Milton’s Comus – a forgotten Midlands gem?

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Perhaps wrongly, I’ve always associated Milton with ponderously unreadable 500,000-line puritan poems on Biblical themes, in which he basically tried to rewrite the Bible. But on looking into his influence on the young J.R.R. Tolkien (slight, except in one instance) I’ve discovered that as a young writer, age 26, Milton produced a sprightly and short young man’s play. This was the Midsummer Night’s Dream-like masque, Comus (1634). In his time it had a one-and-only performance locally, in Shropshire in the grounds of Ludlow Castle, to celebrate the appointment of the new Marcher Lord there. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has…

“Comus is a masque against “masquing,” contrasting a private heroism in chastity and virtue with the courtly round of revelry and pleasure. It was Milton’s first dramatizing of his great theme, the conflict of good and evil. The allegorical story centres on a virtuous Lady who becomes separated from her two brothers while travelling in the woods. The Lady encounters the evil sorcerer Comus, son of Bacchus and Circe, who imprisons her by magic in his palace. In debate the Lady rejects Comus’s hedonistic philosophy and defends temperance and chastity. She is eventually freed by the two brothers, with the help of an angelic Attendant Spirit and the river nymph Sabrina.”

Fascinating. It has sweet music as well: in 1745 Handel wrote “three songs and a trio” for the masque, which were likewise performed at Ludlow Castle.

Illustrations too. No less than William Blake produced a set of illustrations for it. The great Arthur Rackham also produced an illustrated edition in 1921.

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Seriously… Milton, Handel and Blake… strong women, sex, wizards and fairies… why on earth isn’t Comus being claimed as a West Midlands classic (no-one else seems to want it) and regularly performed by Royal Shakespeare Company as an adapted touring show with slightly modernised language? It’s short, so could be paired with something more box-office friendly in the same line, such as some of the hobbit songs from The Lord of the Rings.

Sources:

* Comus, facsimile edition of 1903.

* Comus illustrations by William Blake

* Comus, illustrated by Arthur Rackham along with a clear presentation of the text.

* Comus, annotated version explaining the classical allusions and antiquated words.

* Handel’s Comus music.

Some of the Comus illustrations by Arthur Rackham…

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There was one recent instance where Comus attracted attention. The book Scenes from Comus (2005), from the great Midlands poet Geoffrey Hill, was a collection of poems on notions of the comedic and masques, and the ridiculous aspects of old age. But it wasn’t any kind of adaptation of the play, as the word is usually understood.

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