Il Penseroso

John Milton

Edited by Jack Lynch

These two poems were published as a pair. The text comes from Poems (1645). The notes are my own.


“The cheerful one” (Italian)
Hence° loathed Melancholy away from here
    Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born,
In Stygian Cave forlorn° lost
    ’Mongst° horrid shapes, and shreiks, and sights unholy, among
Find out som uncouth° cell, [5] unknown
    Wher brooding darknes spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-Raven sings;
    There under Ebon° shades, and low-brow’d° Rocks, ebony — overhanging
As ragged as thy Locks,
    In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell. [10]
But com thou Goddes fair and free,
In Heav’n ycleap’d° Euphrosyne, called
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth
With two sister Graces more [15]
To Ivy-crowned Bacchus bore;
Or whether (as som Sager° sing) some wiser people
The frolick° Wind that breathes the Spring, joyous
Zephir with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a Maying, [20]
There on Beds of Violets blew,° blue
And fresh-blown° Roses washt in dew, newly blossomed
Fill’d her with thee a daughter fair,
So bucksom,° blith,° and debonair.° lively — happy — gracious
Haste° thee nymph, and bring with thee [25] hurry
Jest and youthful Jollity,° cheerfulness
Quips° and Cranks,° and wanton Wiles,° sayings — jokes — tricks
Nods, and Becks,° and Wreathed° Smiles, beckonings — curled
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek; [30]
Sport that wrincled Care derides,° laughs at contemptuously
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Com, and trip° it as ye go dance
On the light fantastick toe,
And in thy right hand lead with thee, [35]
The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty;
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; [40] blameless
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; patchy
Then to com in spight° of sorrow, [45] defiance
And at my window bid good morrow,° morning
Through the Sweet-Briar, or the Vine,
Or the twisted Eglantine.° sweetbriar
While the Cock with lively din,° noise
Scatters the rear° of darknes thin, [50] last trace
And to the stack,° or the Barn dore, haystack
Stoutly struts his Dames° before, women
Oft list’ning how the Hounds and horn,
Chearly rouse the slumbring morn,
From the side of som Hoar° Hill, [55] white with old age
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,° [60] procession
Rob’d in flames, and Amber light,
The clouds in thousand Liveries° dight.° uniforms — dressed
While the Plowman neer at hand,
Whistles ore the Furrow’d° Land, plowed
And the Milkmaid singeth blithe,° [65] happily
And the Mower whets° his sithe, sharpens
And every Shepherd tells his tale
Under the Hawthorn in the dale.
Streit° mine eye hath caught new pleasures immediately
Whilst the Lantskip° round it measures, [70] landscape
Russet° Lawns, and Fallows° Gray, reddish brown — cultivated ground
Where the nibling flocks do stray,
Mountains on whose barren brest
The labouring clouds do often rest:
Meadows trim with Daisies pide,° [75] spotted
Shallow Brooks, and Rivers wide.
Towers, and Battlements it sees
Boosom’d° high in tufted Trees, held
Wher perhaps som beauty lies,
The Cynosure° of neighbouring eyes. [80] object of attention
Hard° by, a Cottage chimney smokes, near
From betwixt° two aged Okes, between
Where Corydon and Thyrsis met,
Are at their savory dinner set
Of Hearbs,° and other Country Messes,° [85] succulent plants — meals
Which the neat-handed° Phillis dresses; dexterous
And then in haste her Bowre° she leaves, dwelling
With Thestylis to bind the Sheaves;° tie up the stalks of grain
Or if the earlier season lead
To the tann’d° Haycock° in the Mead,° [90] dried by the sun — haystack — meadow
Som times with secure° delight careless
The up-land Hamlets will invite,
When the merry Bells ring round,
And the jocond° rebecks° sound cheerful — stringed instruments like fiddles
To many a youth, and many a maid, [95]
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, [100]
With stories told of many a feat,
How Faery Mab the junkets° eat, sweet dishes
She was pincht, and pull’d she sed,
And he by Friars Lanthorn° led lantern
Tells how the drudging Goblin swet [105]
To ern his Cream-bowle duly set,
When in one night, ere glimps of morn,
His shadowy Flale° hath thresh’d the Corn° flail (for threshing) — grain
That ten day-labourers could not end,
Then lies him down the Lubbar Fend. [110]
And stretch’d out all the Chimney’s° length, fireplace’s
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And Crop-full° out of dores he flings, satiated
Ere° the first Cock his Mattin° rings. before — morning song
Thus don° the Tales, to bed they creep, [115] finished
By whispering Windes soon lull’d asleep.
Towred Cities please us then,
And the busie humm of men,
Where throngs of Knights and Barons bold,
In weeds° of Peace high triumphs hold, [120] clothes
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 [125]
In Saffron° robe, with Taper° clear, bright yellow — candle
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With mask, and antique° Pageantry, both “old” and “wild’
Such sights as youthfull Poets dream
On Summer eeves by haunted stream. [130]
Then to the well-trod° stage anon, much walked-on
If Jonsons learned Sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakespear fancies° childe, imagination’s
Warble° his native Wood-notes° wilde, sing — birdsong
And ever against eating Cares, [135]
Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,° songs
Married to immortal verse,
Such as the meeting soul may pierce
In notes, with many a winding bout° orbit
Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out, [140]
With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running;
Untwisting all the chains that ty
The hidden soul of harmony.
That Orpheus self may heave his head [145]
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear
Such streins° as would have won the ear melodies
Of Pluto, to have quite° set free completely
His half regain’d Eurydice. [150]
These delights, if thou canst give,
Mirth with thee, I mean to live.

Il Penseroso

“The thoughtful one” (Italian)
Hence° vain deluding joyes, away from here
    The brood° of folly° without father bred, offspring — foolishness
How little you bested,° help
    Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;° unimportant things
Dwell in som idle brain, [5]
    And fancies° fond° with gaudy shapes possess, imagined things — foolish
As thick and numberless
    As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,
Or likest hovering dreams
    The fickle Pensioners° of Morpheus train.° [10] attendants — followers
But hail thou Goddes, sage° and holy, wise
Hail divinest Melancholy,
Whose Saintly visage° is too bright face
To hit° the Sense of human sight; suit
And therfore to our weaker view, [15]
Ore laid° with black staid Wisdoms hue. darkened
Black, but such as in esteem,
Prince Memnons sister might beseem,° look
Or that Starr’d Ethiope° Queen that strove African
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;° born
His daughter she (in Saturns raign, [25]
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,° modest
All in a robe of darkest grain,° hue
Flowing with majestick train,° followers
And sable° stole of Cipres Lawn,° [35] black — fabric
Over thy decent° shoulders drawn. modest
Com, but keep thy wonted° state,° usual — dignity
With eev’n step, and musing gate,
And looks commercing with the skies,
Thy rapt° soul sitting in thine eyes: [40] ecstatic, carried away
There held in holy passion still,
Forget thy self to Marble,° till turn into a marble statue
With a sad° Leaden downward cast,° serious — look
Thou fix them on the earth as fast.° tightly
And joyn with thee calm Peace, and Quiet, [45]
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet,
And hears the Muses in a ring,
Ay° round about Joves Altar sing. always
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, yonder, over there
Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,
The Cherub° Contemplation, angel
And the mute Silence hist° along, [55] urge
’Less° Philomel will daign° a Song, unless — see fit to
In her sweetest, saddest plight,° mood
Smoothing the rugged brow of night,
While Cynthia checks her Dragon yoke,
Gently o’re th’ accustom’d° Oke; [60] familiar
Sweet Bird that shunn’st the noise of folly,
Most musicall, most melancholy!
Thee Chauntress oft the Woods among,
I woo to hear thy eeven-Song;
And missing thee, I walk unseen [65]
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, field
I hear the far-off Curfeu° sound, curfew bell
Over som wide-water’d shoar, [75]
Swinging slow with sullen° roar; mournful
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] imitate
Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the Cricket on the hearth,
Or the Belmans drousie charm,° the night watchman’s invocations
To bless the dores from nightly harm:
Or let my Lamp at midnight hour, [85]
Be seen in som high lonely Towr,
Where I may oft out-watch° the Bear, remain watching longer
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 Dæmons that are found
In fire, air, flood, or under ground,
Whose power hath a true consent° [95] agreement
With Planet, or with Element.
Som time let Gorgeous Tragedy
In Scepter’d° Pall° com sweeping by, royal — robe
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 Musæus from his bower,° place of rest
Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing [105]
Such notes as warbled° to the string, sang
Drew Iron tears down Pluto’s cheek,
And made Hell grant what Love did seek.
Or call up him° that left half told [Chaucer]
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, powerful
And of the wondrous Hors of Brass,
On which the Tartar King did ride; [115]
And if ought° els, great Bards beside, anything
In sage° and solemn tunes have sung, wise
Of Turneys° and of Trophies hung; tournaments
Of Forests, and inchantments drear,° dreary
Where more is meant then meets the ear. [120]
Thus night oft see me in thy pale career,° journey
Till civil-suited° Morn appeer, decent-looking
Not trickt and frounc’t° as she was wont,° dressed up — accustomed to
With the Attick Boy to hunt,
But Cherchef’t° in a comly Cloud, [125] wrapped
While rocking Winds are Piping loud,
Or usher’d with a shower still,° mild
When the gust° hath blown his fill, wind
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 god of woodlands
Of Pine, or monumental Oake, [135]
Where the rude° Ax with heaved stroke, primitive
Was never heard the Nymphs to daunt,° intimidate
Or fright them from their hallow’d haunt.° dwelling place
There in close covert° by som Brook, hidden recess
Where no profaner° eye may look, [140] unholy
Hide me from Day’s garish eie,
While the Bee with Honied thie,° thight
That at her flowry work doth sing,
And the Waters murmuring
With such consort° as they keep, [145] harmony
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. guardian spirit
But let my due feet never fail, [155]
To walk the studious Cloysters pale,
And love the high embowed Roof,
With antick° Pillars massy proof, both “old” and “outlandish”
And storied° Windows richly dight,° showing scenes of stories — decked out
Casting a dimm religious light. [160]
There let the pealing° Organ blow, ringing
To the full voic’d Quire° below, choir
In Service high, and Anthems cleer,
As may with sweetnes, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into extasies, [165]
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] study
Of every Star that Heav’n doth shew,° show
And every Herb° that sips the dew; plant
Till old experience do attain
To somthing like Prophetic strain.° tone
These pleasures Melancholy give, [175]
And I with thee will choose to live.


The three-headed hound at the gates of hell in classical mythology.
The adjective form of Styx, the river in hell in classical mythology.
A legendary people who lived in perpetual haze or darkness.
A goddess in Greek mythology, associated with good cheer.
The Roman name for Dionysus, the god of wine.
Zephir with Aurora playing
In classical mythology, Zephyr is the personification of the gentle west wind; Aurora is the goddess of the dawn.
Celebrating spring festivities.
In Greek mythology, the cup-bearer to the gods and an embodiment of youth.
Corydon and Thyrsis
The names here are conventionally associated with poetic descriptions of shepherds.
The fairy queen, married to Oberon.
Lubbar Fend
One of many names for Robin Goodfellow or Puck, a goblin in English folklore.
The Greek goddess of marriage.
Jonsons learned Sock
Jonson is the playwright and poet Ben Jonson, whose reputation for classical learning was widespread. The “sock” is traditionally associated with stage comedies; tragedies were associated with the “buskin.”
The Lydian mode in music was associated with sensual pleasure.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus’s wife, Eurydice, dies; Orpheus descends to hell to recover her. He plays music so beautifully that Pluto agrees to let her return, on condition that Orpheus not look back as he leads her out of hell. But he does look back and loses her forever.
Elysium refers to a conception of the afterlife in some Greek myths.
God of the undeworld.
Wife to Orpheus, mentioned above.
The Greek god of sleep.
A Black Ethiopian prince mentioned in The Odyssey, said to have a beautiful sister.
In Greek mythology, the queen of Ethiopia. She was known for her vanity and conceit.
A virgin goddess in classical mythology.
Milton seems to be the creator of the story that Vesta mated with Saturn to give birth to Melancholy.
Such mixture was not held a stain
Two mountains have this name in ancient Greek legend, one in Crete, the other in Turkey. Both are associated with the mother goddess.
The Roman name for Zeus, the king of the gods. Also called Jupiter.
In classical mythology, Philomela was raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus. He cuts out her tongue to stop her from revealing who did it. The gods turn her into a nightingale, a species known for sad-sounding songs.
Goddess of the moon.
The constellation Ursa Major, “the Great Bear,” never sets for viewers in the northern hemisphere.
Hermes Trismegistus (“thrice-great”), a legendary Egyptian sage who is associated with magic and alchemy.
Plato developed a philosophy in which abstract “forms” are reality; earthly things are merely imperfect images of these forms. To “unsphere” him would be to take him from the celestial spheres and bring him back to earth.
A city in Greece that features in a number of tragic plays, most famously Sophocles’s Oedipus plays.
The son of Tantalus and king of Pisa in the Peloponnesus. His descendants feature in several ancient tragedies, including Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Euripides’s Orestes.
Wearing buskins, a kind of boot associated with stage tragedies.
A legendary poet and priest, often considered either the son or the pupil of Orpheus.
Another name for Genghis Khan, the “Tartar King.” The one who “left half told” his story is Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Squire’s Tale is unfinished. The names in the next few lines, and the “horse of brass,” come from that work.
Attick Boy
In ancient legend Aurora once went hunting with Cephaus, a boy from Attica.
An enclosed part of a church or monastery.
Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell