Sunday, May 30, 2021

everlasting oil

Lady. This way the noise was, if mine ear be true,
My best guide now. Methought it was the sound
Of riot and ill-managed merriment,
Such as the jocund flute or gamesome pipe
Stirs up among the loose unletter'd hinds,
When, for their teeming flocks and granges full,
In wanton dance they praise the bounteous Pan,
And thank the gods amiss. I should be loth
To meet the rudeness and swill'd insolence
Of such late wassailers; yet O where else
Shall I inform my unacquainted feet
In the blind mazes of this tangled wood?
My brothers, when they saw me wearied out
With this long way, resolving here to lodge
Under the spreading favour of these pines,
Stepped, as they said, to the next thicket-side
To bring me berries, or such cooling fruit
As the kind hospitable woods provide.
They left me then when the grey-hooded Even
Like a sad votarist in palmer’s weed
Rose from the hindmost wheels of Phœbus’ wain.
But where they are, and why they came not back,
Is now the labour of my thoughts. ’Tis likeliest
They had engaged their wandering steps too far;
And envious darkness, ere they could return,
Had stole them from me: else O thievish Night,
Why shouldst thou, but for some felonious end,
In thy dark lantern thus close up the stars
That Nature hung in Heav'n, and fill'd their lamps
With everlasting oil, to give due light
To the misled and lonely traveller?
This is the place, as well as I may guess,
Whence even now the tumult of loud mirth
Was rife, and perfect in my listening ear,
Yet nought but single darkness do I find.
What might this be? A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory
Of calling shapes and beckoning shadows dire
And airy tongues that syllable men’s names
On sands and shores and desert wildernesses.
These thoughts may startle well, but not astound
The virtuous mind, that ever walks attended
By a strong siding champion, Conscience.
O welcome, pure-eyed Faith, white-handed Hope,
Thou hovering angel girt with golden wings,
And thou unblemished 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 glistering guardian if need were
To keep my life and honour unassail'd.
Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err, there does a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night,
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.
I cannot hallo to my brothers, but
Such noise as I can make to be heard farthest
I’ll venture, for my new-enliven'd spirits
Prompt me; and they perhaps are not far off.

(John Milton's Comus, lines 170-229)


Lost in the woods. Simplicity: myth, fairy tale, something close to us, something serious. All Milton's poetry has this same radical directness: as if he's struck a line through all the other poetic agendas of his time, and starts from somewhere else. He was the most learned poet, yet the poem's engagement with the reader is characterized by simplicity. 


Milton's Comus is perhaps the only masque that most of us casual poetry fans know. By placing it at the end of his Poems of 1645, with the title A Mask Presented At Ludlow Castle, 1634. &c., Milton offered it to the reader as a poem, but a poem with a framing context,  an implication of the poem being something else than just a poem. 

But whereas most later developments of this fertile idea propose a fictional context (e.g. Wordsworth's "Written with a Slate Pencil, on a Stone, on the Side of the Mountain of Black Comb". . .) , this one was true. Comus really had been a masque, performed as stated, at Ludlow Castle in Shrophire, then the luxuriously furnished seat of the Council in the Marches of Wales. (After the civil war it was allowed to fall in to decay.)

Not all the lines that we read today were delivered on that memorable Michaelmas night (29 September, 1634). Milton made some later additions. There were also performance cuts, which can be seen by comparing the Trinity MS (representing Milton's draft) with the Bridgewater MS (apparently a prompt copy from the performance). 

The speech I've quoted, for instance, was quite drastically reduced (as shown by the italics). The Lady in the Ludlow performance -- that is, the real Lady -- was the fifteen-year-old Alice Egerton. Masquers always played themselves. But Alice didn't speak the lines about the "gray-hooded Even" (188-190), and after "Had stole them from me" (195) her script jumped briskly to "I cannot hallo" (226), preparing for the delivery of her song.

John Egerton (eleven) and Thomas Egerton (nine) also played themselves: the Elder and Second Brother respectively. Their lines were a little slimmed down, too. Doubtless this was all organized by the children's tutor Henry Lawes, who himself played the Attendant Spirit. 

These three children of the Earl of Bridgewater were experienced masquers. Alice and John had been two of the Influences in Inigo Jones' spectacular production of Tempe Restored (Aurelian Townshend, Shrove-Tuesday 1632); their elder sister Catherine had taken part too. [John appears in the list of masquers under the title of Lord Ellesmere.]

John and Thomas had been in Thomas Carew's Coelum Brittannicum (18 February 1634) among the "troop of young Lords and Noble-mens sonnes, bearing Torches of Virgin-wax, these were apparelled after the old Brittish fashion in white Coats, embroydered with silver, girt, and full gathered, cut square coller'd, and round caps on their heads, with a white feather wreathen about them". 

Surely all three children had also taken part in Arcades (4 May 1634), the country-house masque in honour of their grandmother Alice, the Countess of Derby, for which Milton, at Lawes' request, had supplied some verse.  (The Countess of Derby had been a masquer herself. She had taken part in Ben Jonson's Masque of Queens back in 1609.)


Yet Comus feels different from all other masques of the time. Masques accompany an earthly celebration in which court or guests or family and friends pay tribute to someone. (In this case, the Earl of Bridgewater, the children's father, taking up the post of Lord Lieutenant of Wales.) Such drama as exists in other masques is usually a matter of e.g. manufactured ructions among the classical gods in response to the outstanding achievement being honoured today. For instance, in Coelum Britannicum the conceit is that Jove and Juno have mended their ways in emulation of the virtues of Charles and Henrietta, and now intend to rename the heavenly constellations to take out references to Jove's wild amours. The classical gods, played by professional actors, did most of the speaking. The modest role of the masquers/guests was to play themselves, largely as dancers or performers of simple ritual gestures. 

 Already, in Arcades, Milton sees the potential in focussing on the guests' journey rather than the burlesque flurries of Olympus. Even in Arcades, the result is a sobriety and reverence that allows a deeper engagement with the drama.

In Comus Milton takes the idea further. His three Egerton family masquers are still playing themselves, but they now have major speaking parts and are involved in dramatic scenes with each other and with others. I don't know of any other masque that even slightly resembles Comus in the amount of dramatic speech and action allotted to the real people in the masque. 

Women masquers had taken silent parts in the earliest of Jonson's masques -- Anne of Denmark was an enthusiastic participant. But had there ever been any meaningful precedent to what the audience witnessed at Ludlow on 29 September 1634:  a woman (Alice),  supposedly playing herself but undeniably acting a fictional adventure in face-to-face confrontation with a fictional character (Comus, thought to have been performed by a professional actor) : performing a speaking (and singing) role on a large scale before a large audience?  *

The idea of the masquers journeying to the celebration has grown into an adventure on the way, an adventure in the wild country that lies between safe dwellings. 

                                             But their way
Lies through the perplex'd paths of this drear wood,
The nodding horror of whose shady brows
Threats the forlorn and wandering passenger. 

(Comus, ll. 36-39)

The story plays into deeply-held social anxieties about letting the children of gentlefolk, especially the girls, stray out into a world where they could be waylaid by ruffians. Yet it's apparent that this wood represents much more than the fear of wild Welshmen or Hertfordshire hinds. It also represents the World, that place of temptation for all Christians, a spiritual arena from which it isn't possible to shield children indefinitely. 

When the tempter Comus steps forth, he is a kind of classical figure (son of Circe) but he isn't a burlesque or a decorative flourish. He's a confrontation that none of us can escape. It has the seriousness of a fairy tale. 

Title page of the first publication of Comus (1637)

[Image source: Wikipedia .]

The motto comes from Virgil's Eclogues (II, 58-59):

Eheu quid volui misero mihi! floribus austrum Perditus ("Alas! what harm did I wish upon my wretched self by allowing the south wind to blow upon my flowers?").   

John Milton's name didn't appear, and the motto seems to express mixed feelings about going public.


Rosemary Karmelich Mundhenk, "Dark Scandal and the Sun-Clad Power of Chastity: The Historical Milieu of Milton's Comus" (Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol 15 No 1 (Winter, 1975)):

Informative on the historical context, the Castlehaven scandal (the terrible sexual mistreatment of the Countess's elder sister by her husband, executed in 1631), the performance cuts and later revisions. Many scholars, however, think that the Castlehaven scandal isn't something Milton would want to allude to in the slightest degree. I think so too, but, the dark threat of Comus will, for many readers, seem to resonate with their imagination of the deranged Earl of Castlehaven and his servants. A poem's meaning can never be controlled by its author, and still less by other readers. 


Below, two pages from a very useful site put together by Helen L. Hull, Meg F. Pearson, and Erin A. Sadlack. The site also contains the four early texts of Comus (Trinity, Bridgewater, 1637, 1645). 

A Performance History of Comus: (HPS Perf Hist)
An Egerton Family History:


A scene from Lucy Bailey's Comus, with Emma Curtis as The Lady/Alice Egerton

[Image source: . Image supplied by Shakespeare's Globe, London.]

Informative article by Neil Forsyth, on the occasion of Lucy Bailey's Globe production of Comus in 2016:

(It's mostly taken from his John Milton: A Biography (2008), a book that I've managed to download, though I'm not sure how legally or safely.)

One thing I hadn't read elsewhere: "The Egerton children, Alice in particular, had in the times right before the performance of the masque, complained of demonic possession, and had been treated with protective amulets and St. John’s wort."

(This information comes from Barbara Breasted's "Another Bewitching of Lady Alice Egerton, the Lady of Comus", Notes and Queries 17 (1970), pp. 411-412 -- but I haven't seen this.)

The biography adds "by the well-known physician John Napier". Not well known to me. Is this a mistake for Richard Napier, the astrological specialist?

The Egerton family certainly consulted with Richard Napier. Here's Boyd Brogan's presentation of the Richard Napier/Egerton cases: 

The Egerton casebooks are mainly about Magdalen and Alice (to some degree Penelope),  but I cannot track down anything like the details mentioned by Barbara Breasted. It's true that on 15 October 1632 (letter of Robert Napier) the Countess was wondering if Alice's fits might be due to bewitchment by the disaffected husband of their gentlewoman Mrs Quicke. In response Richard Napier cast an astrological figure but his conclusions are not recorded.


Milton's child masquers were perhaps the three youngest children of John Egerton, First Earl of Bridgewater (1579 - 4 December 1649) and his wife Frances née Stanley (m. 1602, d. 11 March 1636). I say "perhaps" because information online is confused and contradictory. The DNB (2004) says there were 15 children (entry for Frances Stanley) or 11 children (entry for John Egerton). I have seen mention of 14 names, and I've managed to gather some information about 12 of them.  

1. Frances (m.  February 1621 to Sir John Hobart. The eldest daughter, according to the DNB entry on Frances Stanley.  d. 27 November 1664)
2. Arabella (m. 1623 to the politician Oliver St John, d. c. 1669)
3. Elizabeth b. c. 1604 (m. David Cecil, Earl of Exeter, d. 1688)
4. Mary (b. c. 1606, m. Richard Herbert, Baron Herbert of Chirbury, d. 1659)
5. Penelope (b. 17 August 1610; appeared as a masquer in Jonson's Chloridia (Shrove Tuesday 1631), the last of his collaborations with Inigo Jones; married Robert Napier, nephew of the astrologer).
6. Catherine (Katherine) (b. 1611, m. the merchant William Courten, d. c. 25 March 1651)
7. Magdalen (b. 7 August 1615, m. Sir Gervase Cutler, d. 1664)
8. James died in childhood (b. 21 Sep 1616, d. c Dec 1620)
9. Charles died in childhood (b. c. 1617, d. c Apr 1623)
10. Alice (b. 13 June 1619. After her mother's death (1636), took care of her semi-invalid father until his own death in 1649. Married Richard Vaughan, Earl of Carbery in 1652, d. circa July 1689)
11. John, Viscount Brackley (b. 30 May 1623, d. 26 October 1686) -- heir to the earldom, his two elder brothers being already dead by the time of his birth.
12. Thomas (b. 1625, d. 1648)

There may also have been:

13? Anne.  Mentioned in, referencing the DNB (but evidently not the 2004 entries I've seen); I can't find any other information about her.
14? Cecilia.  Mentioned in, referencing the DNB (but evidently not the 2004 entries I've seen); I can't find any other information about her.
15?  Another daughter, if the figures given in the 2004 DNB entry for Frances Stanley are correct (15 children: 11 daughters and four sons).

Main sources:,_1st_Earl_of_Bridgewater  (which says there were only eight children) 
DNB entry for Frances Stanley (2004):
DNB entry for John Egerton, first Earl of Bridgewater (2004):


Women taking part in Masques

Anne of Denmark commissioned and danced in a number of masques from 1604-09. E.g. Samuel Daniel's The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses (1604), Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness (1605), etc. 

Another masque with women speakers:

Cupid's Banishment: A Maske Presented to Her Maiesty by Younge Gentlewomen of the Ladies Hall, in Deptford, Greenwich the 4th of May 1617  (Robert White)

See Clare McManus, Silenced voices / speaking bodies: female performance and cultural agency in the court of Anne of Denmark (1603-19), PhD thesis (University of Warwick), 1997.

On the two women speakers (Circe and Harmony) in Tempe Restored:

Melinda J. Gough, "'Not as Myself': The Queen's Voice in Tempe Restored", Modern Philology Vol 101 (2003):



At 2:47 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

I'm afraid his relentless iambs lull me into a stupor by the tenth line, but Auntie BBC stands witness to the wide popularity of Comus in performance. She has broadcast versions of it over the years more than a hundred times.

Here's a link.

At 6:28 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Yes, that does testify to recurrent interest on radio and in the performing arts community. A large part of that total seems to be primarily musical in nature: Purcell, Arne, Hugh Wood. . .


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