By the time John Milton composed his pastoral elegy titled “Lycidas,” English poetry had long been influenced by the Greek and Roman classics. This was especially true during the English Renaissance (ca. 1550-ca.1660) and became, if anything, even truer in the decades following that period – thanks, in part, to Milton’s own enormous influence.
Like many of his educated contemporaries, Milton grew up reading the Greeks and Romans – not only the creative writers but also the philosophers. He knew the Greek and Latin languages as well as he knew English. He aspired to be an English poet in the classical tradition, as his choice to write a pastoral elegy clearly indicates. Like many European poets of his era, he sought to “Christianize” classical modes of writing – to adapt classical genres to the purposes of teaching Christian lessons. Certainly this is what he does, for instance, in Paradise Lost, a Christian epic clearly influenced by classical models.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Milton alludes so often in “Lycidas” to classical figures and to classical mythology. His reasons for doing so probably included the following:
- To show that he had mastered an important classical genre.
- To demonstrate his poetic skill in a way that many of his contemporaries would have understood and appreciated.
- To show how he could indeed “Christianize” a classical form of writing.
- To reveal his education and learning and thus add credibility to his praise of another scholar (Edward King).
- To compete with writers in other European countries who were undertaking similar Christianizing projects.
- To win respect for English literature abroad.
- To communicate many of his meanings in subtle ways that complimented the intelligence of his educated readers.
- To both compare and contrast Christian ideas with classical ideas, as in his treatments of the topics of fame and death.
- To use a classical genre to imply the superiority of Christian ideas, as in his treatment of the topics of fame and death.
- To demonstrate that anything worthy in classical culture was arguably compatible with Christianity. The classics, Milton believed, need not be rejected by committed Christians but could indeed be accepted and adapted to Christian purposes.
A good example of Milton’s adaptation of classical ideas and figures to Christian purposes occurs when he has Phoebus Apollo, the classical God of poetic inspiration, announce that
“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glistening foil
Set off the th’world, nor in broad rumor lies,
But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes,
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in heaven expect they meed” [that is, reward]. (78-84)
Here Milton shows the superiority of the Christian concept of heavenly fame to the classical concept of earthly fame. Likewise, he implies the superiority of the Christian idea of heaven to the far less attractive classical idea of survival after death. Finally, he implies the superiority of the Christian god to the pantheon of Greek and Roman deities.