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If I might venture to place Milton's works, according to their degrees of poetic excellence, it should be perhaps in the following order: Paradise Lost, Comus, Samson Agonistes, Lycidas, L'Allegro, II Penseroso. Dr. J. Wakton.
"We must not read Comus with an eye to the stage, or with the expectation of dramatic propriety. Under this restriction the absurdity of the Spirit speaking to an audience in a solitary forest at midnight, and the want of reciprocation in the dialogue, are overlooked. Comus is a suite of speeches, not interesting by discrimination of character; not conveying a variety of incidents, rior
"with him. He has given to his rhyming poetry a va"riety by long and short verses, and by rhymes as much "varied as possible, by distich rhymes, alternate rhymes, "and rhymes often at the distance of four lines, which al"together make such a variety as is not to be found in any "other rhyming poem, except that short poem of Dry"den's upon St. Cecilia's Day. And he has given one va*' riety to his rhyming verse, that is not to be found even "in Dryden's Ode; and that is, a change of the measure "of the verse, from the Iambic, when the accented sylla"ble in the foot is last, to the Trochaic, when it is first; "which changes altogether the flow of the verse, and "adapts it to subjects very different. Of this there are "sundry examples in the Comus." Dr. Todd.
gradually exciting curiosity; but perpetually attracting attention^ by sublime sentiment, by fanciful imagery of the richest vein, by an exuberance of picturesque description, poetical allusion, and ornamental expression. While it widely departs from the grotesque anomalies of the mask now in fashion, it does not nearly approach to the natural constitution of a regular play. There is a chastity in the.application and conduct of the machinery; and Sabrina is introduced with much address, after the Brothers had imprudently suffered the enchantment of Comus to take effect. This is the first time the old English mask was in some degree reduced to the principles and form of a rational composition; yet still it could not but retain some of its arbitrary peculiarities. The poet had here properly no more to' do with the pathos of tragedy, than the character of comedy: nor do I know that he was confined to the usual modes of theatrical interlocution. A great critic observes, that the dispute between the Lady and Comus is the most animated and affecting scene of the piece. Perhaps some other scenes, either consisting only of a soliloquy, or of three or four speeches only, have afforded more true pleasure. The same critic thinks, that in all the moral dialogue, although the language is poetical, and the sentiments generous, something is still wanting to allure attention. But surely, in such passages, sentiments so generous, and language so poetical, are sufficient to rouse all our feelings. For this reason I cannot admit his position, that Comus is a drama tediously instructive. And if, as he says, to these ethical discussions the auditor listens, as to a lecture, without passion, without anxiety, yet he listens with elevation and delight. The action is said to be improbable, because the Brothers, when their sister sinks with fatigue in a pathless wilderness, wander both away together in search of berries, too far to find their way back, and - leave a helpless lady to all the sadness and danger of solitude. But here is no desertion, or neglect of the lady. The Brothers leave their sister under a spreading pine in the forest, fainting for refreshment: they go to procure berries or some other fruit for her immediate relief, and, with great probability, lose their way in going or returning. To say nothing of the poet's art, in making this very natural and simple accident to be productive of the distress which forms the future business and complication of the fable. It is certainly a fault, that the Brothers, although with some indications of anxiety, should enter with so much tranquillity, when their sister is lost, and at leisure pronounce philosophical panegyrics on the mysteries of virginity. But we must not too scrupulously attend to the exigencies of situation, nor suffer ourselves to suppose that we are reading a play, which Milton did not mean to write. These splendid insertions will please, independently of the story, from which however they result; and their elegance and sublimity will overbalance their want of place. In a Greek tragedy, such sentimental harangues, arising from the subject, .would have been given to a chorus.
On the whole, whether Comus be, or be not, deficient as a drama, whether it is considered as on epic drama, a series of lines, a mask, or a poem, 1 am of opinion, that our author is here only inferior to his own Paradise Lost. Warton,
Milton's Comus is, in my judgment, the most beautiful and perfect poem of that sublime genius. Wakefield.
Perhaps the conduct and conversation of the Brothers may not be altogether indefensible. They have lost their way in a forest at night, and are in " the want of light and noise." It would now be dangerous for them to run about an unknown wilderness; and, if they should separate, in order to seek their sister, they might lose each other. In the. uncertainty of what was their best plan, they therefore naturally wait, expecting to heat perhaps the cry of their lost sister, or some noise to which they would have directed their steps. The Younger Brother anxiously expresses his apprehensions for his sister. The Elder, in reply, trusts that she is not in danger, and, instead of giving way to those fears, which the Younger repeats, expatiates on the strength of chastity; by the illustration of which argument he confidently maintains the hope of their sister's safety, while he beguiles the perplexity of their own situation.
It has been observed,b that Comus is not calculated to shine in theatric exhibition for those very reasons which constitute its essential and specific merit. The Pastor Fido of Guarini, which also ravishes the reader,0 could not succeed upon the stage. It is sufficient, that Comus displays the true sources of poetical delight and moral instruction, in its charming imagery, in its original concep
b See Mr. Warton's Preface to his edition of Milton's Poems.
c See Mons. Hedelin's Whole Art of the Stage, b. ii. p. 112. x