John Milton's early essay contains an allusion that amounts to a verse character of Spenser: "And if aught else great bards beside | In sage and solemn tunes have sung, | Of turneys, and of trophies hung, | Of forests and enchantments drear, | Where more is meant than meets the ear." The allusion was perhaps first acknowledged by the philologist John Jortin, praising the Faerie Queene "Where useful truths in fair disguise appear, | And more is understood than meets the ear" A Hymn to Harmony (1729).
Thomas Warton: "It is not improbable, that Milton, in IL PENSEROSO, took his thought of hearing music from the earth, produc'd by some SPIRIT or GENIUS, 'And as I wake, sweet music BREATH, | Above, about, or UNDERNEATH.—' from some machinery of Inigo Jones, in his Masques. Hollingshed mentions something very like this, in a very curious DEVISE presented before Queen Elizabeth.... It may perhaps by readily admitted, that Milton drew the whole, from what had been represented in a masque" Observations on the Faerie Queene (1754) 218-19n.
Oliver Goldsmith: "I have heard a very judicious critic say, that he had an higher idea of Milton's style in poetry, from the two following poems [L'Allegro, Il Penseroso], than from his Paradise Lost. It is certain the imagination shewn in them is correct and strong. The introduction to both in irregular measure is borrowed from the Italians, and hurts an English ear" Beauties of English Poesy (1767) 1:39.
Samuel Johnson: "Through these two poems the images are properly selected and nicely distinguished, but the colours of the diction seem not sufficiently discriminated. I know not whether the characters are kept sufficiently apart. No mirth can, indeed, be found in his melancholy; but I am afraid that I always meet some melancholy in his mirth. They are two noble efforts of imagination" Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 1:167.
Henry Headley: "Milton's commentators have omitted remarking, that in the following passage he seems to have had an eye on [William] Warner: 'Thee bright-hair'd Vesta long of yore | To solitary Saturn bore; | His daughter she; "in Saturn's reign, | Such mixture was not held a stain.' Il Pens. Thus in Albion's England: 'In Crete did flourish in those days (first there that flourish'd so) | Uranos: he in wealth and wit all others did outgo. | This took to wife ("not then forbod") his sister Vesta faire.' B. I. Chap. i." Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry (1787; 1810) 2:148.
Thomas Warton: "'And if aught else great bards beside,' &c. From Chaucer, the father of English poetry, and who is here distinguished by a story remarkable for the wildness of its invention, our author seems to make a very pertinent and natural transition to Spenser; whose Faerie Queene, although it externally professes to treat of tournaments and the trophies of knightly valour, of ficitious forests, and terrific inchantments, is yet allegorical, and contains a remote meaning concealed under the veil of a fabulous actions, and of a typical narrative, which is not immediately perceived. Spenser sings in 'sage and solemn tunes,' with respect to his morality, and the dignity of his stanza" in Milton, Poems upon Several Occasions (1790) 83n.
Charles Brockden Brown: "By [the cherub] contemplation is here meant that stretch of thought by which the mind ascends 'To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;' and is 'on golden wing, guiding the fiery-wheeled throne;' that is, to take a high and glorious flight, carrying bright ideas of deity along with it. But the whole imagery alludes to the cherubic forms that conveyed the 'fiery-wheeled' car in Ezekiel, x. 2. seq. See also Milton himself, Par. Lost vi. 750. So that nothing can be greater or juster than this idea of divine contemplation. Contemplation of a more sedate turn, and intent only on human things, is more fitly described, as by Spenser, under the figure of an 'old man;' time and experience qualifying men best for this office. Spenser might then be right in his imagery; and yet Milton might be right in his, without being supposed to ramble after some fanciful Italian" "On Milton's Lycidas and smaller Poems" Literary Magazine and American Register [Philadelphia] 6 (August 1806) 96.
William Lisle Bowles: "in speaking of the Penseroso, Johnson spoke of what I do not hesitate to say, he did not understand. He had no congenial feelings properly to appreciate the character of such Poetry; but the case is different where he brings his great mind to try, by the test of truth, arguments and doctrines which appeal to the understanding. Johnson was not an inadequate judge of Pope's Philosophy, though he was certainly so of Milton's Poetry. But no composition could possibly stand before his contemptuous declamation. I fear, even in some places even his mighty Rambler would tremble; God knows how it might fare with Pope's Pastorals" Works of Pope, ed. Bowles (1806) 3:191n.
Preface to Poems on the Pleasures: "Previous to Akenside's poem there, indeed, existed in our own language two exquisite productions, which have a claim much superior to that of Ovid's licentious work [Ars Amatoria], to be classed with the poetical series now before us. These are the Il Penseroso and L'Allegro of Milton, which might with propriety have been called 'The Pleasures of Melancholy,' and 'The Pleasures of Mirth.' But names cannot impart natures, and even with such titles, these poems could not with propriety have been placed in the class of productions under consideration. Their brevity precludes the range and variety of philosophical and moral reflection so characteristic of the Poems of the Pleasures — they are purely descriptive, consisting altogether of a grouping of poetical images exquisitely conceived and expressed, delineating Melancholy and Mirth, but without investigating the natural sources of these feelings, or deducing precepts from their operation" (1841) 5.
W. J. Courthope: "The effects of the new [Laudian] influence are strongly marked among Milton's Cambridge contemporaries. While he was an undergraduate, George Herbert was Public Orator; and John Cleveland, the Cavalier satirist, Henry More, the Platonist, Jeremy Taylor, Abraham Cowley, and Richard Crashaw were all in residence before he quitted the university. Milton himself was sensitively alive to the tendencies of the time, and however his intellectual temper may have been offended by the innovations of Laud, the concluding lines of Il Penseroso are standing evidence that, in his Cambridge days at least, he can have had no instinctive sympathy with the iconoclasm of his party, but would rather have rejoiced to see the resources of architecture, painting, and music placed at the service of religion" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 3:381.
Herbert E. Cory: "Il Penseroso is a bit more personal. We catch the young poet at his dearer dreams. Like Spenser he is poring over Chaucer's alluring fragment, The Squire's Tale: 'The story of Cambuscan bold, | Of Camball and of Algarsife'.... Into the magic glass that Chaucer and Spenser described with wondering delight, Milton had peered as eagerly as Britomart in search of Arthegal. For in earlier days, too, At a Vacation Exercise, he dreamed of a cave like Spenser's and Ariosto's cave of Merlin wherein dwelt 'A Sybil old, bow-bent with crooked age, | That far events full wisely could presage'... Il Penseroso was reading, too, of the great battle of Camball and Triamond in Spenser's continuation of The Squire's Tale. He writes of what 'Great Bards beside | In sage and solemn tunes have sung, | Of turneys and inchantments drear, | Where more is meant than meet the ear.' Critics have hardly been fanciful in describing this last line as a reference to the allegory of The Faerie Queene" "Spenser, the Fletchers, and Milton" UCPMP 2 (1912) 353-54.
John D. Guillory: "In Il Penseroso, he associates mystical Platonism, tragedy, and what we now describe as allegorical romance with two other English authors, unnamed by easily identifiable: Chaucer and Spenser. The link between the two poets is the unfinished Squire's Tale, which Spenser continued in FQ IV" Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 473.
Thomas Gray pointedly echoes Milton's famous line "Wave at his wings in aery stream | Of lively portraiture display'd" in "The Bard" ("Waves in the eye of Heaven her many-coloured wings") — one of the earliest poetic passages defining Elizabethan poetry as a renaissance ("breathe a soul to animate thy clay"). James Beattie alludes to the Milton's Spenser passage when Edwin catches a glimpse of the fairies in the first book of the Minstrel: "To haunted stream, remote from man, he hied. . . | And there let Fancy rove at large, till sleep | A vision brought to his entraced sight."
A partial Latin translation of Il Penseroso was published in the Publick Register (7 February 1741) 85-86.
Hence, vain deluding Joys,
The brood of Folly without father bred!
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toys!
Dwell in some idle brain,
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the sun-beams;
Or likest hovering dreams,
The fickle pensioners of Morpheus' train.
But hail, thou goddess, sage and holy,
Hail, divinest Melancholy!
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight,
And therefore to our weaker view
O'erlaid with black, staid Wisdom's hue;
Black, but such as in esteem
Prince Memnon's sister might beseem,
Or that starr'd Ethiop queen that strove
To set her beauty's praise above
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;
His daughter she; in Saturn's reign,
Such mixture was not held a stain:
Oft in glimmering bowers and glades
He met her, and in secret shades
Of woody Ida's inmost grove,
Whilst yet there was no fear of Jove.
Come, pensive Nun, devout and pure,
Sober, stedfast, and demure,
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestick train,
And sable stole of cyprus lawn,
Over thy decent shoulders drawn.
Come, but keep thy wonted state,
With even step, and musing gait;
And looks commercing with the skies,
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes:
There held in holy passion still,
Forget thyself to marble, till
With a sad leaden downward cast
Thou fix them on the earth as fast:
And join with thee calm Peace, and Quiet,
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet,
And hears the Muses in a ring
Aye round about Jove's altar sing:
And add to these retired Leisure,
That in trim gardens takes his pleasure:
But first and chiefest with thee bring,
Him that yon soars on golden wing,
Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,
The Cherub Contemplation;
And the mute Silence hist along,
'Less Philomel will deign a song,
In her sweetest saddest plight,
Smoothing the rugged brow of night,
While Cynthia checks her dragon yoke,
Gently o'er the accustom'd oak:
Sweet bird, that shunn'st the noise of folly,
Most musical, most melancholy!
Thee, chauntress, oft, the woods among,
I woo, to hear thy even-song;
And, missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven green,
To behold the wandering moon,
Riding near her highest noon,
Like one that had been led astray
Through the heaven's wide pathless way;
And oft, as if her head she bow'd,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud.
Oft, on a plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off Curfeu sound,
Over some wide-water'd shore,
Swinging slow with sullen roar:
Or, if the air will not permit,
Some still removed place will fit,
Where glowing embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom;
Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the cricket on the hearth,
Or the belman's drowsy charm,
To bless the doors from nightly harm.
Or let my lamp at midnight hour,
Be seen in some high lonely tower,
Where I may oft out-watch the Bear,
With thrice-great Hermes, or unsphere
The spirit of Plato, to unfold
What worlds or what vast regions hold
The immortal mind, that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook:
And of those demons that are found
In fire, air, flood, or under ground,
Whose power hath a true consent
With planet, or with element.
Sometime let gorgeous Tragedy
In scepter'd pall come sweeping by,
Presenting Thebes, or Pelops' line,
Or the tale of Troy divine,
Or what (though rare) of later age
Ennobled hath the buskin'd stage.
But, O sad Virgin, that thy power
Might raise Musaeus from his bower!
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!
Or call up him that left half-told
The story of Cambuscan bold,
Of Camball, and of Algarsife,
And who had Canace to wife,
That own'd the virtuous ring and glass;
And of the wonderous horse of brass,
On which the Tartar king did ride:
And if aught else great bards beside
In sage and solemn tunes have sung,
Of turneys, and of trophies hung,
Of forests and enchantments drear,
Where more is meant than meets the ear.
Thus, Night, oft see me in thy pale career,
Till civil-suited Morn appear,
Not trick'd and frounc'd as she was wont
With the Attick boy to hunt,
But kercheft in a comely cloud,
While rocking winds are piping loud,
Or usher'd with a shower still
When the gust hath blown his fill,
Ending on the russling leaves,
With minute drops from off the eaves.
And, when the sun begins to fling
His flaring beams, me, goddess, bring
To arched walks of twilight groves,
And shadows brown, that Sylvan loves,
Of pine, or monumental oak,
Where the rude axe, with heaved stroke,
Was never heard the Nymphs to daunt,
Or fright them from their hallow'd haunt.
There in close covert by some brook,
Where no profaner eye may look,
Hide me from day's garish eye,
While the bee with honied thigh,
That at her flowery work doth sing,
And the waters murmuring,
With such consort as they keep,
Entice the dewy-feather'd Sleep;
And let some strange mysterious Dream
Wave at his wings in aery stream
Of lively portraiture display'd,
Softly on my eye-lids laid.
And, as I wake, sweet musick breathe
Above, about, or underneath,
Sent by some Spirit to mortals good,
Or the unseen Genius of the wood.
But let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious cloysters pale,
And love the high-embowed roof,
With antick pillars massy proof,
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light:
There let the pealing organ blow,
To the full-voic'd quire below,
In service high, and anthems clear,
As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all heaven before mine eyes.
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The hairy gown and mossy cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every star that heaven doth shew,
And every herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetick strain.
These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
And I with thee will choose to live.
[Todd (1801, 1826) 5:111-44]