“Arcades” resembles the combination of song, music, costume drama, dance and verse generally performed before an aristocratic sponsor. Its length (109 lines in total) suggests that it was written and performed as the prelude to a more extensive series of events (Patterson 89). The prose preface calls it “Part of an entertainment presented to the Countess Dowager of Derby at Harefield…”. Alice, the Countess Dowager was nominal head of the family who would be Milton’s principal patrons during the time when the poem was written (Patterson 90).
“Arcades” is an address of about sixty lines, done in heroic couplets, by the so-called “Genius of the Wood”, a version of whom would reappear in Comus as the “Attendant Spirit” (Patterson 92). This is topped and tailed by a short sequence of Songs performed by younger members of the Countess’s family. The address is little more than a celebration of the presence and grand status of the Countess:
To the great mistress of yon princely shrine
Whom with low reverence I adore as mine (Milton 36-7)
The phrase “yon princely shrine” signifies the way in which “Arcades” continually crosses the border between actuality and a part-classical, part-Christian spirit world. With “yon” audiences are aware of the material presence of Harefield House, while “shrine” praises the house’s mistress, the noble Dowager, to a higher, mythical status – her young relatives, the singers, are referred to as nymphs (Patterson 90). He introduces the “celestial sirens” (63) and blends this image with his by now familiar notion of
… the heavenly tune, which none can hear
Of human mould with gross unpurged ear (Milton 72-3)
The most intriguing section of “Arcades” is the conclusion of the Genius’s address (74-84), in which Milton finds himself having to reconcile the notion of music which is beyond human comprehension with the newly elevated, almost otherworldly, status of the Dowager (Patterson 93). To have caused her to hear it would have been both anti-religious and insane, and Milton provides a skillfully evasive compromise: “Such music” would be worthy of “her immortal praise” if only my inferior hand or voice could hit/Inimitable sounds” (75-8). The “heavenly tone” would indeed be a fitting tribute to her status, but she is attended by lowly human beings who cannot produce it.