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.)