[Milton-L] Comus and Rep. Akin

Brendan Prawdzik brendanprawdzik at gmail.com
Mon Aug 27 15:47:08 EDT 2012


See, I just *knew* that someone would ask me to explain myself.  (The
twitter experiment has failed to achieve its goal.)  Thank you for the
inducement, Michael.

On Thursday I taught my first *real* session of the Milton seminar.  We
looked at "On Shakespeare," among some other early pieces.  I was
astonished, initially, that my students were already deft at picking up on
the crafty doubleness of that poem.  (My syllabus scrim nudged them just a
bit in this direction.)  One student even pointed out that Milton seemed to
be up to something a bit more intimately crafty in choosing "unvalued,"
since its appearance in *Hamlet* *-- *where in means "worthless" -- was
among the earliest usages.  But why should I have been astonished?  Why
shouldn't we expect undergraduates to demand more from our "great" poets
than conventional performances and praisings of conventional virtue?  Why
should we ever expect Milton to be as simple, as dogmatic, as so many of us
seem to wish him to be?

Let's go to that awesome quote from* Areopagitica* that I sensed at the
heart of Hawthorne's *Young Goodman Brown*.  It's a quote that's appeared
in some excellent scholarship on the *Maske*.  We all know it:


> Good and evil we know in the field of this World grow up together almost
> inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with
> the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be
> discerned that those confused seeds which were impos'd on Psyche as an
> incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixt.
> ... What wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear without
> the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her
> baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet
> prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian. I
> cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised & unbreathed,
> that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race,
> where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
> Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much
> rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.



The quote can be used to support, in part, two readings: 1) The Lady
demonstrates her virtue by sallying into the darkness, confronting her
adversary, and defeating him through an appeal to transcendent virtue (that
miraculously makes it impossible for her to be raped); or 2) The Lady
exercises a well-intended but still naively conventional sense of virtue,
colored by a Platonism as hollow as the airy shell of a disembodied and
ineffectual Echo, which in the event leaves her mysteriously ensared,
unfree to *enact* her virtue (this unfreedom emblematized in the form a
silent woman chained to a chair).  I do believe that there's gentle
admonishment implied in the Lady's appeal to transcendent, disembodied
virtue; in her extraordinary and revealing misreading of Paul's Faith,
Hope, and Charity; in her misrecognition not only of Comus but of the
festive rustic culture that she thinks his Measure represents; and yes, in
her insistence that Comus could do her no harm.  I do believe that he
*does*touch the freedom of her mind, though, because his magic has
precisely the
power to make things seem other than they are.  By the time that he's done
with her, or, more accurately, by the time that Attendant Spirit and Bros
arrive on the scene to save her from the threshold of rape, she has come to
misregonize her own chastity, her own virtue.  And in this sense Comus has
done discursively precisely what he does magically.  It's very much in the
spirit of Spenserian pscyhomachia: a journey towards understanding more
deeply and richly the virtue that one represents.  It's also therefore a
great instrument of education -- at least, Milton would have thought it to
be; whether the Egertons "got" it, that's perhaps a different question.
For my take on what Sabrina has to do with the deeper education of our
Lady, well, you'll have to wait for my article forthcoming in *Studies in
Philology*, Fall 2013.  That article is "Look on Me: Theater, Gender, and
Poetic-Identity Formation in Milton's *Maske*."
It's the cruel logic of birdlime not only to entrap, but to entrap more
through fugitive energy.   (For the record, the "Gumms of glutenous heate" *is
*a reference to birdlime, whether erotically charged or not, as lime was a
gumm, was glutenous, and was heated before applied.)

Comus is a real bodily threat.  Marjorie Evans or Lady Castlehaven might
speak to this.  Thank goodness for heaven, and attendant spirits, and for
good educators (music teachers) and vigilant brothers.  But that's really
not the essential point.  The point is to push beyond a shallow virtue that
is futigitive and disembodied.  The virtue of *Areopagitica* is all about
the wayfaring Christian *in the field of this world*.  (I know, that
document comes a decade later, but still ... i see Milton working his way
there in the *Mask*.)  He's also clever enough to make his patron's
daughter seem elect above the reset, even if he's using the opportunity to
labor toward a more viable moral philosophy befitting the poet who would
write *Paradise Lost.*
**
Best,

Brendan



Assistant Professor
Christian Brothers University




On Sun, Aug 26, 2012 at 9:04 AM, Michael Gillum <mgillum at unca.edu> wrote:

> Brendan,
>
> lolz 4u, and a stimulating answer, as I would have expected from you.
> (Congratulations on getting a job, too.)
>
> But please explain the "dichotomizingfauxvirtuensares" part, which I don't
> get.
>
> Michael
>
>
> On Sat, Aug 25, 2012 at 4:38 PM, Brendan Prawdzik <
> brendanprawdzik at gmail.com> wrote:
>
>> For the sake of digital humanities we'll do this twitter style.
>>
>> @MichaelGillum I don't think he meant that at all.  #spenserian
>> #psychomachia #dichotomizingfauxvirtuensares  #areopagitica
>>
>> brendanprawdzik
>>
>>
>> On Sat, Aug 25, 2012 at 3:05 PM, Michael Gillum <mgillum at unca.edu> wrote:
>>
>>> Not only can a virtuous woman not be impregnated by a rapist, she can't
>>> even be raped! What do you suppose Milton meant by that?
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