Wednesday, September 20, 2017

“To Trip the Light Fantastic”

John Milton’s pair of longish poems, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, are a beautiful depiction of mood.  The first joyful and the second meditative, sad, and even grim, they show the world—in large part, the world of nature—through the lens of two mental states which in their extremity might almost be called proto-Romantic.  They are also the source of a few phrases that the wide reader might recognize: “to trip the light fantastic” derives from the following pair of lines:

Come and trip it as you go,

On the light fantastick toe …

… which hail, not surprisingly, from L’Allegro.

For many years I had known of the poems, but not known much about their reception or what effect they had on subsequent artists—until one afternoon when, working on one writing project or another, the baroque music blaring from my husband’s speaker system set a synapse firing in my brain.  What was that line? I asked myself.  Fortunately, in songs lines are generally repeated; the tenor gave it again:

Come and trip it as you go,

On the light fantastick toe …

“What is this?!!” I demanded out loud.

It was George Frideric Handel.  Yes, that Handel, whose other accomplishments apparently include the composition of a “pastoral ode” entitled L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and, you guessed it, inspired by Milton’s poems.  I highly recommend the piece.  You can hear the light fantastic toe around 10:50.  (Full libretto here.)

Handel: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Gardiner,

English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir

A bit of historical trivia from the usual quick source:

At the urging of one of Handel’s librettists, Charles Jennens, Milton’s two poems, L’Allegro and il Penseroso, were arranged by James Harris, interleaving them to create dramatic tension between the personified characters of Milton’s poems (L’Allegro or the “Joyful man” and il Penseroso or the “Contemplative man”). The first two movements consist of this dramatic dialog between Milton’s poems. In an attempt to unite the two poems into a singular “moral design”, at Handel’s request, Jennens added a new poem, “il Moderato”, to create a third movement. The popular concluding aria and chorus, “As Steals the Morn” is adapted from Shakespeare’s Tempest, V.i.65–68.

Oh, Handel.  How very Aristotelian of you, to demand the addition of a moderate man!  Poor Milton is probably turning over in his grave, much like the librettist for Messiah, who (the story is possibly apocryphal, but too good not to repeat) complained that Handel had destroyed the poetry with his music.

But what music!


  1. so, we wondered whether there were other snippets that might catch the ear... or eye, as I wasn't listening... And hark! or... Behold! "Warble his native Wood-notes wilde" Milton says Shakespeare Might, which is what ... oh, it can't have been Shaw, so either Hammerstein or a Studio writer... had Higgins remark of papa Doolittle's Welsh heritage.

    1. Oh, my goodness. I had not noticed that connection.