Tuesday, March 31, 2009

L'Allegro and Il Penseroso Revisited

Though I am not accustomed to writing for the Milton Online Discussion List, I decided nonetheless to give an account of our reading - and how it developed from the question posed on the list. I'm copying my comment below. I will let you know if there are any interesting responses. Watch this space!

As I happened to be teaching the twin poems, I presented to my graduate students the alternative approaches presented on the list, that - as I understand them - either a. the sensibilities of the two poems represent complimentary personae (or as someone said 'avatars'), or b. Milton preferred one of these sensibilities, namely that of 'Il Penseroso.'

By the end of our class discussions, we found both of the approaches unsatisfactory in that neither takes into account the temporal aspect of the poems, or more particularly, the way the poems provide an implicit narrative of the life of the poet. This is not to read anachronistically and suggest that since Milton later wrote religious poetry, he obviously prefers the sensibility of the later poem (as I think our precocious List contributor suggested), but rather to attend to the way Milton's poems provide a conception of the shape of the life of the poet. 'L'allegro' self-consciously provides images of those 'sights as youthful Poets dream'; while the corresponding poem anticipates a poetry of 'weary age,' which approaches something like 'prophetic strain.' As Virgil could not write the Aenied without having first written the Eclogues (and Spenser not the Fairie Queen without the Sheperd's Calender), so Milton's twin poems both provide and anticipate the shape of a poetic career. In this light, the former poem's 'straight mine eyes hath caught new pleasures' may serve as Milton's affirmation that despite the exhausting of golden poetry with Marlowe and Raleigh, and it's dismissal in Donne, it still must serve Milton - in writing his own poetic career.

Such an argument, however, does not mean preferring the 'service high' of the latter poem. For it makes no sense to say that one prefers the insights of one's adulthood when it's the youthful poetry and sensibility which allows that latter perspective - and aesthetic - to emerge. True, the form of the companion poems leads us to think that Milton was thinking in terms of oppositions (and the metaphysics of the latter poem opposing the 'immortal mind' to the 'fleshly nook' shows Miltons still to be a dualist). Thinking of the poems as part of a process of both imagining and writing his poetic career, however, may find the latter sensibility to hold greater promise (yes, I'm avoiding the term preferable), but the earlier one is nonetheless indispensable in making that latter perspective possible.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

L'allegro and Il Penseroso

For next time, we will be looking at the companion poems, "L'allegro" and "Il Penseroso."

What is Milton's strategy in the writing companion poems? What is the relationship between the "Mirth" celebrated in "L'Allegro" and the "Melancholy" represented in "Il Penseroso." With what does Milton associate mirth? with what melancholy? One famous critic writes that "the competing visions of the two poem represent equally viable conceptions of life." Do you agree?

In what ways do the poems announce their relationship? Are there particular passages in the poems - you may want to compile a list - which show clearly the relationship between them? That is, are there explicit echoes of the former poem in the latter? Are there notable differences?

When Milton - or any seventeenth century figure for that matter - refers to 'melancholy,' what does he mean? Is the "loathed melancholy" which "L'allegro" rejects the same as the perspective of melancholy developed in "Il Penseroso"? You may want to check out Durer's Melancholy to get a sense of early modern understandings of the term.

Is there some way in which Milton - in the two poems - is meditating on poetry and poetic style? How do the twin poems show Milton in relationship to antecedent literary styles and literary figures? (see his poem "On Shakespeare" copied below) Is there some way in which Milton is commenting on literary history? showing a path towards a new kind of poetry?

For those of you who are interested in Milton's 1645 Poems (frontispiece above), the full text of the original edition is available on our documents site.

On Shakespeare

WHat needs my Shakespear for his honour'd Bones,
The labour of an age in piled Stones,
Or that his hallow'd reliques should be hid
Under a Star-ypointing Pyramid?
Dear son of memory, great heir of Fame, [ 5 ]
What need'st thou such weak witnes of thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thy self a live-long Monument.
For whilst to th' shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easie numbers flow, and that each heart [ 10 ]
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalu'd Book,
Those Delphick lines with deep impression took,
Then thou our fancy of it self bereaving,
Dost make us Marble with too much conceaving;
And so Sepulcher'd in such pomp dost lie, [ 15 ]
That Kings for such a Tomb would wish to die.

So as an addendum: I will mention that on the Milton List Server - a discussion list for Milton scholars (can you believe it?), someone just posted the following:

"Hey, i am just a high school student writing about John Milton's poem's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso." My prompt i made for my senior project was, If the two poems above were considered a debate, an argument, or two sides of an issue or debate, or two people, which side or person would Milton most prefer or like? My answer was "Il Penseroso." Would any of you agree with me?"

Here is a response that he got from some college professor somewhere:

I don't think Milton (the speaker? the author? the man?) prefers one of them over the other, since a very strong case may be made for either or both. I believe his "intention," if we need to attribute it, was to present two aspects of the same personality, or twinned avatars who are opposites. What good is a life full of melancholy (especially as the Renaissance understood this humour) without mirth? Or mirth without seriousness? Each is shown as lacking (needing) the balance of the other for good health. Since each of these figures is presented as very appealing, I would argue that Milton would "prefer" to have both.By the way, the inability to resolve a theoretical conflict was what drove the 18th century to conjure up "Il Moderato" for the Handel setting as a new text appended to adaptations of Milton's two originals. Tertium quid (a precursor of Hegelian dialectic) works well to settle such arguments as you propose.Therefore, whichever personification of mood you choose, you will be correct (and wrong!).

Do you agree?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Room Change

For our class on Monday, March 23, we will be meeting in the conference room, 215 SAL.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Nativity Ode

Some questions for guiding our readings of Milton's 'Nativity Ode':

Following up our discussion, and some of the questions asked during class:

What is the relationship between Milton’s classical and theological commitments in the poem? What does it mean to invoke the classics? And what does it mean to invoke the narratives from Christian theology? Put in another register, do the languages of theology co-exist with the languages of classical learning? How does Milton negotiate this issue in his early poem?

Do the contexts of metaphysical poetry (and the kind of aesthetic it represent) provide a meaningful context for understanding the 'Nativity Ode'?

How does Milton represent time in the poem? Is there a relationship between Milton's representation of time in 'Of Time' and the representation of time in the ode? How might Kermode's conceptions of chronos and kairos help in reading Milton's poem? (here we might also think of Esti's comments in class about Judaeo-Christian notions of time). Please do - if you have the opportunity - read the chapter 'Fictions' in Kermode's Sense of an Ending. We will be especially interested in the material on pages 44-47.

What is the role of music in the Nativity Ode?

As you may know, on Wednesday there is a Bar Ilan conference on Early Modern England - at which I will be giving a paper on our man...

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Welcome to the site for our course, the Poetry and Prose of John Milton. Please check the site regularly for updates and information. The syllabus can be found here - the documents site for our course.