Blake's first effort in illustrating Milton's poetry took place in 1801 when he had made his move to Felpham. A commission to create the watercolor illustrations to Milton's Comus, or more properly A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, came from Rev Joseph Thomas. Perhaps Thomas saw Milton's drama as a morality play with which he agreed. Blake, however, would not have chosen to foster a moral of upholding chastity, and Milton's motivation for writing was more complex than to promote chastity. Blake was in the habit of using whatever text he read to elicit his own reactions. His illustrations aimed to show how he agreed or disagreed with what he read. But he was subtle enough not to offend his patron by departing from the text to the degree that his patron wouldn't see what he was looking for.
Rev Thomas was satisfied enough with his illustrations to Comus to later order illustrations for two other Milton poems: On the Morning of Christ's Nativity (1807) and Paradise Lost (1809). Thomas' death in 1811 may have been what deprived Blake of further patronage from this wealthy connoisseur.
Original in Huntington Gallery
The first image of the series introduces Comus, the villain of the drama who strives to change the consciousness of the young Lady and her brothers. Sitting underground with her thoughts and hopes the girl is vulnerable. Frolicking along with Comus are companions under his spell which has replaced their human heads with those of animals. The Lady fortunately has an attendant Spirit hovering in the sky to protect her.
The Lady, like Blake's Thel is beginning to ask questions about her role in life.
Thel, Plate 3, (E 4) "O little Cloud the virgin said, I charge thee tell to me, Why thou complainest not when in one hour thou fade away: Then we shall seek thee but not find; ah Thel is like to thee. I pass away. yet I complain, and no one hears my voice. The Cloud then shew'd his golden bead & his bright form emerg'd, Hovering and glittering on the air before the face of Thel. O virgin know'st thou not. our steeds drink of the golden springs Where Luvah doth renew his horses: look'st thou on my youth, And fearest thou because I vanish and am seen no more. Nothing remains; O maid I tell thee, when I pass away, It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace, and raptures holy: Unseen descending, weigh my light wings upon balmy flowers; And court the fair eyed dew. to take me to her shining tent; The weeping virgin, trembling kneels before the risen sun, Till we arise link'd in a golden band, and never part; But walk united, bearing food to all our tender flowers Dost thou O little Cloud? I fear that I am not like thee; For I walk through the vales of Har. and smell the sweetest flowers; But I feed not the little flowers: I hear the warbling birds, But I feed not the warbling birds. they fly and seek their food; But Thel delights in these no more because I fade away, And all shall say, without a use this shining woman liv'd, Or did she only live. to be at death the food of worms."