issue 23 > nonfiction > green
A Green Thoughtby Paul D. Green, Ph.D.
“All His Mother’s Witcheries”: Milton and the Circe Myth
In the later development of the Circe myth, which first appears in literature in Homer’s Odyssey, we hear little about Circe’s positive qualities, primarily her function as instructor and guide to Odysseus for his homeward journey, in part because of later allegorical tendencies to view Circe as the embodiment of Sensuality, which turns human beings into animals, and in part, to quote Judith Yarnall, because of an “ideology of misogyny, which finds much expression in post-Homeric literature” (p.55). Indeed, Yarnall convincingly explores the connection between these two phenomena, the development of an allegorical reading of Homer and the development of a misogynistic tradition, that work against a fuller, more balanced treatment of Circe (e.g., pp.71, 73-75, 78). It is this limited, one-sided view of Circe that descended to Milton and his contemporaries; nonetheless, in his poems, particularly in Comus,1 Milton gives new life to the myth of Circe, transforming it in fresh and illuminating ways.
The intriguing figure of Circe has had a long and complex history. Yarnall traces Circe’s roots to a primitive Earth Goddess or Mother Goddess worshiped thousands of years before Homer (Transformations, chap. 2: “Where Did Circe Come From?,” pp.26-52). In books 10 and 12 of The Odyssey Circe plays a prominent role. Simulating hospitality when Odysseus’ men arrive at her palace, she turns them into swine but is unable to do so to Odysseus, who is protected by the herb moly, given to him by Hermes, messenger of the gods. When the Homeric hero threatens her with his sword, she restores his men to their human form, and then, with the encouragement of Hermes, Odysseus agrees to become her lover.
At this point and subsequently, Circe’s role becomes more positive and sympathetic. After a year of lovemaking with Circe, Odysseus becomes homesick, and the goddess promises to assist him on his voyage back to Ithaca, his homeland, but informs him that he must first go to the underworld, where the prophet Teiresias will narrate the events of his future. The Tenth Book ends with her directions on how to get to Hades and what to do when he gets there. Book 11 deals with the journey to the underworld, and when he returns to Circe’s island at the beginning of Book 12, Circe provides instructions and warnings for his voyage to Ithaca.
Though Milton knew Homer well, his presentation of Circe, like that of many other medieval and Early Modern writers, seems to be colored primarily by his reading of Ovid and the extensive body of allegorical commentaries that grew up around this most popular and influential of Latin poets.2 In Book 14 of the Metamorphoses, where Circe appears in the stories of Glaucus and Scylla, Picus and Canens, and Odysseus and his followers, she is portrayed as sexually obsessed, vindictive, and destructive.
When Glaucus, a god, rejects her in favor of the beautiful nymph Scylla, Circe transforms her rival by means of poisonous herbs into a monster whose lower extremities become barking dogs. In George Sandys’ 1626 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Milton almost certainly knew, Sandys allegorizes Scylla’s transformation almost formulaically, by laying out the conflict between the true human characteristics of Reason and Intellect versus those that are more appropriate for animals, such as addiction to Pleasure and the Senses:
That the upper part of her [Scylla’s] body, is feigned to retaine a humane figure, and the lower to be bestiall; intimates how man, a divine creature, endued with wisdom and intelligence, in whose superiour parts, as in a high tower, that immortall spirit resideth,…can never so degenerate into a beast, as when he giueth himself over to the lowe delights of those baser parts of the body, Dogs and Wolues, the blind & salvage fury of concupiscence… (qtd. In Bush, p.280).
In another Ovidian tale that demonstrates Circe’s treachery, a handsome young prince named Picus, who scorns Circe, is transformed by her poisons and magic spells into a woodpecker; his men are turned into wild beasts; and the object of his affection, noted for her physical beauty and the rarity of her singing voice (hence her name, Canens: ‘singer’), pines away with grief when she is unable to find her lover, and literally evaporates into thin air.
In the retelling of Circe’s encounter with Odysseus and his men, Ovid omits the friendlier behavior of Circe by which Homer vindicates her character. Ovid focuses instead on the cruel trick of giving Odysseus’ thirsty men her magic potion to drink and then metamorphosing them into swine, from which condition they are rescued by the timely arrival of their leader. By Ovid’s time Homer’s Circe had undergone her own transformation: from a goddess capable of kindness as well as deception to the personification of Intemperance.
In terms similar to those used for his discussion of Scylla, Milton’s contemporary George Sandys contrasts Odysseus’ resistance to Circe’s magic with the greater susceptibility of his crew, and in the process he provides a good example of the deterioration of Odysseus and Circe into allegorical clichés:
Yet Ulysses could not loose [sic] his shape with the rest [i.e., his men], who being fortified by an immortall power, was not subiect to mutation. For the diuine & coelestiall soule,…can by no assault of nature be violated, nor can that bee conuerted into a beast, which so highly participates of reason… . [Circe’s sensual charms] are not to bee resisted, but by the diuine assistance, Moly, the guift of Mercury, which signifies temperance… .3 (qtd. In Bush, including the final bracketed phrase, p.280).
Allegory does not permit characters to move in more than a single direction, and it may have been Ovid, influenced by this well-established tradition, that almost single-handedly gave the deathblow to the notion of Circe as a subtle and complex character.
Milton’s casual references to Circe in works both early and late indicate that he could take for granted in his readers a familiarity with the Circe myth and an easy identification of Circe with personified Sensuality or Lust4 linked to deception, treachery, and moral and spiritual disorder. For example, in two of Milton’s early Latin Elegies, numbers 1 and 6, addressed to his best friend, Charles Diodati, Milton makes brief references to Circe. In Elegy 6 (written around Christmas 1629), he distinguishes between writing light verse and composing a heroic poem, like Homer, who “carried Ulysses through vast stretches of ocean, through the monster-making palace” of Circe, as well as past the songs of the Sirens, and into the “infernal mansions” of Hades (p.52)5 –“monster-making” (“monstrificam”) referring to Circe’s talent for turning human or semi-divine beings into inferior or, like Scylla, monstrous creatures.
And in the earlier Elegy (ca.1626), probably written during a break from his studies at Cambridge, he uses Circe as a metaphor for the allurements and dangers of female sexuality. In the Elegy he admits to his fascination with the lovely and graceful young women of London and its environs: “…Yours,” he apostrophizes England’s greatest city, “is the excessive happiness of bounding within your walls whatever beauty the pendant world possesses” (p.9). But he nevertheless sees such beauty as a possible threat to a young man determined to live a pure and chaste life. No doubt with a certain playfulness, Milton announces his plan to leave “this city of delights,” and “with the help of divine moly, to secure the safety of distance from the infamous halls of the deceiver, Circe” (p.10). In this connection Jeanne Addison Roberts, commenting on Elegy 1, reminds us that Milton wishes to escape from the “dangers” of London by returning to the “safe,” if sometimes stodgy, halls of Cambridge (e.g., pp. 62, 66-67, 69-70).
But references to Circe do not merely decorate the poetic effusions of the young Milton to his most intimate companion. In his greatest poem, written in the final stage of his life, when he was elderly, blind, confined to his home, and dispirited by political defeat, Milton has not forgotten the symbolic importance of Circe. In Book 9 of Paradise Lost, as Adam and Eve attend separately to their chores in Paradise, Eve is unaware that she is about to be tempted by Satan concealed in a serpent’s body. As the serpent approaches through “rustling Leaves,” she
minded not, as us’d
To such disport before her through the field,
From every Beast, more duteous at her call,
Than at Circean call the Herd disguis’d.
The unmistakable reference momentarily turns Eve into a Circe-figure, thereby adding for the reader a new perspective by which to evaluate Adam’s dilemma, a short while later, when he discovers that she has succumbed to the serpent’s temptations. In order to remain unfallen, he must, like Odysseus, follow the divine injunction, or else yield to his passion for Eve (reincarnated Circe) and, like the followers of Odysseus, be transformed into a lesser being—in his case, being reduced from his godlike status and losing his immortality as well as the favor of the Almighty.
Such moral perplexities, Milton hints, are not always easy to resolve. When Adam hears that Eve has eaten the forbidden fruit, “horror chill/Ran through his veins, …” and he stands “amaz’d,” “Astonied,” and “Speechless” (9.889-895). He knows, however, exactly what Eve has done and, in spite of desperate rationalizations, is aware that the terrible consequences likely to afflict Eve will pursue him as well should he accept her offer. His decision about how to handle his situation is not long in coming. Those who consider Milton anti-romantic should remember Adam’s decisive response:
…For with thee
Certain my resolution is to Die:
How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly join’d,
To live again in these wild Woods forlorn?
In short, unlike the cautious young Milton of Elegy 1, Adam does not intend “to secure the safety of distance from the deceiver, Circe.”
It is neither the Elegies nor Paradise Lost that receives Milton’s fullest treatment of the Circe myth, but Comus. As in the companion poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” where Milton provides parentage for personified Mirth and Melancholy, respectively, in Comus Milton assigns appropriate parents to the titular figure: the god of wine and revelry, Bacchus, “that first from out the purple grape/ Crusht the sweet poison of misused Wine” (lines 46-47), is Comus’ father; and Circe, who lusted after the handsome god with “his clust’ring locks” (line 54), is his mother. Allusions to Bacchus slowly dwindle, and it is primarily Comus’ ties to Circe that Milton stresses.
When the shepherd Thyrsis—in reality the Attendant Spirit, who has traveled from some far-off heavenly domain—relates Comus’ parentage to the two brothers of the Lady, Comus’ antagonist, he characterizes Comus in terms that identify him as a worthy son of Circe:
Deep skill’d in all his mother’s witcheries,
And here to every thirsty wanderer,
By sly enticement gives his baneful cup,
…Whose pleasing poison
The visage quite transforms of him that drinks,
And the inglorious likeness of a beast
Fixes instead, unmolding reason’s mintage
Character’d in the face; …
The “pleasing poison” that Comus offers unwary visitors does not merely recall Comus’ mother; it also echoes Milton’s description of Comus’ father, Bacchus, the god who offers the “sweet poison of misused Wine.”
In an aside, which appears in parenthesis in many editions of Comus, Milton calls upon his readers’ knowledge of what had become the best-known part of the Circe myth:
(Who knows not Circe
The daughter of the Sun? Whose charmed Cup
Whoever tasted, lost his upright shape,
And downward fell into a groveling Swine.)
From the Odyssey onward, Circe is portrayed as depriving Odysseus’ men of all human characteristics, metamorphosing them into swine, forced to walk on all fours. In Homer’s memorable description other creatures as well, such as lions and wolves (presumably other unfortunate victims), roam freely outside her palace—likewise on all fours. Comus, however, metamorphoses only his victims’
Th’express resemblance of the gods, …
Into some brutish form of Wolf, or Bear,
Or Ounce, or Tiger, Hog, or bearded Goat,
All other parts remaining as they were.
The premise seems to be that the victims are transformed into animals that in some way correspond to their individual personalities. But whatever new shape they assume, those who drink Comus’ “orient liquor” (line 65) lose the intellectual and moral qualities that, from the perspective of Milton and a long line of authorities preceding him, are quintessentially human: memory, good judgment, the capacity for rational choice.
Unlike the altered followers of Homer’s Odysseus, who lose their human shape but not their self-awareness or their longing to be restored, and who thus weep for their unfortunate circumstances, Comus’ followers are satisfied with their new lives: they “boast themselves more comely than before,/ And all their friends and native home forget,/ To roll with pleasure in a sensual sty” (lines 75-77). Unlike his mother’s victims, though (of whom the Miltonic use of “sty” seems to be a deliberate reminder), Comus’ crew have full use of their limbs, continue to walk upright, and can participate in the nightly singing and dancing led by their charismatic leader. Their revels are characteristically boisterous and unruly, and perhaps an additional evocation of their leader’s father, Bacchus, frequently associated in the ancient world with drunken and disorderly revels.
Indeed, Comus’ name is probably a Latinate form of Greek komos, meaning ‘revel,’ and the source of the English word comedy. The author of the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Sir Paul Harvey, writing on the origins of ancient Greek comedy, notes that “there were several kinds of komoi [‘revels’], and they took place on festivals, particularly of Dionysus [usually identified with Bacchus], and consisted of or wound up with a procession of revellers, singing, dancing and bantering the onlookers….” (“Greek Comedy,” p.115). Another detail about Comus’ father that helps to highlight the nature of the son is that Attic comedy “retained for a time a phallic …. character, being associated with the worship of Dionysus… .”(“Greek Comedy,” p.115).6
A third-century Greek writer, Philostratus the Elder, seems to have been the first to describe, briefly, a minor divinity named Comus, god of revelry (Singleton, p.950), but Milton’s masque is not the first work of European literature in which Comus appears as a character. In 1618 Comus makes an appearance in a masque by Ben Jonson, Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue. Though Milton knew his countryman’s work quite well, and though the central theme of Jonson’s masque, the conflict between Pleasure and Virtue, roughly approximates that of Milton’s Comus, Jonson’s Comus has little in common with Milton’s. The Jonsonian character, who has no lines, is drawn across the stage in some undefined vehicle. He is described by Jonson as the “god of cheer, or the belly” (Jonson’s Plays and Masques, p.333), a comically grotesque figure distinguished by a huge paunch (suggesting, of course, eating and drinking to excess), and surrounded by attendants “crowned with ivy” [representing, perhaps, an implied, though not explicit, connection to Bacchus, often portrayed with ivy] (p.333). He disappears shortly after his values are repudiated by Hercules, the prototype of Virtue.
Conceptually closer to Milton’s masque, and earlier than Jonson’s, is the neo-Latin Comus by Ericius Puteanus (Hendrik van der Putten), a Dutch humanist and professor at the University of Louvain. Ralph H. Singleton has argued persuasively for the influence of this work on Milton. Puteanus’ Comus, a dream-vision in prose, was first published in 1608 (p.949 and note)— appropriately, the year in which Milton was born.
Among Puteanus’ echoes in Milton that Singleton painstakingly traces in his essay are the character of Comus himself, who is depicted “not only as a reveler but as a seducer” (p.953); a troop of beasts who are his followers (p.953); riotous eating, drinking, singing, and general debauchery in Comus’ elegant palace as well as in a second venue, a dark forest (pp.952-953); the description of Comus with a cup of wine in one hand (p.952); and “the fact that both Puteanus’ Comus and Milton’s Comus address their followers in an ode urging them on to voluptuous rites” (p.955). Puteanus’ work had been translated into Flemish and French—[the latter language, if not the former, unquestionably known to Milton]—and was reprinted several times, most notably in an edition, at Oxford, in 1634, the year Milton wrote Comus (p.949, note 1).
But for all the intriguing affinities between Milton and Puteanus, the seventeenth-century English poet has created an even more ominous and more complex figure than his Dutch predecessor.
Like Milton’s Satan, Comus is vain and proud. His self-confidence is perhaps increased by the fact that he “excels his mother at her mighty Art” (line 63); and like his mother, who had no equal in turning human beings into beasts, he anticipates being “well stock’t with as fair a herd as graz’d/ About my Mother Circe” (lines 152-153)—including the young woman with the glorious singing voice whom he hears at a distance. But unlike Odysseus’ men, Comus’ victims have no one to restore them to their human condition.
Comus is the embodiment of the intemperate life, but more than that, in an age that still feared witches and black magic, he is called a “Sorcerer” (line 521) and, we recall, is said to be “deep skill’d in all his mother’s witcheries” (line 523). Even though Homer makes Circe a goddess, later writers traditionally represent her as a witch or sorceress. Yarnall, in writing about the transmission of an allegorized Circe, even in the works of the early Fathers of the Church, notes that St. Augustine calls her maga famosissima [‘most famous sorceress’] in The City of God and comes very close to labeling her a demon (p.94).
Evil in the Early Modern Period was connected to darkness and night, literally and symbolically, so it is to be expected that Comus and his crew come out when the sun goes down, and that he reverses the conventional significance of darkness and light: “ ‘Tis only daylight,” Circe’s son announces, “that makes Sin” (line 126). By contrast, Comus’ antithesis, the Lady, having lost her way in the dark, refers to “envious darkness” and “thievish night” (lines 194-195).
In many folk tales and fairy tales, a dark forest conceals creatures of evil, such as the witch in Hansel and Gretel, but a venerable literary tradition as well lies behind “this drear Wood” where Comus and his followers frolic. The dark wood plays a major role in Dante and in Milton’s more immediate mentor, Spenser; in fact, Spenser will frequently spell the word savage with an L (i.e., salvage), a not uncommon spelling at that time, reinforcing both the derivation of the word from Latin silva, ‘wood’ or ‘forest,’ and the belief that forest dwellers are fierce and treacherous. (In his edition of Ovid cited earlier, George Sandys also spells salvage with an L in his commentary on Scylla: “the blind and salvage fury of concupiscence”: Bush, p.280). It is interesting that Milton appears to prefer the modern form (without the L) in Comus, where the word appears at least twice (lines 358 and 426). (See the edition of the Complete Shorter Poems by Stella Revard, who uses Milton’s original spellings.)7
Not surprisingly, Thyrsis tells his two charges, the Lady’s younger brothers, that Comus is a “damn’d wizard” (line 571). Witches and wizards were commonly interpreted as agents of the devil, against whom ordinary mortals were powerless. So unlike Odysseus, who cows Circe into submission with his sword, the overconfident Elder Brother learns that his “sword can do thee little stead” against the “might of [Comus’] hellish charms” (lines 611-613).Thyrsis reveals to the two youngsters the scary extent of Comus’ powers: “He with his bare wand can unthread thy joints,/ And crumble all thy sinews” (lines 614-615).
Against a pagan magician like Circe, moly, together with Odysseus’ sword, was sufficient; but for a poet writing within a Christian context, something “more med’cinal…than that Moly /That Hermes once to wise Ulysses gave” (lines 636-637) is needed to overcome Comus’ black magic. What is required is a powerful herb called Haemony, with dark, prickly leaves in this world, “But in another Country [i.e, in the perfect world beyond this one]…/Bore a bright golden flow’r” (lines 631-633). Haemony, which has been variously interpreted as Philosophy, Divine Wisdom, or Spiritual Truth, inter alia,8 must be used “’gainst all enchantments, mildew blast, or damp,/ Or ghastly furies’ apparition” (lines 640-641).
The intellectual and dramatic center of Comus is the debate between Comus and the Lady. Comus deceives the Lady into thinking he is a simple shepherd who resides in a lowly cottage, but instead she finds herself, to use Milton’s stage direction, in a “stately Palace set out with all manner of deliciousness; soft Music, Tables spread with all dainties” (SD, p.105)—not unlike today’s standard bachelor pad. Here he attempts to work his charms—in both senses of the word—on her, and so Comus becomes the first of Milton’s great poems to dramatize the theme of temptation.
Their diametrically opposed views on the life of sensual pleasure versus the life of rational self-discipline enable Milton to address as well the issue of gender roles. In Aristotle’s Politics the Greek philosopher, whose authority was virtually uncontested for thousands of years, briefly sums up the traditional view of woman’s place in the scheme of things:
It is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful…the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior, and the one rules, and the other is ruled: this principle of necessity extends to all mankind.
(quoted in Yarnall, p.93)
Aristotle and—like so many other thinkers and writers—Milton assume that men are capable of subordinating the passions and appetites and governing their behavior through the higher principle of reason, whereas women follow their passions and appetites—thus the need to control and rule over these “inferior” creatures.
This is essentially the view espoused in Paradise Lost, in which Adam and Eve are described as “not equal, as thir sex not equal seem’d;/ For contemplation hee and valor form’d,/ For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace” (PL 4.296-298). But despite the warnings of the archangel Raphael not to let Eve’s beauty overpower his judgment, Adam responds with his heart, not his head, when Eve tempts him with the apple.
In Comus, as in Puteanus’ earlier work, Milton identifies Comus’ unruly followers as being of both genders; the “ beastly” life of intemperate pleasure knows no gender boundaries—though, given the theoretical link between Men and Reason, and between Women and the appetites, the former are clearly more blameworthy for their moral descent. In an obvious role reversal in Comus the Lady is meant to represent the life of the mind and the soul; Comus stands for the primacy of the body and the senses. She is the moralist; he, the sensualist.
For the most part, this reversal can be explained by the historic context of Comus, a masque, an elaborate, exclusively aristocratic genre of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that celebrated a special occasion. Masques were formal presentations, relatively short and without much “plot” (Comus is an exception to both), full of singing and dancing, mythological and/ or symbolic and allegorical characters, and expensive sets. Though related to drama, the masque was, as a whole, less tightly and less formally structured. (Comus was more tightly structured than most.) Milton’s masque was commissioned by Henry Lawes, musician/composer and good friend of Milton and his father, in honor of the inauguration of the Earl of Bridgewater, Sir John Egerton, as Lord President of the Council of Wales and the Marches (the borderlands between England and Wales), a position to which he had been appointed by King Charles I.
Unlike plays, masques did not set up an arbitrary division between the illusory world of the actors and the real world of the audience. The historical event being celebrated and the literary fiction destined to do the celebrating merged rather quickly. For example, the forest around Ludlow Castle, the Welsh residence of the Egerton family, converts seamlessly into the dark world of Comus and his crew, and at the end of the masque the Lady and her brothers return to their father’s castle to join in the typical conclusion of a masque, the festive dance, in which all present, actors and audience together, take part.
Characteristically, family and friends of the honoree undertook many major roles in a masque. Lady Alice Egerton, the Earl’s 15-year-old daughter, played the Lady; her younger brothers, John, Lord Brackley, aged 11, and Thomas, aged 9, played the parts of the Elder Brother and the Younger Brother; and Henry Lawes, who was the children’s tutor, and who also wrote the music to the songs in Comus, played the Attendant Spirit disguised as the shepherd Thyrsis. So the proud parents, to whom all three children were safely restored at the end of the masque, could take great pride in their children’s thespian accomplishments.
That the Lady defends the life of rational self-discipline and the preservation of her chastity in terms both Platonic and Christian is meant not merely to evoke her parents’ pride but also, as various scholars have suggested, to uphold her family’s reputation, especially in light of the infamous Castlehaven scandal.9 The Earl of Castlehaven, brother-in-law to the Earl of Bridgewater, forced his son from a previous marriage to marry his new stepdaughter, daughter of his new wife, Lady Bridgewater’s sister. Castlehaven was also implicated in outrageous sexual orgies, involving, among other activities, the compulsory participation of his wife and his sexual assault on several male servants. When these scandalous activities eventually came to light, at King Charles’ command Castlehaven was arrested and brought to trial; he was found guilty and in time was executed.10 The emphasis on chastity in Milton’s masque has thus been seen, not unjustifiably, as a way of separating the Earl of Bridgewater’s immediate family from this scandal and of vindicating their tainted honor.
Comus’ libertine views are quite likely meant to hint at Castlehaven’s excesses; that has become almost a critical commonplace. It is obvious from the outset that Comus and his crew indulge in unlimited eating and drinking. (We recall the protuberant paunch of Ben Jonson’s Comus!) At the beginning of the debate scene, when the Lady is “set in an enchanted Chair” (SD, p.105), and at the end, just before Thyrsis and the brothers rush in to rescue her, Comus offers her his infamous Circean/Bacchanalian cup with its “pleasing poison.” And like so many drunken orgies, including those in which worshipers of Comus’ father, Bacchus, participated, the revels of Comus and his animalistic followers, we infer, usually ended in wild sex. Comus, after all, is a skillful seducer—or, more precisely, a potential rapist. In fact, his seeming interest in details about the Lady’s brothers—for instance, “Were they of manly prime, or youthful bloom?...” (line 289)-lends credence to Catherine Thomas’ convincing arguments that Comus’ erotic desires are by no means exclusively heterosexual (e.g., pp. 439-445, 450)—a possibility that represents another link in the chain connecting him to the Earl of Castlehaven.
Anticipating Satan in both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Comus initiates his debate with the Lady by reminding her of the human need for food and rest. He emphasizes that she has “been tir’d all day without repast” (line 688) and plies her with a lavish assortment of foods. In Paradise Regained Satan tempts the Son of God, who has not eaten in forty days, with the same human need: “Tell me, if Food were now before thee set,/ Wouldst thou not eat?” (PR 2.320-321). But though Satan proceeds to place in front of his divine adversary “a Table richly spread, in regal mode,/ With dishes pil’d” (2.339-340), the Son of God has already responded succinctly but famously to Satan’s question: “Thereafter as I like/ The giver” (2.321-322). The Lady, too, resists her tempter by rising above her physical needs, and her retort to Comus conveys the same message as the later rejection of Satan’s offer by the Christ of Paradise Regained: “I would not taste thy treasonous offer; none/ But such as are good men can give good things” (Comus, lines 702-703).
The Satan of Paradise Lost, taking refuge in a serpent’s body, is more subtle than either Comus or Satan’s greatly reduced self in Paradise Regained: he doesn’t need to remind his opponent that she is hungry; instead, he leads Eve to the Tree of Knowledge just about lunchtime, as the “hour of Noon drew on, and wak’d / An eager appetite, rais’d by the smell/ So savory of that Fruit,…” (PL 9.739-741). Unfortunately Eve lacks the powers of resistance of either the Lady or the Son of God.
I believe it is not too far-fetched to find a parallel to these Miltonic temptations in Circe’s offer—appearing both in Homer and in Ovid—of a mixture of barley, honey, cheese, and wine, skillfully drugged, to Odysseus’ tired and hungry men. It is, after all, their acceptance of her offer that allows Circe to metamorphose them into animals by touching them with her magic wand. The parallel here is closest to the scene with Eve, who likewise succumbs to the offered temptation.
Today’s readers of Comus have an advantage over Milton’s original readers, as we can attest by considering some important dates. Comus was first published in 1637; a shorter, acting version had been given to the Egerton family around the time that the masque was publicly presented, a few years earlier; and an edition of his early poems, which he carefully supervised, was published in 1645. As for the later poems, the first edition of Paradise Lost did not appear till 1667, with some important revisions appearing in the second edition of 1674; and Paradise Regained did not appear until 1671, together with Samson Agonistes. (A second edition of the minor poems, both English and Latin, with a few additions, appeared in 1673, after the first edition of Paradise Lost and the publication of Paradise Regained and Samson.) So it would have been at least thirty years after Milton first published his masque before those early readers of Comus could have detected in Comus and the Lady, as we can, distinct foreshadowings of the Satanic temptations in the later poems. Even with all of the clues about Comus’ nature that Milton provides in his masque, the Satanic prognostications add powerful insights into the profound evil that Comus represents for the Lady.
Nevertheless, astute readers of the early editions of Comus (not to mention later readers) would have caught an ominous echo of Spenser in Comus’ specious concern for the Lady’s physical condition. Comus takes the Lady to task for “scorning the unexempt condition [i.e., Nature exempts no one] /By which all mortal frailty must subsist,/ Refreshment after toil, ease after pain” (lines 685-687). In stressing the human need for rest as well as food, Comus echoes the insidious rhetoric of Spenser’s Despair, in Book One of The Faerie Queene (publ. 1590), as he tempts the Red Cross Knight to suicide:
Is not short paine well borne, that brings long ease,
And layes the soule to sleepe in quiet grave?
Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.
Through the power of words both villains attempt to lure their victims into different forms of spiritual death.
Unlike Red Cross, who barely escapes self-destruction, which threatens his soul as well as his body, the Lady is not overcome by her opponent’s arguments, which she refers to as “false rules prankt in reason’s garb” (line 759). Though the Lady makes her points effectively, if at times a bit self-righteously, about the “holy dictate of spare Temperance” (line 807), she is surrounded by living embodiments of Comus’ philosophy, so different from hers, of excess and moral/spiritual anarchy: namely, the animal-headed revelers who no doubt wish to make her part of their company, as their leader, Comus, does.
Surely the debate between the Lady and Circe’s son is no mere academic exercise to be settled by powerful words and irrefutable logic. She is in grave danger, not merely from the “ugly-headed Monsters” (line 675) but from her isolation and imprisonment in Comus’ castle, where a different kind of physical harm from that threatening the Red Cross Knight awaits her. Tied to a chair, she is totally immobilized by his black magic. She attacks the basics of his lifestyle (“swinish gluttony” [line 776]—again a reminder of his renowned mother—and “brew’d enchantments” [line 696]—a reminder of both parents), but the scene ends, just before her rescue, with what seems to be his attempt to force her to drink a glass of drugged liquor, one of his “brew’d enchantments”: … “One sip of this/ Will bathe the drooping spirits in delight/ Beyond the bliss of dreams. Be wise, and taste.—” (lines 811-813). Perhaps it is not out of line to see this scene as an early literary variation of what we would call today date rape.
Barbara Howard Traister points out that it is a standard feature of evil magicians in the dramatic literature of the period, including masques, to paralyze their victim’s body while having no effect on the mind or soul (pp.175-176). The Lady is therefore able to carry on a spirited debate with Comus even though her body is rendered completely immobile.
When Comus, extolling Nature’s abundance, accuses the Lady of “praising the lean and sallow Abstinence” (line 709), she rebukes him for distorting moral and spiritual principles: namely, misrepresenting her position as abstinence rather than moderation, and deliberately blurring the distinction between abundance (God’s plenty manifested in the natural world) and excess (the quantitative misuse and abuse of that plenty). Scathingly she attacks him as an “Impostor” for “charg[ing] most innocent nature/ As if she would her children should be riotous/ With her abundance” (lines 762-764).
Comus then scornfully declares that “If all the world/ Should in a pet of temperance” follow the example of her extreme lifestyle (lines 720-722), it would be equivalent to an act of sacrilege: “Th’ all-giver would be unthank’t, would be unprais’d,/ Not half his riches known, and yet despis’d” (lines 723-724). The Lady is horrified at what she has just heard “in this unhallow’d air” (line 757) and denounces him for hypocrisy: “…For swinish gluttony,”she responds,/ “ Ne’er looks to Heav’n amidst his gorgeous feast” (lines 776-777).
Perhaps his clearest attempt to proposition the Lady is his declaration that beauty must be shared with the world before it fades. Shakespeare, among others, in his early narrative poem Venus and Adonis has Venus use the same argument to try to seduce the unwilling Adonis, with about the same lack of success as Comus’ words to the Lady. Nevertheless, in Shakespeare’s so-called Procreation Sonnets, numbers 1 to 17, he employs the argument of transient beauty for the very opposite purpose of advancing the cause of marriage and reproduction.
The Lady counters Comus’ libertine propositions with what she calls the “Sun-clad power of Chastity” and the “sage/ And serious doctrine of Virginity” (lines 782, 786-787), but she does not explain these terms to him. For Milton, as for Spenser (for example, in Book 3 of The Faerie Queene), “chastity” is both a synonym for “virginity” and a more complex, more inclusive term that embraces a life of moral and spiritual purity—so the Lady’s significant use of both words in the same passage is amply justified.
Conceivably their debate may reflect a conflict within the young Milton himself: banqueting and merrymaking versus austerity, the pursuit of women versus a chaste life. When Comus delivers his energetic attack on what he considers the Lady’s wrongheaded lifestyle, he asserts that she and all others who share her opinions must “feed on Pulse [i.e., beans and other seed-producing plants], / Drink the clear stream, and nothing wear but Frieze” [i.e., coarse, rough woolen garments] (lines 721-722). He almost appears to be echoing the contrasting lifestyles—banqueting and wine-drinking versus a rigorous asceticism—that dominate the Sixth Elegy.
In that early work, centered on lifestyle options for a poet with serious goals, Milton gently, and probably jokingly, admonishes his friend Diodati for having doubts about the compatibility of drinking wine and writing poetry: “But why do you complain that poetry is a fugitive from wine and feasting? Song loves Bacchus and Bacchus loves songs” (pp.50-51).
Evoking the idea, common in classical antiquity and during the Early Modern Period, that wine leads to poetic inspiration, Milton cites the Greek poets Anacreon and Pindar and the Roman poet Horace as both theorists and practitioners of wine-drinking. And from a slightly different perspective he points out that “Ovid sent bad verses from the Corallian fields [a reference to the unsophisticated place to which he had been banished from Rome by the Emperor Augustus] because there were no banquets in that land and the vine had not been planted” (p.51). Moreover, Milton reminds Diodati, additional inspiration will come at feasts “through a maiden’s eyes and music-making fingers” (p.51).
But Milton qualifies the attractions of this poetry-inducing lifestyle by noting that the poets he has mentioned, and presumably Diodati also, write shorter pieces that are primarily lyric and/or erotic. In contrast to these pagan writers of lighter verse, illustrious as they are, Milton puts himself, as a future epic poet, in the camp of those who write longer and more serious verse. As for a poet of such lofty goals, he says, “Let him live sparingly, …; and let herbs furnish his innocent diet. Let the purest water stand beside him in a bowl of beech and let him drink sober draughts from the pure spring” (p.52). He places himself solidly in the tradition of Homer, “the spare eater and the water-drinker…” (p.52).
In his edition of Milton, Merritt Y. Hughes suggests as a possible source for this concept of Homer the fourteenth-century writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s Genealogy of the Gods [De Genealogia Deorum] XIV.19, in which the Italian writer, according to Hughes, has “the blind Homer living something like the life of a Christian hermit on the mountains and composing the story of Ulysses—the ideal hero because he resisted the charms of Circe and the Sirens and passed unscathed through the realm of the dead” (p.52, note to the Latin, line 71). The young, brilliant, and impressionable Milton must have been intrigued at the thought of linking his own moral behavior to that of the earliest, and many would say the greatest, of epic poets, and to that of the Homeric hero whose story influenced Milton so deeply.
For the most part, Early Modern poetic theory identified the epic poet as a moralist and teacher to his fellow human beings, and his own life, therefore, had to be exemplary. Besides abstaining from “frequent potations of…wine” and “grand banquets,” which are “allowable” for other types of poets, in Milton’s judgment, the future epic poet’s “youth must be innocent of crime and chaste, his conduct irreproachable, and his hands stainless” (p.52). Chastity, so heavily emphasized in Comus, not merely by the Lady but by the Elder Brother, too, would become a watchword for Milton. The young poet setting up rules in Elegy 6 would have to be on guard against the sensuous (and sensual) appeal of the “dancing feet of maidens” (p.51). As in the earlier Elegy 1, where he watches “groups of maidens go dancing past” in London and its pastoral surroundings, he exclaims, “Ah, how many times have I been struck dumb by the miraculous grace of a form which might make decrepit Jove young again” (p.9). And, of course, it is here that he tells us of his need to leave “this city of delights… to secure the safety of distance from the infamous halls of the deceiver Circe” (p.10).
Though he has set up for himself in the Elegies, especially Elegy 6, an austere approach to life, his descriptions indicate that the “other” way of life--the way of wine, women, and song—still has some appeal for him. However, in the first collected edition of his minor poems (1645) and in the somewhat expanded 1673 edition, Milton included a ten-line Latin retraction of his youthful Elegies, referring to them, in Merritt Hughes’ translation, as “monuments of my wantonness” ("nequitiae… vana trophaea meae”—line 2) (p.61). Some Miltonists believe that the retraction was primarily or exclusively for Elegy 7, the last and most erotic of the Elegies, rather than for the entire collection (e.g., Le Comte, p.11; Flannagan, p.201, note 16; and Revard, p.192, note 1). Roy Flannagan suggests that the “swaggering imagery in the lines invites the reader not to take the lines too seriously” (p.201, note 16). Moreover, Stella Revard reminds us that “apologies for supposed youthful trifles” or secular poems were common (p.192, note 1).
There is no question that in his later life Milton practiced austerity. Citing Edward Phillips, Milton’s nephew, who wrote one of the earliest biographies of his uncle, Milton scholar Roy Flannagan declares, “We know that Milton in later life was personally ‘of hard study, and spare Diet,’ ” but that he did have “friends over for wine and conversation.” Flannagan’s overall assessment on this issue is that “Milton probably never deviated from living a life of moderate eating and exercise: his healthy lifestyle might, for all we know, have contributed to his alertness into what was then a very ripe old age” (p.195). [He lived to be almost 66.] Furthermore, it is doubtful that he had any sexual liaisons except with his wives.
With all this having been said, many readers who enjoy the carpe diem poetry of Milton’s contemporaries Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell still find Comus’ arguments appealing, his epigrammatic lines delightful, and his puns thoughtful. For example,
Beauty is nature’s coin, must not be hoarded;
If you let slip time, like a neglected rose
It withers on the stalk with languish’t head;
It is for homely features to keep home,
They had their name thence;… .
(lines 739, 743-744, 748-749)
Stephen Orgel notes that Comus “is a pleasure principle,” that part of his attraction is that “his command of metaphor and poetic language… is striking,” and that, in his response to the Lady’s song, he shows himself to be sensitive to music: “For a villain,” Orgel asserts, “he is a remarkably appreciative audience” (“The Case for Comus,” pp.35-36).
The Lady’s lovely singing voice evokes for Comus nostalgic memories of his mother, in a reference that has no classical precedent:
I have oft heard
My mother Circe with the Sirens three,
Amidst the flow’ry-kirl’d Naiades,
Culling their Potent herbs and baleful drugs,
Who as they sung, would take the prison’d soul,
And lap it in Elysium; …
Scholars agree that there are no passages in ancient literature with Circe interacting with the Sirens, though Merritt Hughes believes that “Ovid’s picture of Circe gathering flowers with water nymphs like the Naiades” in Book 14 of the Metamorphoses “fuses with Homer’s Sirens” in Book 12 of the Odyssey, “whose songs lured sailors to their death” (p.96, note to line 253).12
The Miltonic passage goes on to tell us that “Scylla wept,/ And chid her barking waves into attention,/ And fell Charybdis murmur’d soft applause” (lines 257-259).
The syntax in Comus’ evocation is sufficiently ambiguous as to make it unclear whether it is merely the Sirens who are singing or whether they are joined by Circe, but the context—the Lady’s beautiful voice that reminds him of his mother—would seem to point to the latter alternative; in fact, in Book Ten of the Odyssey there are two distinct references to Circe’s impressive singing voice, which is heard by Odysseus’ men before they enter her palace.
This passage from Comus is about as close as we are likely to come to a favorable Miltonic response to the Circe figure, but, of course, it is Circe’s son who is eliciting the response. Besides, as Orgel points out, “Even in the small details negative images are balanced by positive ones: baleful days with potent herbs, the prisoned soul with Elysium, fell Charybdis with soft applause, …” (p.36). And also, we recall, both Scylla and the all-devouring whirlpool Charybdis are terrifying dangers through which Odysseus and his men must sail; and the song of the Sirens, which ends with mariners being impaled on the treacherous rocks, is essentially a subconscious death wish. In its own way, Circe’s singing is almost as destructive as the Sirens’: it is a prelude to the metamorphosis of Odysseus’ sailors. No matter how appealing, Milton seems to hint, pleasure is rarely unmixed with danger.
Even the Lady, who is not moved by Comus’ carpe diem philosophy—i.e.,“life is brief and beauty short-lived, so indulge in endless pleasures now”—recognizes that he is a master of “dear Wit and gay Rhetoric” and that he has “so well been taught her [i.e., Rhetoric’s] dazzling fence” (i.e., thrust) (lines 790-791). Indeed, since Milton’s days at Cambridge, where he was able to exercise his rhetorical and logical skills, where he penned his academic exercises, the Prolusions, and where he got early training for his later polemical writings, Milton had mastered the art of debate.
Is Milton, though sufficiently disciplined to follow an approach to life such as the Lady recommends and Comus repudiates, and of which the poet considers Homer a distinguished example, demonstrating that his ears are not entirely closed to the siren song of banqueting and revelry or of pleasure in general? (We know that, like Comus, Milton was sensitive to beautiful music.) Is he, in other words, still coping with the dilemma—as in the early Elegies—of selecting a personal lifestyle, or, more impersonally, is he merely trying to show, as Spenser does in the Bower of Bliss (The Faerie Queene, Book 2, Canto 12), how hard we must struggle to overcome the tantalizing appeal of the life of pleasure? Perhaps both possibilities apply; perhaps neither is an accurate representation of his intentions while writing Comus.
Whatever Milton’s personal views on banqueting and merrymaking while writing Comus, the specific demands of his masque and larger issues of moral and social order within his culture would not have allowed a triumphant Comus. Superficially at least, in their verbal contest the Lady must be declared the winner. Comus himself admits, “I feel that I do fear/ Her words set off by some superior power” (lines 800-801).
In some respects Comus is a bit like Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Both Comus and Falstaff are drawn to excesses in eating, drinking, and sexual behavior. (In Comus’ case, as we have seen, his sexual attraction may encompass both genders.) In other words, the two characters are drawn to personal pleasure rather than to any overriding sense of duty or responsibility. Like Falstaff, Comus has his charm and unconventionality, but like Shakespeare’s larger-than-life comic figure, Comus, for all his appeal, must eventually be rejected and routed.
Not only is he a threat to the Lady, whose father, a member of the English ruling class, is the honoree of Milton’s poetic masque, but the unrestrained license that he and his crew glorify threatens the moral and political well-being of society. For this reason the Earl of Castlehaven, on account of his Comus-like orgies, suffered the ultimate legal penalty. Both in life and in texts, destabilizing elements are permitted, up to a point, to have their day in the sun; but in time, particularly when they exceed their limits, they must be silenced.
In spite of the Elder Brother’s confidence early on that “Virtue could see to do what virtue would/ By her own radiant light” (lines 373-374), Milton knew, as did Spenser and others, that human powers are insufficient against diabolic evil. The Lady has limited resources against Comus; she is in need of supernatural assistance, as Homer’s Odysseus requires the help of the god Hermes to withstand the enchantments of Circe. The Lady’s brothers have been schooled by their tutor-shepherd Thyrsis, in reality the Attendant Spirit, a daemon (not to be confused with its homonymic opposite,“demon”), or guardian spirit, whose advice to brandish their swords, attack the enchanter, “break his glass,/ And shed the luscious liquor on the ground,/ But seize his wand” (lines 651-653) they don’t strictly follow. Though they “wrest his Glass out of his hand, and break it against the ground” (S.D., p.109), they neglect one important aspect of these instructions: “Ye should have snatch his wand/ And bound him fast” (lines 815-816). Consequently, Comus and his crew manage to escape, and the Lady remains paralyzed in her chair.
As the Attendant Spirit explains,… “Without his rod revers’t,/ And backward mutters of dissevering power” (lines 816-817, they cannot free the Lady. Modern editors usually provide a note that links Comus to his mother, Circe, with yet one more detail from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (14.300): namely, that Odysseus forces Circe to free his men, which she does by reversing her wand and her incantation.13 For a 21st-century audience the sexual symbolism that Catherine Thomas points out—“the phallus-like quality of [Comus’] wand and the feminine association of [his]cup” (p.452)—sounds right, as well as her reminder that with his escape “Comus and his paralyzing wand/ phallus still roam the countryside, ready to ensnare another victim” (p.453). As part of the human condition, the sexual menace may be temporarily, but not permanently, overcome.
As a lesser divinity of probable Platonic origin, the Attendant Spirit cannot offer his charges much assistance against Comus’ black magic, even with the haemony, praised earlier, that he no doubt carries with him. A higher power must be summoned: Sabrina, a drowned virgin made goddess of the Severn River, originating in Wales and flowing into England, named after her. Miltonist Barbara Lewalski points out that “in the acting version [of Comus] though not in Milton’s [published] text the Elder Brother helps to summon Sabrina [as opposed to the printed versions that Milton supervised, in which the Attendant Spirit does the summoning] and direct the return home. Clearly, the young heir had to be given a more active and more successful role than Milton had allowed” (p.64; bracketed material is mine). Sabrina’s associations with water, including the pure drops she sprinkles on the Lady and on the chair where the Lady is held captive, inevitably call to mind the power of baptism in Christian tradition and its suggestion of divine grace, the only force strong enough to nullify devilish magic. Indeed, as the river goddess returns to her watery home, the “Lady rises out of her seat” (S.D., p.111).
Barbara Traister makes the interesting point that, as in most other masques, in Comus the forces of supernatural good and evil are never on stage at the same time: “…Evil magic is displayed and displaced by powerful good… . Thus, while Comus surely presents two opposing magics, it portrays no dramatic contest” (pp.174-175).
Comus ends with the characteristic dance of the masquers, at Ludlow Castle, the Earl’s residence and now a safe haven for his three restored children. In contrast to the antimasque, a part of the masque in which ugly or grotesque characters, representing morally and socially repugnant values, sing, dance, and interact (here, certainly, Comus and his carnivalesque crew),14
the masque proper, with its beautifully costumed courtiers, celebrates order and goodness in its concluding dance. So the children and the adults, in one last expression of Milton’s central theme, get “to triumph in victorious dance/ O’er sensual Folly and Intemperance” (lines 974-975).
Comus’ beginning and ending are tightly controlled. As the poem begins, the Attendant Spirit descends from his heavenly “mansion” to be the “defense and guard” of three innocent children (lines 2, 42). His mission having been completed, in a long speech that forms an epilogue he prepares to return, moralizing on the supremacy of virtue, and asserting, as in the Lady’s case, that “if Virtue feeble were,/ Heav’n itself would stoop to her” (lines 1022-1023—the last two lines of the poem).
Milton’s poetic masque thus begins and ends with the assertion that heaven watches over and protects the innocent, an assertion that is strategically placed at what may be the two most prominent spots in the work. In a sense, Comus is flanked at both ends by the presence of God. The Attendant Spirit virtually describes a complete circle in his downward movement from heaven to earth at the beginning of Comus and in his upward movement at its conclusion as he prepares to reascend to “those happy climes that lie/ Where day never shuts his eye,/ Up in the broad fields of the sky” (lines 977-979). Without doubt the symbolism of the circle, representing divine perfection, would not have been lost on a Christian Platonist like Milton.
Elsewhere Milton makes it very clear that heavenly spirits intervene in mortal affairs at critical times: for example, the angelic assistance to Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, particularly from the seraphim Gabriel, Raphael, and, after the inevitable Fall from Grace, Michael. Even the Son of God, at the end of Paradise Regained, tired and hungry after his forty-day ordeal with Satan, requires divine assistance. (He is, after all, man as well as God.) After being placed on the “highest Pinnacle” of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Adversary of God and man (4.541-549), the Son is rescued from his precarious position by a “fiery Globe/ Of Angels” who “in a flow’ry valley set him down” and spread “a table of Celestial Food, Divine,/.../ And from the fount of life Ambrosial drink,/ That soon refresh’d him wearied,…” (lines 585-591).
In The Faerie Queene Spenser, Milton’s great teacher and literary role model, has an angel intervene to assist Sir Guyon, who faints after his fatiguing three-day conflict in the Cave of Mammon, and in his helpless state is subsequently attacked by the pagan brothers Pyrochles and Cymochles. The angel appears to the Palmer, who has been separated from Guyon during the knight’s encounter with Mammon, and warns him of danger; the heavenly messenger then informs the Palmer that he will “euermore him [i.e., Guyon] succour, and defend/ Against his foe and mine” (F.Q.184.108.40.206-6). At the opening of Book 2, Canto 8, Spenser makes angelic intervention an explicit part of his poetic theology. He begins by asking:
And is there care in heauen? And is there loue
In heauenly spirits to these creatures bace,
That may compassion of their euils moue?
There is: … [emphasis mine]
God, he continues, will send his “blessed Angels” (220.127.116.11): “How oft do they, their siluer bowers leaue,/ To come to succor vs, that succour want?” (18.104.22.168-2). Ultimately the providential appearance of Prince Arthur, who slays the pagan brothers and rescues the downed knight, seems to confirm the angelic promise to the Palmer.
The Attendant Spirit in Comus is not technically an angel, but he is the principal agent in the delivery of the two brothers and, with Sabrina’s assistance, in the rescue of the Lady. Incontestably his most important function, the one for which he was sent to earth, is to provide divine support, like the angels in Milton’s later poems and in Book 2 of The Faerie Queene. In his inimitable fashion, therefore, the greatest English poet of the seventeenth century may be suggesting that, whatever the vulnerability of the three children in the masque, and in spite of appearances to the contrary, in actuality they are never in any danger.
Though Milton makes good use of the Circe myth in two of his early Elegies and in Paradise Lost, he treats the myth most elaborately and extensively in Comus, which is not merely the longest English masque of the Early Modern Period; it is without question the best. Though Milton did not invent the character of Comus, he invented worthy parentage for him: Bacchus, the god of wine, long associated with orgiastic rites, and Circe, the Homeric enchantress who transforms human beings into animals. Milton follows the well-established, post-Homeric, Ovidian tradition of emphasizing only Circe’s negative characteristics; and by placing Comus in a Christian context of seventeenth-century fears about witches and sorcerers, black magic, and the devil, Milton makes the son even more ominous than his mother.
The debate between the Lady and Comus enables Milton to concentrate on large moral and spiritual themes that were significant to him and to his age: for example, the opposition of reason and virtue to the passions and appetites, the seductive appeal of the libertine lifestyle, the place of chastity in our lives, the question of appropriate behavior for the serious writer, and the connection between these moral/spiritual concerns and gender roles and expectations. In view of his comments in Elegies 1 and 6 about differing approaches to life, the attraction of Comus’ arguments leads us to speculate about whether the still youthful Milton was conflicted between merrymaking and austerity. Moreover, the ceremonial aspect of his masque, by which he honors the Earl of Bridgewater and his family on the Earl’s appointment as Lord President of Wales, may possibly serve, albeit allusively, to exonerate the family from the taint of the scurrilous Castlehaven scandal. And finally, through well-placed comments and the circular structure of his poem Milton hints at the constant watchfulness of divine providence over a world of innocents beset by diabolic perils.
Milton somehow manages to link all of these issues to a mythological sorceress who for thousands of years has been identified with the life of sensual pleasure and has fascinated a myriad of readers, including Milton’s contemporaries as well as later devotees. The question, then, asked by the Attendant Spirit at the beginning of the poem must be seen as a purely rhetorical one: “Who knows not Circe,/ The daughter of the Sun?” (lines 50-51). Who, indeed?