Archive for March, 2023

Corneille: Le Cid

March 26, 2023

Le Cid
Pierre Corneille
Translated from the French by Richard Wilbur
(Mariner, 2009) [1636]
118 p.

In his youth, before he was Le Cid, and well before he had sons-in-law on whom to seek revenge, he was just Rodrigo — or, as Corneille calls him, Don Rodrigue — and he was in love with Chimène, whom he intended to marry. Corneille’s play is an account of the troubled road to that happy consummation.

The set-up is quite ingenious. The two young lovers are on the brink of marriage when the unthinkable happens: their fathers quarrel, and Rodrigue is obliged, by the rules of honourable conduct, to avenge the insult by killing Chimène’s father. Soon enough she, too, finds herself trapped by a social obligation to seek the death of Rodrigue. Both lovers are impaled on the horns of a dilemma: family honour or love?

DON RODRIGUE: O miracle of love!
CHIMÈNE: \, \, \, \, O misery!
DON RODRIGUE: What pain our sires bequeath to you and me!

Corneille is adept at coming up with clever ways to express the quandary, and he tends to give them to Chimène to express:

Weep, weep, my blinded eyes, for half my heart
Is in the tomb, slain by the other part!
And after that fell blow I must take pains
To avenge what I have lost on what remains.

My passion strives against my wrath; I see
My lover’s features in my enemy.
I ask his head, although my heart can’t stand it;
His death will cause my own, yet I demand it!

… having lost him, I must now lose you,
Curbing my love as honour bids me do,
While hateful duty, with its heart of stone,
Drives me to work your ruin and my own.

This knot is not one easily untied, and the play casts about for various strategies before hitting on one that just might work. We actually don’t find out, from Corneille, if it works — a rather surprising conclusion, given theatrical conventions, then as now — but comparing the name of the real-life Cid’s wife to “Chimène” suggests that it did, in time.


On a dramatic level, I really enjoyed the play. Simple in concept, it’s tremendously intricate in execution, relying on motivation and feeling more than on events, and the characters are quite appealing and well-drawn. Tonally, it’s a complicated combination of tragedy, or near tragedy, and comedic undertones, as the pickle in which our hero and heroine find themselves gets ever more pickled.

My primary reservation is a poetic one, as it concerns the rhymes. The play is constructed almost entirely of rhyming couplets, and Richard Wilbur, one of our finest translators, has preserved that feature in his English. At the same time, Corneille’s twelve-syllable Alexandrine lines have been converted into ten-syllable English lines. There were scenes in which I found this structure very effective, as, for instance, in the crucial early scene in which the fathers of Rodrigue and Chimène quarrel over the king’s granting an honour to Don Diegue (Rodrigue’s father):

COUNT: He should have chosen me; you stole the prize.
DIÈGUE: The king’s decision was both just and wise.
COUNT: The post should go to him who’d fill it best.
DIÈGUE: In some respect, you must have failed the test.
COUNT: To win, you used your influence at court.
DIÈGUE: My glorious exploits were my sole support.
COUNT: The king but honours you because you’re old.
DIÈGUE: He honours only what is brave and bold.
COUNT: Why then, it’s this brave arm that he should choose.
DIÈGUE: Whoever did not win deserved to lose.

The rhymes, here, give the scene an additional energy, as the two play off one another. But, when extended to the length of a whole play, I found that the couplets, and the rarity of enjambments, tended to give the verse a bouncy, sing-song quality. I found it worked against the tragic feeling the play was trying to cultivate. By its nature this effect is hard to convey in a short excerpt, but this speech by Rodrigue partly captures what I mean:

They will but say, “He loved Chimène, and could
Not bear her hatred, which he understood;
He yielded to the bitter fate that led
His cherished mistress to demand his head;
She asked his death, which he resolved to give,
Feeling that it would be a crime to live.
He kept his honour; for that, his love was lost;
He avenged his lady at his own life’s cost —
By these two choices sacrificing then
Chimène to honour, and life to his Chimène.”
Thus you can see that dying in this fight
Won’t dim my fame but render it more bright,
And that my willing death will honour you,
Making amends as nothing else could do.

I love rhyming, but couplets are naturally cheerful, and the main substance of the play is not.

Those issues aside, however, I found this a diverting and rewarding play, among the best that I have encountered in this survey of early-ish modern drama. It has been popular in France over the years, and it’s not hard to see why.

Williams: The Figure of Beatrice

March 20, 2023

The Figure of Beatrice
A Study in Dante
Charles Williams
(Apocryphile, 2005) [1944]
240 p.

Aquinas was clear that a philosophical way to God proceeds in large measure by making affirmations of what God is not. God is immutable. God is impassable. God is unlimited in knowledge, power, and love. God is eternal — that is, not temporal. And we proceed in this way because what God is lies, for the most part, beyond our comprehension and capacity to articulate. The things that have been made might be images, in some sense, of God, but they are so inadequate to His reality that they are more likely to lead us astray than lead us to Him. And this via negativa is not just a tradition of philosophical method, but a spiritual discipline too, from at least Pseudo-Dionysius onward, and has given rise to an enduring school of devotion and spiritual life. It is venerable and I’ll not gainsay it.

But it has always existed, in Christianity, with a tendency in the other direction. Jesus taught us to call God “father”, which is a specific image. When he wanted to speak about the reality of God’s power and providence, he didn’t call for a retreat from the realm of everyday experience, but asked us instead to consider the lilies of the field, or to think of a sparrow, or of a mustard seed. And Jesus’ own person was, in a preeminent sense, an identification of God with a specific created thing. Under these conditions, it surely cannot be impossible, or even unlikely, that we find our way to God along a via positiva, through encounters with created things that we experience through our bodily senses.

Charles Williams is an advocate of this via positiva, which he calls the Way of Affirmation of Images, and he believes that Dante was as well. For Dante, the image by means of which God came to him was the figure of Beatrice, and the whole of the Divine Comedy, and of La Vita Nova also, is an account of how that vision of Beatrice led him, step by step, to salvation. It is Williams’ conviction that Dante’s experience of romantic love as a means of grace was real, and of general application, and very much worth serious thought.

In what ways does the experience of romantic love — of being “in love” — have moral and religious significance? Williams asks us to consider a young man who has fallen into this state:

He has met a young woman; he is attracted to her; his emotions are moved, his sensations increased, his intellect excited, and that dim state of being which we call his soul purged and cleaned. He is ‘in love’. He is concerned (perhaps) to ask questions about this new quality of life. It seems to him to have a terrible power, grand but (in a sense) ominous, related to every recognizable element in him. The girl seems to him something like perfection.

This description, which I hope is recognizable as a description of a real experience that you’ve had, has two aspects on which I’d like to focus. First, the vision of perfection, and, second, the purging and cleaning of the soul.

Love is blind, the saying goes, and there is an allied school of thought that sees the radiance that the girl sheds on the boy’s eyes as a kind of blindness, a distortion and obscuring of her actual, probably very normal, person. But Williams will have none of that. To his way of thinking, love gives the lovers true sight:

Maintaining that the beloved is there seen in her proper and heavenly perfection, they [the lovers] maintain also that such a perfection is implicit in every human being, and (had we eyes to see) would be explicit there.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ wonderful essay “The Weight of Glory,” in which he argues, along similar lines, that ordinary people are anything but, and that each of us has a capacity, in some sense already realized, for a glory that would overwhelm us if we could see it. It is similar to the beauty that a mother sees in her child: perhaps no one else can see it to the same extent, for no one else is so attentive, but let it not be said that the mother sees falsely. The child is beautiful, each one, though we are usually too weak or preoccupied to perceive it.

This vision of perfection can be a true insight without the beloved being actually perfect. She is potentially perfect, and that potentiality is made perceptible to the lover, who is dazzled by it:

The vision of the perfection arises independently of the imperfection; it shines through her body whatever she makes of her body. Thus chastity is exhibited in the lecherous, and industry in the lazy, and humility in the proud, and truth in the false… Her lover’s testimony told her what, in fact, the image of her was; it was for her to make haste to become it.

That last comment — that the beloved, seen by her lover, is given the task of becoming what he sees in her — is, as with all things in love, reciprocated. The lover, too, finds himself challenged to become worthy of his beloved. His inadequacies seem painfully obvious to himself, but he is inspired, by her love, to master them, making of himself a man who can offer her his best. This was my experience when I fell in love with my wife, and it was Dante’s experience too, when he saw Beatrice. In the Paradiso Dante says of her, as she, in her glory, extends him a hand, “so did her virtue overcome my nature,” which Williams interprets in just the way we are discussing here. The beloved’s presence burns away the dross. “The sight of Beatrice,” says Williams, “filled him with the fire of charity and clothed him with humility”. “She is such that whoever stays to behold her becomes a noble thing or dies.”

Elsewhere Dante argues that the vision of the beloved brings out the masculine virtues in the lover, which are (following Aristotle) courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, love of honour, mansuetude, affability, truthfulness, pleasantness, and justice. Comments Williams:

These are the eleven virtues of largesse; these are the powers which are provoked into action by the girl’s challenge, because they are the ‘valors’ of a man. It is indeed these which Beatrice, consciously or unconsciously, encourages, and in which she takes delight.

All of this, I think, is perceptive and true to experience. I have seen that vision shining through the woman who is now my wife. I have known that summons to virtue that came through her. What I had not considered before was how that experience could be seen within the larger horizon in which Dante presents it: that this experience is not just “infatuation” or some foolishness, but a true, powerful, and natural way to God, whose luminous goodness is partly revealed to the lover’s eye.

Of course, it is a truism, because true, that the overwhelming intensity of first love, the glory of the girl, does not last forever. This, too, happened to Dante, and in a particularly grievous way, for Beatrice died. The specifics differ, but the pattern is common: the vision is withdrawn.

The clouding of the translucency may be the will of the translucency, and the withdrawal of the glory at the will of the glory. Here too, if we may continue the similitude of the young Beatrice with the True Light, it is perhaps glory which says: ‘If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you, but if I depart, I will send him unto you.’

If the vision is from, and of, God, then why is it taken away? Dante believed that this was necessary for the good of the soul of the lover:

But then why do we not see it always, everywhere, and in all? Because the Divine Mercy intervenes. Mercy? Mercy, assuredly. ‘We cannot,’ wrote Dante in the third Tractate of the Convivio, ‘look fixedly upon her aspect because the soul is so intoxicated by it that after gazing it as once goes astray in all its operations.’

I certainly remember my soul’s operations going astray: incapacity to eat, to sleep, to concentrate! I had all the symptoms of the stupefied lover. But this, I think, is not quite what Dante has in mind. In the light of the vision of perfection, the soul is tempted “to extort from the glory its own satisfaction with the glory”. This I take to mean that the attention, and the desire, may drift from the girl who is glorious to the glory itself, as a kind of indulgence that wants to sate itself now instead of heeding the summons to find whatever is in and beyond the girl, like Romeo, who seemed, until he met Juliet (and maybe afterward too), to love simply being in love, without too great regard for whom it was he loved. If the lover’s focus shifts from answering the personal summons to virtue to satisfying his own needs and desires, then the glory has become not a help but a hindrance, and he is prone to this change of focus. “While we are what we are, the Divine Mercy clouds its creation.”

The withdrawal of the vision takes place without the meaning of the vision — the call to become worthy of the glory — being rescinded. The summons remains, even when the vision is no longer so dazzling. This is the structure of the Way of Affirmation, and it is the reason, says Williams, that marriage is the apt context for living out the meaning of romantic love:

The intention of fidelity is the safeguard of romanticism; the turning of something like the vision of an eternal state into an experiment toward that state. Once the experiment has been formally begun, it cannot be safely abandoned, or so the Christian Church maintains.

This fits comfortably with the Christian understanding of marriage as a sacrament: a means of grace intended to assist us on the path to heaven and beatitude. The Way begins in the first flush of romance, but continues to the end of life, when this purpose has been fulfilled, or not. In heaven, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, for if all goes well the girl yields her place to the greater lover. At the end of the Paradiso, Dante has exactly this experience, and it is the fulfillment of all that came before:

Once the voice of Beatrice has been the salutation of love; now her voice is but the sign of the salutation of love. The whole of Dante’s life and work has been to achieve that distinction and understand it. It seems but a very slight distinction, but is the whole purpose of the Way.


All this, I hasten to add, in the first few chapters of the book, in which Williams develops his framework for a theology of romance. In doing so, he draws on all, or at least most, of Dante’s writings, not just the Divine Comedy and La Vita Nova, but also the Convivio and even De Monarchia. Thereafter, the bulk of the book is devoted to a stage-by-stage, if not quite canto-by-canto, journey through the Divine Comedy, from the dark wood to the celestial rose. Along the way he marshals the evidence for Dante’s Way of Affirmation, but in fact the discussion ranges much more widely, and if one skipped the first few chapters, or had no interest in a religious phenomenology of romance, the book would still have value as a rich and creative commentary on the Divine Comedy.

A recurring idea is that the Comedy was written to be read through the four-fold interpretive schema by which medieval readers approached Scripture: it has a literal meaning, but also an allegorical, moral, and spiritual meaning. Apparently Dante intended it so, which I did not know. When, early in the Purgatorio, Dante sees four stars appear in the sky, they are, according to Williams, stars, but also ladies, and also virtues, and also modes of being. Perhaps. The Way of Affirmation he develops is, from this angle, not only a way of romance, but also of Romanticism in general, and also the way of the city (considered as a community of persons), and also the way of the soul. Beatrice is a girl, but allegorically she is philosophy, the lady with whom Dante first fell in love. What she is morally or spiritually I would not hazard to guess. Reading Dante in this multivalent fashion must be exhausting, but it does seem to be an enriching approach worth considering.

Dante is not the only poet in our tradition to encourage and illustrate for us the Way of Affirmation of Images. To Williams’ mind the other pre-eminent writer to undertake much the same task was Wordsworth — a claim that frankly astonished me but turns out to be plausible and defensible — and the book is sprinkled with citations of Wordsworth alongside lines from Dante.

Charles Williams was, as many know, part of the “Inklings” literary circle at Oxford, alongside Tolkien and Lewis, and he and Lewis were friends and admirers of one another for many years. Owen Barfield was another of that circle, and it strikes me that, at least in the English-speaking world, it would be hard to come up with a group of more creative Christian thinkers in the last century than those who sat together at The Eagle and Child every so often, reading to each other.


I have tried to convey the main arc of the book, insofar as I understood it. Williams himself sums up the argument succinctly:

The Beatrician moment is a moment of revelation and communicated conversion by means of a girl. This, as the Vita and the Commedia show, and as the Commedia is again presently to make clear, present the lover with a way of effort towards nobility and sanctity; say, of salvation — it is the simpler word.

It is a subtly written book, with a marked lyricism in its prose. There was much more in it than I was able to gather. Nonetheless, I found it offered an intriguing and enriching interpretation of my own experience, one that, far from treating romantic love as the arid “nothing but” school does, actually found more in my own experience than I had found myself, and encouraged me to take it more seriously than I had done before. I’m thankful. I hope this is not the end of my acquaintance with Charles Williams.


[Coleridge on Dante]
“Dante does not so much elevate your thoughts, as send them down deeper.”

[Memory of greatness]
The great may have their faults, but our business is to remember their greatness and not to cheapen it.

[Christian largesse]
What is Christianity but a doctrine of largesse? The doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine of largesse; the doctrine of the Incarnation and the creation is a doctrine of largesse; the doctrine of the Redemption is a doctrine of largesse; the doctrine of Heaven is in every way a doctrine of largesse.

Nowakowski: ‘O sacrum convivium’

March 16, 2023

I don’t know the date of composition — at least ten years ago, I think — but I’ve only just discovered this piece by Mark Nowakowski. It’s beautiful, and beautifully sung, too, by His Majesty’s Men.

Pindar: Odes

March 13, 2023

The Odes
Translated from the Greek by C.M. Bowra
(Penguin Classics, 1969) [c.500-450 BC]
256 p.

Pindar was a versatile poet, but only his Odes have come down to us substantially intact. They are celebratory poems, originally performed with music, to mark, in most cases, an athletic victory at one of the pan-Hellenic games held at various places in the Greek world. Thus we get an ode praising the boy who won the foot-race in Nemea, or the man who won the wrestling tournament in Delphi. Presumably they were commissioned by the authorities, or by the families of the victors, although I do not know for sure.

They vary in length, but have a fairly standard structure. There is an opening flourish, praising the victor and his homeland, followed by a myth or tale somehow related to the winner, and then a closing flourish.

If I am not mistaken, Pindar is a poet who is more respected than loved. His Greek is, I am told, complex and artful. Quintilian wrote, “Of the nine lyric poets, Pindar is by far the greatest, in virtue of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and figures, the rich exuberance of his language and matter, and his rolling flood of eloquence, characteristics which, as Horace rightly held, make him inimitable.”  It may be so. If his style is inimitable, it is probably even more difficult to successfully mimic in another language.

Since most of the poems are brief (say, 50-100 lines) and tonally similar, they are best read one or two at a time, at intervals. A little, I found, went a long way. In fact, I found these Odes fiercely difficult to follow, in part because they were so liberally salted with proper names of places, people, gods, and mythological figures, and maybe also partly on account of Pindar’s native style. Like a superconductor repelling magnetic fields, I found the poems repelled my powers of concentration. Much of the time I was lost, and drifting toward being loster. It would be interesting to hear an attempt to reproduce a musical performance of one of these Odes, but, apart from that, I’m unlikely to return to these poems again.

Proust: Death Comes for the Cathedrals

March 9, 2023

Death Comes for the Cathedrals
Marcel Proust
With an Afterword by Peter Kwasniewski
(Wiseblood, 2021) [1904]
45 p.

In 1904, there was a bill in draft by the French government that might have shuttered the nation’s churches and deprived Catholics of their liturgy and public worship. In the same year, at least partly in response to this challenge, two appreciations of French Catholicism were published by eminent men of letters, one on each side of the Atlantic. Strangely, neither author was a practicing Catholic. The first was Henry Adams, who, in Mont St Michel and Chartres, explored medieval French piety and the cultural and artistic achievements to which it gave birth, and the second was this, much briefer, essay by Proust.

Proust opposed the most radical provisions under discussion, and he did so because he too saw Catholic piety, in its many and various expressions, as an essential part of French culture. If, he argued, Catholicism in France were, at some future time, actually dead, and the cathedrals empty, the French government would be justified in funding an effort to revive the liturgy as a way of preserving and appreciating France’s heritage. The government should, therefore, not only not threaten to close the churches, but even be willing to fund the churches today to assist them in maintaining their still-living tradition.

His argument, as proffered, is primarily aesthetic and cultural in nature, not specifically religious. The Catholic liturgy is, for him, a magnificent cultural achievement:

Catholic ceremonies have an historical, social, artistic, and musical interest whose beauty alone surpasses all that any artist has ever dreamed, and which Wagner alone was ever able to come close to, in Parsifal — and that by imitation.

This is true, as far as it goes, but it is not robust, just as a flower is not robust without roots. Without faith and devotion, the flower of Catholic liturgy withers away. To his credit, Proust understands this and has no patience with his non-religious contemporaries who wanted to enjoy the fruits of Catholic faith while holding the faith itself in contempt:

One sees how many representatives, once they have finished passing anticlerical laws, go off on a tour of the cathedrals of England, of France, or of Italy, bring back an old chausable for their wife to turn into a coat or a door-curtain, draw up secularization plans in offices where hangs a photographed version of the Entombment, haggle over an altarpiece volet with an antique dealer, go out into the countryside to fetch church stall fragments to serve as umbrella stands in their parlors, and, on Good Friday, “religiously,” as they say, listen to the Missa Papae Marcelli.

Proust himself understands that authentic faith is necessary for the cathedrals of France to make sense, and he wants to sustain that faith even if he himself is not a believer:

One may say to churches what Jesus said to His disciples: “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you”. These somewhat mysterious yet profound words become, with this new usage, an aesthetic and architectural axiom.

That support and good will would be offered to the Church by such a giant of French culture is nothing to sneer at. Yet, at the same time, for a believing Catholic there is something undeniably topsy-turvy about the affair. Maybe he was the sort of man who appreciated cake because he liked icing, or who was grateful for the sun because he liked sunsets. He instrumentalises the primary reality to serve the secondary. He makes the transcendental subject to the immanent. And this, ultimately, would destroy the thing he wants to celebrate no less than the heavy hand of government would.


The editors at Wiseblood Books understand this and have, therefore, paired Proust’s essay with a piece by Peter Kwasniewski. Kwasniewski shares Proust’s appreciation of the music and art and architecture that have been created to serve the Catholic liturgy, but he is a man for whom the faith is a living reality. He sees that the beauties celebrated by Proust are not only the fruits of faith, but also means to faith.

He writes movingly about a visit to Chartres cathedral that was for him the occasion for a kind of religious conversion:

I could see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the glory of Christendom — even at a distance of so many centuries. It was a consoling sight, an invigorating melody, a captivating smell, a foretaste of heaven, a touch that wounded as it healed. It roused awake the sensus fidei, the sensus catholicus in my soul. Somehow — I think for the first time — I had an overwhelming sense of the humble glory of being Catholic.

Chartres will do that to a person. As time went on, Kwasniewski began to wonder why he had never had that vision before, despite having attended Mass all his life in America, and, as he explored the history of Catholic liturgy since Chartres was built, or even since Proust’s time, he came to believe, to simplify a complicated story, that the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were, and are, a big part of the problem.

To our everlasting shame, it was not radical Jacobins but surpliced churchmen who undertook the more barbaric work of destroying the traditional Mass that constitutes the single greatest work of art in the Christian West.

In the intervening years, Kwasniewski has become known in the English-speaking Catholic world as an advocate of the traditional Latin Mass, and while I would not defend his claim that Vatican II “destroyed” the Mass, I will admit to wincing with recognition when he says that the new Mass puts us in the position of trying “to reconstruct Chartres with Lego bricks,” and I would not hesitate to endorse his claim that “the Novus Ordo could never have inspired Romanesque or Gothic architecture,” at least as that Mass is normally celebrated in a typical parish. The new Mass really can be very beautiful and solemn, but it does so insofar as it imitates the old Mass, and the places where it does that consistently are few and far between.

The value of pairing these two essays, one a defence of the ancient Catholic Mass against its cultured despisers from a sympathetic agnostic, and the other a defence of the same Mass against its misguided or careless caretakers (who are also, in some cases, not excluding the Pope himself, despisers) by a passionate believer, is to put the current controversies over the Mass into a broader historical context, to emphasize that we have lost something and ought not to be complacent about it, and to stir up a desire to restore the Mass to its full splendour, all of which are worthy ends.

The physical book, from Wiseblood Books, is, as is fitting to its argument, quite beautiful. Though both essays are short, they are ornamented with gorgeous, full-page photos of French cathedrals.

Milton: Comus

March 6, 2023

John Milton
Illustrated by Edmund Dulac
(Heritage Press, 1954) [1634]
72 p.

Comus is not a play in the sense to which we’ve become accustomed in our tour through early English drama. It was not written for profit, not staged in the city, and not really intended for a public audience at all.  It is different in genre, too — not a tragedy, not a comedy, not a historical play. It is a masque, a courtly drama with allegorical resonances, intended for the entertainment of a lord in his castle — in this case, the lord of Ludlow Castle, to whom Milton was a friend.

The story is of three young people, two brothers and their sister, who enter a dark wood and become separated. The woman is abducted by a monstrous being, Comus himself, a kind of demon of the woods, and offered various pleasures, all of which she staunchly resists until such time as her brothers, aided by a good spirit, come to her rescue and drive Comus away.

The work is a beautiful tribute to virtue, and especially the virtue of chastity, in the face of temptation and violence. In the early going Comus sets out into the woods, looking for trouble:

What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove,
Venus now wakes, and wak’ns Love.
Come let us our rights begin,
Tis only day-light that makes sin,
Which these dun shades will ne’er report.

He loves darkness rather than light, because his deeds are evil. And it doesn’t take him long to find his victim (whom the play calls only “the Lady”). He absconds with her to his lair. Meanwhile, the brothers search for her, one frantic with worry, and the other concerned but not overwrought, for he puts great faith in her goodness:

1 Bro: My sister is not so defenceless left
As you imagine, she has a hidden strength
Which you remember not.

2 Bro. What hidden strength,
Unless the strength of Heav’n, if you mean that?

1 Bro. I mean that too, but yet a hidden strength
Which if Heav’n gave it, may be term’d her own:
‘Tis chastity, my brother, chastity
So dear to Heav’n is Saintly chastity,
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried Angels lackey her,
Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt
Against the threats
Of malice or of sorcery, or that power
Which erring men call Chance, this I hold firm;
Virtue may be assail’d, but never hurt,
Surprised by unjust force, but not enthralled,
Yea, even that which mischief meant most harm,
Shall in the happy trial prove most glory.

Meanwhile, back at the lair, Comus is setting to work on her resolve. He has cooked up a potion for her to drink. (He is the son, we learn, of Bacchus and Circe, and apparently takes after his mother in this matter of making potions.)

Comus. Why are you vexed, Lady? why do you frown?
Here dwell no frowns, nor anger, from these gates
Sorrow flies far: See, here be all the pleasures
That fancy can beget on youthful thoughts,
When the fresh blood grows lively, and returns
Brisk as the April buds in primrose-season.

But she answers:

Lady. Were it a draught for Juno when she banquets,
I would not taste thy treasonous offer; none
But such as are good men can give good things,
And that which is not good, is not delicious
To a well-governed and wise appetite.

Moving closer to the main point, he argues that beauty — her beauty — is meant to be enjoyed:

Comus. List, Lady; be not coy, and be not cozened
With that same vaunted name, Virginity,
Beauty is nature’s coin, must not be hoarded,
But must be current, and the good thereof
Consists in mutual and partaken bliss,
Unsavoury in the enjoyment of itself.
If you let slip time, like a neglected rose
It withers on the stalk with languished head.
Beauty is nature’s brag, and must be shown
In courts, at feasts, and high solemnities
Where most may wonder at the workmanship;
It is for homely features to keep home.

But she is unshaken:

Lady. Impostor! do not charge most innocent Nature,
As if she would her children should be riotous
With her abundance. She, good cateress,
Means her provision only to the good,
That live according to her sober laws,
And holy dictate of spare Temperance.

She realizes, though, that Comus’ nature is so depraved that he is incapable of apprehending the truth of what she says:

Lady. Thou hast nor ear, nor soul, to apprehend
The sublime notion and high mystery
That must be uttered to unfold the sage
And serious doctrine of Virginity;
And thou art worthy that thou shouldst not know
More happiness than this thy present lot.
Enjoy your dear wit, and gay rhetoric,
That hath so well been taught her dazzling fence;
Thou art not fit to hear thyself convinced.
Yet, should I try, the uncontrolled worth
Of this pure cause would kindle my rapt spirits
To such a flame of sacred vehemence
That dumb things would be moved to sympathise,
And the brute Earth would lend her nerves, and shake,
Till all thy magic structures, reared so high,
Were shattered into heaps o’er thy false head.

Whereupon Comus moves to force the drink upon her, but is prevented by the sudden arrival of her sword-wielding brothers. Comus flees, but they are unable to undo the enchanted bands with which he had enchained her. At this juncture Sabrina, a virgin goddess, arises and frees her. The attendant spirit who had guided the brothers to Comus’ den returns the three to the safety of their home, and the protection of their parents:

Spirit. 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 tried 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’er sensual Folly, and Intemperance.

And then this good Spirit closes the play with a brief exhortation:

Spirit. Mortals that would follow me,
Love Virtue, she alone is free,
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the sphery chime;
Or, if Virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her.


As I said, it’s a lovely work, with an appealing there-and-back-again structure. The verse is wonderful, of course. At just over 1000 lines, it’s fairly brief. It doesn’t have much in common with the other plays I’ve been reading from this period. There was a parallel tradition of masques, of which I am ignorant, but which apparently tended to the lascivious; Milton will have none of that. It reminded me of a fairy tale, like Hansel & Gretel, and I am also wondering what it owes to the medieval tradition of mystery plays, which I have not read for many years and cannot remember well.

In any case, imagine having John Milton as your family friend, and imagine that he offered to write a little masque for an evening’s entertainment for your family. (Even better, at the first performance it was the children of the castle’s lord who played the children in the masque.)


My edition of Comus is a mid-twentieth century volume from Heritage Press. It comes in a handsome slip case, and includes not only a set of watercolour illustrations, but also, at the end, musical scores for several airs that Henry Lawes wrote based on Milton’s text. It’s a very lovely book that I was fortunate to find at a used book sale last year.


[Wherever you go, there you are]
He that has light within his own clear breast
May sit i’ the center, and enjoy bright day,
But he that hides a dark soul, and foul thoughts
Benighted walks under the mid-day Sun;
Himself is his own dungeon.