Milton is a subject often reserved for the hallowed halls of academia and those persons who spend their days (and nights) working there; A.K.A. really smart people. To me, this is disappointing. Who says uber geeks are the only ones that get to have all the fun?
Before I tell you why I think these poems are so great, let me fill you in on a few details about them. “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” are two distinct poems that carry understandable meaning on their own, but are known as companions as they are two halves of a whole that can only truly be understood in light of the other. Their titles roughly translate to “happy man” and “pensive man,” respectively.
“L’Allegro” is a poem dedicated to the praise of mirth, “Il Penseroso” one that favors melancholy. While both poems spend the majority of their lines exalting their preferred virtue, they both begin with a particularly railing diatribe against that of the other, condemning their enemies to places of nefarious reputation. After the diatribe, though, neither poem presents any sort of argument to finally prove that either mirth or melancholy are better than the other, so they each end without a sense of resolve.
It’s this lack of resolve that sits at the center of why I treasure these poems.
A number of years ago, I detected within myself inexplicable opposites. For every character trait or temperament that I claimed, I soon came to realize that the inverse was also true. For example, I’m an introvert who doesn’t speak a lot, partly by nature, partly for lack of ease and eloquence. Put me in the right setting, however, and I will gladly speak in front of a crowd for a long time, and I’ve been told in that setting that I am a good communicator. How can it be that both are true? And it’s not just that, I could write from here until next week about all the things about me that don’t seem to jive (like how I tend to think that I spend the majority of my time rather happily, but when I examine myself, I spend an awful lot of time in despondency…like I’m despondent and happy at the same time?).
Since the time I was made aware of this dichotomous nature, it’s seemed almost as if this phenomenon has had me entranced. I can’t tell you the number of hours I have spent thinking about and researching it. Why is this? Does this exist elsewhere in the created realm? Am I an extreme case of confusion? Do I not know who I am? Do I need to figure out who I am and settle on one side of the fence or the other? Is this a problem?; and if there are steps to relieve the problem, do I need to take them? Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Am I stupefied by something that is an intrinsic part of nature and logically shouldn’t be surprising me? Did the memo get lost somewhere in all of my moving growing up? I’ve looked fervently for answers and have ended up with more questions.
I even wrote a paper about this exact subject as applied to Huckleberry Finn when I was a sophmore. In a number of my other papers, even if they were far from this subject on the surface, I managed to find ways to work contradictions into them too, just to serve my own preoccupations. All of them, in addition to practicing writing skills and getting a grade, served as a way to help me find answers to my questions. Which were still plaguing me.
Until I read “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.”
Even though it appears second in the sequence, I was taken by “Il Penseroso” first. I saw reflected in it the predominant view I have of myself, that of melancholy, the “pensive man.” I like quiet. I like to think. I like being alone. I like the night. I’m more at home in the still dark than I am the busy day. In one section of the poem, the poet depicts himself writing by the light of a lamp “at midnight hour” in a “high lonely Tow’r.” That sounds so good I’d join him, except we would both cease to be lonely and that would ruin the mood. Looks like I’ll be finding my own tower.
As much as I like the silent solitude of my lofty tower, though, as I’m looking down, out from the window, mirth also looks pretty nice. Reading through “L’Allegro” makes me smile. Mirth, “buxom, blithe, and debonair,” laughs. And dances. And plays. And enjoys all of it with cheerful companions under the cheerful sun. Sounds like heaven.
It turns out, even though I’m more familiar with the “sober, steadfast, and demure” setting of “Il Penseroso,” I like both poems. And I want to experience what both of them have to offer, despite the fact that if you place them side by side, they have lines that directly refute what’s stated in the other.
Upon finding such a wealth of contradiction, I dove into both of these poems with more enthusiasm than I show for most other pieces of literature, which is quite a lot in its own right.
The conceit with these poems is that they come from the voices of two different poets, the “happy man” and the “pensive man.” The reality is that those men are one in the same, a one Mr. John Milton. The poems also want you to believe that they can live without one another, but they can’t. Without a contrast, neither of them would have any meaning. Mirth is happy only because melancholy exists. It’s because of sadness that happiness looks so happy; conversely, it’s because of happiness that sadness looks so pitifully sad.
I like to think that’s why they each end with no resolve. Both “men” have found their preferred way to live and they rant against the other, but they each know that neither is truly better and they are indebted to the other. They must exist as a dichotomy or they can’t exist at all.
This idea has greatly settled my inward concern for myself. More than that, it has made me view myself differently. Perhaps I must exist as a dichotomy or I can’t exist at all. I do favor melancholy, but I also love mirth. With this new point of view, it makes sense that I can have an impeccably organized closet, yet pay no heed to the mess on my bed. I need contradictions to be me; not just to be me, but to be.
Everywhere I look now I see contradictions. Each one has become a testimony to vibrant life. I thank John Milton for helping me find eyes to see.
Emily Harmon is a professional thinker, a recent MTSU graduate with a degree in English and Music. She thinks, reads, writes, and sings between Arkansas and Tennessee and blogs at Extravagantly Loved.