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L'Allegro
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 "L'Allegro" is a lyric poem centering on the joy of taking part in the delights of a spring day, including those provided by nature in a pastoral setting and those provided by the theater in an urban setting. The title is an Italian word that originally meant "the cheerful 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 "Il Penseroso," a lyric poem centering on sober, contemplative living that courts melancholy rather than joy. The poems use similar metric and rhyme schemes.

Setting

.......The poem is set in the speaker's mind as he anticipates the pleasures he will enjoy on an inviting spring day—first in a countryside setting and then in an urban setting.

Summary

.......The speaker orders Melancholy from his life, telling it to find a dwelling place among the Cimmerians—people who live in a land of unending darkness. At the same time, he invites a goddess of joy, Euphrosyne, to bring him mirth on the dawning of a new spring day as the song of the lark and the din of a rooster chase the last of the darkness away. 
.......The sun begins to rise, robing the clouds in flames. Then the plowman in the field whistles, the milkmaid sings a song, the mower sharpens his scythe, and shepherds count their sheep under hawthorn trees. Smoke curls up from a chimney cottage. The young and old come out to play. And when the sun goes down again, they will tell stories over ale. One of the tales will be about the "lubber fiend," a hairy giant with a tail. He does farm work and household chores in return for a bowl of cream. (See lines 104-114 for the passage about this creature.) But despite his grotesque appearance, he means no harm.
.......On fine days in May, knights and barons in the cities contend with wits or weapons in peaceful contests before their ladies, and Hymen (the god of marriage) appears to preside over many a wedding “with pomp, and feast, and revelry, / With mask, and antique Pageantry” (lines 127-128).
.......Then there are the plays to see in the city—those of the great Elizabethan writers Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.
.......The speaker ends the poem by again addressing the heavenly bringer of joy, Euphrosyne, this time referring to her as "Mirth." 

These delights, if thou canst give,
Mirth with thee, I mean to live. (lines 151-152)
Theme

.......Casting off gloom to embrace the delights of a glorious spring day is the theme of "L'Allegro." Milton begins the poem by rejecting melancholy in the first ten lines. Then, in line 11, he invites the goddess of joy (Euphrosyne) to go forth with him into the sun-kissed fields. He asks her to bring with her

    Jest and youthful Jollity,
    Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
    Nods, and becks, and wreathed smiles (lines 26-28)

The rest of the poem centers on the people and activities they will see. 

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 loathed Melancholy
Of Cerberus, and blackest Midnight born,
In Stygian cave forlorn
      'Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy;
Find out some uncouth cell,
      Where brooding Darkness spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-raven sings;
      There under ebon shades, and low-brow'd rocks,
As ragged as thy locks,
      In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell
Milton wrote the rest of the poem in couplets (pairs of rhyming lines). Lines 11-16 demonstrate the pattern.
But come thou goddess fair and free,
In heav'n yclep'd Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth
With two sister Graces more
To Ivy-crowned Bacchus bore
Internal Rhyme

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

And fresh-blown roses wash'd in dew (line 22)

Such as hang on Hebe's cheek (line 29)

And love to live in dimple sleek (line 30)

Oft list'ning how the hounds and horn (line 53)
 

Meter

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

..........1...................2..............3...........4
Hence LOATH..|..èd MEL..|..an CHO..|..ly,.............................................................iambic tetrameter with an incomplete fourth foot (catalexis)

.....1.............2..................3................4..................5
Of CER..|..ber US,..|..and BLACK..|..est MID..|..night BORN,...................................iambic pentameter

......1...............2................3
In STYG..|..ian CAVE..|..for LORN,.........................................................................iambic trimiter

.........1......................2........................3......................4................5..........6
'Mongst HOR..|..rid SHAPES,..|..and SHRIEKS,..|..and SIGHTS..|..un HO..|..ly;.........iambic hexameter with an incomplete sixth foot (catalexis)

.......1................2.................3
Find OUT..|..some UN..|..couth CELL,....................................................................iambic trimiter

...........1.....................2.....................3.....................4..................5
Where BROOD..|..ing DARK..|..ness SPREADS..|..his JEAL..|..ous WINGS,.............iambic pentameter

......1................2.................3
And THE..|..night-RAV..|..en SINGS;.......................................................................iambic trimiter

......1..............2..................3..................4.....................5
There UN..|..der EB..|..on SHADES,..|..and LOW-..|..brow'd ROCKS,..........................iambic pentameter

......1..............2................3
As RAG..|..ged AS..|..thy LOCKS,...........................................................................iambic trimiter

......1...............2...............3..............4...............5
In DARK..|..Cim MER...|..ian DE..|..sert EV..|..er DWELL...........................................iambic pentameter 


The meter of the rest of the poem consists mainly of iambic and trochaic tetrameters. Here are examples. 

......1...............2.......................3.......................4
The FRO..|..lic WIND..|..that BREATHES..|..the SPRING,..........................................iambic tetrameter

........1....................2......................3................4
HASTE thee..|..NYMPH, and..|..BRING with..|..THEE.................................................trochaic tetrameter with an incomplete fourth foot (catalexis)

Annotated Text of "L'Allegro"

Hence loathèd Melancholy,
Of Cerberus,1 and blackest Midnight born, 
In Stygian2 cave forlorn,
      'Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy;
Find out some uncouth cell,
      Where brooding Darkness spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-raven sings;
     There under ebon3 shades, and low-brow'd rocks,
As ragged as thy locks,
      In dark Cimmerian4 desert ever dwell.........................................10
But come thou goddess fair and free,
In heav'n yclep'd5 Euphrosyne,6
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus7 at a birth
With two sister Graces8 more
To Ivy-crownèd9 Bacchus10 bore;
Or whether (as some sager11 sing) 
The frolic wind that breathes the spring,
Zephyr,12 with Aurora13 playing,
As he met her once a-Maying,14......................................................20
There on beds of violets blue,
And fresh-blown roses wash'd in dew,
Fill'd her with thee, a daughter fair,
So buxom, blithe, and debonair.
Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips and cranks,15 and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks, and Wreathèd  smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe's16 cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;........................................................30
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip17 it as ye go
On the light fantastic toe,
And in thy right hand lead with thee,
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty; 
And if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreprovèd pleasures free;.............................................................40
To hear the lark begin his flight,
And singing startle the dull night,
From his watch-tower in the skies,
Till the dappled dawn doth rise;
Then to come in spite of sorrow,
And at my window bid good-morrow,
Through the sweet-briar, or the vine,
Or the twisted eglantine;18
While the cock with lively din,
Scatters the rear of darkness thin,.....................................................50
And to the stack, or the barn door,
Stoutly struts his dames19 before;
Oft list'ning how the hounds and horn20
Cheerly21 rouse the slumb'ring morn,
From the side of some hoar hill,
Through the high wood echoing shrill. 
Sometime walking, not unseen,
By hedge-row elms, on hillocks green,
Right against the eastern gate,
Where the great Sun begins his state,22.............................................60
Rob'd in flames, and amber light,
The clouds in thousand liveries23dight.24
While the ploughman near at hand,
Whistles o'er the furrow'd land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale25
Under the hawthorn in the dale.
Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures
Whilst the landskip26 round it measures,.............................................70
Russet lawns, and fallows gray,
Where the nibbling flocks do stray;
Mountains on whose barren breast
The labouring clouds do often rest;
Meadows trim with daisies pied,27
Shallow brooks, and rivers wide. 
Towers, and battlements it sees
Bosom'd high in tufted trees,
Where perhaps some beauty lies,
The cynosure28 of neighbouring eyes...................................................80
Hard by, a cottage chimney smokes,
From betwixt29 two agèd oaks,
Where Corydon and Thyrsis30 met,
Are at their savoury dinner set
Of herbs, and other country messes,
Which the neat-handed Phyllis dresses;
And then in haste her bow'r she leaves,
With Thestylis31 to bind the sheaves;
Or if the earlier season lead
To the tann'd haycock32 in the mead....................................................90
Sometimes with secure delight
The upland hamlets will invite,
When the merry bells ring round, 
And the jocund rebecks33 sound
To many a youth, and many a maid,
Dancing in the chequer'd shade;
And young and old come forth to play
On a sunshine holiday,
Till the live-long daylight fail;
Then to the spicy nut-brown ale,............................................................100
With stories told of many a feat,
How Faery Mab34 the junkets35 eat,
She was pinch'd and pull'd she said,
And he by friar's lanthorn36 led,
Tells how the drudging goblin sweat,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath thresh'd the corn
That ten day-labourers could not end;
Then lies him down, the lubber fiend,37...................................................110
And stretch'd out all the chimney's length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin38 rings.
Thus done the tales, to bed they creep,
By whispering winds soon lull'd asleep. 
Tower'd cities please us then,
And the busy hum of men,
Where throngs of knights and barons bold,
In weeds39 of peace high triumphs hold,..................................................120
With store of ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence, and judge the prize
Of wit, or arms, while both contend
To win her grace, whom all commend.
There let Hymen40 oft appear
In saffron robe, with taper clear,
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With mask, and antique pageantry;
Such sights as youthful poets dream
On summer eves by haunted stream........................................................130
Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson's41 learnèd sock42 be on,
Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child,
Warble his native wood-notes wild.
And ever against eating cares,
Lap me in soft Lydian airs,43
Married to immortal verse,
Such as the meeting soul may pierce
In notes with many a winding bout
Of linkèd sweetness long drawn out,.........................................................140
With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running,
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony;
That Orpheus'44 self may heave his head
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heap'd Elysian45 flow'rs, and hear
Such strains as would have won the ear
Of Pluto,46 to have quite set free
His half-regain'd Eurydice.47......................................................................150
These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth,48 with thee I mean to live.


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Notes

1.....Cerberus: In Greek mythology, a three-headed dog keeping watch at the gates of Hades (the Underworld).
2.....Stygian: Having to do with the River Styx, which in Greek mythology encircles Hades (the Underworld).
3.....ebon: (1) Like ebony, a dark hardwood; black; dark.  (2) Ebony itself.
4.....Cimmerian: (1) Dark, gloomy .
5.....yclep'd: Named, called.
6.....Euphrosyne: See Graces.
7.....Venus: Roman name for Aphrodite, the goddess of love in Greek mythology .
8.....Graces: In Greek mythology, three sister deities: Aglaia, goddess of splendor and brightness; Euphrosyne, goddess of joy; and Thalia, goddess of festivity and good cheer.
9.....Ivy-crownèd: Wearing an ivy wreath as a crown.
10...Bacchus: Roman name for Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry in Greek mythology.
11...sager: Wiser person. 
12...Zephyr: In Greek mythology, the god of the west wind.
13...Aurora: Roman name for Eos, the goddess of dawn in Greek mythology.
14...a-Maying: Celebrating and enjoying the delights of the month of May.
15...cranks: Clever or fanciful speech; whims; caprices.
16...Hebe: In Greek mythology, the goddess of youth.
17...trip: Dance.
18...eglantine: Wild rose with sweet-smelling foliage. Also called sweetbrier.
19...dames: Hens.
20...hounds and horn: The baying hounds and blowing horns of a fox hunt.
21...cheerly: Cheerily.
22...state: Rule, reign.
23...liveries: Uniforms worn in trades, such as a butler's uniform. Here, the word is used figuratively.
24...dight: Dressed.
25...tells his tale: Counts his sheep.
26...landskip: Landscape.
27...pied: Of many colors; colorful.
28...cynosure: Center of attention.
29...betwixt: Between.
30...Corydon and Thyrsis: Corydon is a goatherd in Idyll IV of Theocritus (300-260 BC), a Greek pastoral poet. Thyrsis is a shepherd in Idyll I of Theocritus. Corydon and Thyrsis appear together in Eclogue VII of the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC), who used the works of Theocritus as a source.
31...Thestylis: Servant girl in Idyll II of Theocritus (300-260 BC), a Greek pastoral poet.
32...haycock: Pile of hay heaped into a cone shape.
33...rebecks: Stringed musical instruments.
34...Faery Mab: In English folklore, a fairy queen. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio says that

She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman (1.4.59-63)
35...junkets: Sweetened milk curds.
36...lanthorn: Lantern.
37...lubber fiend: In English folklore, a huge manlike figure with a tail who does household or farm chores at night in exchange for a bowl of cream.
38...matin: Morning song.
39...weeds: Attire, clothing.
40...Hymen: In Greek mythology, the god of marriage.
41...Jonson's: Reference to Ben Jonson (1572-1637), a major Elizabethan playwright and poet and contemporary of Shakespeare.
42...sock: Footwear of actors with comic parts in the drama of ancient Greece and Rome. Here, Milton uses the word to mean wittiness or drollery.
43...Lydian airs: Soothing Lydian music. The ancient kingdom of Lydia was in the northwestern region of present-day Turkey. It flourished in the seventh and sixth centuries BC.
44...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.
45...Elysian: Heavenly.
46...Pluto: Roman name for Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.
47...Eurydice: See Orpheus.
48...Mirth: The speaker of the poem addresses Euphrosyne, the goddess of joy, previously addressed in line 12..

Tone

.......The tone of the poem is joyful and exuberant.

Figures of Speech

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

Alliteration

some sager sing (line 17)
Oft list'ning how the hounds and horn (line 53)
Jest and youthful Jollity (line 26)
And love to live in dimple sleek (line 30)
dappled dawn doth (line 44)
Stoutly struts his dames before (line 52)
Warble his native wood-notes wild (line 134)
Apostrophe
But come thou goddess fair and free,
In heav'n yclep'dEuphrosyne,
The speaker is addressing the goddess of joy, Euphrosyne


Metaphor

Right against the eastern gate,
Where the great Sun begins his state (lines 59-60)
Comparison of the eastern horizon to a gate

Rob'd in flames, and amber light,
The clouds in thousand liveries dight. (lines 61-62)
Comparison of sunlight to flames

Mountains on whose barren breast
The labouring clouds do often rest (lines 73-74)
Comparison of mountains' slopes to a breast

With store of ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence, and judge the prize (lines 121-122)
Comparison of the gaze of the ladies' eyes to rain
Onomatopoeia
And the busy hum of men (line 118)
Paradox
wanton heed (line 141)
Use of wanton (which means undisciplined) to describe heed (which means disciplined or careful attention)
Personification
Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child (line 133)
Comparison of a parent to imagination
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • In Milton's time, there were of course no televisions, computers, or other indoor amusements. Consequently, a sunny day in May was an irresistible attraction for young people. Write an essay centering on the outdoor activities seventeenth-century children, adolescents, and young adults favored when spring arrived. 
  • Write a short poem about the pleasures of a sunny spring day.
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem, such as "Il Penseroso," and a ballad?
  • What is the meaning of lines 35-36: "And ever against eating cares, / Lap me in soft Lydian airs"?

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