ENGL 220: Milton

Lecture 5

 - Poetry and Marriage


This second lecture on Milton’s masque probes its complex depictions of virginity and chastity. The version of the masque performed in 1634 is compared with the published version of 1637, with particular emphasis on a monologue on the vanquishing powers of virginity that is created for the latter. The poet’s commonplace book, specifically his notes on the self-mutilation of the medieval nuns of Coldingham, is linked to images of the body in the masque. Milton’s gradual revision of his initial position favoring life-long virginity is described in detail.

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ENGL 220 - Lecture 5 - Poetry and Marriage

Chapter 1. Milton on Virginity, Chastity and the Threat of Rape [00:00:00]

Professor John Rogers: Milton is typically cited by literary historians as one of the first major English poets to praise in verse the institution of marriage. In this respect, he seems to have followed Spenser – Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queene is in large part a tribute to the sacrament of marriage, although interestingly The Faerie Queene, the great Spenserian poem, never actually manages to feature a marriage between two human beings. The only marriage that actually appears there is a marriage between two rivers. Nonetheless, The Faerie Queene can be said, however strangely, to be the first great poetic celebration in English of the institution of marriage. This was important to Milton, and one of the big set-piece speeches in Paradise Lost – and you may remember it if you’ve read that poem – is the hymn that begins “Hail, wedded Love.” Milton is adamant throughout the epic in his insistent imagining Adam and Eve quite specifically as a married couple and a married couple – and this is important to Milton – a married couple with an active sex life. They’re a couple whose marital blessing had been granted by none other than God himself.

Now the treatises that Milton wrote on the rights of divorce in the 1640s are also extravagantly pro-marriage. A happy marriage for Milton was founded on a couple of like-minded opinions and values, their ability to converse with one another – and so this is why the notion of divorce for reasons of incompatibility is so important to Milton, because compatibility in marriage is the very essence of marriage. I can only imagine though, at this point in the semester, what will become Milton’s eventual championing of marriage is pretty hard to imagine, in part because we’re just devoting our second class to a literary work given almost entirely to the virtue of chastity. And there’s every indication that – and I mentioned before, of course – there’s every indication that a lot of these early works bespeak something like a serious interest in the ideal of a lifelong state of chastity.

Chastity is not only an obsessive topic in the early poems for Milton or in the published treatise that we looked at last time, The Apology for Smectymnuus. It’s also a subject that we can find in the reading journal that Milton kept for the better part of his life. The text into which any early modern seventeenth-century writer would jot his or her thoughts into, his reading notes, was always called a commonplace book. Milton, like so many of his contemporaries, kept a commonplace book and, as you can imagine, he kept it for the most part in Latin. Actually we have Milton’s commonplace book, his reading notes, and you can find it all in English translation in volume one of The Complete Prose Works of John Milton. It’s in the CCL [Yale high-circulation library] collection.

Now one of the entries in Milton’s commonplace book that touches on the subject of chastity strikes me as a particularly charged one for its terrifying image of violence. I’ve never really known what to do with this. I think that the entry could be seen as in some way helpful for our understanding of this poem, the Mask. So this is what we know. Sometime in the year 1639, Milton read a history book entitled The General Chronicle of England in which there is a discussion in a treatise on medieval England – a discussion of a brutal Danish invasion in the ninth century of a Catholic convent in the English city of Coldingham. Milton jots down the historical detail from this account that seems to have caught his attention, and this is what he notes as particularly memorable:

The nun Ebba cut off her nose and lips and urged the other sisters [the other nuns in the convent] to do the same thing so that frustrated in this way the Danes would make no attempt against their virtue.

It’s the violence of this horrible act of self-sacrifice, this tragic act of self-sacrifice – an act of self-sacrifice intended obviously to preserve the state of virginity – that grabs our attention and presumably grabbed Milton’s. In order to avoid the violation of their virginity at the hands of the brutal Danish brigands, Ebba leads a convent full of nuns to disfigure themselves, severing nose and lips. As you can imagine, there’s no historical evidence that anything like this took place, and it actually seems to be something of an urban legend among medieval writers recounting early Christian convents. This same story about the nuns’ disseveration of their nose and their lips seems to have been told about just all of the early Christian nunneries – a strange cultural fantasy manifesting itself in some way – but nonetheless Milton includes this in his commonplace entry with no commentary, no observation, and no interpretation of it.

I think we could make some estimation of its significance if we juxtapose it with Comus since The Mask attempts to tackle, in a much more expanded form, so many of the same issues. Comus is an elaborate meditation not simply on chastity but also on the threat of rape. And of course, as I mentioned last time, Comus himself suggests nothing more than wanting to get the Lady to drink a sip from the charmed cup, but it’s clear from his language that the subtext at least behind his seduction involves, in some way at least, an intimation of the Lady’s sexual submission. The potential danger besetting the Lady is certainly a subject of some concern for her dutiful brothers. You remember they’re wandering around the forest without her picking berries. The younger brother, the second brother, is most concerned about his sister’s safety – so I want you to look at this passage. This is line 398 of Comus, page ninety-nine in the Hughes. So the second brother says that the Lady is an open target out there for an assault:

You may as well spread out the unsunn’d heaps
Of Miser’s treasure by an outlaw’s den,
And tell me it is safe, as bid me hope
Danger will wink on Opportunity [will not allow itself to see opportunity],
And let a single helpless maiden pass
Uninjured in this wild surrounding waste.

So notice first here that the younger brother compares his sister’s virginity to a miser’s treasure. In this particularly odd image you have something like a veiled accusation – and it’s not unlike Comus’ accusation – that the Lady is hoarding her God-given treasure of her chastity, with all of the resonances of the parable of the talents that we see in Comus’ similar language. But you also notice the sense of limitation and the vulnerability associated with the physical state of virginity here. As wonderful as the Lady’s chastity might be, it’s certainly not going to protect her from the dangers lurking in this wild surrounding waste. If anything, her chastity will only attract such injuries.

As we saw in the last lecture, the elder brother holds an entirely different theory of chastity, and of course, it’s a lot more optimistic. He believes that a virgin like the Lady is secure or safe from the violent attacks imagined by his younger brother. So look at line 423 of Comus, where the elder brother explains that the chaste Lady can actually travel anywhere she pleases utterly unafraid. “She may trace huge forests” – I mean, both of these positions [laughs] are voiced with such magnificently hyperbolic rhetoric:

[She] may trace huge Forests and unharbor’d Heaths,
Infamous Hills and sandy perilous wilds,
Where through the sacred rays of Chastity,
No savage fierce, Bandit or mountaineer
Will dare to soil her Virgin purity.

He dismisses his brother’s entirely practical argument, because for him chastity is a lot more than a simple exercise of sexual abstinence. It’s a positive force, and it exerts an actual and somehow palpable, discernible force in the world. The “sacred rays of chastity” are going to be emanating from the chaste maiden and protecting her like some magical force-field, and actually will keep her safe from the physical assaults of a savage bandit or a mountaineer.

Now this is just a thought exercise, but were the Elder Brother to read The General Chronicle of England that Milton had read in 1639, I am assuming he would have found incoherent the story that had so interested Milton: the story about Saint Ebba, the nun, who was driven to such terrible lengths to protect herself and her fellow sisters in the nunnery from attack. For the Elder Brother, Ebba’s bodily purity should itself exude a sufficiently powerful strength that the terrible Danes would be repelled by the sacred rays of her chastity. So you get something like a conflict developing in Milton’s mask. It’s a tension between the extravagant virginal idealism of the elder brother and what I have to concede is a much more practical sense of virginity’s limitations voiced by the Second Brother. So Milton is actually staging a debate between these two positions, enacted on the stage in 1634 by a nine- and an eleven-year-old boy, I’ll remind you.

The very presence in a theatrical piece of a long and weighty philosophical debate like this one could easily be seen as having a pretty tedious effect. Milton is taking a pretty great risk here. It’s worth asking what’s at stake because this is such an odd thing to find; and so I want to consider a way in which this debate between these two brothers can be seen as related to other debates and other conflicts between competing aspects of Milton’s own consciousness – that would be one perspective – and maybe more grandly, between opposing factions in the culture of seventeenth-century England at large.

Chapter 2. A Note on Chastity [00:11:14]

First, though, I need to say a couple of words about the word chastity as I’ve been using it throughout the discussion so far of Comus both today and Monday. Up to this point – and some of you may have felt this – I have been throwing the word chastity around a little promiscuously. In throwing it around with this kind of looseness, I’ve been reproducing what I take to be a certain sloppiness in Milton’s text. I’ve been speaking of chastity as if chastity and virginity were absolute synonyms, or always synonyms – just forever interchangeable – and this simply isn’t true in the seventeenth century. Now it goes without saying that we all know what virginity is. Virginity is that bodily state that predates an act of sexual intercourse and therefore, at least for most of Milton’s contemporaries, that is the bodily state that predates marriage.

Chastity, however, was beginning to mean something new in the period. For a lot of Protestants in the early seventeenth century, the word chastity could also be used to refer to the state of what could be called married chastity: married chastity was a type of bodily purity that could be extended – or a spiritual purity as well – that could be extended even into marriage. This is sort of the theory. If a couple practiced temperate, moderate, and more or less dispassionate acts of sexual intercourse, they could be said to remain chaste – a married couple, of course. They could keep for themselves the prestigious title of “chaste” even though they were obviously performing an act that almost anyone in an earlier period would assume disqualified them from being called chaste. And so there opens up a kind of distinction between virginity, which is, of course, actual physical sexual abstinence, and chastity, which for some could actually include the moderate practice of sex within marriage.

It’s one of the interesting and curious features of the Protestant mask, Comus, that this is a distinction that’s never really observed or acknowledged. Virginity and chastity seem to be used often and kind of awkwardly, I think, interchangeably. The confusion between these two words is closely related, I propose, to some of the confusions and dilemmas confronted by the work as a whole. I’ll go so far as to say that some of the semantic difficulty here in our understanding of the word chastity has something to do with an indisputably awkward element of Comus’s plot: and that’s the fact that for so much of this mask, the Lady is stuck to her seat.

I mentioned at the beginning of the lecture that Milton would go on to become the English language’s premier poet of marriage, but it’s important to note that the celebration of marriage is not at all an obvious thing for an English poet in Milton’s time to be attempting to strive toward. And in fact, it’s just at this point in early modern England that marriage is beginning to assert itself as a cultural ideal – a religiously inflected cultural ideal. Throughout the Renaissance, throughout the sixteenth century, the popular ideas about marriage and celibacy were still firmly tied to the values of the Roman Catholic Church well after the actual Reformation. Roman doctrine, of course, had prized the state of celibacy, insisting that it was the superior state over marriage.

Now, it’s true that – and this has always been the case – that a proper marriage was obviously always one of the church’s sacraments, and marriage obviously had always received the church’s blessing; but nonetheless the higher ideal would still seem to be celibacy. It was the ideal embraced by priests and nuns, and it was the ideal to which all Christians theoretically at least were in a position to aspire to. It’s in the period in which Milton is writing that the tide is beginning to turn. The Protestant Reformation, and especially the rising energies of Puritanism in the early seventeenth century, are beginning to do a lot to change this state of affairs. And so over the course of the century, you can see a gradual – as if something like this could actually be charted.

Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say you see a gradual decline in the cultural idealization of virginity and a corresponding increase in the valuation of marriage in this new form of chastity that we can think of as married chastity. It’s a transition, an evaluation of marriage that is not at all an easy one, however. There are debates. There are disagreements even among Puritans about which state, virginity or married chastity, is the superior one in the eyes of God. It’s in light of this ongoing cultural tension in the period that, I think, we can understand some of the strange confusions concerning chastity that we find in the poem that we’re looking at.

Chapter 3. Comus and the Lady: The Tension between Virginity and Chastity [00:16:56]

Now one of the moments in which this tension between virginity and chastity seems to be most pronounced is in the encounter between Comus and the Lady that we looked at in the last class. Comus attempts to seduce the Lady, you’ll remember, with something like an economic theory of natural beauty. For Comus, nature has given us all of her riches and it’s our duty, it’s our obligation, to spend them, to consume them, and to luxuriate in nature’s generosity. You could think of this, and this has actually been described by critics, as something like an aristocratic theory of natural expenditure, because Comus imagines in this fantasy rhetorical world of his something like an almost endless supply of natural wealth: nature’s wealth can continually and forever be spent and expended.

Now the Lady responds to what we can think of as his aristocratic debauchery with an economic theory of her own, and we haven’t looked at that yet. So this is line 768 of Comus, and in the Hughes edition it’s on page 108. This is the Lady’s retort. She explains that nature, of course, wants us to “live according to her sober laws / and holy dictate of spare Temperance.” In this description of the moderate and temperate enjoyment of nature, the Lady is giving us something like a Puritan economic theory. This is her argument, line 768:

If every just man that now pines with want
Had but a moderate and beseeming share
Of that which lewdly-pamper’d Luxury
Now heaps upon some few with vast excess,
Nature’s full blessings would be well dispens’t
In unsuperfluous even proportion…

I think it’s sometimes hard to remember in reading a speech like this that the Lady is actually talking about chastity. Her argument sounds – and some of you may recognize this argument – it sounds so distinctly like a political argument, an argument from political economy. It actually, it’s been shown, seems to foreshadow the political philosophy of Milton’s much younger contemporary, John Locke – the notion that nature demands that every human individual has just enough, is given just enough to be self-sufficient. But when you remember that the subject at hand is actually in some way sex, then you can begin to associate the Lady’s image of this moderate consumption of natural wealth with some version of – if this makes sense – some version of an act of sexual consummation. The Lady’s call for a tempered, moderate distribution and consumption of natural goods seems to point us toward something like a particular attitude toward sex; and if this is sex she’s seeming to refer to, it’s clearly not virginity that’s at stake. This isn’t sexual abstinence that the Lady’s pointing to. With her vision of the moderate and temperate enjoyment of nature’s beauty, the Lady is sketching this new seventeenth-century ideal of married chastity: the ideal of the temperate, moderate indulgence in sexual pleasure, of course, within the sanctified confines of marriage.

This makes sense. We have to assume that the Lady is resisting Comus’ advances because she has before her the higher ideal of married chastity. One day she will become a wife herself, and it’s in her husband that she will eventually invest the talent of her bodily wealth, to use the metaphor that we get from Matthew 25. It’s a perfectly reasonable sentiment to include in an example of the particular genre that Milton is writing his mask in. The form of this mask is that of the romance. It’s a literary genre that dates back to late classical Greece and which typically charts the trials and tribulations of a hero, in many cases the trials and tribulations of a virginal heroine. The romance heroine is often threatened with rape, but by her cleverness or by good luck or a concatenation of forces she can always invariably avert that tragedy; and by the end of the work she can present herself to her future husband as a virgin. This last twist is without question the central element of the conventional romance plot, and this remains a central element in the Harlequin romances, for example, that are still, I think, consumed so voraciously even today: after her brush with danger, after her brush with sexual peril, the romance heroine always gets married in the end. The story has to end that way. And her marriage is invariably seen as her reward for all the trouble she’s been through.

Now given this, the romance frame of Milton’s Comus, we’re not surprised actually to see – even though we don’t see at the end her actually getting married, we’re not surprised to see the Lady in this speech embracing the form of chastity that promises something like an eventual turn to marriage. This makes sense. And it’s with this hint at the state of married chastity – this seems like a healthy perspective – it’s with this hint that the Lady ended her speech at the only seventeenth-century performance of Comus, which, as you know, took place at Ludlow Castle in 1634 on Michelmas night. At this original performance of the mask, the Lady’s speech read by the Lady Alice Egerton, age fifteen, ended at line 779 in your text. I think after hearing the Lady end her speech at line 779 that the audience could reasonably expect that the Lady would someday get married. But you can see from the text that you have in your Hughes editions – or any edition, any printed edition now – the speech continues in the version of the mask that we have. While Milton wrote most of the mask in 1634, he published it in 1637, and it’s at this point three years later that he seems to have inserted into the Lady’s speech, and also elsewhere in the poem, certain lines for the published version. So the Lady’s speech in the printed version continues at line 779 and this is what the Lady asked. How can you not love this? “Shall I go on? / Or have I said enough?” Clearly, Milton is in some way [laughs] wonderfully speaking through the Lady here. Then we get the Lady again:

Shall I go on?
Or have I said enough? To him that dares
Arm his profane tongue with contemptuous words
Against the Sun-clad power of Chastity
Fain would I something say, yet to what end?
Thou hast nor Ear nor Soul to apprehend
The sublime notion and high mystery
That must be utter’d to unfold the sage
And serious doctrine of virginity.

She’s speaking reluctantly here. She’d love to tell Comus something about chastity, but he has neither ear nor soul to apprehend the sublime notion and high mystery. The speech is proceeding rather smoothly and, I think, kind of explicably as the Lady defends the sun-clad power of chastity.

But look at the end of the passage that I’ve just read, a few lines down. The doctrine that the Lady wishes to advance suddenly seems so absolutely not to be a doctrine of married chastity. It’s the sage and serious doctrine of virginity that concludes the speech. It’s clear that something’s happened between 1634 and 1637. Milton’s Lady doesn’t proceed as we expect her to, to marshal further arguments for the moderate fulfillment of one’s conjugal obligations. There’s no more talk of temperate sex or the virtuous and the virtuous moderation that’s so important to the ideal of married chastity. The Lady begins to speak instead of the unyielding virtue of sexual abstinence that’s absolutely central to an entirely different kind of doctrine: the doctrine of virginity.

So we have to ask this question: What’s happened? The Lady has claimed that she’s hesitant to say anything at this point to Comus. How could such a debauched character possibly understand the mysterious truths about chastity? Interestingly, she refuses to unfold for her audience the sage and serious doctrine of virginity, but she does anticipate what that doctrine of virginity would look like if she were to unfold it. She explains to Comus what would happen should she actually choose to break her silence, should she actually choose to unleash all of the rhetorical powers that she has pent up inside of her. In some important way, I think, the Lady can be seen as being in the same position that Milton had been representing himself in so many of the early poems. He was continually imagining himself to be someone on the verge of saying something spectacular, but he wasn’t quite there yet.

The lady continues. Look at line 792:

Thou art not fit to hear thyself convinc’t;

Yet should I try [and she means, “should I try to voice the doctrine of virginity”],
the uncontrolled worth

Of this pure cause would kindle my rapt spirits
To such a flame of sacred vehemence,
That dumb things would be mov’d to sympathize,
And the brute Earth would lend her nerves, and shake,
Till all thy magic structures rear’d so high,
Were shatter’d into heaps o’er thy false head.

She’s making a strong a claim as is possible to make for her potential for rhetorical power. She implies that she’s the equal to any of the great poetic heroes that Milton so admires. As a virginal orator, should she choose to unleash her powers, she would have the power of an Orpheus moving dumb things to sympathize – Orpheus being one of Milton’s most prized mythological figures of the powerful poet. She’d have the strength of a Samson, the biblical hero, who could shatter huge structures over the heads of his enemies. She has way more power than she needs, it would seem, to destroy a petty little mages like Comus.

The power that the Lady claims for herself as a virgin is titanic, and it allows us to understand, I think, why she has slipped from her discussion of married chastity to this new discussion of what seems to be – or what she claims is – virginity. The lapse makes a certain kind of sense, I think, because it’s virginity and not married chastity that the Lady imagines will allow her to demonstrate such a remarkable show of rhetorical strength. It’s almost apocalyptic in its force. It promises something like the power of God as he brings the shattering close of the entire Christian narrative to an end at the Last Judgment and beyond. One of the cultural phenomena fueling, I think, this rhetorical burst of the Lady’s is the prevalent seventeenth-century anticipation of the end of the world, the millennium – all of these apocalyptic beliefs that were swirling around almost all of the sectarian religious figures in the seventeenth century.

Given all of these cultural resonances, there’s a lot riding on the Lady’s claim for her rhetorical powers here. You can understand that initial hesitation when she asks, “Shall I go on? / Or have I said enough?” She’s probably said way more than enough in her testimony to the potentially apocalyptic power of her virginal speech. She’s making extraordinary claims for virginal oratory. It has all of the power of prophecy that Milton had been associating with the biblical prophets; but, as I mentioned before, she doesn’t deliver this anticipated speech and so virginity’s power remains untested. We can’t know just what force virginity would exude, and so the speech leaves us where we began, in a state of uncertainty concerning the ultimate strength of this virtue of sexual abstinence. It leaves us where we began: asking what, finally, what is virginity good for? We’re reproducing the problem that the two brothers were rehearsing in their debate.

So the Lady in the 1637 version of this poem, of this mask, is at an impasse. She’s stuck between competing ideals of bodily purity just as surely and as firmly as she is stuck to her seat. This is a kind of meta-literary allegorization that I’ll be performing here: you could also think of Milton the poet as being stuck at this same juncture. He’s stuck between two meanings of chastity – chastity as absolute virginity, and chastity as the moderate and beseeming sexuality sanctioned within marriage. He’s also stuck between two models of speech with which we have become quite familiar by this point. On the one hand, he wants to wait before he talks. He wants to keep anticipating producing the great speech, which is exactly what the Lady has been doing; but on the other hand Milton’s possessed of a competing desire to speak and to speak now – to publish, to succeed, to consummate his talents. It’s as if Milton were paralyzed, almost, at this moment in his choice between these various alternatives.

Now we know that the Lady doesn’t end the mask happily. Imagine [laughs] what it would be like if this were the case. She doesn’t end the mask stuck to Comus’ chair. It’s important to figure out exactly how the Lady gets unstuck, and so that’s what we’re going to look at now. You’ll remember there’s first the bungled attempt by the two brothers to release her. They forget to reverse Comus’ wand when they rush in to his lair. That didn’t pan out. They had even obtained, with the help of the attendant spirit, the magical herb Haemony with all of its Homeric associations, but this, too, seemed inadequate to the task of rescuing their sister. The Lady is only rescued once the attendant spirit calls on the nymph Sabrina, the genius loci –the natural spirit of the Severn stream, which is the river that separates England from Wales. Milton uses for his source for the character Sabrina another character named Sabrina from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

There’s a wonderful work of literary criticism – I mentioned it last time – on Milton’s indebtedness to Spenser in the book by John Guillory called Poetic Authority. I urge you to look at it if you’re interested. The fact that Sabrina, this little character here, has her origin in Spenser is important. Spenser is the great early Christian poet in English of holy matrimony, and according to Guillory’s brilliant argument, he has the power to counteract – Spenser does – the magical effect that Shakespeare wields through the character of Comus. The Lady had claimed for herself a remarkable set of powers, but she wasn’t yet ready to use them. She was paralyzed in speech just as she was prevented from even moving. It was almost as if Sabrina’s assent from the Severn stream to assist the Lady in her time of need suggests Spenser’s arrival from the realm of English literature to assist the young poet, John Milton. Edmund Spenser arrives, arises to help Milton overcome the paralyzing effect of the Comus-like power of Shakespeare.

Let’s see if this makes any sense. Look at line 852 of Comus. This is page 110 in the Hughes. The attendant spirit explains that Sabrina is in possession of precious vialed liquors that have the capacity to heal. So line 852; Sabrina can unlock:

The clasping charm and thaw the numbing spell
If she be right invok’t in warbled Song,
For maid’nhood she loves, and will be swift
To aid a Virgin, such as was herself,
In hard-besetting need. This will I try
And add the power of some adjuring verse.

The power of verse has everything to do with the power wielded by Sabrina to save the Lady from her paralysis. If “right invok’t in warbled Song,” Sabrina can actually be called down for assistance – or called up for assistance.

It’s just this interest in the right, the proper form of warbled song that’s so important here. She represents a power that might enable Milton to warble a right or proper song. She represents a power that might enable Milton perhaps someday actually to fulfill, to consummate his much-anticipated poetic promise. But how does she do that? Look at line 910. This is page 111 in the Hughes. Sabrina says to the Lady as she rises from the water:

Brightest Lady look on me,
Thus I sprinkle on thy breast
Drops that from my fountain pure
I have kept of precious cure,
Thrice upon my finger’s tip,
Thrice upon my rubied lip;
Next this marble venom’d seat
Smear’d with gums of glutinous heat
I touch with chaste palms moist and cold.

Now, if this a scene, as it’s been argued, of Sabrina’s baptism of the Lady, it’s a curious baptism indeed. We might think that Sabrina’s “chaste palms moist and cold” would only make more frigid and more frozen the body of the Lady, but in fact it’s just the opposite that happens. Think of the delicate, really beautiful sensuality here in Sabrina’s speech. I don’t think we were expecting this. She evokes the beauty of the Lady’s rubied lip. How inappropriate! The eroticization of the Lady’s beauty has up to this point come exclusively from Comus. In touching the Lady’s fingertip, it’s as if Sabrina were awakening for the first time the Lady’s sense of touch.

Now the Lady, we know, has an exquisite and powerful sense of hearing. She’s a poet and she has an impeccable ear, but this fiercely virginal Lady has not up to this point even begun to develop her other sensory realms. When Sabrina touches the surprisingly sensual rubied lip of the Lady, she’s in essence baptizing, I think, and sanctioning the erotic drives that the Lady has been so fiercely repressing. She baptizes the entire domain of non-auditory sensual experience that the Lady so forcefully avoids. And you can think of Sabrina as she touches so gently the Lady – this is [laughs] to use the wonderful phrase that John Guillory used actually in this very room when I took the Milton lecture as an undergraduate – that what Sabrina is doing is (and this dates John Guillory – this is a very ‘70s phrase) is activating the Lady’s “erogenous zones.” There’s something to that. With this magical touching of the Lady with her precious liquor, Sabrina saves the Lady from her paralysis. Milton’s stage direction should say it all, it’s very simple: the lady just “rises out of her seat.”

I don’t want to suggest that Sabrina’s work is purely erotic here. There’s a lot more than sex implied in this redemptive touching. In touching the Lady’s rubied lip, she’s also, I think, releasing the lady’s hesitation to speak. After Comus’ masterful seduction, replete with all its allusions to the parable of the talents from Matthew 25, the Lady, you’ll remember, had been so hesitant to speak (“I had not thought to have unlocked my lips / in this unhallowed air”). When she does unlock her lips ever so slightly [laughs] – when she does unlock her lips, she does so only to anticipate the effect that her speeches would have if she were to unlock them even more. Everything is entirely conditional and future-oriented. Sabrina’s touching of the Lady’s lip seems to unlock, perhaps permanently, the rhetorical hesitation that has paralyzed the Lady, and the Lady is liberated. Of course, we have no evidence of the Lady’s rhetorical liberation. There’s no further speech on her part, but it’s an important action, I think, nonetheless.

The touching of the Lady’s lip touches us in other ways as well though, at least in this lecture, because we remember that unfortunate, that horrifying image of the lip that Milton had noted in the commonplace book. Saint Ebba had not only severed her nose, she had also severed her lip. I think it’s worth thinking about, at least for a moment, of the oddity of this terrible act of self-mutilation. The superfluous action suggests that there was something more at stake, perhaps, than Saint Ebba’s attempt to ward off sexual assault. To disfigure the mouth – this is how I would interpret it – to disfigure the mouth has a primary effect in rendering one at least temporarily speechless. I think there’s a connection here between the image from the commonplace book and the treatment in Milton’s mask of this strangely conjoint phenomenon of virginity and speechlessness. In a little scene from the early English history that Milton had selected from his reading, you have an image of silencing, of a horrifying and unredeemable speechlessness that is so closely connected to virginity. It would seem to be the terrible fate of Saint Ebba to die both speechless and virginal that Milton is struggling to avoid here.

So yeah, Comus is a celebration of virginity, and it might even be a celebration of Milton’s endlessly anticipatory – the mood of imaging himself as a great poet. But these virtues, however great, I think, are also associated in the mask with the Lady’s petrifaction, her fixation on the seat that Comus has fashioned for her. It’s one of the duties of the mask’s plot to get the Lady out of her seat. And you can see in the song that Sabrina sings something of the mechanism, perhaps, by which this transition is effected. Look at line 897. We’re almost done here. Sabrina rises from the water and appears gradually on the land, making a transition a lot like the one the Lady will eventually have to make. She sings – Sabrina sings:

Whilst from off the waters fleet
Thus I set my printless feet
O’er the Cowslip’s Velvet head,
That bends not as I tread…

Now her feet are, of course, printless because she’s airy and ethereal, and she leaves no tread on the cowslips or the flowers – but this is an odd phrase, you’ll concede: “printless feet.” Its oddness is important. Feet, of course, has a lot of meanings, and Milton’s poetic feet, the material of the verse written in six and eight and ten syllables in this poem, are also in 1634 printless – they’re unpublished. When Comus is first performed, Milton’s poetry hasn’t yet been printed, but it’s almost as if Sabrina seems to have died printless or unpublished so that Milton wouldn’t have to. It’s a sacrifice on our poet’s behalf. That would be one literarily allegorical way to think of it.

Now as I noted earlier, there’s a difference between the two existing texts of Milton’s Comus. There’s the performance version of 1634 and the printed version of 1637, and the additions to the text that Milton is making for the published version reflect, I think, his sense that he, like the Lady, is in the process of making an important transition. He is no longer – or no longer wants to be – an infans, a poetic virgin, a speechless poet. There’s also another transition that he’s making, and this involves the subject of virginity: not a speechlessness, but his actual abstinence. I’ll just point you quickly to this passage. Look at line 1003; it’s on page 113 in the Hughes. After we have the Lady wandering through the forest, she joins her father with her brothers and we get this:

But far above in spangled sheen
Celestial Cupid, her fam’d son advanc’t,
Holds his dear Psyche sweet entranc’t
After her wand’ring labors long,
Till free consent the gods among
Make her his eternal bride…

You can see an image here of Cupid’s eventual marriage to Psyche as a pointed reference to the likelihood that the Lady, too, will become someone’s eternal bride. In 1634, in the first version, we didn’t have this anticipation of the Lady’s future marriage. This passage didn’t exist. The Lady remained much more fixed in her idealization of virginity and a lot more silent in her responses to Comus, but it’s almost as if the prospect of publishing this mask seems to have induced in Milton an interest in trying to move beyond the idealization of virginity, beyond simply the anticipation of future power. And you’re getting to see something like an intimation of John Milton the published poet, a poet whose energies are going to be directed toward making his poems public. The poet of anticipation is beginning to think of himself as the poet of achievement, and the poet of the radical power of virginity is beginning to redirect a lot of his interests to the radical power of married sexuality.

Now it won’t be until another four or five years after the publication of Comus that Milton will himself actually be married, but the transition from virginity to married chastity charted in this poem that we’ve been looking at nonetheless reflects a marked interest in the nature not only of Milton’s personal life but in the nature of his literary interests. He’s beginning to put aside all of those literary anxieties induced by his reading of Shakespeare, and it’s as if he’s more and more willing to use as a kind of literary assistant, or helper, Spenser: the great poet of holy matrimony and married sexual bliss. In the works that Milton is going to be publishing now with greater and greater frequency, it’s this Spenserian ideal of marriage that will be the new and, believe me, the endlessly complex Miltonic subject.

Now for next time we’ll be reading Lycidas, which is about the death of a friend – and the death of a friend, in fact, who died a virgin, we have to assume. It’s not about marriage, and marriage will still seem quite a ways off, I fear, when you read Lycidas, but we will be marking the transition to the poetry of marriage soon enough. This is probably the most difficult poem linguistically that we’ll be reading all semester. It repays innumerable readings and re-readings, so I urge you to read it seventy-five times, let’s say, before you come to class on Monday. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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