The two poems we have now to consider were, in all probability, written within a short while of one another, and the second anticipated by more than three years the composition of Lycidas. But the connexion between the two is not one of date only, nor even of the spectacular demand it was the end of either to meet. It may, namely, in the absence of any definite evidence, be with much plausibility presumed that the impulse to the entertainment, of which as we are told Arcades formed a part, originated with that very Lady Alice Egerton and her two young brothers who, the following year probably, bore the chief parts in Comus. The entertainment was presented at Harefield in honour of their grandmother, the Countess Dowager of Derby. This lady, probably somewhat over seventy at the time, was the honoured head of a large family. The daughter of Sir John Spencer of Althorpe, born about 1560, she married first Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, afterwards Earl of Derby, patron of the company of actors with whom Shakespeare’s name is associated; and secondly, after his early death in 1594, the Lord Keeper, Sir Thomas Egerton, who rose by rapid steps to be Viscount Brackley shortly before his death in 1617. The span of a human life appears strange when measured by the rapidly moving events of the English renaissance. The wife of Shakespeare’s patron, who may have witnessed the early ventures of the Stratford lad at the time of his first appearance on the London stage—the ‘Amarillis’ of Colin Clout, with whom, and with her sisters ‘Phillis’ and ‘Charillis,’ Spenser claimed kinship, and to whom he dedicated his Tears of the Muses in 1591—lived to see her grandchildren perform for her amusement in the reign of the first Charles an entertainment for which their music-master Lawes had requisitioned the pen of the future author of Paradise Lost.
Arcades, or ‘the Arcadians,’ can hardly be dignified by the name of a masque; it is the mere embryo of the elaborate compositions which were at the time fashionable under that name, and of which Milton was to rival the constructional elaboration in his pastoral entertainment of the following year. It rather resembles such amoebean productions as we find introduced into the stage plays of the time; and was, no doubt, as the superscription explicitly informs us, but ’Part of an entertainment presented to the Countess Dowager of Darby.’ Nevertheless it is complete and self-contained, and to speak of it, as Professer Masson does, as ’part, and part only, of a masque,’ is to give a wholly false impression; for, whatever the rest of the entertainment may have been, there is not the least reason to suppose that it had any connexion or relation with the portion that has survived. This runs to a little over one hundred lines. A group of nymphs and shepherds, coming from among the trees of the garden, approach the ‘seat of State’ where sits the venerable