In 1645, John Milton published “Il Penseroso” in a collection of poetry alongside another poem entitled “L’Allegro.” The poems take opposite sides in a debate about whether it is better to live a carefree life or a contemplative life. The speaker in “Il Penseroso (which means the “pensive man” in Italian) argues for a life dedicated to study, while the speaker in “L’Allegro” (which means the “joyful man”) argues for living a life full of pleasure.
“L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” are in constant dialogue, and there are several theories about how they are connected. It is possible that two separate speakers are arguing for different approaches to life as a writer, or that a single speaker is weighing which kind of life to live. Some have argued that the poems follow the life of one person from youth in “L’Allegro” to old age in “Il Penseroso.”
Though the poems were published in 1645, when Milton was 37, most scholars think he wrote them much earlier—probably during an extended vacation from Cambridge University in 1631. Students at Cambridge learned to debate both sides of a topic as part of their training in rhetoric, and Milton’s shift from one extreme to another in “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” reflects the exercise. By absorbing the structure of the Cambridge debates into his poetry, Milton turns “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” into more than an argument about how to live the best life. Together, the poems make a broader argument about debate as a form—the uses and limitations of rhetoric.
Though Milton’s speakers imagine the world as two extremes, Milton ultimately draws “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” much closer than their respective theses would suggest. He breaks the form of his own debate by mixing pain into his argument about joy, and fun into his argument about contemplation. By setting “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” against each other, and exposing the holes in each speaker’s world view, Milton demonstrates how debate can blind you. Ultimately his poems prove that it is impossible to live at either extreme: they make an argument against arguing.