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"L'ALLEGRO" John Milton (1632) John Milton adopted a joyful tone to write "L'Allegro" as a celebration of mirth, its title translating to "the cheerful man." It balances a second piece, "Il Penseroso," which focused on the solemn contemplative man and employed a melancholy tone. Milton may have drawn as a creative source on verse written by Robert Burton as a prefix to his The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). That happy poem supported Burton's theory that mirth could combat the type of prolonged melancholy that might lead to madness. Milton's playful approach supports a simple familiar format of octosyllabic rhyming couplets. He begins by describing the dwelling place of "loathed Melancholy," born at "blackest midnight" as a cave with "horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy" for company. Although the imagery is dark, Milton's employment of alliteration with repetition of the s sounds suggests a sense of the lighthearted, as if one were telling a ghost tale for fun.
The speaker calls upon the "Goddess fair and free" named Euphrosyne, or Mirth, to combat the effect of Melancholy. He notes she is daughter to Venus and Bacchus and sister to two Graces. Milton supports the classical allusion by simply making up his own story, uniting Zephyr (the wind) with Aurora (the dawn) to produce a "blithe" and "debonair" Nymph daughter. This offspring is accompanied by "Jest and youthful Jollity," contagious to others and causing the speaker to sing aloud:
Come, and trip it as ye go on the light fantastic toe,
And in thy right hand lead with thee,
The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty.
Milton continues his joyous salute to carefree abandon for a total of 152 lines. Their effect has managed to elude the critical approach, and experts who attempt to analyze Milton's work have a problem reducing its happy effect to a matter of meter, rhyme, or form. Its language and arrangement prove too simple, and one must simply enjoy its sounds and imagery.
Milton's speaker celebrates the quotidian in order to include audience members from lower social groups. He describes as delights flowers such as the Sweet-Briar and the Eglantine, the morning cacophony created by the Cock and "his Dames," and "the Hounds and horn." With the rise of the "great Sun," described as robed "in flames, and Amber light," come the shepherds, milkmaids, and mowers, not only to work, but to tell stories and enjoy one another's company. The speaker notes his eye catches "new pleasures /
Whilst the Landscape round in measures Russet Lawns and Fallows Gray, Where the nibbling flocks do stray; Mountains on whose barren breast The laboring clouds do often rest.
The speaker celebrates the pastoral scene through the day and into the evening, when all the country folk and creatures "creep" to bed, "By whispering Winds soon lull'd asleep."
Not to end his celebration so early, the speaker then makes his way to the city "And the busy hum of men." There he may observe knights, barons, and ladies, all entertained by "Wit, or Arms, while both contend" to win a Lady's favor, offering "Such sights as youthful Poets dream." He then joins the audiences of dramas by Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Milton also celebrates music, but not the traditional Dorian chaste notes. Instead, he praises Lydian music, although some believe it to be immoral. He salutes the Lydian ability in "Untwisting all the chains that tie / The hidden soul of harmony," continuing to emphasize the theme of liberty available through mirth.
In the closing lines Milton again includes classical references, as he continues to describe the effect of the glorious music. The final couplet allows the speaker to sum his thoughts: "These delights if thou canst give, / Mirth, with thee I mean to live."
"LANDSCAPE DESCRIBED. RURAL SOUNDS, A" 249
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