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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A number of interpretations have been suggested for the poem—or rather, for the pair of poems. One suggestion is that the young Milton, possibly still at the University of Cambridge, or possibly recently having been graduated, was using the form of a typical student dialectic exercise to conduct an argument, such as deciding “whether day or night is the more excellent” or comparing the merits of learning and ignorance. It could also be seen as marking the poet’s return from Cambridge to his father’s retirement home in the Buckinghamshire countryside, expressing both his joy at country life (together with its accessibility to London) and his thoughts on his still undecided future. The poem’s pastoral landscape is rustic and English; it cannot be taken for a classical setting. If Milton’s thoughts, as is most likely, were turning toward the vocation of literature, then the pastoral form would be the most appropriate genre for him to begin exploring, as the pastoral was seen classically as the one for “apprentice” poets. Certainly, Milton persisted in and mastered the genre in his youth.

The poems may also be seen, as could Keats’s Sleep and Poetry, as the youthful explorations of the aspiring poet, encapsulating the intellectual excitement in imaginative fantasies and daydreams. If this is taken as the basis for an interpretation, it is possible to go further and see the two poems as Milton’s setting out a poetic program for himself. The poem becomes, thus, not so much about day and night, comedy and tragedy, as about the inspiration to be found by the young poet in idyllic nature, and the pastoral imagination founded on this and on Romance literature—inspiration that needs feeding. This is one possibility for him as a youthful, idealistic poet. The other possibility is explored in “Il Penseroso ,” which is perhaps the one he ultimately...

(The entire section is 475 words.)