Examine the elegiac elements in John Milton's pastoral elegy Lycidas.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Characteristics of an elegiac poem cover a broad spectrum of items. Milton's pastoral elegy Lycidas includes all the primary ones and a good number of the optional ones. Milton opens by employing the elegiac characteristics of alling on the goddess Daphne, who is represented by "Laurels," and invocaing the Muse (19). In Stanzas 2 and 3, the speaker grieves and starting at line 25, he praises Lycidas, who symbolically represents Milton's friend Edward King who died at sea, thus fulfilling two more characteristics.

Lines 37 through 49 fulfill the elegiac characteristic of voicing an invective, or a reproach, against death, with which the speaker combines the characteristic of describing the affect of the death upon a personified nature. Lines 165 through 185 fulfill the characteristic of accepting death and acknowledging a hope of immortality.

Optional elegiac characteristics that Milton uses in Lycidas include a fervent digression (a passage of any length that departs from the logical or expected order of the story narrative) against the "ruine of our corrupted Clergy...," which extends from Line 109 to 130. Such a digression in an elegy will be on an issue that is of timely and may be satirical. Milton's digression (in Greek rhetoric, a digressio) is satirical because he uses ridicule to expose the wrong-doing of the Clergy.

Lines 140 to 151 shower the departed Lycidas with a flurry of flowers fulfilling another optional characteristic. The other optional characteristic employed by Milton is the use of rhetorical questions: questions asked that receive no answer. These are several places including his assault against the Clergy and are in Lines 51, 57, 69, 92, 107, 115 and 122. Milton chose not to employ the optional characteristic of a refrain (repeating section as in a song).

[For more information, see Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Comedy, Debora B. Schwartz, California Polytechnic State University.]

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