Illustration 1, Butts Set
A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634
"Where his fair off-spring nurs't in Princely lore,
Are coming to attend their Fathers state,
And new-entrusted Scepter, but their way
Lies through the perplex't paths of this drear Wood,
The nodding horror of whose shady brows
Threats the forlorn and wand'ring Passinger.
And here their tender age might suffer perill,
But that by quick command from Soveran Jove I was dispatcht for their defence, and guard;
And listen why, for I will tell ye now
What never yet was heard in Tale or Song
From old, or modern Bard in Hall, or Bowr"
John Milton's aspirations were high but he was slow to show any concrete results from his application to academic pursuits. He was 26 years old when he wrote A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle which was his first poetry in English which was available for public consumption. He received a commission to write the verse for a mask to be performed at the installation of Lord Bridgewater to the post of Lord President of Wales and The Marches. A popular entertainment at courts, masks included music, dancing and performances by aristocrats as well as professionals.
We can assume that Milton was as glad to get the work writing his mask as Blake was to get the commission to illustrate it 167 years later. However both may have had reservation about the purpose which occasioned the use of their talents. Both men were torn between the desire to be true to his own vision and to produce works which would be accepted by an audience. An issue for Milton may have been the conventional use of the mask to 'glorify the court or a particular member of the aristocracy,' (Milton, Anna Beer, Page 68). Blake's affirmation of the liberty to flaunt the restrictions of society in the expression of love may have made the emphasis on chastity in Comus offensive to him.
About 15 years after creating the set for Rev Thomas, Blake was to make for Thomas Butts a second set of illustrations to Comus. In comparing the two sets we see how Blake had altered some of his interpretation of Milton's work. In the first illustration a fourth enchanted creature has been added, the attendant Spirit is replaced by stars, Comus is less menacing and the Lady more alarmed. The cup has been transferred to the hand of Comus. These changes and those in subsequent illustrations may represent Blake's attempt to align Milton's mask with his own myth.
Milton, Plate 26 ,(E 123) "And these the Labours of the Sons of Los in Allamanda: And in the City of Golgonooza: & in Luban: & around The Lake of Udan-Adan, in the Forests of Entuthon Benython Where Souls incessant wail, being piteous Passions & Desires With neither lineament nor form but like to watry clouds The Passions & Desires descend upon the hungry winds For such alone Sleepers remain meer passion & appetite; The Sons of Los clothe them & feed & provide houses & fields And every Generated Body in its inward form, Is a garden of delight & a building of magnificence, Built by the Sons of Los in Bowlahoola & Allamanda And the herbs & flowers & furniture & beds & chambers Continually woven in the Looms of Enitharmons Daughters In bright Cathedrons golden Dome with care & love & tears For the various Classes of Men are all markd out determinate In Bowlahoola; & as the Spectres choose their affinities So they are born on Earth, & every Class is determinate But not by Natural but by Spiritual power alone, Because The Natural power continually seeks & tends to Destruction Ending in Death: which would of itself be Eternal Death And all are Class'd by Spiritual, & not by Natural power. And every Natural Effect has a Spiritual Cause, and Not A Natural: for a Natural Cause only seems, it is a Delusion Of Ulro: & a ratio of the perishing Vegetable Memory."