Il Penseroso

Il Penseroso Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Orpheus (Motif)

Orpheus is a shepherd from Greek mythology famous for convincing Pluto, the god of the underworld, to let him lead his dead wife back into the world. In the story, Orpheus fails to save his wife when he looks back at her before the end of their journey, violating the terms of his agreement with Pluto. Milton alludes to the story of Orpheus in both "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," comparing the music his speakers pursue to the song Orpheus sang to Pluto in the underworld. In "L'Allegro," the speaker summarizes the story of Orpheus's failure, and suggests that the music he hears is more beautiful than the song Orpheus sang for Pluto. In "Il Penseroso," the speaker rewrites the myth by cutting off the story before Orpheus's failure: "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." The speaker's final line implies that Orpheus succeeded in leading his wife out of the underworld, that the shepherd's music was enough to bring her back to life. The revision makes it feel like the speakers are describing two different myths. One is a story of failure, the other a story of success. The progression of the Orpheus myth across the two poems mirrors the development that takes place between "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso." While "L'Allegro" strives for the perfect life, some scholars argue that only "Il Penseroso" actually attains it. The Orpheus myth is another piece of evidence that Milton is building from his first poem to the second, that his poetry only finds its ultimate fulfillment in the life of reflection.

Dreams (Motif)

Milton includes dreams in both "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," and the poems themselves can be described as dreams. In both, the speakers are imagining what might happen to them if they followed their chosen guide—not events that have actually unfolded. The poems move through hazy chronologies, leaping from one place to the next without transition, as in a dream. Some critics argue that the poems should be read like dreams or incantations or spells, without dissecting the logic too closely.