Critique of the Intellectual Stagnancy in L’allegro, Il Penseroso and Lycidas


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In the Classical Republicanism of John Milton, P.A. Rahe contests that it is “impossible to categorise Milton” (Rahe, 82). Indeed, this view is seen to be well supported by Milton’s vast use of variety of space and narrative within his Poems of 1645: He is seen to emulate and utilise polarised narrative voices and ideologies, particularly in his dichotomised companion works, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. One might speculate that Milton’s use of the pastoral and carpe diem sentiment in L’Allegro indicates the existence of Cavalier tendencies and sympathies. However, it can also be argued that Milton’s emulation of the Cavalier genre is heavily stylised in order to satirise and critique the movement’s intellectual shortcomings, specifically the apparent stagnancy of this poetry and its associated school of thought. This aspect of Milton’s fluidity also extends to his polemic works: although originally displaying Puritan tendencies through his rejection of the Episcopal nature of the Catholic Church, Milton’s Polemic writings demonstrate his eventual transformation into an ‘Independent’, exemplifying his incredibly adaptive and fluid nature as an intellectual. Although written prior to the mainstream emergence of Cavalier poetry as a recognised genre, Milton made a conscious decision to include Lycidas in his 1645 collection, potentially indicating a cultural relevance and comment: it can be argued that the poem’s anachronistic quality is an extension of Milton’s critique and fluidity, melding the pastoral with elements of the political and thus potentially presenting an altered and idealised demonstration of a Cavalier ideology without stagnant limitation. As such, it is necessary to analyse Milton’s 1645 poetry in the particular context of fluidity and stagnancy, the arguable source of his critique of Cavalier poetry: rather than directly criticising the ideology itself, Milton is seen to satirise and highlight the intellectual stagnancies of Cavalier poetry through his use of emulation and contrast, as well as potentially present an alternative to this stagnancy through the intellectually charged pastoral scenes of Lycidas.

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One of the main aspects of Cavalier stagnancy that Milton arguably criticises is intellectual stagnancy, particularly through his implicit use of self-awareness and awareness of genre in L’Allegro. Thematically, L’Allegro is seen to contain many of the stereotypical features of Cavalier poetry whilst particularly maintaining a tone of languorous predictability, however it is Milton’s apparent self-awareness of genre that alludes to an almost satirical tone: Milton is seen to “wanton wiles” and “wreathed smiles” (Milton, John), this sense of wantonness and sensual sexuality being a direct reflection of the Cavalier sexual persuasions seen for example in Suckling’s Why So Pale and Wan (Suckling, 12), and being practically synonymous with the “amorous languishment” and “sweet ecstasy” (Carew, 32) described in Carew’s Rapture. This imitation serves to highlight the predictability, tropes and therefore stagnancy of Cavalier poetry, allowing Milton to begin his implicit critique. This imitation also extends to the narrator’s implicit mention of time, of “wrincled Care” expressing a sense of subtle disdain and capturing the quintessentially Cavalier notion of carpe diem. These examples are particularly subtle in nature; however, Milton arguably draws attention to a self-awareness of genre in mentions of “Dames” and “Hounds and Horn” (Milton, John) as well as the mention of “Debonair” figures, which arguably directly pertain to the Cavalier poets. It is interesting to note that in these references to the aristocracy, the aforementioned “Hounds and Horn” as symbols of the hunt are depicted in a solely sensory manner that reflects the sensual, hedonistic writings of the Cavalier ideology: The dames are seen to “strut”, and embody an incredibly visceral image of physicality, and the mention of “Hounds and horn” are accompanied by “list’ning”, thus pertaining to a strong sense of sensory physicality, sight and audibility. This primal physicality is particularly interesting when considered in conjunction with the lack of the sensory in Il Penseroso: the earthy senses depicted in L’Allegro are directly contrasted by the narrator’s desire to transcend “the Sense of human sight” in order to embrace true intellectual and divine truth, as Melancholy, being a personification of ideal intellectualism, is “too bright” to be perceived by “human sight”. This directly highlights the limitations of the Cavalier associated primality, and the stagnancy of such an existence: the narrator of Il Penseroso is not limited by the human body and is therefore able to access a higher truth, unlike the personified Cavalier stagnancy and hedonism, which stays the same in its cyclical human nature. The clear association of the Cavaliers with such limiting hedonism is further highlighted by the reference to “Ivy-crowned Bacchus”: This can be read as a direct reference to the classical Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy in its comparative sense, with Bacchus being a direct personification of sensuality, sexuality and unapologetic hedonism that appears to encapsulate the Cavalier ideology in their “taste for erotic fantasy and sensual over-indulgence” (McDowell, 125).

L’Allegro is arguably the satirical and poetic embodiment of the Dionysian, whereas Il Penseroso appears to embody the Apollonian polarity of the comparison in its intellectual focus, with Apollo being the god of creative and rational thought. Whilst L’Allegro acts as a poetic example of the Cavalier excess, Il Penseroso exemplifies the Miltonic intellectualism associated with Apollo, who also appears as his Roman counterpart “Phoebus” in the arguably ‘ideal’ pastoral setting in Lycidas and illustrates the ideal medium between the two polarities depicted in Il Penseroso and L’Allegro: a pastoral intellectualism that should be strived towards, cemented by Tate’s assertion that the “idea of the alert man…is stronger than that of the cheerful or the pensive man” (Tate, 589). Thus, in L’Allegro, Milton depicts an unchanging presence self-indulgent stagnancy, and, by extension, a lack of intellectualism that is further highlighted by direct contrasts of physicality in Il Penseroso. Furthermore, “Ivy-crowned” appears as an attempt to imitate the poet’s laurels, alluding to Milton’s criticism of Cavalier poetry as a false imitation of the craft that is warped and corrupted by their characteristic excess, a parody being unable to evolve and thus, cementing the presence of cerebral and creative stasis. It can therefore be argued that Milton’s self-awareness of genre and deliberate use of imitation allow L’Allegro to be read as a satire, due to conscious excess of hedonistic, and thus Cavalier tropes existing in conscious excess within the poem, allowing for a direct link between imitation and critique to be observed in the context of intellectual stagnancy.

Milton’s substantial focus on hedonism within L’Allegro is seen to exist in conjunction with the themes of routine and its consequential stasis, and when considering the poem in context of an emblematic Cavalier reading, the nuances of critique continue to emerge. In light of the conclusion of Milton’s satirical intent, it is possible to read the depicted lack of mobility as a critique of Cavalier poetry in context of its predictability and thus perceived intellectual stagnancy. Such stasis is explicitly depicted within Milton’s thematic contrast of mobility and stagnancy, respectively, in Il Penseroso and L’Allegro. In L’Allegro, Milton utilises simple lexis in conjunction with a regular rhyme scheme to convey an ingrained sense of rhythm and languid tempo, reflective of the lack of mobility associated with a self-indulgent, and thus Cavalier lifestyle: The repetition of “And the” during the narrator’s description of the pastoral scene in lines 65 – 67 directly and ironically juxtaposes the simple mobile verbs of “singeth”, “whets” and “tells”: although physically mobile, Milton’s depiction of repetition highlights the fact that this physical mobility does nothing to mobilise the mind: the repetitive emphasis of simple verbs also pertains to a sense of a lack of cerebral development, of simple, monotonous tasks that do nothing to exercise mental or creative potential, and thus allowing Milton to once again imitate a Cavalier emphasis on physicality in order to highlight the limitations of such intellectual stasis. The narrator of Il Penseroso, on the other hand, displays such mobility that the “immortal mind” is able to both travel to and occupy “Worlds” and “vast regions”, whilst evoking the image of “Hermes”, the arguable embodiment of such abstract mobility as the messenger to the Gods. Milton also uses this scope of mobility and setting to introduce the “symbol of conquered space” through the mention of the “wondrous Hors of Brass…on which the Tartar King did ride” (Tate, 589) and thus placing this sense of mobility into a political context, one of battle and domination to arguably reflect the terse political climate and highlight the lack of direct political and intellectual engagement within Cavalier poetry.

Although it is most likely that Il Penseroso and L’Allegro were written during Milton’s Cambridge years, and therefore predate the conflicts of the English Civil War, it is still possible for these works to be read as relevant political statements: Milton made a conscious decision to publish these works during the terse political climate of 1645, and so it can be argued that he did potentially present these poems to respond to such, with published works arguably needing the appeal of relevance to current events. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that Milton’s critique of stagnant Cavalier hedonism can also be extended to include a sense of stagnancy in a political context. One such example of grouped intellectual and political stagnancy is depicted in L’Allegro with the offhanded mention of “sport”: Charles I’s reissued defence of leisure and sport in 1633 allocated an intrinsic political connotation to the word ‘sport’, which was now associated with the Puritan struggle to ban a perceived hedonistic past time. Thus, the politically charged mention of “Sport”, juxtaposed immediately by the mention of “laughter holding both his sides” can arguably be seen as a comment on the Cavalier’s lack of political and therefore intellectual commentary, being too concerned with merriment to observe the importance of political and intellectual authority and thus cementing the narrative as a critique of ignorant bliss and stasis. Such ignorance and frivolity are seen to be directly rejected in Lycidas, however, seen through the appearance of St. Peter, “The Pilot of the Galilean lake”, as a potential political metaphor through a condemnation of corrupted clergy as Milton attempts to reconcile and resolve this stasis in the form of an altered pastoral ideal. Despite its existence and intention as an elegy, Milton arguably presents Lycidas in the 1645 collection as the idyllic compromise between the sheer intellectualism and prophetic authority and mobility in Il Penseroso and the overly indulgent stagnancy of the Cavaliers as arguably satirised and highlighted in L’Allegro. Lycidas is seen to encapsulate and illustrate the aesthetic and pastoral elements of the Cavalier sentiment without the excess and frivolity that caused the intellectual stagnancy and thus Milton’s critique: despite its elegiacal nature, the narrator displays quintessentially Cavalier features of the injustice of time, in this case pertaining to a young life in its “prime” “pluck”ed prematurely with “forced fingers rude” rather than this ‘plucking’ and forceful tone being in pursuit of Earthly pleasure, presenting an altered, idyllic version of the Cavalier spirit whilst simultaneously acting as a critique of its stagnant, excessive nature. The presence of Orpheus within Lycidas allows for a compromise to be made and suggested to improve the Cavalier ideal: within L’Allegro, Orpheus’ role is limited to the Cavalier sensory, with visual and audible evocations of “golden slumber” and “hear such streins” further serving the monotonous and stagnant sensory bliss that Milton serves to highlight. In Lycidas, however, Milton serves to bring Orpheus down to a more human level by referencing his failure to save Eurydice, and focuses the image more centrally on Calliope, “The Muse herself”, alluding to the bigger picture of philosophical and intellectual commentary and highlighting a sense of prophetic importance reminiscent of that abstract intellectual truth depicted in Il Penseroso. Milton therefore reframes and recreates an adapted, Miltonic version of enthusiastic Cavalierism that centres around the grounded wisdom of the pastoral. In creating this version of Cavalierism and presenting it in conjunction with his critique of such in L’Allegro, Milton is able to deeply critique and emphasise the intellectual stagnancy associated with the repetitive excess, which in turn is reformed in Lycidas, which presents a perfect medium of mobility and ideology: Lycidas is able to emulate the Cavalier sentiment in terms of emotion and personal experience due to its narrative being grounded in the loss of a friend, this grief also allowing the poem to emulate the sorrow and epic scope of mobility demonstrated in Il Penseroso. Lycidas, therefore, allows Milton to present a critique of Cavalier poetry’s excess and thus intellectual stasis, emphasising these faults by actively using such absent intellectual skill and authority to improve it.

Ultimately, it can be concluded that Milton’s 1645 poems indeed present a critique of the intellectual stagnancy and primitive self-indulgence of Cavalier poetry and ideology. L’Allegro presents an arguable exemplified parody of the Cavalier genre, predictable in its imagery, content and visions of excess and existing without any potential mobility. Although L’Allegro is the most obvious in its critique of Cavalier stagnancy, the presence of true intellectualism in Il Penseroso and Lycidas act as a collective foil to Milton’s critical excess, highlighting the spiritual truth that a commitment to Melancholy, and thus, intellectualism will bring about, and thus intensifying the frivolity of the depicted Cavalier monotony. Lycidas acts as the other half of the intellectual foil, highlighting instead what the Cavalier poetry could be when mobilised by the condemnation of hedonism and excess, and thus highlighting the then current limitations of the genre. In Herotodus’ Histories, Lycidas appears as an Athenian proposing a compromise to appease an invading Persian king, this sense of compromise further echoed by his manifestation of a centaur in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Milton has made it clear that it is within the titular nature of Lycidas to mobilise through intellectual fluidity and compromise, one of intellectual argument and reason as seen in the Histories, and a physical compromise within Metamorphoses, reflecting the fluidity and mobility of true intellectualism, one that is able to incorporate and adapt to the physical and abstract, the Cavalier and the Melancholy. Thus, Milton presents a parody and two foils within this collection, to emphasise the limitations of a genre riddled with excess, a lack of abstract thought, and thus, stagnancy.

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