Continuing the symmetrical theme, the poet now invokes the muse of Tragedy to arrive, just like in “L’Allegro” he invoked comedy. He recalls the great themes of ancient tragedy (the Thebeian cycle and such) and mentions that the achievements of “later age” were rare. It’s an interesting point that he likes Shakespeare and Jonson enough as comedy writers, but as for tragedy, he would like to hear Orpheus or Musaeus. Or – and here is a twist – he would like to hear Chaucer finish the unfinished Squire’s tale (he doesn’t name Chaucer, but the details of the tale indicate him). It does not seem very consistent because Chaucer is not a particularly melancholy writer and the Squire’s Tale, or at least the existing part, is a medieval romance, full of magic and love, not very sad either. The night leaves and makes room for Aurora, but she is not the “tricked and frounced” girl that used to get up early to hunt with her lover Atticus, but a soberly dressed maiden. (For a poem whose large part takes place at night, it seems to put a lot of emphasis on chastity.) The morning is covered with rain clouds, but when the sun eventually starts to shine, the poet finds refuge in dark woods. There he falls asleep, and when he wakes up, he wishes to hear some sweet music. The next image is the poet wandering through church grounds, admiring stained-glass windows and “dim religious light”, the pealing organ and the choir singing “in service high”. I wonder if “High” as referring to a certain faction of Anglican Church meant in Milton’s times already the same thing as in the 19th c. He seems to be unexpectedly “high” regarding the liturgy. And his last dream is straight-out Catholic: he envisages himself as a hermit in “the hairy gown and mossy cell”, studying astronomy and medical herbs. The poem ends with the request identical to the one ending “L’Allegro”: “These pleasures, Melancholy, give/And I with thee choose to live”.
The poem, which is the mirror image of “L’Allegro”, begins similarly to the previous one, with the poet driving away foolish mirth and inviting Melancholy. His Melancholy is not sadness or depression, but rather a pensive temper, conducive to scholarly pursuits. His Melancholy is black-faced, as she was traditionally depicted, but Milton compares her favourably to various Ethiopian princesses known from mythology. Milton also invents for her a mythological parentage, making her the daughter of Saturn and Vesta (who in fact was a virgin, just like her priestesses). Saturn of course being the patron of the planet which was supposed to be the patron of melancholics is an appropriate choice here (hence the adjective “saturnine”). Melancholy arrives dressed soberly in dark and modest clothes like a nun (it’s an interesting comparison for such a thorough Protestant). She is followed by her retinue, which includes Fast, Peace, Quiet, and Contemplation. The nightingale begins her song and the moon is up in the sky, personified as Cynthia driving her chariot pulled by dragons. The poet imagines himself wandering and looking at the moon. If it is too cold, the next best thing is to be in a room with some glowing embers still in the hearth and only the cricket for company. If the room is located in “some high lonely tower”, that’s even better. In this place he can devote himself to study.
The poet continues with the list of all the things that bring mirth: country people dancing during the hay-making season and telling stories about Queen Mab and a goblin who works for a bowl of cream. Then somewhat abruptly he switches to the cities and fashionable people living there, which is interesting, taking into account he was anti-Royalist in his later life. But here he describe beautifully dressed knights and barons as well as the ladies, for whose favour they compete, as one more possible source of mirth. The next segues is smoother: courtship leads to weddings, and weddings lead to masques, which in turn lead to the theatre, both that of “learned” Jonson and “wild” Shakespeare. Finally music is a source of joy and is so powerful it could make Orpheus raise his head from his bed in Elysium. The poem ends with the words “These delights if thou canst give/Mirth, with thee I mean to live”.
“L’Allegro” is one of the two companion pieces. The other is titled “Il Penseroso” and together they are a kind of tour de force for Milton, showing how he can use exactly the same metre to write two poems on the contrasting subjects: “L’Allegro” is about mirth, “Il Penseroso” about melancholy. “L’Allegro” begins with a call for Melancholy to fly away and hide herself in Stygian caves or other dark places known from mythology. Instead, he invites Euphrosyne, one of the Graces, the daughter of Venus and Bacchus, or maybe, as Milton suggests, Zephyr and Aurora, a less fleshly pair of lovers. The Helpful Footnote suggests the imagery here is similar to the one on Botticcelli’s La Primavera, and I can certainly see that. Milton travelled through Italy, but did he have a chance to see the painting, or was it locked up at that time in a private room of a Medici? Euphrosyne is going to bring with her joy and jokes and so on. What follows is a series of pastoral scenes: the poet hears the lark singing at dawn, and then the cock crowing and there is a funny line about him stoutly strutting in front of his dames. The sun is rising, he can hear the echoes of the hunt in a distance and various people going about their farming jobs: the milkmaid singing, the mower whetting his scythe and the shepherd – well, of course the shepherd is a pastoral shepherd so he “tells his tale” instead of shearing his sheep or something. Then we get a landscape description: russet lawns, grey fallows, but it’s not all pastoral – there are also towers and battlements. But back to the pastoral theme – between the oaks there is a small cottage with a smoking chimeny where Corydon and Thyrsis (conventional pastoral names) sit at their dinner, so I guess the evening is drawing near.
Botticcelli’s Graces, via Web Gallery of Art (www.wga.hu)
And their alleged father, pursuing not Aurora but Flora.
The pagan gods continue to fly away: Moloch (probably the most disgusting of them), all the Egyptian gods like Osiris and Anubis etc. The mighty Typhon is vanquished by the babe in the cradle, like (unmentioned, but certainly meant by Milton and recognized by his raders) snakes by the baby Hercules. The sun is rising and the shadows, like the evil ghosts, are fleeing from it. Now the Virgin put the baby to sleep and it’s time to end “our tedious song” (to be honest, it got a bit boring). The earth’s youngest star is attending the stable like a faithful servant with a lamp and the stable is surrounded by a ring of angels.
“On Shakespeare” is a thankfully short poem, the first published poem by Milton, included in the edition of Shakespeare’s Second Folio. In the thyming couplets Milton describes the subject which Shakespeare himself touched upon on numerous occasions in his sonnets: Shakespeare’s immortality, assured not through stone monuments but through his readers. Any hypothetical grand tomb of Shakespeare is nothing in comparison with his readers, who are turned into marble because of their admiration for his verses. Any king would willingly die to lie in such a sepulchre, concludes Milton in a neat paradox.
The poet continues his vision, inspired by Psalm 85: maybe it’s time when Truth and Justice, with Mercy between them, will descend from Heaven. But no, the whole work of salvation is not done yet and the world will not be perfect until the Second Coming. But at least it’s begun: the devil-dragon is now more tightly bound in hell. What follows is the vision of the disintegration of the old pagan world, with the old oracles losing their power of prophesying and old gods being banished. What I find remarkable here is the unity of Milton’s vision, as this closely prefigures Paradise Lost, which he wouldn’t start writing until forty years later, but it still uses the same concept that the old pagan gods are really devils. But are they all, really, at least in this early poem? When Milton writes about mountains and springs resounding with the moans of the nymphs mourning their demise/departure, I can’t help but feel he is at least a little bit sorry for them and does not put them on the equal footing with Peor and Baalim (Philistine gods). Also, paradoxically, picturing the pagan deities, including the lesser ones like the Roman lars (household gods) paradoxically grants them more importance than if Milton just had assumed they were only a figment of human imagination. (Somewhat anachronistically, I would like here to link to a short story by a 19th-c. Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, who also takes up the topic of pagan gods being judged by Christian saints and consigned to oblivion – but not all of them.)
The utter calm continues. The stars won’t leave their place in the night sky until God tells them to do so. And the Sun is reluctant to rise, seeing a greater Sun/Son on the earth than himself. The shepherds are chatting in the usual pastoral fashion about their loves or their sheep, expnot knowing that “the mighty Pan” arrived this night. The Helpful Footnote explains that the pagan god Pan was sometimes conflated with the Christian God or thought of as his prefiguration because his name in Greek means “all”. Suddenly they hear the sweetest possible music. Nature itself thinks she is over because the music of the nine spheres, according to Pythagoras, could be heard only above the earth, never on it. This is the kind of music that was never heard down below since the Creation. The poet asks the silver spheres to keep on singing and the earth to add its bass line to the divine harmony. If such music can continues, time is going to turn back to the Golden Age and hell will pass away. Oh, and in the meantime the shepherds see the heavenly hosts of armed cherubim and seraphim descending to the earth and singing.