Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Milton > L’Allegro; Il Penseroso; Arcades; Comus
  On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity Lycidas  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 12. L’Allegro; Il Penseroso; Arcades; Comus.


The recognition of this is the most important thing in the study of the first stage of Milton’s poetical career. It was a few years before the executive mastery rendered the critical control regulative rather than prohibitive or suspensory; but very few. The famous Shakespeare lines are probably a little, and even not a very little, earlier than the date of the second folio, in which they appeared, and, if not perfect intrinsically, are admirable as from a young disciple to a dead master. The Hobson pieces, though quite out of Milton’s line and much less well done in their own than they would have been by Cleiveland or John Hall, are, at least, curious. An Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester is a notable study for the verse of L’Allegro; and its companion Arcades, of which more presently, is a more notable study for Comus. A hint from Peele—not the last—and a suggestion from Shakespeare, matter nothing: Milton was to be always a literary poet. These things mark the full initiation, the final winning of the spurs.   33
  From L’Allegro itself to Samson Agonistes, we have to do with the adept and the knight. The comparative valuation of the various poems of these forty years may be left to others, for it depends partly upon personal preferences, partly upon considerations of scale and subject and other things that can never be brought to a satisfactory common denominator of criticism. But the positive quality of poetry is in and over them all, from first to last, unmistakable by those who have been born or taught to recognise it. And it is this positive quality, in its various individual manifestations, and in its relations to the general history and development of English poetry at large, that we have now to disengage and study in chronological order, only neglecting this latter in the case of the Sonnets, so as to group them together, as is usually done, in what is the actual place of most of them,—the gap between Lycidas and Paradise Lost.   34
  The twin studies of cheerfulness and melancholy will, of course, come first, for it is impossible to admit the ingenious attempt (above referred to) to postdate them. Their extraordinary felicity has not met any important gainsayings. That some of the details are not quite accurate, as natural history, would matter extremely little in any case, and has even a certain interest in connection with the peculiarity (to be noticed later) of Milton’s poetic painting. Another interesting point is the skill with which the full or shortened octosyllabic couplet, with iambic or trochaic cadence at pleasure, is handled. This famous old measure, handed down from The Owl and the Nightingale, if not earlier, had been fingered into new beauty by Shakespeare and others in the last years of the sixteenth century and had been specially cultivated by Fletcher, Browne, Wither and others in the earlier seventeenth. Its capabilities have never been so perfectly and variously shown as in these two charming poems, which are also, as it were, diploma-pieces, exhibiting Milton’s almost unsurpassable combination of bookishness and natural imagination, the art of phrase which still has all the gracefulness of youth, the power over imagery and association, the whole suffused with a temper which is soft even when sad, and which never jars or thorn-crackles even at its most mirthful.   35
  When the beautiful fragment Arcades (to return to it for a special purpose) was written is not known; it must have come before Comus, but may be of any year between 1630 and 1634. It was addressed to Alice, countess dowager of Derby—the same lady who, as lady Strange (she was by birth lady Alice Spencer) had been the recipient of Spenser’s Teares of the Muses forty years before, and who, after the death of her first husband (Strange, it must be remembered, was then the second title of the earls of Derby), had married lord keeper Egerton, afterward lord chancellor viscount Brackley. The masque was performed at Harefield in Middlesex, not far from Horton, and it is supposed, though not known, that the music was by Milton’s friend Lawes. Fragment as the libretto is, the songs, especially the second, “On the smooth enamelled green” are perfection; and the decasyllabic couplets of the Genius’s speech have deep interest as being Milton’s most considerable serious attempt in this form. He takes, as was natural, the enjambed variety, but carefully avoids the breathless overlapping of his seniors Browne and Marmion and Chalkhill and his younger contemporary Chamberlayne.   36
  The connection of Comus with Arcades is so close in all ways that it is scarcely improper to regard it as deliberate. The earl of Bridgewater, for whom it was written, was lady Derby’s stepson through her second husband, and his wife was her daughter by her first. He was president of Wales, and, in virtue of his office, lived at Ludlow castle, where Comus was acted. His daughter Alice, who acted the Lady, must have been named after her double grandmother. Lawes here certainly wrote the music, and he acted the Attendant Spirit. As for the story, it was partly supplied (beyond all question) by Peele’s Old Wives Tale, largely supplemented from Milton’s classical and modern reading (especially the Comus of the Dutchman Puteanus (1608)) and his own imagination; partly derived, at least according to tradition, from an actual adventure of lady Alice and her two brothers. But it has not always been sufficiently noticed that the whole, as it were, is a filling up of Arcades—the Genius of the Wood dividing himself into good and evil parts as Thyrsis and Comus, the merely accidental songs being adapted and multiplied to suit the action, and that action itself being devised, in full colour and body, to take the place of a mere occasional situation, like that of the earlier piece.   37
  The amplification was more than justified, and in a surprisingly large number of ways. The actual dramatic effect of the piece is not great; and, on the other side, it has been pronounced too much of a fully equipped drama to be a masque. But, putting questions of words and names apart, it is a most admirable poem; and there have even not been wanting those who put it, for length and poetic quality combined, first of all its author’s works, while admitting the superiority of Lycidas in the latter respect and the three great later pieces in the first. One special point of interest is that Milton here discards for his “tragedy,” as Sir Henry Wotton called it (i. e. the body of his dialogue), the couplet which he had used in Arcades, and adopts blank verse; while the rest of the piece is in octosyllabic couplet or lyrical measures which are almost an improvement on L’Allegro, Il Penseroso and Arcades itself. Something more will be said of the form later: the substance is amply worthy of it and, like it, duplex in character—an ethical height and weight which the poet had never reached before being matched with unimpaired grace in the lighter parts. It would be difficult to find a poem where profit and delight are more perfectly blended.   38

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  On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity Lycidas  
 
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