Milton in May: Comus and Lycidas by John Milton

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John Milton is much smarter than I am. Reading Paradise Lost, I haven’t felt that lost because I’m familiar with the general religious traditions he’s talking about. There are “pagan” traditions mentioned too, but I haven’t felt lost, and footnotes help. Reading Milton’s early writings is a different story. I feel like he’s purposely trying to add in every ancient tradition he has ever heard of before, even if it’s just name-dropping. Comus was pretty blatantly calling on other traditions, and “Lycidas” was a bit more subtle as it echoed antiquity but apparently Milton did and I missed it. I much preferred the second, even if in reading commentary, I find I’ve “missed” a lot of the political, contemporary, and traditional references.

Comus: A Mask

Amateur Reader mentioned in a comment last week agreeing with me that Milton’s words just seem to spill out of him as he writes. Then he said, “I really see it in his love of proper names. He just adores those names.” OK, now I get it. The dramatic masque Comus by the 20-year-old Milton is just overflowing with references. I read it online via Dartmouth College’s Milton Reading Room, which has handy hyperlinks for such references. At a certain point, I stopped trying to keep up with all the hyperlinks. I just tried to keep my head above water.

I did not think I would “get” Comus, but to my surprise, the overall point of it was easy to see, even with the excessive name-dropping. The problem was that it was still boring and didactic. Milton’s theme was the beauty of chastity, and the main celebration at the end in their success in saving a young girl from being raped by a monster called Comus. *Spoiler* The end is happy.

Noble Lord, and Lady bright,
I have brought ye new delight,
Here behold so goodly grown
Three fair branches of your own,
Heav’n hath timely tri’d their youth,
Their faith, their patience, and their truth,
And sent them here through hard assays
With a crown of deathless Praise,
To triumph in victorious dance
O’re sensual Folly, and Intemperance. (966-975)

The glorious rescue at the end of the mask is by a beautiful nymeth Sabrina who doesn’t hesitate “To help insnared chastity” (909). There was little action and lots of praising and lecturing at the beginning and end. Needless to say, it wouldn’t make it to Broadway today.

I decided to read it because I couldn’t remember it, although it’s possible I did read and discuss it in my Milton class at school. The most interesting aspect of it for me was the commentary I read in Neil Forsyth’s biography of Milton. “Milton had probably never seen a masque,” writes Forsyth, “since they were private court and aristocratic entertainments. But he could have read the published texts …” (40). I found it interesting that Milton’s masque is apparently longer than contemporary masques, even though he’d never seen one before. Forsyth indicates that Milton’s theme of chastity (and fidelity) is one that continues throughout his future writings, fiction and nonfiction; it was something he was thinking about already as a very young man.


And then for something completely different: “Lycidas.” As a relatively short poem (less than 200 lines), “Lycidas” seems straight-forward in an emotional and linear sense. Milton wrote it to mourn the death at sea of one of his college friends. From the notes, it’s clear that Milton write based on ancient classical traditions, specifically the format of a classical pastoral elegy.

I liked this poem. It had plenty of references to things I hadn’t heard of before, but it seemed so much more sincere. I guess that’s because it was about the loss of a friend, not about a didactic concept Milton believed in. Reading Forsyth’s commentary, however, I found that lots of the images Milton creates in the poem are actually political and religious commentaries.

I felt a little frustrated that even in a poem that seems straight forward, Milton has some underhanded purpose. It’s like I can’t escape it! But, since I’m reading for myself and not for class, I am hereby going to ignore all the political subtleties that I don’t understand. I read it for fun after all.  At any rate, I liked this portion:

Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glistering foil
Set off to th’ world, nor in broad rumour lies,
But lives and spreds aloft by those pure eyes,
And perfet witnes of all judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in Heav’n expect thy meed. (78-84)

Even though I missed the underlying meanings, I did enjoy reading “Lycidas.”

Reviewed on May 17, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I had a wonderful grad school professor who taught the historical references in Lycidas and made it interesting.

    But I can’t imagine any modern reader enjoying Comus. Maybe it would be fun to see on stage–if you were adequately stuffed with food and wine first!
    .-= Jeanne´s last post on blog ..The Barber’s Fingers Move October =-.

  • “Lycidas” is a great poem in the grand English literary tradition of horrifying and eerily beautiful sea eulogies (“see”, for example, some of the speeches in Richard III, or the songs in “The Tempest,” which T. S. Eliot rewove to great effect in “The Waste Land”: “Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!”). There’s something in an English man that loves the sea. I could list about half a dozen literary passages, going all the way back to the Bible, that describe a man being pulled down into the depths of the sea, and being lost in the wonders of the deep. Perhaps there’s something particularly moving in the thought of a single consciousness forever being plunged into the salt profound… one little light alone against the whole infernal darkness of the infinite… that “strikes the imagination with unwonted power.” As Melville writes in Chapter 93 of “Moby-Dick,” just before Pip’s visionary experience on the open ocean, “The immense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity – my God! Who can tell it?” Yet, oddly, it’s that very thrill of horror which forever brings us back.

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