It is nearly impossible to understand and appreciate John Milton's L'Allegro without also having read its companion piece, Il Penseroso. Whereas l'allegro is "the happy person" who spends an idealized day in the country and a festive evening in the city, il penseroso is "the thoughtful person" whose night is filled with meditative walking in the woods and hours of study in a "lonely Towr." First published in 1645, the two poems complement each other structurally and contain images which are in specific dialogue with one another.
In 1983, Gerard H. Cox wrote that "it is obvious that L'Allegro and Il Penseroso are companion poems, but precisely how and why they are related remains an open question" (Cox 45). Over the years, scholars have suggested a wide range of connections between the two. To some, the poems represent a battle between Day and Night/Mirth and Melancholy (Tillyard 1); to others, opposing paths (of pleasure and wisdom) toward complete union with God (Cox 58); and to still others, Milton's own struggle to become a "whole" man and a truly great poet (Zacharias 6). Roy Flannagan even suggests that L'Allegro is the light-hearted Charles Diodati and Il Penseroso is the studious Milton (Flannagan 65). Certainly, there is evidence of this in Milton's letter to his dear friend when he writes:
it is in my favor that your habit of studying permits you to pause frequently, visit friends, write much, and sometimes make a journey. But my temperament allows no delay, no rest, no anxiety — or at least thought — about scarcely anything to distract me, until I attain my object and complete some great period, as it were, of my studies. (Flannagan 1051)
Almost every critic agrees, however, that "[w]hat one poem twists, the other untwists" in an unending cycle of what might be called "dissonant companionship" (Finch and Bowen 18). Abandoning Latin for simple English in these twinned poems, Milton borrows greatly from such English poets as Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, and he looks directly to Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene and William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for pastoral descriptions of hobgoblins and fairies. The pair of poems should be read aloud in order fully to appreciate their complementary sounds; L'Allegro's lilting pitch and images of crowing roosters and singing larks deeply contrasts with Il Penseroso's somber tone and "Belmans drousie charm."
The copytext for this edition of L'Allegro is a copy of Milton's 1645 Poems owned by Rauner Library at Dartmouth College (Hickmott 172).