Williams, George Walton. Image and Symbol in the Sacred
Poetry of Richard Crashaw. Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 1967.
"IL PENSEROSO" John Milton (1632) John Milton's solemn, yet comforting, "Il Penseroso," meaning "the contemplative man," was written to balance "L'Allegro," a title translating to "the cheerful man." He likely wrote the two poems early in his career, perhaps while still at Cambridge, a natural outgrowth of student rhetorical practice with traditional themes of opposites, such as day and night. William Blake would add stunning illustrations to later editions of the two poems.
After the introductory nine lines of "Il Penseroso," Milton employs with some variance a familiar octosyllabic format and uses rhyming couplets. The introduction suggests a dark tone, supported, for example, by "vain deluding joys" and "The brood of folly." The speaker makes clear that melancholy is a product of the mind, a theory supported by Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). He tells his audience that one's "fancies" may possess "gaudy shapes . . . / As thick and numberless / As the gay motes that people the Sunbeams." The speaker clarifies that such fancies remain difficult to restrain, because of their infinite property. While the opening references suggest threat, Milton will show that melancholy, when defined as a thoughtful state, proves desirable.
Milton conjures a goddess of Melancholy so bright that human sense can only perceive her as dark, suggesting paradox. He uses the descriptor black twice in two lines, labeling it "Wisdom's hue." He intends to contrast the simplicity of darkness to the often hectic state revealed by light, playing on the "thick" and "numberless" "gay motes," or dust particles, previously referenced as found in sunbeams. He also references Saturn, and readers would understand that those with Saturn present in their horoscope were said to be austere, sullen, and black.
As the critic Merritt Y. Hughes explains, in classical writing the mythological figure of vesta was the virgin daughter of Saturn, but Milton chooses to make her the mother of Melancholy in this poem. Because melancholia was connected to contemplation, he may have made that choice because of another myth that placed vesta in the heavens, suggesting her to be part of the orphic, or wisdom, tradition. The speaker describes her as a "pensive Nun, devout and pure, / Sober steadfast, and demure," wearing a dark robe and a "sable stole." She lives in the skies, her "rapt soul sitting" in her eyes. She casts a glance that is "sad Leaden," as she considers the earth. Her companions are the figures of Leisure, "the Cherub contemplation / And the mute Silence." Philomel, or the nightingale, greets the dark with song, as Cynthia, goddess of the moon, "checks her Dragon yoke." Milton offers appealing imagery to describe nightfall.
The description of the night world continues with pleasant details including singing enchantresses of the wood, "the wand'ring Moon," "a fleecy cloud," and the "far-off Curfew sound" moving across a body of water. One finds no source of "mirth" in this still world, other than the cricket's chirp. The Bellman, or night watchman, has a "drowsy charm" as he blesses "the doors from nightly harm." While Milton's world is dark, it offers no threat. Rather, the imagery shapes a welcome retreat from the day's business. In this retreat, absent are the "Daiemons that are found / In fire, air, flood, or underground," probably a direct reference to Burton's "Digression of Spirits" within Melancholy.
The speaker remains fascinated with the "sage and solemn tunes" sung by Bards who tell "of Tourneys and of Trophies hung, / Of Forests, and enchantments drear." He prefers night to day, contrasting the sun's appearance with that of the moon. Where the moon imbues her arrival with mystery and sophistication, the sun bursts out flinging "His flaring beams" and casting "Day's garish eye." He requests a haven from such an attack, preferring "the dewy-feather'd Sleep" and the "strange mysterious dream" that will "Wave at his Wings in Airy stream / Of lively portraiture display'd." Apparently the speaker prefers fancy to reality, made all the more harsh by the sun's unforgiving glare.
If the speaker must awake from his night fancies, he requests that "sweet music breathe / Above, about, or underneath," a gift from a sweet spirit. He remains fixed on the spiritual, imagining a church with "antic Pillars" and "storied Windows," those with representations of biblical stories cut into stained glass. The windows will cast "a dim religious light" as a "full voic'd Choir" responds to a "pealing organ" producing "Anthems" designed to "dissolve me into ecstasies, / and bring all Heav'n before mine eyes." He dreams of a time when he may join the stars in heaven, drawing on the traditional belief that, as Sir Walter Raleigh wrote in part 1 of his The History of the World (1614), God had granted "every star, a peculiar virtue and operation, as every herb, plant, fruit, and flower adorning the face of the earth hath the like."
Milton's melancholy represents a desirable state, clear in his conclusion. After having expounded upon the many delights of that condition, he closes with the couplet "These pleasures Melancholy give, / And I with thee will choose to live."
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