The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

This 152-line poem is non-stanzaic and is written in tetrameter couplets except for the first ten lines, which are alternating trimeters and pentameters. It is a companion piece to the slightly longer “Il Penseroso,” with which a detailed comparison must necessarily be made.

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“L’Allegro” means “the cheerful man,” and the poem describes, in pastoral terms and in his own voice, the idyllic day of such a man in the countryside. It begins with the sun rising and takes the man through the pleasures of the day until the countryfolk’s bedtime. After that, the man goes to the city and enjoys his evening in more sophisticated literary company.

The poem actually begins, however, with an invocation against “loathed Melancholy,” personified as a horrific creature and seen as a state bordering on madness. In place of this monster, the cheerful poet welcomes Euphrosyne, or Mirth, who, mythologically, was the daughter of Venus and Bacchus, or perhaps of Zephyrus (the west wind) and Aurora (the dawn). As neither loving nor drinking figures significantly in the poem, it must be inferred that John Milton prefers the latter, less well-known genealogy. He invites Mirth, together with “the Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty,” to take him as one of her followers, to live “in unreproved pleasures free.”

The remainder of the poem is more a pastoral fantasy of what such a day spent in Mirth’s company would be like than an actual description of a particular day, as one might expect to find in a Romantic pastoral such as John Keats’s Sleep and Poetry (1817) or I Stood Tiptoe (1817). As in classical pastoral, the countryside is idealized, and any unpleasantness, such as bad weather or painful labor, is removed. In fact, the poet becomes a spectator rather than a participant (such as a shepherd) in the pastoral activity. He imagines the lark rising at dawn, the hunt, and the cock crowing. As the sun rises, he observes typical country work, people, and animals, especially (as befits a pastoral) sheep and shepherds.

The landscape is an impossible one, in that meadows, castles, mountains, wide rivers, and woods all jostle one another for place. Similarly, the day dissolves from a working day to a rustic holiday, focusing on the merrymaking at suppertime. The folk tell one another legends and country tales as the ale circulates. With sunset, they go to bed.

Not so the cheerful man, who imagines himself now in “towred Cities” of a distinctly medieval flavor, with “throngs of Knights and Barons bold.” A tournament is being held, then a wedding feast. Then the man goes to the theater to see the comedies of Ben Jonson or the young William Shakespeare. Finally, in his bliss, the poet calls for soft music and poetry that would rouse even the god Orpheus. If Mirth can give him all this, the poet vows to live always with her.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

The verse form of “L’Allegro” is delightfully lyrical. The rhythm is light and joyful, and it is the single most important factor in creating the idyllic tone of the poem. Although the meter is tetrameter, the length of line is frequently seven syllables rather than eight. Regularly placed stressed syllables dominate; in the shortened lines, along with the rhyming effect of the couplet, they provide a strong musical beat. The stressed syllables have relatively few of the longer, “dark” vowel sounds. Consonants are also soft, as in “Lap me in soft Lydian Aires/ Married to immortal verse.” The l, m, and s sounds echo exactly the sense. The sound and the rhythm are mellifluous and flow easily in long, relaxed sentences that have none of the grammatical complexity of John Milton’s later style. The vocabulary, too, is simple, avoiding pedantic or latinate words.

The only verse that suggests any harshness is the opening section. This section also demonstrates that the poet is a man of learning; even if he does not care to show it in his diction, it shows in his easy use of classical myth. The verse form here is somewhat irregular. It alternates between trimeter and pentameter, with a complicated rhyming scheme (abbacddeec); it is basically iambic but is sometimes broken up, as in “And the night-Raven sings.” This contrast, rhythmic as well as tonal, with the rest of the poem is striking and provides a dramatic opening.

Milton’s use of mythological names is accomplished, and it goes well beyond the usual pastoral naming of shepherds with Latin or Greek names. Euphrosyne’s genealogies are given, and clearly Milton understands the meaning of the Greek as “she who rejoices the heart.” The most significant classical allusion, though, is to Orpheus, since this forms an extended concluding image and is picked up in “Il Penseroso.” In “L’Allegro,” the tragedy of the myth is played down, and the beauty and enchantment of music are stressed. Orpheus lies “on a bed/ Of heapt Elysian flowers” and, with such music as the poet delights in, would have “quite set free/ His half regain’d Eurydice.” The Orphic myth can still contain celebration. The poet’s delight in literature also suggests his learning, and the heady mixture of pastoral and literature suggests the work of Keats a century and a half later.

The landscape descriptions, diction, and images need to be read in contrast with “Il Penseroso.” Here in “L’Allegro,” the diction conveys light and radiance. The lark is mentioned, rather than the nightingale of the other poem. Although both birds are symbolic of the poetic imagination, one is a bird of day, the other a bird of night. In “L’Allegro,” fields fill the landscape (rather than woods); there are people instead of solitude, so the poet walks “not unseen.” (In “Il Penseroso,” he says, “I walk unseen.”) The literature mentioned in the poems also contrasts; here, there is comedy and medieval romance, whereas there one finds epic and tragedy. The music in “L’Allegro” is country songs; in “Il Penseroso,” solemn organ tones.

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Themes