"In thousand Liveries dight:" Contemplating the Landscape in L'Allegro and Il Penseroso*

William Anthony Repetto


L’Allegro and Il Penseroso present two ostensibly juxtaposed visions of the poetic imagination. The poetic imagination of L’Allegro seems frivolous, agrarian, and unrefined. Il Penseroso, by contrast, presents a poetic imagination marked by contemplation, solitude, and learned reference. Recent scholars agree, however, that despite these apparent differences between and within the poems, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso come closer to a reconciliation than readily apparent after a cursory reading.1 Peter C. Herman, in his Milton and the Muse-Haters, argues that both speakers conflate a poetic and an antipoetic position into one ambiguous position. W. Scott Howard concurs, but focuses his investigation on the interdependent ontology between mirth and melancholy. This reconciliation indicates that Milton viewed mirth and melancholy, the poetic and antipoetic, and the material and speculative (all major thematic elements of the pieces) as somehow necessarily dependent on one another. This interdependency manifests itself in the landscapes presented in the poem as well. The speakers of each poem travel at various times to rural areas, villages/towns, and cities. The presence of each of these landscapes in both L’Allegro and Il Penseroso illustrate Milton’s cognizance of the interdependent economic relationships developing during the early seventeenth century. Milton does not equally distribute these landscapes in the two poems, though. The speaker of L’Allegro lacks the ability to travel freely between landscapes, while the speaker of Il Penseroso moves from place to place with relative ease. This freedom of movement and access seems to indicate a class distinction between the speakers of the poems. Other elements of the landscapes, when juxtaposed across poems, however, indicate the type of interdependence posited by Herman and Howard. In the argument that follows, I show how the landscapes, and elements of the landscapes, in L’Allegro and Il Penseroso seemingly support an interdependent reading of mirth and melancholy, but then, turning my attention to the historical developments of the period, I hope to ask the question of whether a true reconciliation of the speakers would be possible or even desirable given the social hierarchy embedded in the landscapes themselves.

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