Evidence of Manic Depressive Disorder In Milton's L'Allegro and Ii Penseroso
By John R. Mabry
L'Allegro and Ii Penseroso are companion poems about moods; mirth and melancholy, respectively. And, like the moods they praise, they elude concise definition. Moods are tricky things; they can vary in quality, but also in intensity and depth and purity. They are almost musical. At first glance, L'Allegro and Ii Penseroso are about moods, but they are not moods in a vacuum. They are always passive; somone must have them. And "someones" are rarely simple. So to pass these poems off as shallow sentiments is unfair to the poems and unfair to ourselves, for it is possible that there is much more to be found. Is it possible that these poems descibe something more than romantic emotional whimsy? Milton could have written about the feeling of being hungry shortly before dinner or of being tired on the way to bed, but he did not waste his time on trivial whims. Perhaps there is much more here that we may discover.
Most people have no quarrel with praising "mirth", but why would anyone praise "melancholy"? For one thing it was quite a popular subject, and similarly, a persistant problem. There were several systems of medical classifications to study, the most notable being the legal/medical nosology of Panlo Zacchias (1584-1659) and the more traditional galenic concepts offered by Robert Burton (1577-1640) in his book Anatomy of Melancholy (Menninger 428-29). It is Burton who caught the public s imagination and with whom we are most concerned. His classification of melancholy lists it under "Diseases of the brain substance." Here we find the subclassifications of "madness(mania)" and "melancholy" (Menninger 430). His anatomical classification includes three types of melancholy: "head melancholy", "body melancholy", and "hypochondriacal" or ~~windy melancholy". It is the "head melancholy" which most closely resembles what we are talking about. The main subclassifications are "mania" and "melancholy". It is no suprise, then, to see these two together in Burton~ s analysis or Milton~ s poem or indeed, today's psychiatric patient. They have a long, enduring courtship. We still struggle with these same two "afflictions", but we are beginning to learn more about them. Burton was right to label them "diseases of the brain substance", since they are metabolic illnesses. "Metabolic indicates that the depression is caused by an abnormality in the body's chemestry, or metabolism, and not by stress or problems in living" (Fieve 19). Although manic and depressive illnesses often occur separately, there is an enormous population who suffer from a continuous cycle of manic-depressive episodes. This is called "bipolar" manic depression. It has always been with us, although since mild manic states are usually uneventful and mostly pleasant and productive, it is often ignored in comparison with it's darker counterpart, depression. The two are phases of the same disease. I would like to propose that these poems, Allegro and Ii Penseroso, are not merely exercises in opposites, but thoughtful reflections by a man intimately familiar with them both.
So common it has become a stereotype, the relationship between creativity and mental illness is millennia old. Aristotle, in fact, associated creativity with epilepsy and depression. Of those involved with poetry and the arts, he wrote "all had tendencies toward depression" (Fieve 35-6). But the seventeenth century was the golden age of depression. As George Wesley Whiting writes, "The seventeenth century.. .was, broadly speaking, an age of disillusionment, an age when melancholy was not merely a fashionable pose or a literary convention but a prevalent and profound disorder" (129). Nor would the "fashion" of melancholy quickly subside, but was carried on into the late eighteenth century. The appearance of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther precipitated such a slew of suicides that it was banned shortly after it's publication in 1774. The book so romanticized it's charactor' s mental illness (and resulting suicide) that young men all over Europe emulated him right into the grave (Fieve 36). Burton suggests different kinds and causes of melancholy in the Anatomy of Melancholy. For instance "temporary sadness or depression resulting from sickness, death of friends, fear, passion, or other misfortune is distinguished from settled melancholy, which is a chronic malady or a kind of dotage without apparent cause... .melancholy is a mental and spiritual condition or disposition which tends to become a habit; as it was long increasing, so, now being.. .grown to an habit, it will hardly be removed" (Whiting 130). In other words, melancholy is like what we have come to know about alcoholism: one is born with a predisposition for it, but whether the condition develops or not depends upon whether or not the. individual indulges, and how often. If it is entertained, then, according to Burton, it may become a "habit". And no practice so invites melancholy, he says, than study (Whiting 131).
The twentieth century is little different. Studies show that "depression and manic-depression occur in at least three percent and possible as high as eight to twenty percent of the general population (Fieve 27). But the tragedy is that most people are terrified of mental illness and avoid treatment. It is especially tragic because for the first time in history, depression is medically treatable. It is also still the case that more than af~t ether group, creative people in particular are most afflicLed (35).
Notable examples include Ernest Hemingway, Vierginia Woolf, Hart Crane, Vachel Lindsay, John Barryman, Karl Shapiro, Ann Sexton, Robert Lowell, Graham Greene, Dylan Thomas, Thomas wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Handel, Rossini, Robert Schuman, Van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and even Winston Churchill (35, 41-2). Quite a roll call. Unfortunately, even if there had been cures in the past, "most artists fear that psychiatric treatment will deprive them of their talent, either by the talking cure or by a type of pill that will turn them into contented, well-adjusted and unproductive people. The antipathy between the artist and the psychiatrist is stronger than that between the non-artist and the psychiatrist, since the artist, like the psychiatrist, is a specialist in human emotions" (45-6). But it is Dr. Ronald fieve's view that "individuals are creative people despite their disorders, not because of them" (40).
Let us return our focus to Milton and the twin poems, L'Allegro and Ii Penseroso. The poems seem far too mature to have been written so early in Milton's life, and in fact their are many critics who take issue with the traditional date of 1631. Sir H. J. C. Grierson suggests that "they might have been written after Comus" (Whiting 141). This would give Milton a little more time to court Meloncholy and see it at work in others, placing it at about 1634 or 5.
In L'Allegro, Milton paints a wonton and carefree vision of mirth that is decidedly un-puritan. But if we look carefully at line 40 we see that the speaker is not now experiencing these things, but imploring mirth to let him join in. Whiting concludes that "Milton was not courting melancholy but seeking cures. Mirth and her innocent companions and the varied pleasures suggested in immortal verse are welcomed probably as relaxation from over-much study, perhaps as security from occasional periods of despondency, certainly as an expression of a fundamental need in Milton's life" (137). If this is true then we may percieve the opening dismissal of melancholy as doubly sincere (136). So mirth is not represented as actually present in the speaker's life, but as something desperately desired (141); and perhaps the joys of mirth are more a list of possible cures (139). Notice in lines 143-4 the odd incongruence of "Untwisting all the chains that tie, The hidden soul of harmony
There is also a case to be made for L'Allegro's being descriptive of certain elements of the manic disorder. In lines 25-7 we read "Bring with thee Jest and youthful Jollity, Quips and Cranks, and wanton Wiles." Dr. Demitri Papolos in his book Overcoming Depression says of the manic sufferer "Association after association occurs to him, and his speech can be full of jokes, plays on words and amusing irrelevancies~~ (15). Another symptom is the gross disturbance of sleep. Beginning in line 40 we find a man who is awake and alert at all hours, not missing a detail. Dr. Papolos says "there is a decreased need for sleep, and the individual may go to bed for only short periods of time and awaken full of energy, or go for days with no rest at all" (17). The poem's speaker seems to discover a new delight in ordinary things. "Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures" (69), while the manic experience "a heightening of all the senses, especially the way they percieve colors and light" (Papolos 17). Further evidence is found in
Il Penseroso's indictment of "vain deluding joys", or as he refers to them in line 5, "fancies fond with gaudy shapes posses." Could these lines be in response to his acute guilt over these "unreproved pleasures free" (40)? Surely we can see a snake curled beneath this apparent flower.
The dangers in Ii Penseroso are more obvious. But before we launch into the poem we need to recall that there are two types of depression: metabolic, or depression as a result of the body's chemical imbalance; and causal, which is as a result of an exterior incident. Tackling the metabolic first, let's look at L'Allegro's indictment of melancholy: "horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy" (4); a true nightmare scene. In his book Moodswing Dr. Fieve relates the words of one of his chronically depressed patients: "As time passed, these feelings of uselessness and dispair increased... .1 had terrible dreams and would wake up often throughout the night with a feeling of panic in the pit of my stomach... .1 awoke the next morning and felt that I did't want to live. Nothing in life seemed important or worthwhile, and I thought of ways to commit suicide. These thoughts racked my entire body with fear" (19-20). L'Allegro's depiction is fairly accurate. L'Allegro also goes on to place melancholy in the "dark Cimmerian desert". Our footnotes describe the reference as being a description of "the cave of the slumber- god Morpheus in the cloudy land of the Cimmerians" (10). And sleep, too, is appropriate, since fifteen to thirty percent of depressed persons are prone to the need to sleep excessively (Papolos 11). In Il Penseroso the speaker wishes to
Entice the dewy feather'd Sleep;
And let some strange mysterious dream
Wave at his Wings in Airy stream,
Of lively portraiture display'd,
Softly on my eyelids laid. (144-50)
Closely related is sloth, which the speaker implies in line 42: "Forget thyself to Marble, till With a sad Leaden downward cast, Thou fix them on the earth as fast"(42-44). Depressed persons experience "apathy, a lack of pleasure, diminished energy, low self-regard, and, in more serious cases, an inability to cope with even bare essentials like getting to the office and feeding oneself" (Fieve 20). Milton also claims to hear "The muses in and feeding oneself" (Fieve 20). Milton also claims to hear "the Muses in a ring~~ (47) and while this is probably nothing more than classical imagery, we should acknowledge that it is not unusual for the afflicted person to experience auditory hallucinations, especially voices. The voices are experienced as real, and often have extraordinary influence over the individual. They may be heard only occasionally or continuously during an episode. There may be one voice or even several that carry on a conversation" (Papolos 22-3).
It is the nature of metabolic depression to occur with no outside stimulation, but certainly circumstancially triggered depression (such as everyone experiences) can coi~pound the problem; and it doesn-t take much looking to see reasons for depression in Milton-s personal life. A George Whiting points out, "Milton suffered several bereavements in quick succesion. The death of Edward King.. .the death of Milton-s mother, the death of his best friend, Charles Diodati.. . .Add to this his unfortunate first marriage.... The death of his beloved second wife intensified his loneliness and darkness (133-34). Whiting also wants to remind us of Milton's dispair over his blindness, and says of Milton's words in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, of being unmarried and that resulting in "a daily trouble and pain of loss ... if especially his complexion incline him to melancholy" that it "reads like a public confession" (145). He says we should also note the melancholy nature of Paradise Lost (150).
Certainly the poems were written too early to encompass all these events of Milton's life. But hopefully we can at least see that Milton was no stranger to melancholy himself, and that these poems are beyond simple academic exercises. Something of Milton's own being, his own suffering is apparent. He speaks as himself, perhaps, but certainly from his own experience--he is no stranger to either extreme. And he has observed these things in others, since his eyes were still functional while at college. Perhaps the poems were written in an effort to "sort it out", to get some distance in order to view it more objectively; the poems certainly afford us that benefit.
But most important of all, this comparison will help us see that mental illness (shy of raving madness) in otherwise "normal, everyday people" is not a twentieth century phenomenon. And it will help us to view John Milton more humanely; as a man who, from early on, felt deeply and suffered acutely; too acutely to fabricate it. These poems have been referred to as "inexhaustable" and I, for now, can begin to see that. For the healthy, they are windows for compassion, for the ill, they may be a solace. To an earlier age, an accurate portrait; to our own, a human link to those who have wept before us.
Fieve, Ronald R. Moodswing: The Third Revolution in Psychiatry. New York: Bantam, 1976 ed.
Menninger, Karl, Martin Mayman and Paul Pruyser. The Vital Balance. New York: Penguin, 1967.
Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Macmillan, 1957.
Papolos, Demitri F., Janice Papolos. Overcoming Depression. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
Whiting, George Wesley. Milton's Literary Milieu. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.