Edward King, the young fellow student at Cambridge University whose untimely death is lamented in John Milton’s elegy “Lycidas,” was apparently not a particularly close friend of the poet. Even if he had been, however, Milton’s poem would still probably have dealt with larger, broader themes than the death of one person alone. Milton was, from an early age, a “public” poet concerned with major public issues – issues that transcended the significance of any single life. In that sense and many others, “Lycidas” is a typically Miltonic poem. Among the major issues Milton explores in “Lycidas” are the following:
- Death. “Lycidas” is not merely a poem about the death of Edward King but about death in general, especially premature death.
- Change. Death is merely one of numerous kinds of change (or “mutability”) the poem explores. Mutability was a major concern of Renaissance writers in general, and Milton is no exception.
- The purpose(s) of life. Milton meditates, in this poem, on the meaning(s) and purpose(s) of life. He asks himself (and thereby invites readers to ask themselves) how and why life should be lived. Is it worth working and sacrificing and planning seriously for the future when death can strike us down at any instant? In particular, is it worth studying and devoting countless hours to cultivating one’s mind and one’s artistic skills when death can end our lives at any moment? Or, as Milton himself puts it,
Alas! What boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade
And strictly meditate the thankless muse? (64-66)
- The rewards of a virtuous life. If death can come at any moment, and if lofty human goals can thus be overthrown in an instant, why pursue lofty goals at all? To such questions, Milton offers a strong answer: any worthy human effort
. . . lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes,
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove [that is, God];
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in heaven expect thy meed [that is, reward]. (81-84)
- The function of religion in a good society. In its second half, Milton’s poem becomes even broader, less personal, in its emphasis on how Christians – especially Christian clerics – should live their lives. He condemns corrupt priests who “Creep and intrude and climb into the fold” (115), saying that
Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest. (116-18)
In other words, corrupt clerics pervert the entire purpose of Christianity, using it as a means of worldly advancement for themselves rather than as a means of spiritual salvation for themselves and others.
- The prospect of eternal life. Ultimately, “Lycidas” offers the promise of eternal life with God in heaven. Milton’s concern is less with the death of Edward King in particular than with the hope of eternal salvation for all those to whom God will grant such grace. King (Lycidas) may have drowned, but he will rise as surely as the sun rises in the sky.
In these and various other ways, then, "Lycidas" is a poem of broad signficance.