The Mirthful Mind: L’Allegro

OK, it’s time to get to grips with Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’. In my previous post I tuned in to a difference of opinion in the pages of Trends in Cognitive Sciences. The question was whether there may be new evidence to connect a tendency towards negative self-generated thoughts (summed up as ‘neuroticism’) with a capacity for creative thinking. As usual I thought: what can we learn about this from literature? I turned to Milton’s poem ‘Il Penseroso’, which describes the attractions of the pensive, melancholic life, and the sort of poetic creativity it might enable. It became apparent that ‘Il Penseroso’ was only half the story, and that its companion ‘L’Allegro’ (about being lively and mirthful) offered another part of the picture. So here’s a read-through, trying to see how Milton develops this alternative vision, and most of all how the dialogue (or gap) between the two poems may be where the most innovative thinking about thinking occurs.


I followed that post up in another way too. As suggested by Simon in a comment, I read Francis O’Gorman’s book Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History. I found it very interesting, and enjoyed it too. O’Gorman focuses on the literature and cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries, and on his own experience, and offers a positive view of worry: it is a side-effect, and perhaps a positive facet, of the way human reason has to work in a world of waning faith. When there are fewer certainties, the mind has to work harder or at least differently, and worry is one of its exercises. There’s no turn to cognitive science in the book, and no association between worry and creativity. It seems that our tendency for these debilitating self-generated thoughts lends itself to a lot of varied explanation.


Hence loathed ,
Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born,
In Stygian Cave forlorn
‘Mongst horrid shapes, and shreiks, and sights unholy,
Find out som uncouth cell,
Wher brooding darknes 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 desert ever dwell.
But com thou Goddes fair and free,
In Heav’n ycleap’d ,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth
With two sister Graces more
To Ivy-crowned Bacchus bore;
Or whether (as som Sager sing)
The frolick Wind that breathes the Spring,
Zephir with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a Maying,
There on Beds of Violets blew,
And fresh-blown Roses washt in dew,
Fill’d her with thee a daughter fair,
So bucksom, blith, and .
Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods, and Becks, and Wreathed Smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrincled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Com, and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastick toe,
And in thy right hand lead with thee,
The Mountain Nymph, sweet ;
And if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crue
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreproved pleasures free;
To hear the Lark begin his flight,
And singing startle the dull night,
From his watch-towre in the skies,
Till the dappled dawn doth rise;
Then to com in spight of sorrow,
And at my window bid good morrow,
Through the Sweet-Briar, or the Vine,
Or the twisted Eglantine.
While the Cock with lively din,
Scatters the rear of darknes thin,
And to the stack, or the Barn dore,
Stoutly struts his Dames before,
Oft list’ning how the Hounds and horn,
Chearly rouse the slumbring morn,
From the side of som Hoar Hill,
Through the high wood echoing shrill.
Som time walking not unseen
By Hedge-row Elms, on Hillocks green,
Right against the Eastern gate,
Wher the great Sun begins his state,
Rob’d in flames, and Amber light,
The clouds in thousand Liveries dight.
While the Plowman neer at hand,
Whistles ore the Furrow’d Land,
And the Milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the Mower whets his sithe,
And every Shepherd tells his tale
Under the Hawthorn in the dale.
Streit mine eye hath caught
Whilst the Lantskip round it measures,
Russet Lawns, and Fallows Gray,
Where the nibling flocks do stray,
Mountains on whose barren brest
The labouring clouds do often rest:
Meadows trim with Daisies pide,
Shallow Brooks, and Rivers wide.
Towers, and Battlements it sees
Boosom’d high in tufted Trees,
Wher perhaps som beauty lies,
The of neighbouring eyes.
Hard by, a Cottage chimney smokes,
From betwixt two aged Okes,
Where Corydon and Thyrsis met,
Are at their savory dinner set
Of Hearbs, and other Country Messes,
Which the neat-handed Phillis dresses;
And then in haste her Bowre she leaves,
With Thestylis to bind the Sheaves;
Or if the earlier season lead
To the tann’d Haycock in the Mead,
Som times with secure delight
The up-land Hamlets will invite,
When the merry Bells ring round,
And the jocond sound
To many a youth, and many a maid,
Dancing in the Chequer’d shade;
And young and old com forth to play
On a Sunshine Holyday,
Till the live-long day-light fail,
Then to the Spicy Nut-brown Ale,
With ,
How Faery Mab the junkets eat,
She was pincht, and pull’d she sed,
And he by Friars Lanthorn led
Tells how the drudging Goblin swet
To ern his Cream-bowle duly set,
When in one night, ere glimps of morn,
His shadowy Flale hath thresh’d the Corn
That ten day-labourers could not end,
Then lies him down the Lubbar Fend.
And stretch’d out all the Chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And Crop-full out of dores he flings,
Ere the first Cock his Mattin rings.
Thus don the Tales, to bed they creep,
By whispering Windes soon lull’d asleep.
Towred Cities please us then,
And the busie humm of men,
Where ,
In weeds of Peace high triumphs hold,
With store of Ladies, whose bright eies
Rain influence, and judge the prise
Of Wit, or Arms, while both contend
To win her Grace, whom all commend.
There let Hymen oft appear
In Saffron robe, with Taper clear,
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With mask, and antique Pageantry,
Such sights as youthfull Poets dream
On Summer eeves by haunted stream.
Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonsons learned Sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakespear ,
Warble his native Wood-notes wilde,
And ever against eating Cares,
Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,
Married to immortal verse,
Such as the meeting soul may pierce
In notes, with many a winding bout
Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,
With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running;
Untwisting all the chains that ty
The .
That Orpheus self may heave his head
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear
Such streins as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half regain’d Eurydice.
These delights, if thou canst give,
Mirth with thee, I mean to live.


In my previous post I found Perkins, Pickering, et als, disagreeing about whether there were positive and negative manifestations of self-generated thought. Milton stages something like a disagreement on related territory. However, it is not really a disagreement. The medium of the paired, responsive poems offers a way of addressing the problem. Human achievements of various kinds require seclusion and discipline, but also (paradoxically) engagement and interaction. This isn’t something (the Allegro-Penseroso duality implies) that resolves or unifies; it’s a creative tension.

The goddess of ‘Il Penseroso’. Each poem presents itself as the reply to the other, and so this inward oscillation seems circular and continuous.
In Homeric mythology the Cimmerians lived in perpetual darkness. The voice of ‘L’Allegro’ is scornful about Melancholy’s origins.
One of the classical Graces, and is perhaps best thought of as a representation of what we mean by ‘grace’ – a lightness of style. Milton turns the figure of Euphrosyne into an embodiment of mirth – an upbeat, cheerful, humorous manner of living and thinking.
Not a word you see very often these days – but I think of it being applicable to smartly dressed Frenchmen. In Milton’s time it meant ‘having a gracious manner’: it turns the portrayal of this lusty rustic daughter into something more stylish.
The political resonance is important, since we don’t know exactly when this poem was written, and at some points in his career Milton was engaged in passionate attacks on monarchic power. Primarily, in context, it suggests freedom from care and duty – the chance to move easily through the world of sensory stimuli, rather than retreating from it into brooding leaps of the imagination.
There’s something breathless about the way that the poem keeps on finding new things to notice. That’s the allegro style, head up, senses engaged, finding inspiration in the world outside the head.
A great word: this can be used to mean the Pole Star; and thus a metaphorical guiding star to which people look; and thus something which commands widespread attention.
These are musical instruments – early forms of the violin.
Stories are very much at home in this lively, sociable environment. The speaker of ‘Il Penseroso’ also ended up reaching towards fictional extravagances akin to this fairy world (in the section I didn’t include in the last post), but by a very different route – solitary contemplation rather than communal ‘holiday’.
The range of stories and poetical themes continues to grow, as a result of the speaker’s willingness to engage with the world in carefree spontaneity.
The theatre is evoked as a place for the mirthful poet. Milton makes a well-worn contrast between the scholarly Ben Jonson (the ‘Sock’ was thought to be the traditional costume of classical comedy) and the spontaneous natural talent of Shakespeare.
Participating in this life of grace and pleasure proves rewarding. The ‘linked sweetness’ is a completely different sort of creative matter from the ponderous musing that featured in ‘Il Penseroso’, but the performance of a partisan viewpoint is a smokescreen, I think, for the thoughtful exploration of the multiplicity and contradiction that might be characteristic of both human thinking and artistic creativity.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

1 thought on “The Mirthful Mind: L’Allegro

  1. Florence

    Have a look at Todd Kashdan’s _The Upside of Your Dark Side_.

    It’s on how emotions or states of being like anger, sadness, mindlessness, and worrying are good for us, or useful, let’s say. Those in a group who are worrying bring a healthy dose of realism to projects, e.g., and complement the make-up of participants (together with the narcissists if one can harness their energy and megalomania!) – it’s decidedly “popular science” in terms of style but gives really welcome food for thought as to nursing our less “social” and polite behaviours… It’s about being “whole” and emotionally agile, adapting your response to the situation. Maybe like the two parts of the poem, happy or sad (to simplify it) when the context requires that.


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