John Milton's companion poems were the cynosure of later poetical eyes, becoming, after a century of neglect, perhaps the most frequently imitated poems in the English language. In addition to Milton's irresistible octosyllabic measure, imitators discovered that the many patterns within and between the odes afforded endless opportunities for variation and amplification.
Alexander Pope: "Michael Drayton was one of the imitators of Spenser; and Fairfax another. Milton, in his first pieces, is an evident follower of Spenser too; in his famous Allegro and Penseroso, and a few other pieces" ca. 1728-30; in Spence, Anecdotes, ed. Singer (1820) 21.
John Upton: "The poet wrote, or intended to write, not CERBERUS but EREBUS: and that Melancholy, with the rest of the vile affections and habits of the mind were offsprings of Night and Erebus; Milton knew very well from Hesiod, the ancient mythologists, and from Cicero de Natura Deorum, Lib. III. 'Tis not the poet's province to go out of his way to make new genealogies, when a sanction is already given to the old. Beside, 'tis downright heathenish blasphemy to forge such a lie against the modest Mother old Night, as to make her intrigue with that poor and ugly dog Cerberus. Let the corrector of the press take such blunders to himself, who mistaking the first letter in Erebus for a 'C,' with a very little alteration made it CEREBUS" A Letter concerning a new Edition of Spenser's Faerie Queene (1751) 30.
Samuel Johnson: "Of the two pieces, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, I believe opinion is uniform; every man that reads them, reads them with pleasure. The author's design is not, what Theobald has remarked, merely to shew how objects derived their colours from the mind, by representing the operation of the same things upon the gay and the melancholy temper, or upon the same man as he is differently disposed; but rather how, among the successive variety of appearances, every disposition of mind takes hold on those by which it may be gratified" "Life of Milton" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81), ed. Hill (1905) 1:165-66.
Hugh Blair: "But, of all the English Poems in the Descriptive Style, the richest and most remarkable are, Milton's Allegro and Penseroso. The collection of gay images on the one hand, and of melancholy ones on the other, exhibited in these two small, but inimitably fine Poems, are as exquisite as can be conceived. They are, indeed, the storehouse whence many succeeding Poets have enriched their descriptions of similar subjects" Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1785) 2:375.
Thomas Warton: "An ingenious critic observes, that this morning landschape of L'Allegro has served as a repository of imagery for all succeeding poets on the same subject. But much the same circumstances, among others, are assembled by a poet who wrote above thirty years before, the author of Britannia's Pastorals, B. iv. S. iv. p. 75 edit. 1616" in Milton, Poems upon Several Occasions (1790) 51.
John Aikin: "When Milton, in his L'Allegro, called Liberty 'the mountain-nymph,' he rather, I suppose, had in his mind, the unrestrained air and somewhat rustic spirit of freedom, as respecting the intercourse of society, than the tendency of mountainous situations to favour political liberty" "Personification in Poetry" Monthly Magazine 7 (May 1799) 371.
Thomas Babington Macaulay: "In none of the works of Milton is his peculiar manner more happily displayed than in the Allegro and the Penseroso. It is impossible to conceive that the mechanism of language can be brought to a more exquisite degree of perfection. These poems differ from others as ottar of roses differs from ordinary rose water, the close packed essence from the thin diluted mixture. They are indeed not so much poems, as collections of hints from each of which the reader is to make out a poem for himself. Every epithet is a text for a Canto" "Milton" Edinburgh Review 42 (August 1825) 312.
Leigh Hunt: "And every shepherd tells his tale" It used to be thought, till Mr. Headley informed Warton otherwise, that 'telling his tale' meant telling a love-tale, or story. The correction of this fancy is now admitted; namely, that 'tale' is a technical word for numbering sheep, and is so used by several poets, — Dryden for one. Warton, like a proper Arcadian, was loth to give up the fancy; but he afterwards found the new interpretation to be much the better one. 'Every' shepherd telling his 'story' or 'love-tale,' under a 'hawthorn,' at one and the same instant, all over a district, would resemble indeed those pastoral groups upon bed-curtains, in which, and in no other place, such marvels are to be met with. Yet, in common perhaps with most young readers, I remember the time when I believed it, and was as sorry as Warton to be undeceived" Imagination and Fancy (1844) 253.
David Masson: "Word follows word with a precision and neatness not usual in Spenser himself or in the most careful of his followers, and proving a higher severity of artistic taste and rule. All in all, it might have been predicted that, if any one of the general Spenserian succession should break that succession and become himself a new point of departure in the history of English poetry, it would be the young poet of Horton" Life of Milton (1859-94, 1965) 1:576.
Herbert E. Cory: "L'Allegro derives remotely from the Spenserian pastoral as developed by Drayton and his friends, Brown and Wither. Spenser, though he had, in the main, followed the beaten path of the Renaissance pastoral, had suggested much to his ingenious followers in his Shepheards Calender. He strove to nationalize the pastoral by transferring the crown from the 'Romish Tityrus,' Virgil, to the English Tityrus, Chaucer. He introduced the more brisk style of the fable, following Chaucer at a great distance. Above all, in the airy roundelay of Willy and Perigot, with its adroit suggestion of popular improvisation, he enlivened the pastoral with a species of light-hearted, semi-popular song like the French pastourelle — which had been forgotten in England since the days of Henryson's Robin and Makyne but which had been preserved in effect in France in the blithe notes of Clement Marot. Of the many imitators of The Shepheards Calender Drayton and his group were by far the most astute in seizing upon and developing those most fertile ideas which Spenser had barely suggested. Drayton introduced tangibly the much needed element of humor. The languid, plaining shepherd lived on, but Drayton and his friends were for the most part more interested in such lilting creations as the ballad of bonny Dowsabelle, imitated from Sir Thopas at the suggestion of Spenaer's pseudo-Chaucerian poems. Drayton and Browne gossiped with real countrywives and conned their wondrous lore about Queen Mab and her fairy rout. Browne and Wither sang of maypoles and country-folk so blithely in the light tetrameter measure that Milton doubtless learned much from them when he chose the same metre and very similar subject-matter. L'Allegro — peering through the two aged oaks at the cottage chimney, watching Corydon and Thyrsis at their savory dinner, 'Which the neat-banded Phillis dresses,' attending a holiday with young and old, drinking the spicy ale while some one told of fairy Mab and the drudging Goblin — is the kinsman of Willy and Perigot, of Drayton's Batte and Gorbo, Browne's Willy and Roget, and Wither's Philarete who sang of fields and dainty nosegays even in prison" "Spenser, the Fletchers, and Milton" UCPMP 2 (1912) 352-53.
Hence, loathed Melancholy,
Of Cerberus and blackest Midnight born,
In Stygian cave forlorn,
'Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy!
Find out some uncouth cell,
Where brooding Darkness sprends his jealous wings,
And the night-raven sings;
There under ebon shades, and low-brow'd rocks,
As ragged as thy locks,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.
But come, thou goddess fair and free,
In Heaven yclep'd Euphrosyne,
And by Men, heart-easing Mirth;
Whom lovely Venus, at a birth,
With two sister Graces more,
To ivy-crowned Bacchus bore:
Or whether (as some sager sing)
The frolick wind, that breathes the spring,
Zephyr, with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a-Maying;
There on beds of violets blue,
And fresh-blown roses wash'd in dew,
Fill'd her with thee a daughter fair,
So buxom, blithe, and debonair.
Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Quips, and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods, and Becks, and wreathed Smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe's cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it, as you go,
On the light fantastick toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;
And, if I give the honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreproved pleasures free;
To hear the lark begin his flight,
And singing startle the dull night,
From his watch-tower in the skies,
Till the dappled dawn doth rise;
Then to come, in spite of sorrow,
And at my window bid good morrow,
Through the sweet-briar, or the vine,
Or the twisted eglantine:
While the cock, with lively din,
Scatters the rear of Darkness thin;
And to the stack, or the barn-door,
Stoutly struts his dames before:
Oft listening how the hounds and horn
Cheerly rouse the slumbering morn,
From the side of some hoar hill,
Through the high wood echoing shrill:
Some time walking, not unseen,
By hedge-row elms, on hillocks green,
Right against the eastern gate
Where the great sun begins his state,
Robed in flames, and amber light,
The clouds in thousand liveries dight;
While the plowman, near at hand,
Whistles o'er the furrow'd land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his sithe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.
Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures,
Whilst the landskip round it measures;
Russet lawns, and fallows gray,
Where the nibbling flocks do stray;
Mountains, on whose barren breast
The labouring clouds do often rest;
Meadows trim with daisies pide,
Shallow brooks, and rivers wide:
Towers and battlements it sees
Bosom'd high in tufted trees,
Where perhaps some Beauty lies,
The Cynosure of neighbouring eyes.
Hard by, a cottage chimney smoaks,
From betwixt two aged oaks,
Where Corydon and Thyrsis, met,
Are at their savoury dinner set
Of herbs, and other country messes,
Which the neat-handed Phillis dresses;
And then in haste the bower she leaves,
With Thestylis to bind the sheaves;
Or, if the earlier season lead,
To the tann'd haycock in the mead,
Sometimes with secure delight
The upland hamlets will invite,
When the merry bells ring round,
And the jocund rebecks sound
To many a youth, and many a maid,
Dancing in the chequer'd shade;
And young and old come forth to play
On a sun-shine holy-day,
Till the live-long day-light fail
Then to the spicy nut-brown ale,
With stories told of many a feat,
How faery Mab the junkets eat;
She was pinch'd, and pull'd, she sed;
And he, by friars lantern led,
Tells how the drudging Goblin swet,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath thresh'd the corn,
That ten days labourers could not end;
Then lies him down the lubber fiend,
And, stretch'd out all the chimney's length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings.
Thus done the tales, to bed they creep,
By whispering winds soon lull'd asleep.
Tower'd cities please us then,
And the busy hum of men,
Where throngs of knights and barons bold,
In weeds of peace, high triumphs hold,
With store of ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence, and judge the prize
Of wit, or arms, while both contend
To win her grace, whom all commend.
There let Hymen oft appear
In saffron robe, with taper clear,
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With mask, and antique pageantry;
Such sights as youthful poets dream
On summer eves by haunted stream.
Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson's learned sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakspeare, Fancy's child,
Warble his native wood-notes wild.
And ever, against eating cares,
Lap me in soft Lydian airs,
Married to immortal verse;
Such as the meeting soul may pierce,
In notes, with many a winding bout
Of linked sweetness long drawn out,
With wanton heed and giddy cunning;
The melting voice through mazes running,
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony;
That Orpheus' self may heave his head
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heap'd Elysian flowers, and hear
Such strains as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half-regain'd Eurydice.
These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth, with thee I mean to live.
[Todd (1801, 1826) 5:77-109]