Study Guide

Lycidas

by John Milton

Lycidas Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

John Milton wrote “Lycidas,” considered the greatest poem of its type in English, near the start of his literary career, when he was invited to contribute to Justa Edouardo King (1638), a volume of poems commemorating Edward King (called “Lycidas” in the poem), whom he had known as a classmate at Cambridge University. King had drowned while traveling on the Irish Sea. The two had not been close friends, and Milton chose the formal structures of the pastoral elegy not only to honor King but also to examine issues that concerned Milton himself as he sought to make a life in poetry.

The traditional elements of the pastoral elegy were familiar to Milton, who had studied classical literature. These conventions include treating the speaker and his subject as if they were shepherds (pastor in Latin), invoking the Muse of poetry, rehearsing the history of the friendship being celebrated, questioning the fate that allowed the death to occur, describing a procession of mourners and flowers being strewn on the corpse in preparation for burial, and providing a consolation for the loss of one’s friend. Milton uses all of these conventions, but he adapts them to make them appropriate to his particular purpose.

The pastoral has roots in Greek classics, but in “Lycidas” Milton is concerned with explicitly Christian subjects: the death of a man preparing for the ministry, Milton’s future as a poet, and the state of the Christian Church in England (Milton was writing as a staunch Puritan on the eve of the English Civil War). Thus, Milton uses water as a unifying image that draws together the Christian elements, King’s own history, and the mythological structures of the pastoral. The poem is in iambic pentameter with irregular rhyme.

The first twenty-two lines of “Lycidas” introduce Milton as a shepherd who uses a water metaphor to call on the Muses (“sisters of the sacred well”) for inspiration as he sings a dirge for Lycidas. Throughout the poem, Milton employs the pastoral tradition of using song to represent poetry. Lines 23 through 36 describe his friendship with Edward King. The two young men are portrayed as fellow shepherds, tending their flocks and competing in songmaking. (Like the sheep, the “oaten flutes” of the poem are a traditional element of pastorals.) Presumably this passage represents the two men’s time together as Cambridge students; thus, the “old Damoetas” who listens to their songs is usually taken to represent one of their teachers.

Lines 37 through 63 express the mourner’s protest over the injustice of the young man’s death. Again, Milton uses a wide range of water images and allusions. He asks the nymphs—mythological deities who inhabit woods, pools, and streams—why they failed to protect Lycidas, and he imagines that they were not watching from the Celtic island of Mona in the Irish Sea (appropriate because King drowned in that sea) or the river Deva (or Dee), which flows into the Irish Sea from Cheshire. The speaker then chides himself for being foolish, knowing that even the Muse—who was mother of the mythical Orpheus, the most skilled poet ever—was unable to protect her son when he was torn into bits by the wine-maddened...

(The entire section is 1322 words.)

Lycidas Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The nominal subject of “Lycidas” is the death of Edward King, a fellow student one year behind Milton at Cambridge, who died when his boat capsized in the Irish Sea on August 10, 1637. In a commemorative volume of poems, Milton saw an opportunity to test his poetic skill and comment on those whom he considered to be the corrupt clergy in his day. He chose the form of pastoral elegy, wherein a shepherd laments the death of a fellow shepherd, because the pastoral elegy was a classic type of poem rooted in Greek and Roman literature that allowed for the presentation of allegorical meaning. As the poet speaks of an idyllic rural life of shepherds, it is understood that he can be talking about contemporary life and universal truths at the same time. Milton uses a traditional pastoral name, Lycidas, to refer to King, and he employs a number of other pastoral conventions.

It is customary to see “Lycidas” as a poem in three parts, opening with a conventional pastoral lament for the premature death of the friend, portrayed as a fellow shepherd. The surviving shepherd has a responsibility to commemorate the friend in song, so he asks the Muses to inspire the song/poem he has now undertaken. This invocation is followed by another convention of the pastoral elegy, the accusation that protective forces (in this case, the pastoral nature deities) failed to prevent the death. In a poem filled with associative leaps, Milton moves at this point to a complaint about being an artist in an unappreciative world. Even Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, was not able to save from destruction her own son, the poet Orpheus, when the mob, or “rout,” disapproved. It is clear, continues the speaker, that the poet’s task in this world is a thankless one. Why then does the poet persist? The pursuit of fame is the most obvious answer, but fame can be denied by premature death, as was the case with Lycidas. The final answer to this line of questioning, provided by Phoebus Apollo, the god of poetic inspiration, is that “Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.” True fame is winning the salvation of Jove (or God). With this consolation, the first section of the poem ends.

In the second section of the poem, Milton...

(The entire section is 909 words.)