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This famous pastoral elegy was written in response to the death of a friend of Milton's, Edward King, who drowned in 1637, as the introduction to this poem indicates. In a sense, this pastoral elegy is written deliberately in the vein of pastoral elegies that came before "Lycidas," such as those by Spenser, Ronsard, Theocritus and Virgil, to name but a few. Its influence can also be seen in later pastoral elegies such as "Adonais" by Shelley and "Thyrsis" by Arnold. Generally speaking, pastoral elegies contained the following conventions: a history of past friendship, a questioning of destiny, a procession of mourners, a laying on of flowers, a consolation, and normally some sort of chorus. "Lycidas" includes all of these save the last. Note how this is demonstrated early on in the poem as the speaker laments the loss of Lycidas, who stands for King:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
Here we see a passage typical of a pastoral elegy, where the loss of a dear friend is lamented and the elevation of the individual are key elements of such elegaic works. However, at the same time, critics are right to question the extent to which this work functions purely as an elegy. On the one hand, it definitely celebrates the life of Edward King, but on the other hand, this text functions as a thinly-veiled allegorical attack on various institutions and attitudes that Milton wished to question. One of these was of course the church and the way that instead of looking after their "flocks," or their congregation, the leaders of the church were too busy feathering their own nests. This leads to the rather vitrolic attack on the shepherds in this poem who leave their hungry sheep to starve and "Rot inwardly" through neglect. Thus it is possible to see how this poem, although written in the outward form of an elegy, is in fact used by Milton to achieve much more.
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