Themes and Meanings

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Any attempt to understand “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” as a pair does not exhaust the readings that “Il Penseroso” is able to generate in itself. This is largely attributable to the thematic complexity surrounding the idea of melancholy, a complexity not found in discussing mirth. Renaissance literature was profoundly interested in the subject: The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) by Robert Burton had recently been published; William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602) and Timon of Athens (c. 1607-1608) are both dramatic studies in the subject, as were many Jacobean plays. The melancholic person was seen ambiguously as a killjoy (in comedy), a depressive, and a scholar, and as having a source of wisdom denied to others. The interest in melancholy was partly an extension of medieval psychology and physiology, based on the notion of the humors, but it partly arose from a cultural mood of confusion and insecurity.

Modern readers are tempted to read into the poem the Romantic delineation of melancholy, expressed by such poets as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Keats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Keats’s version seems the closest to that of “Il Penseroso,” with its depiction of moonlit night, woods, streams, cloud, shade, and visions of the sublime. Thus, the poem could be read (somewhat anachronistically) as a Romantic mood poem: searching for intensity of experience, reaching beyond normative states of consciousness into ecstasy or sublimity, and thus grasping truths and revelation not available otherwise. Yet “mood” seems too weak a word here (although it would do for “L’Allegro”); one is driven to a deeper reading that, while retaining such Romantic elements, does so by virtue of its Neoplatonism.

The “spirit of Plato” is invoked in line 89 to unfold the regions forsaken by the soul in its descent into the human body at birth. The “extasies” aroused by the organ music can be seen as a parallel attempt to reach back into this Platonic state of original perfection. The hermetic wisdom to which he refers can be loosely linked to Neoplatonic philosophy. The tower that he mentions is a Neoplatonic symbol of the soul seeking divine wisdom—a symbol that the Irish poet William Butler Yeats was later to use literally. Renaissance literature in England, as elsewhere, tended to embrace Plato as part of its rejection of medieval Aristotelianism. John Milton’s poetry, like Andrew Marvell’s, is explicitly Platonic at times, especially in the masque Comus (1637). It is this tradition that Romanticism continued.

The way of melancholy is thus the only way possible to reach that higher and older wisdom denied most humans, for it is the way of contemplation. The genealogy of Melancholy also suggests this: It is a much more ancient genealogy than that given to Mirth, who must content herself with a post-Olympian birth. Saturn is the presiding star for the melancholic. Saturn is the oldest divinity, predating Zeus and the Olympians, and thus he enshrines the most ancient knowledge—a point that Keats struggled to make in Hyperion (1820). Thus the poet, in choosing melancholy, chooses to be the poet-philosopher of Platonic tradition and, even more powerfully, the poet-prophet, a role (already envisaged in “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”) which would give Milton’s religious faith full expression.

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