Monday, April 10, 2017

Comus (Milton Journal)


In this poem, purity—Chasity—is the name of the game, and that figurative game has no name; the unnamed women, The Lady, enters the scene as a lost damsel, but she is hardly in distress. In fact, this is what makes her such an interesting lead. “These [impure] thoughts may startle well, but not astound / The virtuous mind, that ever walks unintended / By a strong siding champion Conscience” (Lines 210-213). And so we see that though physical disoriented in her surroundings—she is separated from her brothers—she is not in distress; one can argue, accordingly, that neither is she alone—for her champion is Conscience and walks by her side always, due to his presence being metaphysical (Christian morality) instead of carnal physicality; if we wanted to follow Augustinian Platonism, then we understand that this is a given; otherwise, The Lady would be seen as having been ‘felled’, or, being separated from God. Accordingly, she must remain pure. As the Elder Brother remarks “My sister is not so defenceless left / As you imagine; she has a hidden strength” (Lines 415-16).

                As a character, The Lady seems at once both exciting as well as boring.

                She is exciting because is almost a proto-feminist figure (“Fool, do not boast, / Thou cannot touch the freedom of my mind” (Lines 663-64)): she is daring and brave, the opposite of the fragile stereotype. And yet, she is boring precisely because of her Chasity, that which “clad(s her) in complete steel” (Line 421). If you have a protagonist which cannot be touched by any mortal power precisely because of her devotion to Christ, then there is hardly any tension to be had—the reader is merely a bystander as the narrative unfolds. If we wanted to become counterfactual and talk about the poem as a martyr narrative, then, unfortunately, the danger would remain lacking, since such danger would be divinely ordained as God’s will. As it stands, though, “Comus” is a parable, not a tract on the suffering associated with God’s will. To return to Augustinian Platonism, The Lady represents a particularly erudite manifestation of an Intelligible idea in the mind of God (or, those perfect ideas which have no equal in the mortal realm)—The Lady, imperfect, nonetheless disciplines her body—lives as close to God as she is able to while being mortal and an imperfect copy of something perfect— whereas Comus refuses to discipline his body, instead, falling prey to that bodily monopolization of our attention which perverts our imagination.


                This is not to say that the text is not interesting, though; gender-wise, we do see at least one odd thing transpire. For instance, about three-quarters of the way through the poem, when The Lady is conversing with Comus, The Lady holds her own against the antagonist who desires to acquaint her with the pleasures of the flesh; i.e., what he wants is to educate her on matters not merely spiritual, but physical. In other words, The Lady is cast as a Jesus stand-in with the devil cast as Comus. This would be a fairly radical inversion of typical Christian dogma and so to see it in a seventeenth-century poem makes one wonder what Milton was trying to convey past the clich├ęd resistance to sin. In terms of ax-grinding, forcing a female Jesus parallel is poignant material; so the question becomes, why?

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