The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 470 words.)