Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470
The poem stands as the companion piece to “L’Allegro,” using the same non-stanzaic tetrameter form; at 176 lines, it is twenty-four lines longer than its companion. The title, meaning “the thinker” or “the contemplative man,” suggests its opposition to its companion piece. The poem expresses the joys of the solitary...
(The entire section contains 937 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Il Penseroso study guide. You'll get access to all of the Il Penseroso content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
The poem stands as the companion piece to “L’Allegro,” using the same non-stanzaic tetrameter form; at 176 lines, it is twenty-four lines longer than its companion. The title, meaning “the thinker” or “the contemplative man,” suggests its opposition to its companion piece. The poem expresses the joys of the solitary man walking abroad during the evening, sitting studying at night in the midst of quiet woodlands, or finding pleasure in tragic and heroic literature and in mystic churches.
The poem’s opening rejects mirth as delusion and triviality. Instead, the poet welcomes the goddess Melancholy. He gives her a more original and much older genealogy than that given to Euphrosyne in “L’Allegro,” seeing her as daughter of the pre-Olympian deity Hestia (John Milton uses the Roman form of Vesta), goddess of sacred and domestic fire, whom he makes wife and daughter of Saturn. Hesiod had made her the eternally virgin daughter of Chronos and Rhea; Milton transfers her virginity to her daughter. As at her conception, Melancholy remains associated with evening and “secret shades.” Her traditional blackness is, paradoxically, her intense brightness and is as beautiful as that of Cassiopeia, the Ethiopian queen who was transformed into a constellation.
He invites her to come to him, together with Peace and Quiet, rather vague personifications, and especially with “the cherub Contemplation,” in a silence broken only by the nightingale’s song. None of the country’s sounds or society is for him; he would prefer to wander solitary in the moonlight through woods and meadows or walk near the seashore. If the weather is inclement, he would happily study through the night. His chosen reading is either ancient volumes of hermetic (or secret) wisdom, Greek and more recent tragedy, or epic poetry. He mentions Geoffrey Chaucer, Torquato Tasso, and Edmund Spenser in particular. Unlike the persona of “L’Allegro,” he is not interested in seeing the drama live: He wants it to inspire him imaginatively, to transport him as if Orpheus himself were to sing to him.
Eventually he sees the morning come, and—unlike the morning of the companion piece—it conforms to his mood: It is cloudy, with blustery showers. If the sun breaks through, he would prefer to walk in the forest, listening to the murmuring of the streams, perhaps falling asleep on their banks. On waking, he wishes to hear the mysterious music of the nature spirits of the woodland. Finally, as he looks forward in his life, he would like to retire to “the studious Cloysters pale” of a college or church and be overwhelmed with the beauty of the ritual and the music of the organ. Eventually, through such study and perception of beauty, he would wish to become a prophetic figure. If Melancholy can give all this to him, he will follow her.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467
Most readers will read this poem after reading “L’Allegro.” Attention is thus focused necessarily on the two poems’ parallel structures and on the differences to be found at each level. Clearly, one of the parallel structures is the opening: ten lines of alternating iambic trimeter and pentameter. In rejecting Mirth, he sets up a parody figure, just as in “L’Allegro” a parody figure of Melancholy is set up only to be mocked and rejected.
The verse form also uses a parallel structure, with rhyming couplets of iambic tetrameter; however, the rhythm of the poem is completely different. In the difference, one may see a clear indication of the young Milton’s very mature poetic technique and control (already seen in the even earlier “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”). The rhythmic differences are established by a slightly longer line; by more clustering of stressed syllables and consonants, as in “Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes”; and by a preference for long vowel sounds, especially those with a darker coloring. Apart from these differences, the overall sense and tone determine the rhythm. Milton has taken a verse form which, in couplets especially, can sound very trivial, and given it a solemn and stately movement that becomes almost trance-like toward the end.
At the level of content, the structures reverse those of “L’Allegro.” That poem goes from morning until late evening, this from the late evening until morning. The invocation to the goddess, together with her companions, closely parallels the other poem, although Milton expands this section considerably. He seems much more interested in the figure of Melancholy than in that of Euphrosyne. The nightingale’s song is evoked rather than the lark’s; the moon, rather than the sun, is “riding neer her highest noon”; and instead of the “Towers and Battlements” of the idyllic landscape, he prefers “some high lonely Towr” as a place of study. Types of literature are contrasted, as are types of music; the story of Orpheus is noble, a source of tragic beauty that moves one to tears. The morning must not be “trickt and frounc’t” for good hunting weather but should suit his melancholy. References continue throughout to shade—as “comly Cloud,” “twilight groves,” “close covert,” and “hide”—in language that John Keats was later to make his own.
The final twenty lines, however, go beyond the structure of “L’Allegro,” as the speaker sees himself listening to the church service. The poem expands toward its conclusion and finishes with the climactic “To something like Prophetic strain.” The poet’s real engagement with his subject matter is perhaps sensed here; the earlier desire for the unfolding worlds of philosophy becomes a total sensory and spiritual experience of rapture to “bring all heav’n before mine eyes.”