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”


show Milton’s instinctive choice for a life of contemplation, a life of serious dedication to a sublime vocation.


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.


It 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 Milton wants to tell the world that the choice of an ideal life is not between a life of Mirth and a life of either “loathed melancholy” or “deluding joys” on one side and a life of “unreproved pleasures free” and of “Divinest Melancholy” on the other. Milton seems to distinguish between a negative form of Melancholy which he dismisses at the beginning of “L’Allegro” and the positive, “holy”, melancholy which he praises in the whole of “Il’Penseroso.” So too, he distinguishes between a negative form of Mirth, “deluding joys,” which he dismisses at the start of “Il’Penseroso” and the positive form of Mirth which he invokes in “L’Allegro.” Thus put together, the burden of the twin poems is that a life of “un reproved” mirth and of “Divinest Melancholy” are to be accepted as ideal, whereas a life of “deluding joys” and “loathed melancholy” are both to be abjured. How one can accept both Mirth and Contemplation, though of a positive type both be, I shall hint at later.


First 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, Milton implies by his initial dismissal in the opening lines, is contrary to the negative type of Melancholy.


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 Liberty (as opposed to the enslavement to vices). All the train belongs to the category of “unreproved pleasures”, i.e., pleasures which are not profane. It is “heart-easing mirth” and not heart-enslaving sensuality which is characterised by reproved pleasures. The pleasures it enjoys are the song of the lark, the sounds of hounds and horns, the sights of a peaceful rural scene of work and dance, or the sight of “wit or arms” contending for a lay’s grace. Again it is accepted as an “unreproved” pleasure only if Hymen is there. He is willing to accept a kind of mirth which can give these delights and none else. The implication is underlined in the kind of Melancholy that is dismissed initially. It is “loathed” Melancholy, born of Cerberus, in a stygian cave and sharing the air of “shapes and shrieks unholy” and fit to dwell in perpetual darkness.


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.


I suggest that Milton sees no need of a universal choice between “unreproved” Mirth and divinest Melancholy. If he shows any choice, it is strictly personal. Nay, he has enjoyed the unreproved pleasures and has come to the next phase of life where he has to take up divinest melancholy as his favourite goddess. Anyone who chooses the former can without any difficulty choose the latter when he “will.” This is God’s scheme of life to Man. It is not as though God wishes that every votary of His should dismiss the former and taken to the latter. For, when he put the first parents in the Garden, telling them “Thou Shalt live by the sweat of thy brow” he allowed them “unreproved pleasures” “free”, accompanied by sweet Liberty. And the Christ enjoined his disciples to be like children, for such inhabit heaven. One may even go a step forward and suggest that those who have dedicated themselves to serve a heavenly mission of justifying the ways of God to man like Hermes Tris Magistus, Plato and the Greek Tragedians have to choose divinest Melancholy. The rest of the faithful may live happily like innocent children and like the first parents of man in Eden. The others belong to the train of Jesus the Christ who knew how to patiently bear the cross (“They also serve who stand and wait”–Sonnet) and to the train of Samson with whom Milton felt an instinct to identify himself and his life’s mission.


The twin poems, then, are of a piece with the more serious work of Milton in spirit, though in the latter they might seem mere youthful academic exercise. The high seriousness of the spirit of these poems then is seen to endow their “youthful academic” tone and form with an irony that insinuates against the “merely academic” manner in which most other debators of the theme seemed to take both Mirth and Contemplation.