Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"May-Pole of Merry Mount": Hawthorne's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso."

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"May-Pole of Merry Mount": Hawthorne's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso."

Article excerpt

In his 1991 essay "New Roots for |Merry Mount': Barking Up the Wrong Tree," John F. Birk asserts that John Milton's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" offer an "out-and-out blueprint" (345) for Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The May-Pole of Merry Mount." Birk discounts Sheldon W. Liebman's 1972 essay, which argued that "Comus" served as Milton's chief influence on "Merry Mount," stating that "the greater bulk of the evidence points to ["L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso"] as the more fertile taproot for Hawthorne's story" (352). Although Birk's "fertile taproot" probes ground common to both works, such as "language, setting, figures, imagery, and underlying structure" (354), it does not go deep enough. Close examination not only reveals that "Merry Mount" is much more richly allusive to "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" than Birk recognized, but also that his analysis of "underlying structure" is flawed. Evidence for this comes from analyzing structural and thematic elements of both works. As we shall see, unnoticed by Birk, "Merry Mount" offers an inversion of Milton's mirth/melancholy dialectic to present an almost identical theme: higher consciousness through unity and harmony.

Birk sensed that the works come together via structure and theme when he identified that they share a dialectic divided more or less equally between mirth and melancholy (351). He argues that the revelers' mirth in "Merry Mount" correlates with the mirth in "L'Allegro," and that the tale's melancholy--personified by the Puritans--captures the melancholy spirit of "Il Penseroso" (345-47). The result, according to Birk, is that the two works share a common structure that explores similar aspects of opposing mindsets (351). Unfortunately, this neat, crisp rendering of structural similarity misses the mark. And it does so because Birk does not acknowledge--and this is critical to grasp fully just how Hawthorne has used Milton's material--the different kinds of melancholy and mirth operating in the respective works. Had he done so, he would have discovered that the dialectics do not match-or at least not in the way his essay relates. That is, the revelers' mirth is not the mirth of the "L'Allegro" character, just as the Puritans' melancholy is not the pensive meditation of "Il Penseroso."

To understand this, we must first consider that "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" explore both destructive and constructive types of mirth and melancholy. Rosemond Tuve explains, "Each poem begins with a banishing of the travesty of what is praised in the other" (64). Thus, "L'Allegro" begins by casting out black melancholy: "Hence loathed Melancholy / Of Cerberus and blackest midnight born" (lines 1-2). Diction invoking such negatives as "horrid shapes," I'shrieks," "sights unholy," "brooding darkness," "jealous wings," and "night Ravens" (3-10) further establishes just how nefarious this kind of melancholy is. According to Merritt Y. Hughes (Hughes 67-68) and Marjorie Hope Nicolson (Nicolson 54), this negative melancholy has its roots in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, a work that discusses both black and white forms of a melancholic temperament (Nicolson 53). In A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton, A. S. P. Woodhouse and Douglas Bush observe, "Burton's painful melancholy is of the kind banished at the beginning of "L'Allegro' . . . " (232).

In contrast, "Il Penseroso" considers a white melancholy, one completely opposed to the destructive force "L'Allegro" banishes to the "dark Cimmerian desert" (10). Note the different tenor of "But hail thou Goddess, sage and holy / Hail divinest Melancholy . . . " ("Il Penseroso" lines 11-12). Concerning the divine melancholy in "Il Penseroso," Gerard H. Cox states, "Renaissance thinkers . . . associated [this kind of] melancholy with contemplative genius. Those who dedicated themselves to . . . [it] could learn the secrets of the divine realm and excel in theology and prophecy" (53). That "Il Penseroso" builds on this tradition is clear: "Peace and Quiet" (45), "Leisure" (49), "Contemplation" (53), and "Silence" (54) describe the pensive, constructive melancholy the poem celebrates. …

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