A critical essay detailing John Milton’s poems "L’Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" and his relationship to the hero-poet.
The greatest heroes of antiquity all share a unique rite of passage. The most memorable heroic characters must journey into Hell, and return, to prove their worth to the world above and to claim their immortal place in history. Orpheus, Odysseus, Virgil, and even Jesus himself made this perilous pilgrimage out of the realm of the living and into that of the dead, forever securing their place among the ranks of history’s most daring and memorable heroes. The poet John Milton claims this pedestal of heroic immortality for himself in his poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. In the companion poem to Il Penseroso, Milton’s L’Allegro, he touches upon the theme of the hero’s journey into Hell in the very beginning, and again at the very end of the poem. In Il Penseroso, however, the speaker of the poem explores the theme in depth. In both poems, Milton uses Orpheus, the father and mythological source of poetry, as a figure upon which the reader can ground himself to this theme of the hero’s journey into, and back out of Hell. More importantly, however, he uses Orpheus as a metaphor for himself: an inspired hero-poet who must journey into Hell and back out again in order to claim that which he craves most: immortality.
In L’Allegro, Milton first touches upon the theme of the hero’s journey into Hell. The first lines of the poem declare, “Hence loathed Melancholy / Of Cerberus and blackest midnight born, / In Stygian Cave forlorn” (Milton 1-2). Cerberus, of course, guards the gates of Hell so that those who have crossed the river Styx cannot escape, and “Stygian [Caves]” refers to Hell itself. In other words, the first lines of L’Allegro claim that Melancholy, (who also happens to be the voice of Il Penseroso), is born of the Hellish guardian Cerberus, and of Hell itself. Symbolically, the reader is introduced to the speaker who rejects Melancholy and Hell altogether—a naïve and inexperienced speaker. Only when the poet invokes Euphrosyne, (one of the three Graces, and the goddess of Joy), does the poem begin its larger theme of the “happy man” and the pastoral ideal—more paradisaical than Hellish.
The poet returns to the subject of Hell at the end of L’Allegro, however, with Milton’s grounding icon of poetry and the journey to Hell: Orpheus. The last few lines of the poem state: “That Orpheus’ self may heave his head / From golden slumber on a bed / Of heapt Elysian flow’rs, and hear / Such strains as would have won the ear / Of Pluto, to have quite set free / His half-regain’d Eurydice” (145-150). In Greek tradition, Orpheus journeyed into the underworld to regain his love, Eurydice. He charmed Pluto, the god of the underworld, with his music and poetry in order to take Eurydice back to the world of the living. Milton uses Orpheus as a metaphor for the hero-poet, who must journey into Hell, and there, still be able to produce his craft well enough to earn that which he loves most, as well as passage back to the realm of the living. Although, at the end of L’Allegro, the speaker still choose a paradisaical life over the Melancholy one, this return to the subject of the journey into Hell begins the speaker’s rite of passage, and Milton’s rite of passage as well.
Milton’s poet explores Hell even more deeply in Il Penseroso. With the unifying element of Orpheus in both poems, Milton takes the reader deep into Hell to explore the importance of the hero-poet’s journey into Hell to claim immortality. With extremely similar wording as in L’Allegro, Milton again describes Orpheus’ perilous journey into Hell: “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” (105-108). Orpheus’ journey into Hell to claim that which he loves most—his beloved Eurydice—is what transforms him from a poet to a hero-poet. Following Orpheus’ journey into Hell, the speaker describes the many kinds of darkness, and the secluded lifestyle of the hero-poet, (which parallels the years of Milton’s life after he left Cambridge and pursued a life of study). For example: “Thus night oft see me in thy pale career, / Till civil-suited Morn appear” (121-122). Or, “There in close covert by some Brook, / Where no profaner eye may look, / Hide me from Day’s garish eye” (139-141). And later, “But let my due feet never fail / To walk the studious Cloister’s pale” (155-156). In these lines, the speaker endures in darkness and alone at night, much like the “Stygian caves” in L’Allegro, for the sake of his craft, and to earn the privilege of poetic immortality. In this way, the speaker leaves behind the naïve self that he possessed in L’Allegro, and transforms, through hardship and Melancholy, into the mature self that emerges from Hell. This symbolic resurrection leads, inevitably to immortality, which is exactly what Milton desired.
Milton uses L’Allegro and Il Penseroso as a means to express himself as an immortal hero-poet. The difference between a poet, and a hero-poet, for Milton, is the courage to face even the darkest parts of humanity for the poetic ideal. Love, as in the case of Orpheus, is one of the immortal poetic ideals. Milton lived a highly secluded and cloistered life of study after he graduated from Cambridge, reading and perfecting his craft for the sole purpose of claiming his fame and fortune as a great, epic poet. This secluded lifestyle, and isolation from the bustling life that his father and friends wished for him, parallels the transition from L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. While, in L’Allegro, the speaker embraces the pastoral ideal and euphoric lifestyle of the idealized English countryside and elegant events of the urban night life, overall, Il Penseroso more closely reflects Milton’s own cloistered and studious lifestyle, in which he valued seclusion and study over a more social existence; he devoted himself entirely to his writing—that which he loved most—and took a journey into the darker parts of humanity for the sake of his craft, the same way Orpheus journeys into Hell for Eurydice. In this way, Milton uses Orpheus in L’Allegro and Il Penseroso as a metaphor for himself, and as a unifying element that ties the two poems together.
In L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, Milton explores the classical rite of passage: the hero’s journey into Hell and back again. More than most other references, he cites Orpheus as a unifying symbol of this journey. Although Orpheus is only briefly successful in the legend of his journey into Hell, he achieves that which Milton so desperately wants: immortality. Orpheus loses Eurydice to Pluto after all, but he returns to the surface alive and having been able to charm the god of the underworld enough to have even earned a chance to reclaim Eurydice. In this same way, Milton buries himself in his poetry in order to have the chance to claim that same immortality; he acknowledges that something may be lost along the way, forfeiting the youthful and carefree lifestyles that his classmates enjoyed for the opportunity to surpass them all in talent and memory. That we are studying him now is surely evidence enough that he succeeded in this undertaking.
Milton, John. “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso.” 1631. Complete Poems and Major Prose. By John Milton. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2003. 68-76.