Literary classicism refers to a style of writing that consciously follows the classical texts—specifically ancient Greek and Roman literature and philosophy. Literary classicism in Europe was part of a larger aesthetic and philosophical movement that arose in architecture, literature, and the visual arts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was believed that in its formal perfection and symmetry, classical thought and art represented the pinnacle of human achievement, therefore was worth emulating.
Although written before the eighteenth-century heyday of English literary classicism, John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1637) is a poem firmly in the classicist tradition. Firstly, the poem is a pastoral elegy, a song of lament sung by shepherds. Its tone is highly artificial, which was typical of the pastoral form of the ancient Greek writer Theocritus, the inspiration behind Milton’s style in “Lycidas.” Theocritus is said to have "created" pastoral poetry.
The unnamed shepherd narrator laments his young friend Lycidas in the poem, who is “dead ere his prime.” Lycidas is a stand-in for Milton’s college friend Edward King, who drowned when his ship sank off the coast of Wales in August, 1637. Why the name Lycidas? Well, one reason Milton may have chosen is its popularity as a shepherd’s name in ancient Greek pastorals, including the works of Theocritus. As is typical in the classical pastoral form, the poem begins with an invocation to the Muses, the nine patron-goddesses of the arts, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne:
Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring;
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
Secondly, “Lycidas” is rich with references and allusions to classical flora, fauna, and mythology. The poem begins with the narrator addressing laurel, myrtle and ivy plants: laurel is the tree sacred to the god Apollo, and like ivy, is associated with everlasting fame, while myrtle is a plant associated with mourning. Thus, Milton uses classical elements to evoke an atmosphere of an untimely, young death, while the mention of “laurels” foreshadows the song’s more optimistic end.
Furthermore, The narrator recalls singing and dancing in the countryside with Lycidas, much as Milton and King must have had a good time in college. Even satyrs and fauns—merry, mythical beasts associated with the gods Dionysus and Pan, gods of wine and rustic music, respectively—came out to dance when Lycidas played his flute, an allusion to the party days of Milton and King:
Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
Temper'd to th'oaten flute;
Rough Satyrs danc'd, and Fauns with clov'n heel,
From the glad sound would not be absent long;
And old Damætas lov'd to hear our song.
But now that Lycidas is gone, nature itself mourns his loss, which is as killing to joy as “canker to the rose” and “frost to flowers.” Such references to the pastoral imagery of classical texts, as well as the figures and traditions of antiquity are strewn throughout the poem. At one point, the narrator wonders why the water-nymphs couldn’t save Lycidas, or King, from drowning?
But then he consoles himself that just as the great “Muse herself that Orpheus bore” (divine Calliope) could not save her son from the mad women of Thrace, the nymphs could not save Lycidas. This acceptance of the inevitability of a death is also typical of the classic pastoral form. You can learn more about the many, many classical references in “Lycidas” here!
Lastly, the elegy ends on a hopeful note, just as in the pastoral tradition. Though Milton briefly deviates from the elegy to use pastoral elements to critique those who oppose Protestantism (both King and Milton were protestants), he now returns to the classical form. Even though Lycidas had sunk low, the shepherd now sees him rise, like the sun, “through the dear might of him that walk’d the waves.” Here, the allusion is to Jesus, who is said to have walked on water. Lycidas rising could be an allusion to the sun god setting and rising over the sea.
Thus, Lycidas is immortal in spirit, a fact that is also a sly reference to Milton’s own ability to immortalize through verse. Since Milton has committed King’s memory to poetry, he has preserved King for ages to come. In the end, the shepherd-poet “warbles his Dorick lay,” or sings his song in the Doric dialect of Crete and Laconia, and moves on to “fresh woods, and Pastures new.” Thus, the poem ends on a note of regeneration.