Milton's Il Penseroso: Summary & Analysis

Milton's Il Penseroso: Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:02 Importance of Sadness
  • 0:32 Synopsis
  • 2:30 Analyzing
  • 4:27 Melancholy vs Joy
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

It's no coincidence that 'Il Penseroso' really makes readers have to think. Find out why when you explore this lesson, where you'll find a synopsis of John Milton's lyric poem and see it analyzed.

Importance of Sadness

Extremely happy people are often thought of as 'carefree,' and for Milton, this state could be rather problematic. In the ten-line prelude that opens Il Penseroso, the poet denounces 'deluding joyes' (ln 1) and accuses them of making the brain idle (ln 5). Idle brains were the last thing that a poet like Milton would have use for; instead, he depended on a highly active mind for his craft. To achieve this state, he found the main subject of his poem: melancholy.

Synopsis

Milton considers melancholy so important to the production of poetry that he imagines it as a goddess - one so radiant that human senses can't detect her true form (lns 13-14). Instead, we see her characterized as having dark skin and clothed in black. In a style befitting the Classical predecessors whom he imitates, Milton next lays out Melancholy's divine lineage, claiming her to be the daughter of the Roman hearth goddess Vesta and her father Saturn, who had connections to the element lead.

Having provided some background information on the goddess, Milton next invokes Melancholy, asking her to come to him in her usual subdued demeanor and dress (lns 31-44). He also requests that she bring with her some other attendants that are helpful in the poet's work: Peace, Quiet, Fasting, Contemplation, Silence, and the Muses, of course.

Milton then imagines all of the dark, secluded places where he and his company can ponder the mysteries of astrology, alchemy, and philosophy (lns 77-96) - all of which would have been viewed as material for poetry. However, Milton identifies some other sources of inspiration in the personification of Tragedy, as well as in the works of dead poets, both mythological and real (like Orpheus, Chaucer).

In the most extensive section of Il Penseroso, Milton elaborates on an imagined encounter with Melancholy in a sacred grove, typical of those envisioned by many other poets past and since (lns 131-166). Here, he is also visited by Dream and the Guardian of the Wood, who endow him with vivid mental images that he will undoubtedly use in his work.

In the end, the poetic narrator gladly accepts Melancholy's asceticism - a lifestyle distinguished by commonly severe self-discipline, including seclusion and an aversion to pleasure. He consents to life as a hermit in exchange for the profound effect contemplation has on his work.

Analyzing

It might seem strange that Milton would want to invoke such a depressive emotional state. To understand why, we'll first have to look at the poem's title. Il Penseroso in 17th-century Italian would have meant 'The Thoughtful One,' as in someone who thinks a lot (not your friend who brought you soup when you had the flu). So what does mindfulness have to do with melancholy?

Well, consider the Greek root of the term - melagkholia - which was used to identify an 'abundance of black bile' in an ancient or Medieval patient. Such a surplus of this particular bodily humor was usually associated with moodiness and lethargy. However, Milton had a slightly different take on the condition. The Oxford English Dictionary actually cites Milton's use of 'melancholy' in Il Penseroso as a 'lighter sense' of the word, one that indicates a 'tender or pensive sadness.' The poet refers to Melancholy as a 'pensive Nun' (ln 31) and has her accompanied by Contemplation (ln 54), thus highlighting what he sees as a means of greater poetic productivity through seclusion and reflection.

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