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.
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...
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