“Reflections on Milton’s *Comus*” by Paul Burgess

Since I share so much nonsense and insanity, I thought I might share a brief sample of the type of ‘intellectual masturbation’ academic work I was trained to do and did…once upon a time. [I rarely did “close readings” of texts; I am sharing this because it is so much shorter than other pieces.  Much of my academic work–though taken at face value–parodied the type of work done by cultural and literary critics and historians].

                                                        Gay Rhetoric and Mere Moral Babble:
Comus and the Lady’s Argument
Most readers would agree that John Milton’s Comus celebrates chastity—and other forms of temperance—while rejecting excess. The action of the masque demonstrates virtue’s power to withstand the assaults of vice: Comus, the tempter, fails to corrupt the chaste Lady who, like her virtuous brothers, earns “a crown of deathless Praise” for triumphing “o’er sensual Folly and Intemperance” (974, 976). But, while events argue for temperance’s superiority, the arguments offered in favor of virtuous behavior are not as convincing, powerful, and logical as those presented in defense of sensual indulgence. By providing the Lady with feeble responses to Comus’ eloquent speeches, Milton has—in the words of the “Spirit”—“let the false enchanter scape” (815); while “Chastity” remains intact, and therefore undefeated, indulgence also “survives” and retains much of its appeal.

From a Miltonic perspective, resisting sin would deserve little praise if sin were unequivocally repulsive. To merit praise, the masque’s heroine must prove chaste when confronted with temptation. Testing the Lady, and perhaps the audience, Milton has Comus make an alluring case for indulging in “all the pleasures/that fancy can beget on youthful thoughts” (670-71). The enchanter argues primarily that people—and especially the young and beautiful—should actively enjoy the delights that Nature has provided. Failing to use Nature’s gifts leaves the “all-giver…unthank’t” and “unprais’d” (724). Making use of the “carpe diem” convention, Comus emphasizes that some of Nature’s gifts—such as “Beauty,” which is “nature’s coin”—“must not be hoarded” because these gifts lose value and fade as one ages. Regardless of Milton’s probable intentions and despite the common perception that Comus speaks in favor of excess, the enchanter’s speech is more a refutation of the idea that abstinence is virtuous than an argument in favor of overindulgence.* Comus does not say that one should feast, literally or symbolically, like a glutton but rather says that one should not ungratefully waste Nature’s bounty. Even if “immoral” and unsound, Comus’ argument appealingly suggests that gratifying oneself praises the “all-giver;”* recognizing that Comus rationalizes sin does not necessarily render his reasoning unattractive.

Providing “virtue” with “tongue to check” vice’s “pride” (760-63), Milton has the Lady attempt to refute Comus’ argument and to prove that the “Juggler” has not deceived her with his “false rules prankt in reason’s garb” (757-59). Deigning to “unlock” her lips in the “unhallow’d air,” the Lady briefly defends the “holy dictate of spare Temprance” (767). She argues powerfully that
If every just man that now pines with want
Had but a moderate and beseeming share
Of that which lewdly pamper’d Luxury
Now heaps upon some few with vast excess,
Nature’s full blessings would be well dispens’t
In unsuperfluous even proportion,
And she no whit encumber’d with her store,
And then giver would be better thank’t,
His praise due paid, for swinish gluttony
Ne’er looks to Heav’n amidst his gorgeous feast
But with besotted base ingratitude
Crams and blasphemes his feeder. (768-78)
Her speech attacks Comus’ idea that nature becomes overburdened with its unused abundance. Aristocrats, she suggests, indulge so excessively that they deprive others of resources; nature’s resources, in her view, are only sufficient for all if people refrain from taking more than their “beseeming share.” Satisfied with herself, the Lady asks rhetorically, “Shall I go on?/Or have I said enough?” (779-80). But her self-satisfaction is unjustified. Although an effective critique of some forms of overindulgence, the Lady’s argument makes sense only in reference to the use of “consumable” resources. She has proven that Comus’ analogies are flawed, but she has not made a logical case against sexual intemperance. According to her reasoning, “gluttony” is harmful because it impoverishes others. But indulging in the sexual equivalent of gluttony does not deprive anyone else of the pleasures of sex. Each time one has sex, he or she is sharing the “resource” of “beauty” with another person. And, in any case, abstinence is more like fasting than temperate consumption.

Rather than strengthen the case for chastity, the Lady devotes the remainder of her speech to insulting Comus and insisting that—if arguing with a virtuous, reasonable person—she could make a case for chastity so strong that her words would move “dumb things” and “the brute Earth would lend her nerves and shake” (795-96). After little discussion, she has come to the conclusion that speaking about the “Sun clad power of Chastity” would be useless because Comus has “nor Ear nor Soul to apprehend/ the sublime notion and high mystery/that must be utter’d to unfold the sage/and serious doctrine of Virginity” (782-87); in other words, she could only “convince” those who already agree with her. And proving herself yet more unwilling—and perhaps unfit—to evangelize, she decides that Comus is not “worthy” that he should “know/More happiness than this” his “present lot” (789-90). By the time she has finished speaking, the Lady has spoken much about what she could say in defense of chastity but has provided little—if any—substantial argument for adhering to the “serious doctrine of Virginity.”*

       Elements of performance— such as costumes, gestures, props, and delivery of lines— could make the Lady more appealing than Comus*. But, when read, the enchanter’s speeches are attractive, while the Lady’s self-righteous speeches suggest that she avoids logically defending chastity either because she does not know how to or because few compelling arguments exist for adherence to the “virtue.” Many Miltonists would likely insist that the poet wants readers to arrive, after struggling, at the conclusion that sin will sometimes appear more attractive than virtue. The same critics would perhaps claim that Milton says less in defense of virtue because the good of chastity is self-evident and needs no defense; the Lady also speaks less than Comus, some might say, because she is “temperate” and refrains from using excessive words.* Regardless of what Milton intends, I would argue that the masque, or at least its text, makes an appealing case for indulgence and that this case is never thoroughly refuted and never rendered entirely repulsive; the Lady’s argument, on the other hand, combines clear and powerful rhetoric with “mere moral babble” (805).

 

* By the time he writes Paradise Lost, Milton—or at least his epic’s narrator—seems to consider abstinence unnatural. The narrator suggests that sex with one’s husband or wife is a gift from God. Perhaps reacting to Catholic veneration of abstinence, many Protestants expressed the view that abstinence—as an extreme form of behavior—is intemperate.

*I would suggest that Comus’ ideas resemble those of some Christians. For many Christians, Earth and everything provided by nature belongs to man; in keeping with Christian terminology, I have used the term “man” intentionally. Failing to use resources could be considered an affront to the God who has so generously provided for his chosen beings; some anti-environmentalists have continued to believe that everything on Earth has been provided for the benefit of God’s elect—i.e. those belonging to their group. Comus’ argument differs primarily in its application of the idea to matters of sexuality. Without denying that temperance is a Christian virtue, I would point out that the temperance cherished by Renaissance Christians was influenced profoundly by Aristotle and other classical authorities.

* The phrase “doctrine of Virginity” sounds curiously Catholic. If the phrase were not found in the text, one could perhaps assume that chastity, in the context of the masque, means—as it does for Spenser—not abstinence but rather enjoying sex only with one’s (own) spouse.

*Readers should, however, keep in mind that Comus was originally intended to be a “closet drama,” i.e. to be read rather than performed.

* But one could more accurately describe her speeches as full of words but—at times—devoid of substance. She could have actually defended chastity rather than devoting so much energy to expressing the power with which she could defend chastity. I anticipate scholars arguing that events demonstrate the superiority of chaste action to “lewd” words; actions are the tools of the virtuous while words are the tools of the sinful deceiver.

 

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