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Il Penseroso
A Poem by John Milton (1608-1674) 
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Summary
Theme
End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Meter
Poem Text With Notes
Tone
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
Milton's Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
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Type of Work and Publication Year

.......John Milton's "Il Penseroso" is a lyric poem centering on melancholy as a stimulus for sober contemplation and inspired writing. The title is an Italian word meaning "the pensive man." The poem was published in London in 1645 as part of a collection, The Poems of John Milton, Both English and Latin. It is a companion piece to "L'Allegro," a lyric poem that courts joy rather than melancholy. The poems use similar metric and rhyme schemes.

Setting

.......The poem is set in the speaker's mind as he looks forward to visiting the places that he hopes Melancholy, which he addresses as a goddess, will take him. 

Summary

.......The speaker orders "vain deluding joys" to leave him. He then welcomes Melancholy as a goddess so bright that humans cannot see her. Instead, they perceive her as appareled in black, the hue of wisdom. She is the daughter of Saturn, a solitary god, and of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. The speaker invites Melancholy to come forth and and bring with her as companions Peace, Quiet, Fast (fasting from food), Leisure, and Contemplation, a cherub. A nightingale's song to interrupt the silence would be welcome, for it would help in "smoothing the rugged brow of night" (line 58). The sight of the moon crossing the sky "Like one that had been led astray / Through the heav'ns wide pathless way" (69-70) would also be welcome. 
.......A room with "glowing embers" (line 79) that cast a gloomy light would make a fine retreat for thoughtful musing. The only sound would be the chirp of a cricket or the bell of the town crier as he goes about his rounds. "Or let my lamp at midnight hour / Be seen in some high lonely tow'r" (lines 85-86), the speaker says. There, he would contemplate the constellation known as Ursa Major (commonly called the Bear or the Big Dipper) or consider the profound views of Plato. There he might also reflect on a great tragedy, such as that which befell Troy or that which was enacted on the stages of ancient Greece. 
.......In the morning, "when the Sun begins to fling / His flaring beams" (lines 131-132), Melancholy would escort the speaker to "arched walks of twilight groves" (line 133) and hide him near a brook from the sun rays while the bee hums and the waters murmur. There, he would fall into a mysterious dream. Upon awaking, he would hear the sweet music of a spirit.
.......He asks Melancholy to let him walk the outer hallways of a cloistered convent with dim light coming through stained-glass windows. While an organ plays and a choir sings, he would "dissolve into ecstasies" (line 165) and have a vision of heaven. In old age, he would ask for a hermit's cell. He ends the poem with this petition:

These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
And I with thee will choose to live.
Theme

.......Embracing melancholy as a "sober, steadfast, and demure" (line 32) companion is the theme of "Il Penseroso." Milton begins the poem by rejecting "deluding joy" (line 1). In line 12, he hails Melancholy as a goddess and then, in succeeding lines, invites her to become part of his life and asks her to bring with her

 
.................calm Peace, and Quiet, 
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet,
And hears the Muses in a ring,
Aye round about Jove's altar sing.
And add to these retired Leisure,
That in trim gardens takes his pleasure;
But first, and chiefest, with thee bring
Him that yon soars on golden wing,
Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,
The cherub Contemplation;
And the mute Silence hist along
End Rhyme

.......The end rhyme of the first ten lines of the poem uses this pattern: abbacddeec. Following is an illustration of this pattern.

Hence vain deluding Joys,
The brood of Folly without father bred,
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toys;
Dwell in some idle brain,
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the sunbeams,
Or likest hovering dreams,
The fickle pensioners of Morpheus' train.
Milton wrote the rest of the poem in couplets (pairs of rhyming lines). Lines 11-16 demonstrate the pattern.
But hail thou goddess, sage and holy,
Hail divinest Melancholy,
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight;
And therefore to our weaker view,
O'er-laid with black, staid Wisdom's hue
Internal Rhyme

.......Milton also included occasional internal rhyme in the poem, as in the following lines.

Yet thou art higher far descended (line 22)
With a sad leaden downward cast (line 43)
And join with thee calm Peace, and Quiet (line 45)
Aye round about Jove's altar sing (line 48)
Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne (line 53)
And missing thee, I walk unseen (line 65)
The story of Cambuscan bold, (line 110)
Wave at his wings, in airy stream (line 148)
Meter

.......The meter of the first ten lines of the poem is as follows. 

.........1................2...............3
Hence VAIN..|..de LUD..|..ing JOYS,.............................................................iambic trimeter

..........1..............2...............3..............4..............5
The BROOD..|..of FOL..|..ly WITH..|..out FA..|..ther BRED,..............................iambic pentameter

......1...............2..............3
How LIT..|..tle YOU..|..best..ED,.....................................................................iambic trimiter

......1.............2...............3...............4........,........5
Or FILL..|..the FIX..|..èd MIND..|..with ALL..|..your TOYS;...............................iambic pentameter

.......1................2.................3
Dwell IN..|..some ID..|..le BRAIN,...................................................................iambic trimiter

......1.................2..................3...................4..................5
And FAN..|..cies FOND..|..with GAU..|..dy SHAPES..|..pos SESS,....................iambic pentameter

......1................2..................3................4...............5
As THE..|..gay MOTES..|..that PEO..|..ple THE..|..sun BEAMS,........................iambic pentameter

......1..............2..................3
Or LIK..|..est HOV..|..ering DREAMS,.............................................................iambic trimiter (The e is not pronounced)

.......1..............2..............3..................4..................5
The FICK..|..le PEN..|..sion ERS..|..of MORPH..|..eus' TRAIN............................iambic pentameter
 

The meter of the rest of the poem consists mainly of iambic tetrameter, as in lines 13 and 14:

.........1..................2.............3..............4
Whose SAINT..|..ly VIS..|..age IS..|..too BRIGHT

....1.................2..............3...............4
To HIT..|..the SENSE..|..of HU..|..man SIGHT

Annotated Text of "Il Penseroso"Hence, vain deluding Joys, 
  The brood of Folly without father bred! 
How little you bestead1
  Or fill the fixèd mind with all your toys! 
Dwell in some idle brain,
  And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess 
As thick and numberless
  As the gay motes2 that people the sunbeams,
Or likest hovering dreams, 
  The fickle pensioners3 of Morpheus'4 train.................10
But hail, thou goddess sage and holy, 
Hail, divinest Melancholy! 
Whose saintly visage is too bright 
To hit the sense of human sight, 
And therefore to our weaker view
O'erlaid with black, staid Wisdom's hue; 
Black, but such as in esteem
Prince Memnon's sister might beseem,5
Or that starr'd Ethiop queen6 that strove 
To set her beauty's praise above...............................20
The sea-nymphs,7 and their powers offended: 
Yet thou art higher far descended:
Thee bright-hair'd Vesta,8 long of yore, 
To solitary Saturn9 bore; 
His daughter she; in Saturn's reign
Such mixture was not held a stain: 
Oft in glimmering bowers and glades 
He met her, and in secret shades
Of woody Ida's10 inmost grove, 
While yet there was no fear of Jove.11.......................30
Come, pensive Nun,12 devout and pure, 
Sober, steadfast, and demure, 
All in a robe of darkest grain 
Flowing with majestic train, 
And sable stole of cypress lawn13
Over thy decent14 shoulders drawn: 
Come, but keep thy wonted state, 
With even step, and musing gait, 
And looks commércing15 with the skies, 
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes:.............................40
There, held in holy passion still, 
Forget thyself to marble,16 till 
With a sad leaden downward cast 
Thou fix them on the earth as fast: 
And join with thee calm Peace, and Quiet,
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet, 
And hears the Muses17 in a ring 
Aye round about Jove's18 altar sing: 
And add to these retirèd Leisure 
That in trim gardens takes his pleasure:u0097..................50
But first and chiefest, with thee bring 
Him that yon soars on golden wing 
Guiding the fiery-wheelèd throne, 
The cherub Contemplatiòn; 
And the mute Silence hist along,19
'Less20Philomel21 will deign a song 
In her sweetest saddest plight 
Smoothing the rugged brow of Night, 
While Cynthia22 checks her dragon yoke 
Gently o'er the accustom'd oak...................................60
u0097Sweet bird, that shunn'st the noise of folly, 
Most musical, most melancholy! 
Thee, chauntress,23 oft, the woods among 
I woo, to hear thy even-song; 
And missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven green, 
To behold the wandering Moon 
Riding near her highest noon, 
Like one that had been led astray 
Through the heaven's wide pathless way,.....................70
And oft, as if her head she bow'd, 
Stooping through a fleecy cloud. 
Oft, on a plat24 of rising ground 
I hear the far-off curfew sound 
Over some wide-water'd shore,
Swinging slow with sullen roar: 
Or, if the air will not permit, 
Some still removèd place will fit, 
Where glowing embers through the room 
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom;...............................80
Far from all resort of mirth, 
Save the cricket on the hearth, 
Or the bellman's25 drowsy charm 
To bless the doors from nightly harm. 
Or let my lamp at midnight hour
Be seen in some high lonely tower, 
Where I may oft out-watch the Bear26
With thrice-great Hermes,27 or unsphere
The spirit of Plato,28 to unfold 
What worlds or what vast regions hold.........................90
The immortal mind,29 that hath forsook 
Her mansion30 in this fleshly nook:
And of those demons31 that are found 
In fire, air, flood, or underground, 
Whose power hath a true consent32
With planet, or with element. 
Sometime let gorgeous Tragedy33
In sceptr'd pall34 come sweeping by, 
Presenting Thebes, or Pelops' line
Or the tale of Troy divine;35.......................................100
Or what (though rare) of later age 
Ennobled hath the buskin'd stage.36
But, O sad Virgin,37 that thy power 
Might raise Musæus38 from his bower, 
Or bid the soul of Orpheus39 sing
Such notes as, warbled to the string, 
Drew iron tears down Pluto's40 cheek 
And made Hell grant what Love did seek! 
Or call up him that left half-told
The story of Cambuscan bold,....................................110
Of Camball, and of Algarsife
And who had Canacé to wife41
That own'd the virtuous ring and glass; 
And of the wondrous horse of brass 
On which the Tartar king did ride:
And if aught else great bards beside 
In sage and solemn tunes have sung 
Of tourneys, and of trophies hung, 
Of forests, and enchantments drear, 
Where more is meant than meets the ear....................120
Thus, Night, oft see me in thy pale career, 
Till civil-suited Morn42 appear, 
Not trick'd and frounc'd43 as she was wont 
With the Attic Boy44 to hunt, 
But kerchief'd in a comely cloud
While rocking winds are piping loud. 
Or usher'd with a shower still, 
When the gust hath blown his fill, 
Ending on the rustling leaves 
With minute drops from off the eaves.45......................130
And when the sun begins to fling 
His flaring beams, me, goddess, bring 
To archèd walks of twilight groves, 
And shadows brown, that Sylvan46 loves, 
Of pine, or monumental oak, 
Where the rude axe, with heavèd stroke, 
Was never heard the nymphs47 to daunt 
Or fright them from their hallow'd haunt. 
There in close covert48 by some brook 
Where no profaner eye may look,................................140
Hide me from day's garish eye,49
While the bee with honey'd thigh 
That at her flowery work doth sing, 
And the waters murmuring,
With such consort as they keep
Entice the dewy-feather'd Sleep;50
And let some strange mysterious dream 
Wave at his wings in airy stream
Of lively portraiture display'd, 
Softly on my eyelids laid:............................................150
And, as I wake, sweet music breathe 
Above, about, or underneath, 
Sent by some Spirit to mortals good,51
Or the unseen Genius52 of the wood. 
But let my due feet never fail 
To walk the studious cloister's pale, 
And love the high-embowèd roof, 
With antique pillars massy proof, 
And storied windows richly dight 
Casting a dim religious light.........................................160
There let the pealing organ blow
To the full-voiced quire below
In service high and anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all Heaven before mine eyes.53
And may at last my weary age 
Find out the peaceful hermitage, 
The hairy gown54 and mossy cell 
Where I may sit, and rightly spell.................................170
Of every star that heaven doth shew,55
And every herb that sips the dew; 
Till old experience do attain 
To something like prophetic strain. 
These pleasures, Melancholy, give,..............................175
And I with thee will choose to live.
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Notes

1.....bestead: Satisfy. 
2.....motes: Specks of dust.
3.....pensioners: men-at-arms; attendants.
4.....Morpheus: In Greek mythology, the god of dreams.
5.....Memnon: In Greek mythology, king of Ethiopia. Because he was very handsome, Milton assumes that his sister was also extremely attractive. Thus, the comparison of Melancholy to Memnon's sister is a high compliment to the former. 
6.....starr'd Ethiop queen: Allusion to Cassiopeia. In Greek mythology, she was the wife of Cepheus, a king of Ethiopia. Cassiopeia boasted that she was more beautiful than sea nymphs known as Nereids. Poseidon, the god of the sea, retaliated by unleashing a sea monster on Ethiopia. Upon her death, Cassiopeia was changed into a constellation (a group of stars). 
7.....sea-nymphs: See number 6, above.
8.....Vesta: Roman name for Hestia, the goddess of the hearth in Greek mythology.
9.....Saturn: Roman name for Cronus, the first king of the gods in Greek mythology. He was overthrown by his son, Zeus (Roman name, Jupiter). 
10...Ida: Highest mountain in Crete.
11...while . . . Jove: Allusion to the overthrow of Saturn by his son Jove. Saturn was the Roman name for Cronus, king of the gods in Greek mythology; Jove was one of the Roman names for Zeus, who became king of the gods after overthrowing his father. The other Roman name for Zeus was Jupiter. 
12...Nun: Another reference to Melancholy.
13...cypress lawn: Black silk or cotton fabric used to make clothes worn by mourners. Milton originally used the word cipres, which refers to the Mediterranean island-nation of Cyprus. It was in Cyprus that the black fabric was made, then exported to other countries. Webster's New World Dictionary says lawn can refer to "a fine, sheer cloth of linen or cotton." This usage of the word was derived from the name of the French town where the fabric was made, Laon. Thus, cypress lawn is a Cyprus fabric fashioned at Laon into mourning attire.
14...decent: Attractive; shapely.
15...commércing: Communicating.
16...Forget . . . marble: She is as still as a marble statue.
17...Muses: In Greek mythology, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The Muses inspired writers, musicians, dancers, and scholars. Calliope, for example, was the muse of epic poetry, and Euterpe was the muse of lyric poetry. The other Muses were Clio (history), Terpsichore (choral singing and dance), Melpomene (tragic plays), Thalia (tragic comedies), Euterpe (lyric poetry), Polyhymnia (sacred poetry), and Urania (astronomy).
18...Jove: See number 11.
19...hist along: Come along quietly.
20...''Less: Unless...
21...Philomel: Another name for a nightingale. Philomel is derived from the name Philomela. In Greek mythology. Philomela was a princess of Athens. Her sister, Procne, was married to King Tereus of Thrace. Not satisfied with only one of the sisters, Tereus lusted after Philomela and one day raped her. To prevent her from revealing his crime, he cut out her tongue. However, Philomel embroidered a tapestry depicting his brutality and showed it to her sister. The two women then plotted against Tereus and ended up serving him his son, Itys, in a stew. When Tereus discovered what they did, he chased them with an axe. The gods then turned Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow.
22...Cynthia: Another name for Artemis, the goddess of the moon and of hunting in Greek mythology. Romans called her Diana. 
23...chauntress: Chanter, singer.
24...plat: small plot of ground.
25...bellman: Town crier.
26...Bear: In astronomy, the constellation known as Ursa Major (commonly called the Bear or the Big Dipper)
27...Hermes: Hermes Trismegistus, an Egyptian alchemist and author of works on magic, the soul, and philosophy. Trismegistus means thrice great.
28...Plato: The great Greek thinker who helped lay the foundation for the philosophy of the western world.
29...immortal mind: Plato's soul or mind.
30...mansion: heavenly home.
31...And . . . demons: And unsphere the spirits of those demons.
32...consent: Connection, association. 
33...Tragedy: Tragic stage play personified.
34...sceptr'd pall: Black robe.
35...Thebes . . . divine: Settings or subjects of tragedies by ancient Greek playwrights.
36...buskin'd: Adjective (buskined) derived from buskin, the name of a boot worn by actors in ancient Greek and Roman tragedies. Hence, a buskin'd stage is a stage presenting a tragedy.
37...sad virgin: Another reference to Melancholy
38...Musaeus: In Greek mythology, a poet and singer.
39...Orpheus: In Greek mythology, an extraordinary musician who was the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope. When he played the lyre, his music was so beautiful that even the rivers would change their courses to listen to it. The god of the Underworld, Pluto (Greek name, Hades), was so enthralled with his music that he allowed Orpheus to attempt to lead his wife, Eurydice, out of the Underworld. But he failed because he disobeyed an order from Pluto not to look back at her until they reached the upper world.
40...Pluto: See Orpheus, above.
41...Or call . . . wife: Allusion to "The Squire's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400). Call up him refers to Chaucer. Half-told story refers to the fact that Chaucer did not complete "The Squire's Tale." In the story, Cambuscan is the king of Sarra (also spelled Sarray) in Tartary. Camball, Algarsife, and Canacé are other characters in the story. For a summary of the tale, click here.
42...Morn: Allusion to Aurora, the Roman name for Eos, the goddess of dawn in Greek mythology. See number 44 for more information.
43...frounc'd: Wrinkled; curled; creased.
44...Attic Boy: Cephalus, a great hunter in Greek mythology. He lived in the Attica region of Greece (hence the term Attic Boy). The goddess of dawn, Eos (Roman name, Aurora), loved him. 
45...eaves: Edge of the leaves. The rain spills over it.
46...Sylvan: (1) Person who lives in a forest; (2) Sylvanus, the Roman god of the forest.
47...nymphs: In Greek mythology, nature goddesses.
48...covert: Sheltered or protected place.
49...garish eye: The sun.
50...Entice . . . Sleep: The murmuring waters (line 144) lull the listener to sleep.
51...mortals good: Mortals that are good; good mortals.
52...Genius: Guardian spirit.
53...To walk . . . eyes: See the last paragraph of the summary.
54...hairy gown: Hair shirt, which monks and other religious persons wore to cause themselves discomfort. This discomfort helped them to repent for their sins and distance themselves from worldly pleasure.
55...shew: Show.

Tone

.......The tone of the poem is sober and tranquil.

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

brood of Folly without father bred (line 2)
hit the sense of human sight (line 14)
sable stole of cypress lawn (line 35)
Most musical, most melancholy (line 62)
Swinging slow with sullen roar (line 76)
What worlds, or what vast regions hold (line 90)
fright them from their hallow'd haunt. (line 138)
Apostrophe
But hail thou goddess, sage and holy,
Hail divinest Melancholy
The speaker is addressing Melancholy
Metaphor
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet (line 46)
Comparison of Fast to a creature

The cherub Contemplation (line 54)
Comparison of Contemplation to an angel

. . . . . glowing embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom (line 80)
Comparison of embers to a teacher

kerchief'd in a comely cloud (line 125)
Comparison of the cloud to a kerchief

Day's garish eye (line 141)
Comparison of the sun to an eye

Hyperbole
bring all Heav'n before mine eyes (166)
Onomatopoeia
rustling leaves (line 129)
waters murmuring (line 144)
Irony and Paradox
Throughout the poem, the speaker takes joy and pleasure in banishing joy and pleasure. Note the final two lines of the poem: "These pleasures, Melancholy, give, / And I with thee will choose to live.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem, such as "Il Penseroso," and a ballad? 
  • Write an essay about vacations that offer a quiet, secluded place to reflect and meditate.
  • How do Milton's frequent allusions to Greek and Roman mythology help him to convey his ideas?
  • Identify a phrase in the poem that a famous English writer used as the title for a short novel, or novella, published in 1845.

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