Where more is meant: Alchemical Imagery in Milton’s “Il Penseroso”


On the surface, John Milton’s poem “Il Penseroso” seems to be a lighthearted work of mythopoesis, addressing an invented goddess named Melancholy who presides over the inward-looking preoccupations of the contemplative life. However, the poem includes an overt, centrally-placed reference to Hermes Trismegistus (line 88), as well as a tantalizing line about the kind of poetry “Where more is meant than meets the ear” (120). Milton could scarcely have issued a clearer invitation to look deeply and alchemically into the poem’s meaning.

Alchemical writing is notoriously difficult to interpret, however, hiding its messages in plain sight through paradox, enigma, equivocation, and allegory (Roberts 92), so it is natural that different readers would find different meanings in this poem. Brooks-Davies, for instance, sees “Il Penseroso” pregnant with “possibly revolutionary Hermetic” ideas having to do with political, Protestant reform (124). Linden, however, finds this assessment “perhaps excessively ingenious” (Hieroglyphicks 246). According to him, Milton was not preoccupied with alchemy and hermeticism, and although “the contemplative ideal patterned on hermetic studies” shapes the speaker’s musings, Penseroso’s appeal to Hermes is “not connected with specifically alchemical detail”, and merely introduces hermetic topics such as pagan philosophy, Christian asceticism, mysticism, hermetic magic, poetry, and prophecy (246, 259). In other words, the poem is more about the contemplative life than it is about alchemy. I agree with several of Linden’s assertion’s, namely that the contemplative life is an important theme in the poem, and that the poem does raise the topics he lists, although I find no Christian doctrine, only an oblique suggestion of it in the image of monastic life for the sake of knowledge and mystical epiphany. Further, the poem never actually appeals to Hermes but rather primarily addresses the goddess Melancholy. And finally, in my reading, the poem contains a bounty of “specifically alchemical detail”. Indeed, alchemy permeates this poem, from the bones of its structure to the flesh of its imagery. To shift metaphors, I see the body of this poem as an alembic in which the great work of inner transformation takes place through imagination, consonant with contemporary depth psychology’s approach to alchemy. This paper shows that alchemical meaning animates “Il Penseroso” throughout, particularly in its structure and its imagery.

To summarize the content of the poem briefly, the piece opens with ten lines banishing silly joys (Milton, “Il Penseroso”, lines 1-10). The next twenty lines hail the goddess Melancholy and give an account of her family tree (11-30). The following thirty lines summon Melancholy and describe her and her companions, especially Contemplation (31-60). After this the speaker addresses a nightingale for twelve lines in describing an evening walk in the woods (61-72). The speaker’s thoughts then turn inward for the following twelve lines, moving inside to a dimly lit room (73-84), after which the poem again addresses Melancholy, begging her presence for alchemical philosophizing, reading, more rambles in the woods, dreams, monastic seclusion, mysticism, and the study of astrology and herbalism (85-177). The tone is far from melancholy, however, and feels affectionately and even exuberantly prayerful. The poem feels like a playful expression of the love of solitude, and a joyful move into inner reflection.

Emblem XLII, Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens, 1618

Emblem XLII, Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens, 1618

Structurally, “Il Penseroso” is alchemical in three key ways: its pairs of opposites; the centrality of Hermes Trismegistus; and the color-coded lighting of its three sections – black, white, and red.

First, the poem is built around the alchemical idea of pairs of opposites, or coniunctio, the joining of opposites that generates new creation (Edinger 211). Marlan offers an eloquent summary of this concept: “light and dark and male and female are joined together in the idea of the chemical marriage, and from the marriage… the filius philosophorum emerges, and a new light is born” (99).

The poem’s architecture reflects this joining of pairs for the sake of creation through its rhyme scheme and its partner poem. The poem opens with five brief couplets in which the first line contains six syllables and the second line has ten, and the meter of the poetic feet varies line by line. The rhyme scheme here is A-B-B-A-C-D-D-E-E-C, after which the poem settles into a strict scheme of perfectly rhymed tetrameter couplets, for the remaining 166 lines. The couplets in the main body of the poem are so tightly joined by meter and rhyme as to suggest the practice of coniunctio, over and over—repeated eighty-three times, in fact. The poem has its own mate as well, in the form of its preceding partner poem, “L’Allegro”, which uses exactly the same rhyme scheme and summons the goddess Euphrosyne, or Mirth, in an outward-looking paean to the active life of farming and convivial social activity. Ostensibly the two poems balance each other, but “Il Penseroso” has the last word in the pairing, and it is twenty-four lines longer, giving it more weight. Still, they follow such closely parallel structures and contain such closely complementary content that the two poems form an alchemical pairing of opposites. New creation emerges from all this coniunctio as well, the new creation of poetry. In addition, the high-level pairing of poems and the line-level couplets also suggest the alchemical idea, “As above, so below” which the following section discusses further.

A second element of the poem’s structure is the conjuration half-way through of Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary and at least somewhat mythologized prophet of alchemical thought (Linden, Reader 27). The speaker asks Melancholy to let a lamp shine at midnight in a high tower, “Where I may oft outwatch the Bear, / With thrice great Hermes” (Milton, “Il Penseroso” lines 87-88) in order that the speaker might inquire into the nature of the soul, the elements, and the metals (91-96), all of which are central to the art of alchemy. Hermes appears at line eighty-eight, or the exact midpoint of this 176-line poem. This detail is what Brooks-Davies refers to when he asserts that Hermes Trismegistus is the “literally, central character” (124). Hermes is not a full character, however. The poem invokes the idea of him, but never his physical presence. Melancholy has a body, with a face, shoulders, clothing, a gait, and eyes (13, 33, 36, 38, 40), and the speaker has a body that hears, walks, sleeps, dreams, wakes, and sits (64, 65, 146, 147, 151, 170). Hermes, however, has no parts or actions, and he is only mentioned once. That mention does come at the key midpoint of the poem, however. The imagined Hermes, and therefore alchemy, is the spiritual spine of the poem, the conceptual supporting pillar.

A third aspect of alchemical structure emerges in the changing colors of the poem’s lighting. The main body of the poem begins with a section characterized by an atmosphere of darkness (10-58). Melancholy herself has black skin (line 13-16). She is a daughter of Saturn, who is a god of darkness and has his own associations with alchemical imagery, as the following section discusses (24-25). She wears “a robe of darkest grain” and a “sable stole” of linen (33, 35), and the nightingale’s song is imagined as being able to smooth “the rugged brow of Night” (58). After this, the white light of the moon appears in the form of a goddess. “Cynthia checks her dragon yoke” (59), and the speaker sees the 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 bowed,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud. (67-72)

This passage emphasizes the height of the moon’s light and the white clouds it illuminates, firmly establishing white light as a presence shining down on this second section of the poem (59-121). In fact the word moon appears in line 67, or almost exactly one-third of the way through the main tetrameter section of the poem. Nor does the color of the lighting change until the break of dawn at line 122, or, almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the tetrameter section. Here the sun brings “flaring beams” (132), followed soon after by the poet’s dream of life among “storied windows richly dight / Casting a dim religious light” (159-60), or stained glass windows. Both dawn and stained glass strongly suggest the color red, which suffuses this last section of the poem (122-174). In the colored lighting, the poem is built in three sequential sections: darkness, whiteness, and redness, or, in alchemical terms, nigredo, albedo, and rubedo. This sequence exactly matches Jung’s psychological description of the alchemical process, which begins with the suffering and darkness of nigredo; proceeds to the abstract, idealized, whiteness of albedo; and concludes with the living, blood-rich redness, or rubedo, associated with a “fully human mode of existence” (Edinger 147). In other words, the poem is built around colors that symbolize the entire great work of inner transformation, or in modern terms, Jungian individuation.

From Pretiosissimum Donum Dei, manuscript of the 17th c.

From Pretiosissimum Donum Dei, manuscript of the 17th c.

The imagery Milton employs in the poem is also richly alchemical. Four examples considered here are the adjectives “leaden” and “golden,” ascent and descent, the virgin, and Melancholy herself, who is strongly associated with wisdom, the soul of the world, and ultimately the goddess Sophia.
First, the speaker of “Il Penseroso” uses the freighted adjectives “leaden” and “golden” in two key passages just nine lines apart, clearly referring to the most important metals in the alchemical process. In alchemical lore, lead is “the unclean body,” or “the deathly beginnings of the opus”, associated with Saturn and melancholy, and psychologically represents “the fragmented, chaotic state of the soul” (Abraham 116). In other words, lead represents the state of suffering that instigates the work. Gold, on the other hand, is a precious and perfect metal and represents the culmination of the opus, the thrill of its completion. Psychologically it is nothing less than “the embodiment of divine spirit in man” (Abraham 87), or the union of the conscious and the unconscious that transforms suffering into joy. In “Il Penseroso”, Melancholy looks up, and then down at the ground “With a sad leaden downward cast” (Milton line 43, emphasis added). The poet then tells Melancholy to join her companions Peace, Quiet, Fast, Leisure, but especially “Him that yon soars on golden wing, / Guiding the fiery-wheelèd throne, / The Cherub Contemplatïon” (52-54, emphasis added). Lead comes first, followed by gold, as in the alchemical process. Further, the poem associates lead with a female character, sadness, downwardness, the earth, matter, and immobility. Gold, on the other hand, is a male character, an angelic being (a cherub), and is associated with upwardness, the sublime, spirit, royalty, and the mobility of flight. Contemplation is the “first, and chiefest” of Melancholy’s companions, and in fact, they are the only two with an explicit gender: she is female and he is male. Further, it is Melancholy’s gaze which is described as leaden, while Contemplation’s wings are golden. A gaze is a receptive faculty, which takes in light and color, whereas wings are active instruments of flight. Receptivity is often associated with feminine capacities, and activity with masculine. All these gendered details strongly suggest another coniunctio, or joining of opposites. Melancholy and Contemplation go hand in hand; unhappiness invites an inward turn, if only to ponder questions such as, “Why am I unhappy?” Leaden sadness comes first with its frozen sense of paralysis, then reflection swoops in with the golden flow of thought and, ultimately, illumination. Lead is the despair at the beginning of the opus, and gold is its triumphant ending. “Il Penseroso” masterfully and seemingly off-handedly summons the entire great work through these two adjectives which modify traits of allegorized, pseudo-mythological characters.

Melancholy’s upward and then downward gaze illustrates a second alchemical image in the poem, that of ascent and descent. The concept of upwardness and downwardness is foundational in hermetic and alchemical thought. This idea is emphasized through repetition in The Emerald Table, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus himself: “That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of one thing”, and “With great sagacity it doth ascend gently from earth to heaven. / Again it doth descend to earth, and uniteth in itself the force from things superior and things inferior” (Linden, Reader 28).

This is the source of the alchemical adage, “As above, so below”, mentioned in the previous section. “Il Penseroso” employs this device again and again, as though with an emphasis that parallels Hermes’s own, and often with a pronounced simultaneity of the two concepts. For example, an important line begins the story of Melancholy’s origin: “thou art higher far descended” (Milton line 22). Here, while overtly referring to Melancholy’s parentage, the poem associates the goddess with both height and descent in a single breath with the words “higher” and “descended”. Further, the poem positions the words in very close proximity, separated by the single word “far”, which links them and pulls off the trick of emphasizing both at once. Another example is in the middle of the poem, when the speaker asks, “let my lamp at midnight hour / Be seen in some high lonely tower” (85-86) in order to ponder “those daemons that are found / In fire, air, flood, or under ground” (93-94). In thinking of earthly elements while high up in a lonely tower, the speaker again creates a simultaneity of height and depth. Further, when the speaker imagines falling asleep in a forest, he asks, “And as I wake, sweet music breathe / Above, about, or underneath” (151-52). Here music shows the alchemical simultaneity of above and below, surrounding the speaker in imagination. Finally the speaker imagines a monastic life of simultaneous depth and height:

But let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious cloister’s pale
And love the high embowèd roof,
With antique pillars’ massy proof (155-58).

Here the poem conjures floor and roof, earth and heaven. So many repetitions of the simultaneity of height and depth place great emphasis the alchemical correspondence of above and below.

“The Youthful Poet’s Dream”, Watercolor Illustration to Milton's "L'Allegro and Il Penseroso" by William Blake

“The Youthful Poet’s Dream”, Watercolor Illustration to Milton’s “L’Allegro and Il Penseroso” by William Blake

A third alchemical image in “Il Penseroso” is that of the virgin. Milton invokes this image five ways. First, Melancholy herself is a virgin, “a pensive Nun, devout and pure” (31). Second, Melancholy’s mother is Vesta, the virginal Roman goddess of the hearth and home. Although biologically a female character cannot be a virgin and have an affair that produces a child, “Il Penseroso” works by mythological rules, where biology’s rules don’t necessarily apply and paradoxes like this make a more powerful kind of sense. Third, the moon goddess Cynthia (59) is associated with the Roman Diana and the Greek Artemis, both of whom are virgins. Fourth, the speaker of the poem imagines a walk in a virgin forest (135-138). Finally, the climax of the poem, in lines 155-174, occurs in an imagined religious community of study and worship. Interestingly the speaker is never identified as a man or a woman, so the reader is free to imagine a convent or a monastery with cloisters, stained glass, and pipe organ music. Although the poem does not specifically describe this life as celibate, celibacy is implied, which suggests the possibility of virginity as well, both physical and spiritual. In alchemy, the virgin has two meanings: the prima materia, or “the pure, original stuff of creation”, and “the receptive, feminine aspect of the dual-natured Mercurius” (Abraham 210). The virgin, then, represents purity and receptivity. The prima materia is also “The hidden thing that we know nothing about” (Henderson and Sherwood 40), or the unconscious. Virgin imagery gives the whole poem a feeling of feminine receptivity, like what might exist prior to the coniunctio.

A fourth alchemical image is the most important virgin in the poem, Melancholy herself, the goddess to whom the work is addressed. She is the daughter of Saturn and his older daughter Vesta. In other words, Melancholy is the philosophorum filia, or the new light, as Marlan would say, resulting from the coniunctio of Saturn and Vesta. Unlike so many mythological unions, their romance is sweet and reciprocal. They met often in shady forests “While yet there was no fear of Jove” (Milton lines 27-30). This conjures up a golden age – again, gold – of innocence when Saturn was the ruling deity, before Jove’s militarized and aggressive reign when gods so often forced themselves on their chosen partners. Saturn himself is also an important alchemical figure. He represents “the base metal lead; a secret name for the prima materia…. Saturn’s discipline and melancholia govern the grim beginnings of the opus alchymicum”, making him strongly associated with the initial stage of nigredo (Abraham 178), and also with “the kind of wisdom that comes from endurance” (Henderson and Sherwood 113). Melancholy, then, is a high-ranking goddess, daughter of the highest god in a bygone time when relations between men and women were more equal. She is the daughter of two complementary images of the prima materia: leaden, wise Saturn and the virgin Vesta, so she herself must be wise, virginal, and a highly concentrated prima materia. Indeed, Milton places great emphasis on her wisdom. Her

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 (Milton lines 13-16).

The black of her skin is then compared to the Ethiopian princess Himera and the Ethiopian queen Cassiopeia (14-18). The dark brightness of Melancholy’s face, the color of Wisdom with a capital W, is an image suggesting the black sun, or Sol niger, as well as the goddess Sophia.

Black Sun (sol niger) from a manuscript of Splendor Solis, 1582

Black Sun (sol niger) from a manuscript of Splendor Solis, 1582

Jung associates the blackened sun with the anima media natura, or soul of the world, which “corresponds to Sophia… and is equated with Divine Wisdom” (Edinger 158). Since Melancholy is divine and associated with Wisdom, she must correspond to Sophia, too. According to Henderson and Sherwood, “the images of the Ethiopian and Sophia refer to the spirit or consciousness that can emerge from rejected or undervalued aspects of the personality” (85). This indicates that the dark-skinned Melancholy-Sophia is a content of the unconscious that can be brought to consciousness through the process of alchemy. Also, according to Marlan, the black sun has a sublime quality of shine, illumination, Eros, and wisdom, all in the unconscious (11). A brilliant form of Eros, or life force, must then be a quality of Melancholy-Sophia. In addition, according to von Franz, the medieval Arabic philosopher Avicenna identifies a “creative intelligence” in the world “which is responsible for the meaningfulness of cosmic events”, or the sense that the world is more than just a machine, and is in fact a living being. The author of the Aurora Consurgens splits the idea of this creative intelligence into two parts, assigning one part to the human mind, and calling the other part the Wisdom of God, or Sophia (186). Further, the Aurora Consurgens “identifies the Wisdom of God with the philosopher’s stone, (…) they are one and the same thing” (von Franz 189). This links Melancholy-Sophia with alchemy’s culmination. With these associations crowding around Melancholy’s shoulders, she serves as a disguise for Sophia in “Il Penseroso.” It is Sophia the poem actually addresses.

Black Angel from Aurora Consurgens, circa 1420

Black Angel from Aurora Consurgens, circa 1420

“Il Penseroso” overflows with alchemical meanings. Overtly they serve to praise the contemplative life, but in so doing they receive praise too, because comparisons go both ways. If contemplation is as wonderful as alchemy, then alchemy must be as wonderful as contemplation. This poem’s lighthearted surface conceals a deeply respectful, worshipful, and loving tribute to Melancholy, or Sophia, and to alchemy.

The seventeenth century saw a shift in the literary use of alchemical imagery, placing new weight on meanings associated with spiritual and moral transformation (Shams and Anushiravani 56), and Linden notes that for Milton, alchemy was primarily about “fundamental change” (Hieroglyphicks 249). This poem does indeed depict transformation, moving as it does through the stages of the alchemical process from melancholy to ecstasy. No one actually makes this transformation, however; the speaker imagines it. But because it happens in the poem’s imagination, it can also happen in the reader’s imagination. This is what literature does: it transmits experience from one imagination to others, and this particular poem transmits the figure of a beloved goddess. In the imagination of the poem, she is there. In the experience of reading the poem, she is there. And because she is there as the great work happens, she participates in it, through the same medium by which it and she exist, that of imagination. Sophia transforms. Her melancholy changes into ecstasy, and thereby so does that of the soul of the world, which she embodies. Her Eros and wisdom surge into human consciousness, from which they had been split, unleashing the ecstasy and creative intelligence of the cosmos. By loving Sophia, “Il Penseroso” redeems her, in the alchemical context that is her natural habitat.



Joanna Gardner is a writer and mythologist who writes fiction and poetry. She is a full-time student in the Mythological Studies program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her short stories have appeared in journals such as Halfway Down the Stairs, Reflection’s Edge, Rosebud and others. Her poetry has appeared in The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Terrain.org, South Dakota Review, and others. She attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2009, and did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2010. She has a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of California at Berkeley. Visit Joanna’s personal website: http://joannagardner.com or contact her via joanna@joannagardner.com.

Lyndy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998
Douglas Brooks-Davies, The Mercurian Monarch: Magical Politics from Spenser to Pope. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983. Available electronically from http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Mercurian_Monarch.html?id=5X27AAAAIAAJ
Edward F. Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1988
Joseph L. Henderson and Dyane N. Sherwood, Transformation of the Psyche: The Symbolic Alchemy of the Splendor Solis. Hove: Brunner-Routledge, 2003
John Hollander and Frank Kermode, eds, The Literature of Renaissance England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973
Stanton J. Linden, ed., The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010
—. Darke Hierogliphicks: Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996
Stanton Marlan, The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 2005. Available electronically from http : / /hdl .handle .net /1969 .1 /86080
John Milton, “Il Penseroso” in The Literature of Renaissance England, eds John Hollander and Frank Kermode. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973
—. “L’Allegro.” The Literature of Renaissance England. Ed. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973
Gareth Roberts, The Mirror of Alchemy: Alchemical Ideas and Images in Manuscripts and Books from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994
Parisa Shams and Alireza Anushiravani, “Mystical Alchemy in the Poetry of Donne and Milton”, Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche 7.3 (2013): 54-68. Available electronically from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19342039.2013.787810
Hermes Trismegistus, “The Emerald Table”, in The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. Ed. Stanton J. Linden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010
Marie-Louise von Franz, Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1980

The contents of this blog expresses the author’s own ideas and opinions. If you would also like to post a blog with content relevant to the BPH please contact us at bph@ritmanlibrary.nl. The Ritman Library reserves the right not to post blogs that have no bearing on any of the library’s collecting areas.

Leave a comment