Is 'Lycidas' merely a personal lament for a dead friend or a poem of greater significance?
It is absolutely clear that this poem is, whilst a very moving lament for a dead friend, a poem of much greater significance. Milton uses the occasion of his friend's death to raise much wider and far-reaching issues that were of relevance to his life and times. In particular, Milton in this poem raises questions such as what is the value of a good life if death can come at any moment. In addition, he also probes through this whether Christianity, which Milton regarded as a "good" religion and an amazing force for good, had any value if it was administered by a leadership that was corrupt and manipulating Christianity for its own purposes. The allegorical nature of this poem becomes clear through the pastoral analogy, for shepherds with their "flocks" become an apt parallel for leaders in the church, who in theory should act for the good of their own "flock," their congregations, but so often acted for their own advancement and out of selfish motives. Note for example the following attack that Milton makes through this poem on such thinking where he describes the sheep that supposedly the shepherds should be looking after:
The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread...
The shepherds' inaction and inability to do their job causes their sheep to "rot inwardly" and this is directly attributed to the failure of the shepherds who should be "feeding" their flock. Thus it can be seen that although this is a very moving lament for a dead friend, at the same time, Milton uses this form to raise much deeper and wider issues relevant to his life and times.