L’Allegro and Il Penseroso by John Milton
These two companion works were among those featured on The Lark Ascending’s first program on March 1, 1998, and were repeated on October 25, 1998, which is the version that we are offering. Here are the notes to them by Nancy Bogen that appeared in the handout program:
Literally "The Happy One" and "The Thoughtful One," these companion poems are thought to date from Milton's last summer at Cambridge, when he was 23 years old. As the titles are suggestive of music, the poems can be considered akin to two parallel movements in a musical work that offer point-for-point contrasts.
The richness of both of these poems in that respect can only emerge with successive readings. Suffice it to say here that L'Allegro’s idealized day in the country with all of its natural sights and sounds and humble rural concerns, and nights at the balls and in the theaters of "Tow'red Cities" are balanced against Il Penseroso’s meditative walking in the woods followed by a browsing among his beloved books in a "high lonely Tow'r," and a sojourn by day in the "studious Cloister's pale" and the "peaceful hermitage."
Based on Milton's devotion to formal study at Cambridge and his subsequent long course of personal study at home, it seems generally agreed that his preference would have been for the life of Il Penseroso. Nevertheless, willy-nilly both poems also clearly reflect the interests and concerns of a young man in his early twenties with a penchant for females.
Certainly telling is his preoccupation with consorting with women and the act of procreation in L'Allegro. For example, according to one genealogy, Euphrosyne or Mirth, who is described as "fair and free," was one of three daughters of Venus and Bacchus (love and wine); according to another, she was the "buxom, blithe, and debonair" daughter with whom frolicsome Zephyr (wind) "fill'd" Aurora (dawn) while "playing" with her, "As he met her once a-Maying,/ There on Beds of Violet blue,/ And fresh-blown Roses washt in dew."
In sharp contrast to this light eroticism is the foreboding origin of Melancholy given at the beginning of L'Allegro: that she is of "Cerberus and blackest midnight born,/ In Stygian Cave forlorn,/ 'Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy." Somewhat later in L'Allegro, the "I" exhorts Euphrosyne or Mirth to lead along in dance the Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty, concluding with: "And if I give thee honor due,/ Mirth, admit me to thy crew/ To live with her, and live with thee,/ In unreproved pleasures free."
Even in the last and presumably best of the enumerated pleasures — that regarding poetry — many of the words and phrases that Milton used are suggestive of fleshly concerns: "lap," "soft," "married," "pierce," "winding bout," "linked sweetness long drawn out," "wanton heed," "giddy cunning," "melting voice," "untwisting all the chains that tie," "hidden," "heave his head," "golden slumber on a bed of heapt Elysian flow'rs."
One would expect Il Penseroso to be devoid of such concerns, but not so entirely: "vain deluding joys" are described as "the brood of folly without father bred," and according to the second genealogy of Melancholy given there, the "bright-hair'd" Vest boare her to "solitary" Saturn, who happened to be Vesta's father. Further, by way of illustration, Milton added this quasi-erotic scene respecting Saturn and Vesta: "Oft in glimmering Bow'rs and glades/ He met her, and in secret shades/ Of woody Ida's inmost grove,/ While yet there was no fear of Jove."
Milton had contemporary models aplenty for L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, most notably, "A Dialogue Between Pleasure and Pain," which introduces Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and the song in praise of melancholy in Fletcher's comedy The Nice Valour, which in one anthology of the time is countered by William Strode's "Against Melancholy." But in terms of sheer expressiveness, Milton's pair of contrasting poems were and still are without equal.