The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Lycidas” is a pastoral elegy in which John Milton laments the drowning of his friend and schoolmate, Edward King, at the University of Cambridge. Mainly iambic pentameter, with irregularly appearing short lines of six syllables, the poem’s 193 lines are divided into verse paragraphs of irregular length and changing rhyme schemes. In the convention of the pastoral poem, the first-person persona of the poem is a shepherd, who speaks of King as the lost shepherd Lycidas; in the convention of the elegy, “Lycidas” progresses through sadness over an individual’s death and reflection on human mortality to a final consolation—not only in the redemptive message of Christianity, but in recognition of the social value of the poet’s art. Milton uses these two forms not primarily to express personal grief over King’s death, but to engage the dominant political and religious issues of his age.
“Lycidas” opens by addressing the laurels and myrtles, symbols of poetic fame; as their berries are not yet ripe, the poet is not yet ready to take up his pen. Yet the untimely death of young Lycidas requires equally untimely verses from the poet. Invoking the muses of poetic inspiration, the shepherd-poet takes up the task, partly, he says, in hope that his own death will not go unlamented.
The poet recalls his and Lycidas’s life together in the “pastures” of Cambridge, and notes the “heavy change” suffered by nature now that Lycidas is gone—a “pathetic fallacy” in which the willows, hazel groves, woods, and caves lament Lycidas’s death. Milton concludes this passage, however, by suggesting that nature’s apparent sympathy is, in fact, the...
(The entire section is 690 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The first function of the language of the poem is to create a sense of the pastoral environment, and Milton does this by continual reference to the natural elements of the countryside and to the pagan deities that haunt the pastoral landscapes of classical Greek and Roman poetry. The poet also needs to establish the allegorical reference of this pastoral to an English setting and to the issues that concerned King and himself as divinity students at Cambridge. Milton thus adds some specifically English and Christian figures to his cast of mythological characters: for example, Camus, the god of the River Cam that runs past Cambridge, and “the pilot of the Galilean lake.”
The shifting rhyme scheme of the poem (and some lines have no rhymes at all) suggests the disorder created by Lycidas’s death and, perhaps, the shepherd-poet’s admitted inadequacies as a poet, although one recognizes it as the creation of Milton’s own exceptional poetic talent. The irregular lengths of the verse paragraphs, ranging from eight to thirty-three lines long, also contribute to this atmosphere of disorder. The shepherds’ sense of disorder in nature is reflected in the rhythm (the sound) of the poem: “Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd’s ear” (line 49).
The upset emotions that are themselves the true source of disorder are expressed also through the expletive repetition of key words and phrases: “once more” in line 1, “dead” in line 8, the name of Lycidas used three times in the first verse paragraph and continually throughout the poem, and “now thou art gone” in lines 38-39. Repetition also serves to introduce the final consolation of the poem, with “weep no more” repeated twice in line 165; here, however, the repetition is not an emotional expletive but a forceful imperative. This closing sense of consolation must then, in some way, dispel the psychological disorder of the shepherds and reestablish harmony in the poem. Indeed, the final verse paragraph, the shortest and most concise in the poem, contains the simplest rhyme schemeabababcc—rhyming words that refer again to the beauties of the pastoral setting. Order can once again be found in nature and heard in the ears of the poem’s readers.
Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Abrams, M. H. “Five Types of ’Lycidas.’” In Milton’s “Lycidas”: The Tradition and the Poem. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983. Surveys critical analyses of “Lycidas” ranging from New Criticism to archetype analysis.
Boesky, Amy. “The Maternal Shape of Mourning: A Reconsideration of ’Lycidas.’” Modern Philology 95, no. 4 (May, 1998): 463. Examines feminine and maternal images in the poem, connecting them to events in the poet’s life.
Miller, David. “Death the Gateway to Life: ’Lycidas.’” In John Milton: Poetry. Twayne’s English Authors 242. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A detailed and careful close reading of the poem.
Post, Jonathan F. S. “Helpful Contraries: Carew’s ’Donne’ and Milton’s ’Lycidas.’” George Herbert Journal 29, nos. 1/2 (Fall, 2003): 76. Argues that Thomas Carew’s elegy to John Donne influenced Milton’s very different elegy to Edward King.
Shohet, Lauren. “Subjects and Objects in ’Lycidas.’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 47, no. 2 (Summer, 2005): 101. Argues that “Lycidas” uses two modes of poetic subjectivity—a human voice and a set of utterances attributed to nonhuman things. The two modes create an element of asymmetry in the poem.
Womack, Mark. “On the Value of ’Lycidas.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 37, no. 1 (Winter, 1997): 119. An examination of how “Lycidas” has earned its exalted reputation in English literature.