A few slight pieces by the quondam actor Robert Cox, partaking more or less of the character of masques, possess a certain pastoral colouring. This is the case, for instance, in the Acteon and Diana, published in 1656. The piece opens with the humours of the would-be lover Bumpkin, a huntsman, and the dance of the country lasses round the May-pole. Then enters Acteon with his huntsmen, who is followed by Diana and her nymphs. Upon the dance of these last Acteon, returning, breaks in unawares, and is rebuked by the goddess, who then retires with her nymphs to a glade in the forest. They are in the act of despoiling themselves for the bath when they are again surprised by Acteon. Incensed, the goddess turns upon him, and he flees before her anger, only to return once more upon the dance of the bathers in the shape of a hart, and fall at their feet a prey to his own hounds. The verse, whether lyric or dramatic, is of a mediocre description, and the piece, if it was ever actually performed, no doubt depended for success upon the music, dancing, and scenery. It is a curious fact, to which Davenant’s work among others is witness, that the nominally private representation of this kind of musical ballet was permitted, while the regular drama was under strict inhibition. At any time, however, it must have been difficult to represent such a piece as the present without sacrificing either propriety or tradition.
Another similar composition, headed ’The Rural Sports on the Birthday of the Nymph Oenone,’ is printed together with the above. In it the strains of the polished pastoral are varied by the humours of the clown Hobbinall, the whole ending with a speech by Pan and a dance of satyrs.
One obvions omission from the above catalogue will have been noticed. The reason thereof is sufficiently obvious; and the following section will endeavour to repair it.
In Milton’s contribution to the fashionable masque literature of his day we approach work the poetic supremacy of which has never been called in question, and whose other qualities, lying properly beyond the strict application of that term, critics have habitually vied with one another to extol. No one, indeed, for whom poetry has any meaning whatever, can turn from the work of Peele, Heywood, and Shirley, of Ben Jonson even, to the early works of Milton, to such comparatively immature works as Arcades and Comus, without being conscious that they belong to an altogether different level of poetical production. It was no mere conventional commendation, such as we may find prefixed to the works of any poetaster of the time, that Sir Henry Wotton addressed to the author of the Ludlow masque: ’I should much commend the Tragical [i.e. dramatic] part, if the Lyrical did not ravish me with a certain Dorique delicacy in your Songs and Odes, wherunto I must plainly confess to have seen yet nothing parallel in our Language.’