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BY THE RIGHT HON. SIR JAMES STEPHEN, K.C.B.
(This familiar and delightful historically-descriptive lecture
on Milton's masque of “Comus," was delivered by the late Right Hon. Sir James Stephen, to the members of the Manchester Young Men's Christian Association; Robert Gladstone, Esq., presiding. Sir James Stephen was Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge. He died recently at Coblentz, in the 71st year of his age. The honour of knighthood was conferred upon him in 1848, in acknowledgment of his services, under the Melbourne Ministry, as Onder-Secretary for the Colonies. His able articles in the “Edinburgh Review," on Ecclesiastical History, have been published in two volumes; and he is also the author of lectures on the “History of France.”]
I HOPE that most of you are occasionally able to escape from the turmoil and smoke of this great city, for a summer's ramble into sone of those beautiful parts of the country which the railway has brought within your immediate neighbourhood. On that supposition, permit me to suggest to you the plan for such a holiday. Year after year there go forth a large body of pilgrims to those northern mountains, where the genius of the great enchanter, Sir Walter Scott, enables them to trace the wanderings of James Fitz James, and the Lady of the Lake. I would direct your steps to that picturesque valley which stretches many miles from the junction of the little Welsh rivers, the Teme and the Corve, both of them tributaries of the Severn, to the point where the Severn itself reaches, and nearly encircles the ancient city of Shrewsbury. There a yet greater enchanter, John Milton, will reveal to you the precise scene where Comus and his monstrous rout held their revels, and where was effected the almost miraculous deliverance of the Lady of Ludlow Castle.
When pursuing that track some years ago, I found myself ascending that steep but spacious, and even yet handsome street which rises from Ludlow Bridge to the summit of the hill on which the venerable town of Shrewsbury is built. The whitewashed walls of those now desolate mansions, and half-deserted shops, said to me as plainly as walls could say anything, “ When we were built, the windings you see beneath us of the Teme and the Corve were fringed by the then famous forest of Hainault; and out of it were hewn those massive cross-beams upon which you see our second and third storeys are resting the edges of their overlapping rooms," making for me a sheltered walk where one may escape not only the rain of this humid climate, but also that thick carpet of wet grass which stretches from one side of the street to the other, with a luxuriance unknown even in the much boasted pleasure grounds of many a city. I forced myself through that remarkable specimen of street architecture, till I reached the Abbey Church; one of those magni. ficent cathedral edifices of which our forefathers have left us the possession, rather than the enjoy. ment or the use; and urging my way along the crest of the hill, I stood at length on the smooth top of a vast mass of rock which had plunged its giant feet into the bed of the united rivers below. And being a holiday-making, I stood there to amuse myself with observing how the stream eddied, foamed, and fretted round the obstacle opposed to its progress, reminding one that there was a sort of analogy between the hot temperament of the two
Welsh rivers and the warm blood of our friends of the Principality who live upon their borders. The weather itself was very hot, and I sighed for some genius to come and lift just one quarter of a century's load off my shoulders, and then, as in your time of life, what a plunge would I not have had into the flashing waters below! But as that was im. possible, I turned my eyes upwards to gaze on the ruined walls and towers which I saw reflected in their bosom; and I wanted no guide to tell me that I was looking upon what remained of Ludlow Castle, formerly at once the fortress and palace of the Lords Presidents of the Welsh Marshes; nor did I want any guide to inform me that that now roofless hall, through which the soft blue of an autumnal sky was looking down so smilingly upon me, was the very council chamber where in the month of October, 1634, the “Comus" of Milton was first made known to the world, through the recitation of it by the children of John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater. A noble association! an incident amply sufficient to impart dignity to any edifice! and yet if any of you shall condescend to take my advice, and to follow me in that pilgrimage, even the “Comus" of Milton, and the recitation of it there, will not be the most impressive of the incidents of which Ludlow Castle' will remind you. From that castle went forth the writs by which, in the name of Henry III., Simon de Montford, Earl of Leicester, first brought together the knights and burgesses of England to sit in parliament, and so laid the basis of our present constitution. It was from these walls that issued the proclamation by which Richard, Duke of York, claimed against Richard II. the crown of England, and so opened the long series of the wars of York and Lancaster. Within those walls was living the duke's grandson, the youmg Edward V., when he inherited that much disputed crown, and expiated his inheritance so
shortly afterwards by a cruel and violent death. There died Arthur, Prince of Wales, on whose death Bucceeded to that crown Henry VIII., the unblest author of the ever-blessed Reformation. Hither came James I., bringing with him his unhappy son Charles, there to exercise the presidency over the whole of Wales; and there Charles, in his turn, sent John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, to discharge the same high office. If you should visit Ludlow Castle, you will bear in reverential remembrance John, Earl of Bridgewater, for he was the fifth lineal ancestor of that Duke of Bridgewater who united your city with the Mersey and with the Thames, and with the oceans and the continents that lie beyond them; he was the eighth lineal ancestor of your later Francis Egerton, Earl of Ellesmere, the blessing of every neighbourhood in which he lived, and the grace of every society into which he entered,
The lecturer, before describing the masque of “Comus," and m:1sques in general, asked—Why were our forefathers so fond of calling this blessed land of ours “Merry England ?" I am afraid it is not an epithet either ourselves or our neighbours would be very much disposed to apply to the England of the present hour. Our best and most famed amusements demand a good deal of solitude, seclusion, and silence; the amusements of our forefathers throve best under the broad light of the sun, and amidst the shouts of an applauding multitude. They could not bury themselves in libraries, picture galle. ries, or in scientific institutes; they had no books, they had no newspapers, they had no literary 80ciety; and unhappily, they had no Rowland Hill to circulate letters among them. But although our forefathers had not these pleasures of seclusion, they enjoyed racing and chasing, and hunting and shooting, and fishing and boating; and though-unhappy men !-they knew nothing of our royal game of cricket, yet they had very many games of which we
are strangers; for example, there was archery, and falconry, and tilts, and tournaments, and May. pole dancing, and morris dancing; and there was wrestling, and singlestick, and quarter-staff, and many other such sports. Then we are all aware that our admirable Elizabeth-whose name I hope never to hear mentioned except with affection and reverence-our great and glorious Elizabeth condescended to employ some portion of her leisure time in baiting the bear, and the boar, and the badger, and the bull. The very religion of those days was a continued source of amusement. You could hardly turn in any direction without seeing a pilgrimage, or a procession; or, if such were your taste, you would meet with those singular kind of exhibitions, which went by the name of mummeries, mysteries, and moralities, a sort of religious plays, which were enacted in all directions; so that the country not being very densely peopled, and the inhabitants having abundance of food, abundance of leisure, and a hearty taste for this sort of amusement, the whole land had a kind of jovial, festive appearance, which induced our forefathers, and I think with very con. siderable reason, to call it Merry England.
King James I. brought with him from Scotland a sort of rigid Protestanism, which would not put up with this kind of religious theatricals, as well as a degree of refinement, mental culture, and good taste, which made him shrink from the robust and rather unfeminine amusements of his great predecessor. King James finding this merry England, and wishing it to be so, what was he to do? Why, not liking these bull-baits, &c., he set himself to work to introduce to his court and retainers at Whitehall, the entertainment called “masques," which were of Italian invention, Tasso, and other great authors, having condescended to write masques. The writing of masques was taken up by Ben JonHon—the "rare Ben Jonson" of Westminster Abbey.