The Flightless Bird: Choice and Concupiscence in Milton’s Comus

         ohn Milton’s Comus remains as enigmatic today as it was when it was first performed on a night at Ludlow Castle in 1634. Critics have since the 18th century struggled with just what affixed the lady to her chair and with just what Milton was trying to say to an audience so scarred by violated chastity in this masque; a highly personal literary form far detached from Milton’s own ambitions of a national epic to transcend time. Yet in this play performed by two children and a teenager, Milton’s ambitions shine through in the gravity of the story, calling upon as Debora Shuger pointed out in her article “Gums of Glutinous Heat…,” Augustinian struggles with autonomy and human nature. Comus is no ordinary masque, but rather, a tale dealing intimately with the later elucidated Miltonic themes of free will and the Augustinian concept of concupiscence, or, a humans desire, sometimes uncontrollable, for corporeal appetites that stand in opposition to reason. By studying the intellectual dialogue the lady has with herself in the opening scene, the insights of Shuger and Augustine in his Confessions and finally by analyzing the last scene in light of both of these insights a greater understanding of Milton’s creative project emerges. The tale is not one of temptation, as critics such as William Kerrigan have suggested, but rather, of free will. By recreating the intellectual source material of Milton’s Arminianism (Fallon), chiefly in Augustine’s Tenth Book of Confessions, critic Diane Shuger has created the dialogue with which Comus interacts; superseding psychoanalytic methods that force the critic to read in modern thematics. Certainly concupiscence plays an integral part in the development of the story, but the lady is not complicit with it; which is an anxiety that permeates Confessions and Comus. Yet in both Confessions and Comus, Augustine and Milton both find a solvent to unchain the bird of their free-thinking mind, a merciful god and the water spirit respectively; the latter arguably a representation of the former. The concupiscence of the gums of glutinous heat is but the vehicle by which Milton illustrates the true crux of the masque, the tension between concupiscence and choice and the prospects of salvation.

The narrative of Comus asserts almost to an excessive extent the lady’s true nature and steadfastness against the allure of Comus, yet the lady herself struggles with youthful curiosity and concupiscence in our first introduction to her. When we first meet the lady there are undeniable signs of youthful curiosity verging on temptation of what Comus represents. Yet, each time in her opening speech we find evidence of temptation, for example, “A thousand fantasies / Begin to throng into my memory, / of calling shapes and beck’ning shadows dire / And airy tongues that syllable men’s names…” (205-208), a refuting antecedent statement immediately follows. From lines 210 to 235, a long and drawn out proclamation of the lady’s utmost faith in both god and the power of chastity unfolds to counter the temptation of the beckoning shadows. To say as some critics have that this scene is purely demonstrative of temptation is selling the “virtous mind” (210) of the lady short. Earlier in the speech the lady wonders about “gamesome pipe” and “bounteous pan” yet again immediately following her wonder is a blunt refutation, “I should be loath / to meet the rudeness and swill’d insolence / Of such wassailers…”(170-180). What Milton unfolds before us in our first introduction to the lady is just the anxiety that one finds throughout Confessions and Comus, as the lady’s reasoning mind counters her concupiscent curiosity. One cannot curtail the sequence into either temptation or steadfast faith; as the lady is in the midst of the battle Augustine found himself in his tenth book of Confessions. In this battle between the mind and the body, Milton is laying the groundwork for the lady’s firm denunciation of Comus in the debate sequence, and indeed, her inability to get up from the chair. An understanding of the latter sequence comes from Augustine’s and Shuger’s analysis.

Confessions by Saint Augustine of Hippo is a deeply personal work of prose that deals with the Saint’s own anxieties with becoming a person of faith; and these anxieties are keenly reflected in Comus. Critic Debora Shuger elucidated in her article “The Gums of Glutinous Heat” an approach that fits Milton’s own deeply scholastic approach; suggesting that an understanding of Comus must start in the source material from which Milton draws from in his project of free will and concupiscence. Mid-way through Book X of Confessions Augustine uses a curious term to describe concupiscence, writing, “Thou wilt increase, Lord, Thy gifts more and more in me, that my soul may follow me to Thee, disentangled from the birdlime of concupiscence” (Augustine 186). Shuger makes the obvious connection – birdlime is what affixes the lady to her chair given the description of the substance we are given being very similar to birdlime. Further, in the context of Augustine, “wet dreams are birdlime” (Shuger 2). Past the obvious comparison is something Milton tapped into directly in Comus; free will and concupiscence. Wet dreams are demonstrative of a nascent concupiscence in post-lapserian man, yet Augustine struggles deeply with the anxiety of his inability to control them. God must give him more gifts over time for him to begin to break free and fly from the birdlime. Yet Augustine’s solution is not so simple as to put fanatical faith in god’s ability to save him. Augustine wrestles with the specter of trying to both refute sin but also not to fanatically refute it and forge a new kind of concupiscence based in pride. This dilemma is reflected directly in the lady and her brothers. The Lady’s elder brother is perhaps too confident and too zealous about the power of chastity; leading to his extremely hyperbolic speech concerning chastity. Augustine reflects, “Thus in these things I unawares sin, but afterwards am aware of it. At other times shunning over-anxiously this very deception, I err in too great strictness…” (Augustine 190). Ergo, Comus cannot merely be a moralistic story about the power of chastity or the allure of evil to a young woman; it is far more complex than that. Comus is intimately concerned with degrees of faith and their implications on salvation. Shuger goes on to suggest that the English renaissance poets such as Donne and Milton all show a keen anxiety towards human passion and the divine (17). Shuger cogently suggests that poets such as Donne and Milton reflect the title of Augustine’s masterwork in their own work: confession. Shuger writes, “Like Augustinian theology, it dwells on the urgent and unwilled movements of thought and feeling…fascinated both by the soul’s wings and by its birdlimed feet” (17). Comus, then, in short, is an exploration of the flight of the soul and the birdlimed “corporal rind” that keeps it fixed to earth; and the anxiety that is inherently part of this relationship. Comus is a tale of the lady’s choice to fly yet having her feet stuck in the birdlime of post-lapserian man. The question remains then; what is Milton trying to say to his keenly personal audience, and what can be said of the lady’s entrapment and savlation?

The final scene of Comus is what has perplexed critics for centuries, and indeed, upon it the entire story hinges. Yet, Shuger’s insights on the Augustinian roots of Comus offer new and profound insights into the final scene. The first issue is just why the lady is stuck in the first place, if what her brother said was true about the absolute nature of true virginity. Indeed, the spirit refers to the lady as a “true virgin” even while she sits in the “birdlime of concupiscence.” Why then, would the narrator spirit refer to her as a true virgin if temptation is to be the crux of the story? As discussed above, the birdlime is demonstrative of an uncontrollable concupiscence; and this can perhaps help us explain why the lady is silent in these critical scenes. The lady can refute Comus and chose chastity, but she cannot refute the birdlime because it is the very concupiscence Augustine worries over in his tenth book of Confessions. The lady is unable to resist this concupiscence by definition, leaving her trapped and silent in the chair; but this is not the end of being a holy person for the lady. In the baptismal tide of the water spirit Sabrina the lady is freed from the bonds of concupiscence. Certainly, the water spirit is representative of at the very least the divine grace Augustine speaks of in his struggles to overcome the birdlime of concupiscence. Through the forgiving hands of the spirit, the lady is released from her “distress”; a distress deeply rooted in the involuntary concupiscence the birdlime represents. It stands to reason then that the tale cannot solely be a manifesto on temptation because the birdlime does not act upon the lady’s mind but only her body. It is not her mind that cannot escape, illustrated by her cutting debate with Comus, but rather her body. In Augustinian terms, whatever temptation she may involuntarily feel is irrelevant in the way it incurs no guilt or significance in regards to the lady’s chastity or virginity (Shuger 3).  The final lines demonstrate this thesis cogently; Milton writes, “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, / Heav’n itself would stoop to her” (1018-1023). Interestingly, the spirit does not say chastity or virginity but virtue. Milton here has switched from the idea of chastity so hyperbolically elevated in earlier passages to virtue. This movement cannot be unintentional, as Milton moves from the “true virginity” of the lady to her true virtue. In previous lines a brother had suggested that virtue, if true, “may be assail’d, but never hurt” (589) and if true virtue is to be hurt, the world is based on “stubble.” So the lady’s liberation then is Milton’s proof that the world is not based on fraudulency or “stubble”, but the divine virtue and grace of the Augustinian, merciful god; a profound message to a family scared by rape and sexual violence. Unfortunately for the young Milton, the family may not have been familiar with his Augustinian source material; which may explain the silence concerning the masque immediately after its performance.

Comus is a text that befuddles as it illuminates. Critics have for centuries opened up one insight only to find it to be a dead end or on the other hand a Pandora’s box of insights. By studying the lady’s internal debate in our first introduction to her, the insights offered by Augustine’s Confessions and Diane Shuger’s “Gums of Glutinous Heat” and finally the closing scene in light of these insights, a greater understanding of Milton’s great masque emerges. By recreating the dialogue with which Milton interacts in his masque, the perplexing issues in the masque begin to solidify. By utilizing the Augustinian concept of concupiscence which Milton is clearly pulling from, the concept of the lady’s temptation travels from critical importance to irrelevancy in the way both Milton and Augustine elevate the free will of flight over the birdlimed feet of concupiscence. In Comus we see the foundation for the thesis of Paradise Lost. The lady did not “by (her) own suggestion fall” nor was she “self-temped” or “self-deceived.” To Milton and his god in book three of Paradise lost the lady stands in opposition to those who choose sin instead of being victims of the deception of others, namely Comus in this work. Therefore, the lady “shall find grace. The other none.”

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Filed under Academic, Early Modern, English, Literature, Milton

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