Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1322 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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...
(The entire section is 909 words.)