The speaker in “Il Penseroso” dedicates the first ten lines of his argument to banishing “vain deluding Joys”—the themes that guide “L’Allegro”—from his poem. The speaker in “L’Allegro” begins his own argument in a similar way, by banishing Melancholy, the goddess that guides “L’Allegro,” from his poem. Though each speaker is arguing against the other, the shared structure gestures to what the two poems have in common: both “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” begin with ten-line introductions in which the speaker rejects the other speaker’s guide. Even as the speakers insist that they share nothing, their arguments formally echo and reflect each other. In the poems’ first lines, Milton is already subverting his speakers’ arguments against each other by drawing attention to what they share.
After choosing Melancholy as his guide, the speaker goes on to give an account of how she was conceived by Vesta and Saturn. Vesta was a Greek goddess famous for her virginity, and the speaker describes how she conceived Melancholy through an incestuous affair with her father. The story is Milton’s own invention, and an oddly profane note in a poem about the life of contemplation.
The speaker goes on to call for Melancholy’s companions—Peace, Quiet, Fast, Leisure, Contemplation, and Silence—to join him. He then describes walking through the forest at night, listening for different sounds, and imagines how he might spend an evening in a solitary cottage or a lonely tower.
The speaker’s thoughts move from philosophy to “Tragedy,” as he imagines the fall of ancient cities, and modern plays performed in theaters. He alludes to the story of Orpheus, a shepherd from classical mythology famous for trying to rescue his wife from the underworld. He then turns to the story of Canace, a character from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who receives a ring that allows her to translate the songs of birds, and uses it to hear the tragic love story of a hawk.
Morning comes, and the speaker asks Melancholy to lead him to a shadowed part of the woods where he can dream. He wakes to music, and imagines following the sound to a church where an organ is playing. Finally, he imagines retiring to a hermitage to study, and repeats that he means to live his life with Melancholy.
It is easy to read “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” as two extremes: one world all joy, the other all study. Milton’s speakers set us up to read them that way by framing their arguments in opposition to each other. Before the speakers say anything about their actual claims, they reject the points made by the other poem. The speaker in “L’Allegro” begins his speech on Mirth by banishing Melancholy, and the speaker in “Il Penseroso” begins his speech on Melancholy by banishing Mirth. The way the speakers frame their speeches makes it difficult to see the places where the two poems actually cross paths and mix. We search each poem for what the speakers have prepared us to find—two incompatible ways of living—because we assume their theses have given us an accurate roadmap for their arguments. However, the theses laid out by Milton’s speakers don’t necessarily match the overall argument Milton is making in “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” Though the speakers present the poems as opposites, they’re ultimately more ambiguous than their introductions make them appear.
Readers often think of “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” as poems of day and night, because Milton’s speakers encourage us to read them that way in their preludes. The speaker in “Il Penseroso” uses his prelude to turn from the brightness of “vain deluding Joys” (which he compares to dustmotes populating “sunbeams") to the darkness of “black staid” Melancholy. The speaker in “L’Allegro,” in turn, uses his prelude to banish the darkness of Melancholy. The speakers' preludes suggest that their worlds are different as night and day, totally opposed, but the poems that follow don’t fit that binary. Each poem eventually moves through both night and day. In one scene in “Il Penseroso,” the speaker lies in the shade during the afternoon. It’s neither completely dark nor completely light, and it’s here, in the mixed light, that Milton most often locates his two poems. Cleanth Brooks, who has drawn attention to the many ways in which “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” fail as day and night poems, suggests that it may be more appropriate to call them poems of “half-light,” because Milton sets so many of his scenes at dawn and dusk. More than Milton is interested in describing day and night, light and dark, he’s interested in the points of transition, the moment the light changes, the space between the two extremes.
In the same sense that "Il Penseroso" ultimately fails as a night poem, it often fails as a poem of contemplation. Milton subverts his speaker’s contemplative mood with sexual innuendos better suited to the revelries of “L’Allegro," with its more explicit couplings and allusions to sex. "Il Penseroso" momentarily blurs with Milton's poem of joy when his speaker recounts Melancholy’s conception by Vesta and Saturn. It's a profane story, the sort of punchline a fool would deliver in a comedy, a scene that really belongs to the world of “L’Allegro.” Vesta was a classical goddess famous for her virginity, and Milton denigrates her chastity by inventing a story in which she has an incestuous affair with her father. His description of the couple meeting in the “secret shade” hits a particularly lurid note. The image draws from the pastoral tradition, where “shade” has long been used to connote secrecy, sexual escapades, and political plots. It also echoes Milton’s earlier description of shepherds dancing in the “chequered shade” in “L’Allegro,” mixing the poem of joy with the poem of contemplation.
Milton continues to pepper his speaker’s speech with hints of “L’Allegro” as he describes Melancholy arriving with a shawl “Over thy decent shoulders drawn.” Though Milton’s speaker is insisting on the goddess’s modesty, his description simultaneously draws attention to her physicality. By describing how Melancholy is clothed, the speaker suggests how she might also be unclothed. By contrast, the speaker in “L’Allegro” never describes his own guide in such physical terms, though we might expect a more seductive portrayal of Mirth from his poem of joy. As the speaker in “Il Penseroso” tries to force modesty on his world, he inevitably does the opposite. His descriptions are sensual in spite of himself, precisely because he is trying to distance himself from the world of “L’Allegro.” He means to enforce modesty when he greets Aurora, the goddess of morning, by telling her not to bring her old lover, “the Attic boy,” and instead to come wrapped in a “fleecy cloud.” His words have the opposite effect on Milton’s poem, momentarily opening the scene to Aurora’s old affair and the revelries of “L’Allegro.” Through his sexualized descriptions of Melancholy and Aurora, Milton suggests that his speaker has failed to banish “vain deluding Joys” forever, that he’ll never truly escape the material world of “L’Allegro.”
Milton’s sexual innuendo also hits another, totally unrelated, key. A few years after writing “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” he used the language of the two poems to stage a debate over chastity in his play Comus. The play climaxes with a villainous god using the language of “L’Allegro” to seduce Milton’s heroine, who in turn uses the temperance of “Il Penseroso” to defend herself against his advances. Through their debate, Milton retroactively moralizes his earlier arguments in “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” suggesting the dangerousness of the first speaker, and the virtue of the second. Milton’s heroine mirrors the speaker of “Il Penseroso” from the beginning of the play, when she finds herself lost in the woods and echoes the speaker’s description of the moon as “one who had been led astray / Through the heaven’s wide pathless way.” Comus was first staged after an infamous rape case, and in this context, Milton’s sexual innuendo in “Il Penseroso” focuses the reader’s attention on a very specific kind of melancholy. His response to “L’Allegro” emphasizes what the first poem buries: that the “joyful man” leaves behind a trail of victims. In “Il Penseroso,” the speaker’s argument returns to female grief again and again: Niobe turned to stone by mourning, a hawk left behind by her lover, and Philomel mutilated by her rapist. The catalog provides its own counterpoint to “L’Allegro”—the victims of the life of joy, those left to mourn when the party moves elsewhere.
Many scholars think that Milton favored the argument in “Il Penseroso” over the one made in “L’Allegro.” Some have suggested that “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” are about forming a coherent self, and that the poems chart the course of one speaker’s life from bounding youth to a more tempered age. Louis Martz has pointed out that the speaker in “L’Allegro” barely has a self—the words “I” and “me” only appear four times—while the speaker in “Il Penseroso” returns to his place in the world again and again, using the words “I” and “me” 11 times. Martz argues that the poem is about growth, not argument, and many others have suggested that Milton builds from “L’Allegro” to “Il Penseroso.” As proof that Milton identifies more with the argument made in “Il Penseroso,” they point to how the poem’s ending differs from “L’Allegro.” While the speaker in “L’Allegro” seems hesitant as he decides to join Mirth forever—“These delights, if thou canst give, / Mirth with thee, I mean to live.”—the speaker in “Il Penseroso” seems absolutely certain: “These pleasures Melancholy give, and I with thee choose to live.”