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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
And I with thee will choose
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
Peace, and Quiet,
Spare Fast, that oft with
gods doth diet,
And hears the Muses in a
Aye round about Jove's altar
And add to these retired
That in trim gardens takes
But first, and chiefest,
with thee bring
Him that yon soars on golden
Guiding the fiery-wheeled
The cherub Contemplation;
And the mute Silence hist
end rhyme of the first ten lines of the poem uses this pattern: abbacddeec.
Following is an illustration of this pattern.
Hence vain deluding
The brood of Folly without
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with
all your toys;
Dwell in some idle brain,
And fancies fond with gaudy
As thick and numberless As the gay motes that people
Or likest hovering dreams,
The fickle pensioners of
Milton wrote the rest of the
poem in couplets (pairs of rhyming lines). Lines 11-16 demonstrate the
But hail thou goddess,
sage and holy,
Hail divinest Melancholy,
Whose saintly visage is
too bright To hit the sense of human
And therefore to our weaker
O'er-laid with black, staid
also included occasional internal rhyme in the poem, as in the following
Yet thou art
higher far descended (line 22)
With a sad
leaden downward cast
And join with thee
calm Peace, and Quiet (line 45)
about Jove's altar sing (line 48)
the fiery-wheeled throne (line 53)
And missing thee,
I walk unseen (line 65)
The story of Cambuscan
bold, (line 110)
at his wings, in airy stream (line
meter of the first ten lines of the poem is as follows.
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
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
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:..................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
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 Sweet 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
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
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
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
Specks of dust.
In Greek mythology, the god of dreams.
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.
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).
See number 6, above.
Roman name for Hestia, the goddess of the hearth in Greek mythology.
Roman name for Cronus, the first king of the gods in Greek mythology. He
was overthrown by his son, Zeus (Roman name, Jupiter).
Highest mountain in Crete.
. . . 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.
Another reference to Melancholy.
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
. . . marble: She is as still as a marble statue.
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).
See number 11.
along: Come along quietly.
Another name for a nightingale. Philomel is derived from the name
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.
Another name for Artemis, the goddess of the moon and of hunting in Greek
mythology. Romans called her Diana.
small plot of ground.
In astronomy, the constellation known as Ursa Major (commonly called the
Bear or the Big Dipper)
Hermes Trismegistus, an Egyptian alchemist and author of works on magic,
the soul, and philosophy. Trismegistus means thrice great.
The great Greek thinker who helped lay the foundation for the philosophy
of the western world.
mind: Plato's soul or mind.
. . . demons: And unsphere the spirits of those demons.
Tragic stage play personified.
pall: Black robe.
. . . divine: Settings or subjects of tragedies by ancient Greek playwrights.
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.
virgin: Another reference to Melancholy
In Greek mythology, a poet and singer.
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.
See Orpheus, above.
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
Allusion to Aurora, the Roman name for Eos, the goddess of dawn in Greek
mythology. See number 44 for more information.
Wrinkled; curled; creased.
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.
Edge of the leaves. The rain spills over it.
(1) Person who lives in a forest; (2) Sylvanus, the Roman god of the forest.
In Greek mythology, nature goddesses.
Sheltered or protected place.
eye: The sun.
. . . Sleep: The murmuring waters (line 144) lull the listener to sleep.
good: Mortals that are good; good mortals.
walk . . . eyes: See the last paragraph of the summary.
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.
tone of the poem is sober and tranquil.
are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures
of speech, see Literary Terms.
of Folly without father
of human sight
lawn (line 35)
roar (line 76)
or what vast regions hold (line 90)
hallow'd haunt. (line 138)
But hail thou goddess,
sage and holy,
Hail divinest Melancholy
The speaker is addressing
Spare Fast, that
oft with gods doth diet (line 46)
Comparison of Fast to
The cherub Contemplation
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