John Milton – “Il Penseroso”

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.

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