THE TWIN POEMS OF
“L’Allegro” and “Il’Penseroso”
The twin poems of John Milton, “L’Allegro and “Il’Penseroso” have been variously described as companion poems, poems contrasting the two ways of life and so on. However, despite recognizing their artistic finesse, most critics tend to regard them as mere academic exercises in the relative merits of a life of joy and a life of contemplation. It is even pointed out that the concluding lines of the two poems–
“Mirth, with thee I mean to live” and
“And I with thee will choose to live”
To me there seems another way to look at the two poems against the background of his whole vocation as a poet, “To justify the ways of God to Man,” and the fusion of the elements of Renaissance and Reformation in his work and in his personality, his self-conscious dedication of his poetic talents to the Divine and his high sense of appreciation of the beautiful, musical and the artistic. It is this synthesis I believe that holds the key to the meaning of the two poems–I should rather say, the two-fold poem.
is not as though, having enumerated the pleasure of L’Allegro,
he preferred the more sober pleasure of Il’Penseroso.
In the Renaissance debates as to the relative merits of a life of joy and a
life of contemplation, he is not choosing one and leaving the other. Though he
“will choose to live” with Melancholy, he “means” to live with Mirth too. He
has not rejected the latter. He finds both acceptable though the former might
be a bit more so. It is as though
let us see whether such a viewpoint is borne out by a comparison of the
attributes of Mirth and Melancholy as mentioned in both the poems. From what
we have said above, “L’Allegro” is about positive
type of Mirth which,
Mirth, in “L’Allegro” is Euphrosyne of heaven, one of the three graces born in the
festive season of “a-maying.” She is a goddess “fair
and free”, “buxom” (good-natured and cheerful) and “debonair” (courteous). Her
companions are Jest, youthful Jollity, Quips, Cranks, Wanton (playful), Wiles,
Nods and Becks, Smiles and Laughter. But these are
not the traits of gross sensual pleasure. She has the chief companion in sweet
The Melancholy that is invoked in “II’Penseroso” is, by contrast, “sage”, “holy”, “divinest.” Its visage is saintly, “higher far descended.” It is “overlaid with black” “to our weaker view” and yet is handsomest like Manna’s sister and Cassiope, quite unlike the “loathed” Melancholy. She is the child of Saturn in whose reign men lived without the need of legal restraints and earth yielded crops without changes of season. (How unlike the other melancholy, the child of Cerberus and blackest Midnight!) She is the “pensive nun, devout and pure.”
“Sober, steadfast and demure with peace and quiet”, “retired Leisure” (not sloth), contemplation (not the “night raven” and “shapes and sights unholy”) as her companions. She is fit to live in and “Be seen in some high lonely tower” (not in a stygian cave forlorn or the land of eternal darkness) studying Plato and Hermes Tris Magistus. It is a melancholy which is not opposed to joy but which enjoins a joy qualified that can allow organ music
“As may with sweatness, through mine ear
Dissolve me into ecstasies
And bring all Heaven before mine eyes.”
In contrast to this heavenly melancholy is the despicable type of mirth he dismisses at the commencement of “Il’Penseroso.” These joys are vain and deluding (whereas those of “L’Allegro” are real and natural, pertaining to the innocent life of the rural and towns-folk) the brood of folly and are illegitimate or immoral (“without father bred”), dwelling in “some idle brain.” It possesses fancies of men with gaudy shapes. We have to note that none of the pleasures of L‘Allegro is gaudy in the sense of vulgar. It is akin to dreams of sleep whereas L’Allegro’s pleasures are of an active kind, pertaining to healthy living, a mixture of work and play.
Putting the two poems together we thus have a gradation of both mirth and contemplation, with “loathed Melancholy” born of Cerberus at the lowest ring, and deluding mirth which is illegitimate (fatherless) a little above it. Together they constitute what is to be dismissed from an ideal life. Above them comes heavenly Mirth Euphrosyne of “unreproved pleasures” and at the crown comes divinest Melancholy.
twin poems, then, are of a piece with the more serious work of