milton in a lot of important ways for his much later characterization of the character Satan. Comus and Satan are both seductive. They’re both rhetorically gifted tempters, and they actually share a lot of rhetorical figures and moral concerns in common. At times when we read Paradise Lost it seems almost as if Satan were quoting or alluding to Comus.

But it’s, of course, the Lady who’s the heroine of this piece. If we were asked to refer to the mask by the name of one of its characters, I think we’d feel obliged to call it The Lady, or maybe The Trials and Tribulations of the Lady or The Ultimate Triumph of the Lady – something like that, and we would name the mask after the Lady because it’s she who represents the moral and doctrinal message that the mask itself espouses. The Lady is at the dogmatic heart of this relentlessly didactic work of literature.

What did I just say? Did I say that the Lady is at the dogmatic heart of this relentlessly didactic work of literature? Is it possible to say that the Lady successfully – does that make any sense? Is it possible to say that she successfully conveys a moral program that we can any way identify as the official doctrine of the mask? The casual renaming of the mask, which happened well after Milton’s death, suggests that readers have been perhaps less persuaded by the moral vision relayed by the Lady, and that they’ve been perhaps overly persuaded by the subtle temptations of Comus. And this confusion, I think, has everything to do with the fact that this is no ordinary moral that we have in this work of literature. The focus of the mask is the loaded – you’ll grant me this – and the always awkward subject of chastity. The actual morality of the kind of chastity that the Lady believes in, I think, raises a lot of questions about the clarity of the distinction being formed here between good and evil. So I’m partially going to retract what I had said about the Lady’s place at the very heart of this work.

Okay. Look at line 205, page ninety-five in the Hughes. We’re treated to the Lady’s singular investment in the integrity of her body in her first speech. Of course, the Lady is alone. Why is she alone? Because her brothers have naturally done what any brother would do accompanying a sister in a dangerous forest at night. They have abandoned her to pick berries or any such cooling fruit as the kind, hospitable woods provide. [laughs] Dr. Samuel Johnson, the greatest of all eighteenth-century literary critics, is absolutely flabbergasted that Milton would have these brothers do something so stupid.

It’s so dark in the woods all alone that the Lady can see nothing. But nonetheless she can hear the riot and ill-managed merriment of Comus and his riotous crew. And I’m going to ask you to think of all of the images here, the figurations of listening and hearing in the mask. The Lady is overwhelmed not by what she can’t see but by what she can hear:

A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory,
Of calling shapes and beck’ning shadows dire,
And airy tongues that syllable men’s names
On Sands and Shores and desert Wildernesses.

Now I submit that the Lady would appear to be less in control of her fantasies than she is of her rigorously disciplined behavior. However unyielding her dedication to her virginity, and we have to say that it’s unyielding, the Lady is incapable of disciplining utterly her imagination. And the rudeness and swill insolence of Comus’ band of evil pranksters are almost matched – perhaps they’re even bested – by the uncontrollable shapes that throng into the Lady’s memory. It’s almost as if the Lady were in some way harboring her own demons. It’s as if we have an instance here of what – {this is an idea that I got from the Milton lecture that I took when I was a sophomore here; my professor suggested that this is an instance of what) – Freud would call the return of the repressed. As the Lady labors to preserve her virginity, she conjures a menacing but nonetheless sensual image of “airy tongues that syllable men’s names.”

Now, being the Lady, she pulls her socks up. She quickly recovers from this brief lapse, a momentary lapse, into sensual reverie. She addresses all of those virtues that she cherishes so highly. Look at line 213:

O welcome pure-ey’d Faith, white-handed Hope,
Thou hov’ring Angel girt with golden wings,
And thou, unblemish’t form of Chastity,
I see ye visibly, and now believe
That he, the Supreme good, t’ whom all things ill
Are but as slavish officers of vengeance,
Would send a glist’ring Guardian, if need were,
To keep my life and honor unassailed.

This lady doesn’t need the – who cares where her brothers are? – she doesn’t need their protection because God prizes chastity above all things and would gladly send a glistering guardian to keep her honor unassailed. Now we might agree that this is a reasonable enough fantasy of female invulnerability, but of course, there is nothing in our sad experience with sexual menace that actually bears the theory behind this fantasy out.

But think of how the Lady has expressed this sentiment: “O welcome, pure-ey’d Faith, white-handed Hope, / And thou, unblemish’t form of Chastity…” Faith, hope and chastity. Do we read this right? You may recognize the allusion. The allusion here is obviously to the passage in 1 Corinthians that you can find on your handout. This is one of the most famous verses in the Christian Bible. Saint Paul enumerates what we now call the cardinal virtues: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Now we’re not, of course, surprised by Paul’s list of the virtues. Charity, or what he seems to have been thinking of as the selflessness of Christian love, is a virtue generous and capacious enough to encompass all of the others – but faith, hope and chastity? “And the greatest of these is chastity“–?!? It’s as if in some way we’re being invited to measure the Lady’s speech against the scriptural text that supplies its rhetorical foundation. And I think it’s impossible not to see that when Milton substitutes [laughs] the virtue charity with the far more circumscribed – however virtuous it is, it’s the much more circumscribed – ideal of chastity. There’s something at least a little peculiar going on. The Lady, it could be said, appears to overvalue her chastity, and it’s in the general overvaluation of chastity that we can best see the ways in which this text, Comus, begins to burst loose of the orthodox Christian morality that we tend to associate with pious Christian literature like this – especially the literature of the mask.

Now it’s the Elder Brother in the mask who offers us an even more – if you can imagine it – even more magnified view of the virtue of virginity. The Lady herself had argued that heaven would send a glistering guardian down to defend her physical – her bodily – integrity or physical innocence. But the Elder Brother goes further even than that. And it’s his theory of the rewards due virginity that really just flings this mask far from the reaches even of anything even resembling mainstream protestant orthodoxy or, for that matter, orthodoxy of any kind. This is the Elder Brother, line 453, page 100 in the Hughes, chatting with his younger brother:

So dear to Heav’n is Saintly chastity,
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried Angels lackey her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt,
And in clear dream and solemn vision
Tell her of things that no gross ear can hear,
Till oft converse with heav’nly habitants..

And Milton, or the Elder Brother here, is clearly thinking of Revelation 14, in which it’s only the pure spirit – or the virgin – that can even begin to hear the new song being sung before the throne of God. The Elder Brother is explaining that these angels will:

Begin to cast a beam on th’outward shape,
The unpolluted temple of the mind,
And turns it by degrees to the soul’s essence,
Till all be made immortal.

It was one thing for the Lady to imagine – you know, crazy as it was, for the Lady to imagine – a rescue squad of angels to zip to her aid at the first hint of a physical assault. And it was okay for Saint John to suggest that virgins are granted the best perquisites in eternity. But think of what the Elder Brother has just given us. He’s staged a scenario far beyond the wildest theological conjectures. As the critic William Kerrigan has helped us to understand, the Elder Brother is arguing that so dear to heaven is saintly chastity that heaven doesn’t even permit virgins to die. The thousand liveried angels begin to cast their special beam on the virgin’s outward shape – that’s her body, the unpolluted temple that houses her virginal mind. This angelic laser begins slowly the gradual process in some kind of extraordinary science-fiction sort of way of transforming the virginal human body to the essence of the soul itself. It’s as if this celestial laser beam were designed so as to actually shift the atomic structure of the pure corporeal frame of the virgin’s body until that body is so rarefied, so pure and ethereal, that it’s nothing but soul. She’s been transmogrified from body to soul. She’s safe!

Now never mind that our own experience with virgins has failed to afford us such a spectacle of bodily transformation. The Elder Brother is issuing this theory without any consideration, obviously, whatsoever of earthly reality and we’re shocked by – I don’t know how else to put it. Because this is a theological conjecture, I think we’re shocked by what is almost the heretical daring of what this brother has just said. Unfortunately, your editor, Merritt Hughes – and in this respect he’s like all editors of Milton – does his very best to tame the outrageousness of the Elder Brother’s speech. He follows the old editorial wisdom that holds that Milton can’t possibly mean what he’s actually saying here. Hughes tells us that Milton’s thinking of Plato and that the Elder Brother is referring to the platonic theory that the noble spirit is released from the body after death. But – and this will be our mantra, I hope, for the rest of this semester – we must not permit Merritt Hughes or any Milton editor to prevail in their efforts at papering over the implications of a passage such as this.

There is, of course, no mention whatsoever here of a soul being released from a body after death. That would be an entirely orthodox image and we wouldn’t be startled by its presence. But what the Elder Brother is saying is that the virginal body is actually transmogrified into soul. The dirty business of physical death never has to take place at all. True virginity can provide the body with the release even from that seemingly inexorable fact of death.

Well, we’re prepared in no way to respond meaningfully to a speech such as that, and clearly the second brother joins us in his bafflement: [laughs] the magnificent non sequitur that he gives [laughs] in response to the speech of his brother’s. The second brother says at line 475: “How charming is divine Philosophy!” The Elder Brother has obviously upped the ante in the mask’s overvaluation of virginity. It’s possible that in this general drama of overvaluation that Milton’s working – just because this whole thing is so extreme – to distance himself from his own youthful interest in the virtues of virginity. That’s one conjecture at least. There seems to be something like a gentle parody, maybe even a mocking tone, that fills the lines of the Elder Brother’s ecstatic speech.

In any case, the question of value and valuation is an important one in Comus, and it’s important in part because the rhetoric of the mask is saturated in the economic, the commercial, and the financial imagery that we were looking at in the last lecture. Milton we know – we know this already – gives pride of place to the images of money and trade that he inherited from his father; and so we’re not surprised that the central conflict in Comus is loaded with the rhetorical tokens of commerce and exchange. Look at line 679 of the poem. This is page 106 in the Hughes. Comus is marshaling a series of serious and perfectly ingenious arguments in his attempt to seduce the Lady, which is really simply an attempt, ostensibly, to get her to drink from the glass of cordial julep which she has steadfastly refused. “Drink up though,” he tells her. And this is line 679:

Why should you be so cruel to yourself,
And to those dainty limbs which nature lent
For gentle usage and soft delicacy?
But you invert the cov’nants of her trust,
And harshly [to nature’s trust] deal like an ill borrower
With that which you receiv’d on other terms…

“So nature has lent you your dainty limbs for a purpose,” Comus tells her, “but you’re inverting the covenant of nature’s trust, refusing to use and to spend those gifts that nature has given you.” According to Comus, the Lady is an ill borrower. She doesn’t spend her bodily wealth and fulfill the terms of nature’s loan. And so for Comus, the Lady is hoarding the natural asset of her physical beauty. Look down further, line 739. “Beauty is” – Comus continues:

Beauty is nature’s coin, must not be hoarded,
But must be current [in currency], and the good thereof
Consists in mutual and partak’n bliss,
Unsavory in th’enjoyment of itself.

With this phrase, “mutual and partak’n bliss,” we develop an overwhelming sense that Comus seems to be trying to get the Lady to do something more simply than drink a sip of the cordial julep from his charmed cup. The discussion is obviously in some way really about sex, and it’s the Lady’s virginity, of course, that’s at stake here. With this accusation of the misuse of borrowed funds, we recognize the strange and, I think in this context, rather ill-fitting subtext behind Comus’ seduction. Comus is adopting the language from that parable in Matthew (Matthew 25) that had proven so significant and, I think, so painful for the young Milton. For Comus, nature is just like the harsh master who had given each of his servants a portion of money and who expects those coins, who expects those talents, to be put to use. The Lady’s talent has to be spent – it has to be invested – in order to fulfill the covenant of the trust between the master and the servant. But the Lady is hoarding that natural gift just as that unprofitable servant had buried his talent in the earth.

Now the Lady, it’s been noted before, is never really able to respond to Comus’ accusation of her hoarding. She discusses what she would like to say in response to Comus, but she doesn’t then go on significantly to say it. She says nothing after this encounter, remaining silent or speechless for the rest of the mask, but Milton clearly finds, I think, something threatening here. If Comus can be seen to pose a genuine threat to the Lady, it could very well be the threat posed by the power of Comus’ particular kind of poetry.

I should have put on the handout, and I failed to do that, the name of a couple of works of Milton criticism that are especially valuable with respect to what I’m about to argue and to which I’m indebted. One is the chapter on Comus in a book by John Guillory called Poetic Authority, and the other is the entire book by Angus Fletcher on Milton’s Comus, titled The Transcendental Mask. Both Guillory and Angus Fletcher are examining the troubled relation of Milton to one of his favorite poets. It’s surely not insignificant that Milton’s Comus contains more echoes of Shakespeare than anything else that Milton wrote, and it’s surely not insignificant that the Lady’s first song is actually addressed to the nymph Echo. The mask is all about the act of hearing song and the ethics of proper listening.

The Lady’s first line in the mask is, in fact, about the music that Comus is producing that she hears: “This way the noise was, if mine ear be true, / my best guide now.” Comus and the Lady are continually listening to each other’s songs, and the Lady’s goal is in some way to develop a way of listening that isn’t at the same time overwhelming or perhaps deafening. Now what the Lady listens to might well be overwhelming indeed. It’s the speeches of Comus far more than those of any other character that are filled with echoes and allusions to the great plays of Shakespeare. Shakespeare presents himself as something like a powerful temptation in this mask. We remember that Milton’s anonymous attacker in 1642 had not only claimed that Milton could be found skulking around the back alleys of London’s brothels. Milton was also a denizen, it was alleged in this attack – he was a denizen of London’s playhouses. You can’t help but notice that Milton in the Apology for Smectymnuus doesn’t even begin to respond to that accusation. It’s like the Lady with the accusation of hoarding. Shakespeare in the theater seemed to represent a temptation greater even than promiscuous sex – or perhaps akin to sex. It’s as if Milton places the beautiful poetry of Shakespeare into the mouth of this evil magician so as to dismiss all the more easily the easy, L’Allegro-mode of poetry that Shakespeare seems for Milton to embody.

Now we’ve been charting for a couple of weeks now Milton’s long-standing project to purge his lips of secular interests and to cleanse his literary consciousness of the tempting influence of secular literary voices, and one of those voices is obviously Shakespeare’s. And so it’s an understandable ploy on Milton’s part that he needs to vilify Shakespeare by identifying that great poet, his older contemporary, with Comus. But the standoff between Milton and Shakespeare, much like the standoff between Comus and the Lady, is not as easily resolved as it might seem to be. The logic, the beauty, of Comus’ rhetoric seems often to overpower the Lady’s own, which is itself admittedly beautiful and powerful. And we see in the poem itself an anticipation of the struggle that results eventually in the eighteenth century in the new title of the mask. Comus has successfully [laughs] – eventually – edged the Lady out as the center of the entire work. In the play itself, in the fiction of the play, Comus’ argument simply leaves the Lady in silence – and more than just silence. She’s actually incapable of – she’s capable, but only partially capable – of speaking, but she’s actually physically incapable of moving. Most awkwardly, the Lady is physically stuck to her seat. She’s stuck to a – this is remarkable: she’s stuck to a “marble venomed seat smeared with gums of glutinous heat.” Think about that. All this, Comus explains (this is line 658):

Nay Lady, sit; if I but wave this wand,
Your nerves are all chain’d up in Alabaster,
And you a statue; or as Daphne was,
Root-bound that fled Apollo.

Now this isn’t the first time that we have in Milton the representation of the turning of a person to marble. This is actually a recurrent figure in the early poems, a figure of frozenness or of – isn’t it wonderful that there’s a term for being turned to marble? Marmorialization. This marmorialization appears in a lot of the early poems. I’m thinking of “On Shakespeare,” the poem “The Passion,” as well as L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. And there’s a moment in a lot of these poems in which the speaker finds himself motionless, immobile – actually turned to stone. In “On Shakespeare” it seemed to be the specter of Shakespeare that elicited this set of terms and images, the idea of being frozen or marmorialized. “[Thou d]ost make us Marble with too much conceiving,” Milton had told Shakespeare in that poem.

The Lady in Milton’s mask is placed in a similar predicament by the Shakespearean power of Comus. She’s rendered motionless and she’s finally unable to speak. She’s unable to speak except to hint at a doctrine of virginity that finally she is incapable of articulating but – and this is where we have to end this session – the Lady does by the end of the poem get up from her seat. She’s released from her paralysis and she proceeds happily with her brothers, by the end of the poem, to honor their father in Wales. And if we wish to continue this analogy, and I certainly do, between the poet Milton and the virgin Lady, we can see that this is a release that John Milton the poet has been waiting some time for. And so it only stands to reason that we pay some attention – and we’ll have to do this next week – to how this release actually works. Just briefly, a supernatural figure, the nymph: it looks like Sabrina [pron. saBREENah], but it was likely pronounced Sabrina [pron. saBRINEah]. The nymph Sabrina rises from a stream and unglues – unglues – the Lady from her seat.

Now the mysterious mechanics of Sabrina’s magic are profoundly mysterious, and so I’m going to ask you to look especially closely for the next class at the Sabrina episode. I also want you to look closely at the lines that are noted on the syllabus. These are lines that were added a couple of years after the performance of Comus. These are lines added when Milton actually gets around to publishing the mask in 1637. So this is my final thought here. If Milton as a poet who had never really published anything significant thinks of himself as a virginal writer, then there’s an important way in which Milton loses his virginity with his published version of Comus in 1637. So for next time reread Comus.

[end of transcript]

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