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L'Allegro and Il Penseroso made their first public appearance in the edition of our author's poems which was published by himself in 1645; and we have no positive testimony to determine the precise time of their
“ Your curiosity will now, I know, expect some satisfaction. Among other subjects of anxious inquiry, you ask me, upon what I am thinking. Hear me, my heaven-bestowed friend, but in a whisper to spare my blushes; and permit me for a moment to utter great things. Do you
me, Upon what I am thinking?" So help me heaven, upon immortality. But what am I doing? I am fledging myself, and meditate a flight. My Pegasus however as yet soars only on slender pinions: let me moderate my thoughts. I will now tell you what is my serious project :-to remove into some inn of court, where I may find pleasant and shady walks; because it is both more convenient to reside among a few companions, if I choose to stay at home; and I shall have a better point of setting off whenever I wish to go abroad. My present abode, you know, is both gloomy and confined. You shall also be informed of my studies.
I have read straightforward the history of the Greeks, till they lost their title to the name; and have lingered in the dark ages of Italy, among the Lombards the Franks, and the Germans, down to the period in which they obtained liberty from the Emperor Rodolph. From that epoch it will be better to read separately the exertions of each distinct state. “ And what are you doing? How long will you
your domestic engagements, as a son, to interfere with your cityfriendships? Surely, if this stepmother's warfare be not more severe than that of Dacia or Sarmatia, you will despatch it speedily, and join us in winter-quarters. In the mean while I shall be obliged to you, if you can without inconvenience lend me Giustiniani's History of Venice; and I will engage either to take the utmost care of it till your arrival, or (if you chuse) in a very short time to return it to you. Farewell.”
London, Sept. 23, 1637.
production. There is reason however to suppose that they were written in the interval between the composition of Comus and that of Lycidas. The opening lines of the latter
poem seem to refer to some work of a more recent date than the Mask, since the representation of which three
years elapsed; and we cannot, with the least
pretence of probability, assign their origin to any other portion of their author's life than to that which was passed at Ilorton. The evidence of their ripened excellence would not allow us to ascribe them to his more youthful years, even if the accurate and circumstantial account, which has been transmitted to us, of the produce of those years had left us any doubt upon the subject. With his compositions during his residence in Italy we are so particularly acquainted as not to be permitted to hesitate when we exclude from their number the objects of our reference; and the character also of these pieces establishes them * to be properly and strictly English. Their lineaments and their tints are so specific, and so peculiarly genuine as to prove them to be drawn from the vivid nature before the poet's eye, and not from the
► See a note in the Appendix on a letter of Sir William Jones's referring to the time and the place when and where these poems were composed.
dimmer reflection of his mind. The landscape indeed, with all its shades, is of his own country, and when he speaks of “ towers and battlements”
Bosom'd high in tufted trees,
The Cynosure of neighb'ring eyes, we may suppose that his sight was directed immediately to the woods and the mansion of Harefield.
These poems, then, must be received as the indisputable natives of our island; and they cannot be considered as born after their parent's return from the continent, when his talents were withdrawn from the Muses; and when, immersed in the capital and in polemics, his thought could not easily escape to play and to cull flowers among the scenery of the country.
of the country. L'Allegro and Il Penseroso therefore were certainly written at Horton, and probably at no long period before the Lycidas, which was the last of our author's works while he resided with his father. They were unquestionably composed in the happiest humour of the poet's mind, when his fancy was all sunshine and
no cloud, or, to obstruct her view, Star interposed.. We may contemplate them not as the effects or qualities, (if the allusion may be par
doned,) but as the very substance of poetry, as its “ hidden soul untied,” and brought forward to our sight.
It is not easy to adjust the precedency between these victorious efforts of the descriptive Muse. No passage in 11 Penseroso is perhaps equally happy with the following in L'Allegro:
And ever against eating cares
The hidden soul of harmony. But if my judgment were to decide, I should award the palm, though with some hesitation, to Il Penseroso. The portrait of contemplation; the address to Philomel; the image of the moon, wandering through heaven's pathless way; the slow swinging of the curfeu over some wide-water'd shore; the flaming of the night-lamp in some lonely tower; the unsphering of the spirit of Plato to disclose the residence of the unbodied soul; the arched walks of twilight groves ; the mysterious dream by the murmuring waters; the sweet music of the friendly spirit
of the wood; the 'pale and studious cloister; the religious light thrown through the storied windows; the pealing organ, and finally the peaceful hermitage-form together such a mass of poetic imagery as was never before crowded into an equal space: the impression made by it on the imagination is to be felt, and not explained.
Although these poems obtained some early notice, the number of their admirers was for a long time small. Even from the wits of our Augustan age, as the age of Ad . dison and Pope has sometimes been called, their share of notice was inconsiderable; and it is in only what may be regarded as the present generation, that they have acquired any large proportion of their just praise. Their reputation seems to be still increasing;
" To walk the
Perhaps," says Mr. Warton on this line, studious cloisters pale,"
The studious cloister's pale."
If this unlucky “perhaps" were to be regarded, the beauty of the line would be injured, and its propriety annihilated. Pale, as an epithet to cloister, is most happily poetic, and holds a large and animated picture to the imagination. It shows to us the ghostly light of the place, and it shows to us also the sickly cheek of timorous superstition, the wan and faded countenance of studious and contemplative melancholy. The cloister's pale, or fence, is tautological and weak; and to walk a pale, which, if it mean any thing, must mean to walk upon a pale, is a feat of rather difficult accomplishment.