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Poetry Sundays (October 2)

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This week I read Il Penseroso by John Milton. The following text is copied from Project Gutenberg's The Poetical Works of John Milton. I read it in Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren, in which the spelling was updated (i.e.: "joyes" to "joys"; "bright-hair'd" to "bright-haired").

The antique language and, to my ear, convoluted grammar makes this poem tough for a 20th/21st century reader. A standard dictionary is some help with the references to various ancient gods, goddesses, persons and ideas (Philomel - nightingale; Cynthia - Artemis, moon) but not always (Camball, Algarsife, Canace). Milton is a bit of a name dropper.

The title was not that helpful to me since my knowledge of the Romance languages is weak. Does it mean "the thinker"? The poem is a tour of Night from twilight to dawn using allusions to ancient ideas. The poem's speaker may be the thinker or maybe the title means something else. I haven't yet tried to find out more than I could by using a dictionary. I wanted to see how much I could understand using just that tool and what's already available in my head. When I did a quick online search, I found sites with studies of this poem and other works by Milton. Here's one that I may look at after I have read this a couple more times. One problem with the Internet is that it makes something like reading such a poem just another series of mouse clicks for those with already shortened attention spans (I include myself in that group), reading work that others have already done. I'd like to make this poem feel more personal. I think it will be worthwhile.

One thing I did learn from a quick scan of the site noted above is that this is one of a pair of poems, the other titled L'Allegro. That is helpful. I don't have that in any books here, but of course Project Gutenberg has it so I can read it also. This is my first time reading Milton. I figured I'd sometimes use Poetry Sunday to read those poets I've always been fearful of reading. Milton is one, Dante is another.


Hence vain deluding joyes,

The brood of folly without father bred,

How little you bested,

Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;

Dwell in som idle brain

And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,

As thick and numberless

As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,

Or likest hovering dreams

The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train. 10

But hail thou Goddess, sage and holy,

Hail divinest Melancholy

Whose Saintly visage is too bright

To hit the Sense of human sight;

And therefore to our weaker view,

Ore laid with black staid Wisdoms hue.

Black, but such as in esteem,

Prince Memnons sister might beseem,

Or that Starr'd Ethiope Queen that strove

To set her beauties praise above 20

The Sea Nymphs, and their powers offended.

Yet thou art higher far descended,

Thee bright-hair'd Vesta long of yore,

To solitary Saturn bore;

His daughter she (in Saturns raign,

Such mixture was not held a stain)

Oft in glimmering Bowres, and glades

He met her, and in secret shades

Of woody Ida's inmost grove,

While yet there was no fear of Jove. 30

Com pensive Nun, devout and pure,

Sober, stedfast, and demure,

All in a robe of darkest grain,

Flowing with majestick train,

And sable stole of Cipres Lawn,

Over thy decent shoulders drawn.

Com, but keep thy wonted state,

With eev'n step, and musing gate,

And looks commercing with the skies,

Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes: 40

There held in holy passion still,

Forget thy self to Marble, till

With a sad Leaden downward cast,

Thou fix them on the earth as fast.

And joyn with thee calm Peace, and Quiet,

Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet,

And hears the Muses in a ring,

Ay round about Joves Altar sing.

And adde to these retired Leasure,

That in trim Gardens takes his pleasure; 50

But first, and chiefest, with thee bring,

Him that yon soars on golden wing,

Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,

The Cherub Contemplation,

And the mute Silence hist along,

'Less Philomel will daign a Song,

In her sweetest, saddest plight,

Smoothing the rugged brow of night,

While Cynthia checks her Dragon yoke,

Gently o're th'accustom'd Oke; 60

Sweet Bird that shunn'st the noise of folly

Most musical!, most melancholy!

Thee Chauntress oft the Woods among

I woo to hear thy eeven-Song;

And missing thee, I walk unseen

On the dry smooth-shaven Green,

To behold the wandring Moon,

Riding neer her highest noon,

Like one that had bin led astray

Through the Heav'ns wide pathles way; 70

And oft, as if her head she bow'd,

Stooping through a fleecy cloud.

Oft on a Plat of rising ground,

I hear the far-off Curfeu sound,

Over som wide-water'd shoar,

Swinging slow with sullen roar;

Or if the Ayr will not permit,

Som still removed place will fit,

Where glowing Embers through the room

Teach light to counterfeit a gloom 80

Far from all resort of mirth,

Save the Cricket on the hearth,

Or the Belmans drowsie charm,

To bless the dores from nightly harm:

Or let my Lamp at midnight hour,

Be seen in som high lonely Towr,

Where I may oft out-watch the Bear,

With thrice great Hermes, or unsphear

The spirit of Plato to unfold

What Worlds, or what vast Regions hold 90

The immortal mind that hath forsook

Her mansion in this fleshly nook:

And of those Daemons that are found

In fire, air, flood, or under ground,

Whose power hath a true consent

With planet or with Element.

Som time let Gorgeous Tragedy

In Scepter'd Pall com sweeping by,

Presenting Thebs, or Pelops line,

Or the tale of Troy divine. 100

Or what (though rare) of later age,

Ennobled hath the Buskind stage.

But, O sad Virgin, that thy power

Might raise Musaeus from his bower,

Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing

Such notes as warbled to the string,

Drew Iron tears down Pluto's cheek,

And made Hell grant what Love did seek.

Or call up him that left half told

The story of Cambuscan bold, 110

Of Camball, and of Algarsife,

And who had Canace to wife,

That own'd the vertuous Ring and Glass,

And of the wondrous Hors of Brass,

On which the Tartar King did ride;

And if ought els, great Bards beside,

In sage and solemn tunes have sung,

Of Turneys and of Trophies hung;

Of Forests, and inchantments drear,

Where more is meant then meets the ear. 120

Thus night oft see me in thy pale career,

Till civil-suited Morn appeer,

Not trickt and frounc't as she was wont,

With the Attick Boy to hunt,

But Cherchef't in a comly Cloud,

While rocking Winds are Piping loud,

Or usher'd with a shower still,

When the gust hath blown his fill,

Ending on the russling Leaves,

With minute drops from off the Eaves. 130

And when the Sun begins to fling

His flaring beams, me Goddes bring

To arched walks of twilight groves,

And shadows brown that Sylvan loves

Of Pine, or monumental Oake,

Where the rude Ax with heaved stroke,

Was never heard the Nymphs to daunt,

Or fright them from their hallow'd haunt.

There in close covert by som Brook,

Where no profaner eye may look, 140

Hide me from Day's garish eie,

While the Bee with Honied thie,

That at her flowry work doth sing,

And the Waters murmuring

With such consort as they keep,

Entice the dewy-feather'd Sleep;

And let som strange mysterious dream,

Wave at his Wings in Airy stream,

Of lively portrature display'd,

Softly on my eye-lids laid. 150

And as I wake, sweet musick breath

Above, about, or underneath,

Sent by som spirit to mortals good,

Or th'unseen Genius of the Wood.

But let my due feet never fail,

To walk the studious Cloysters pale,

And love the high embowed Roof

With antick Pillars massy proof,

And storied Windows richly dight,

Casting a dimm religious light. 160

There let the pealing Organ blow,

To the full voic'd Quire below,

In Service high, and Anthems cleer,

As may with sweetnes, through mine ear,

Dissolve me into extasies,

And bring all Heav'n before mine eyes.

And may at last my weary age

Find out the peacefull hermitage,

The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell,

Where I may sit and rightly spell 170

Of every Star that Heav'n doth shew,

And every Herb that sips the dew;

Till old experience do attain

To somthing like prophetic strain.

These pleasures Melancholy give,

And I with thee will choose to live.


Updated, same day:

Okay, I've tried to understand this first section:

Hence vain deluding joyes,

The brood of folly without father bred,

How little you bested,

Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;

Dwell in som idle brain

And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,

As thick and numberless

As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,

Or likest hovering dreams

The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train.

My interpretation is of the ideas and isn't poetic:

Go away, happy thoughts.

You're nothing but foolish.

You're hardly better than nothing.

You're toys for those not able to really think.

Go to someone who doesn't think much,

Who'll love your many foolish "incarnations,"

Much like dreams, that will fade.


Later still, same day:

The rest of the poem is an ode to Melancholy sometimes using aspects of night as metaphor. A cult of melancholy was a feature of arts and letters beginning in the 17th century.

I read through this several times today. It is dense with imagery and allusions and to really make it be something I know well, I'll need to read it more times and also read the other poem mentioned above. I'm going to try to do that this week and hopefully add more information here as I do.

Also, I've been trying to insert an image of Albrecht Durer's Melencolia but haven't been successful. Here's a link to it if you'd like to see it.

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