There have been many guesses made about the meaning of the "Two-handed engine" in Milton's "Lycidas." It seems likely that some analysts have looked too far for the answer and that it might be contained right in the poem itself, rather than, for example, "the two-edged sword of Revelations." Milton's first use of this image is:
Comes the blind Fury with th' abhorred shears,
And slits the thin spun life.
Shears are tools which are operated with two hands. The image of shears seems quite appropriate in a pastoral poem about sheep and shepherds. The abhorred shears are the shears that cut off everyone's life and that everyone abhors. The entity operating these awful shears, the Fury, is blind. It cuts off everyone's life indiscriminately and without warning. Milton uses the expression to suggest, among other things, how Lycidas' young life was cut off so suddenly and unexpectedly, and further to suggest that it can happen to anybody, regardless of his talents and ambitions. The poem contains this epigraph:
In this Monody the Author bewails a
learned Friend, unfortunatly drown'd in his Passage
from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637.
Later in the poem, Milton writes:
Of other care they little reck'ning make,
Then how to scramble at the shearers feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Death is often represented in drawings and paintings as a tall, ghastly, elderly man holding a long-handled scythe with which he relentlessly mows down human beings. Milton, instead, seems to have visualized Death as a blind Fury who wields a pair of two-handled shears for the same purpose. In a way, Milton's image might be better, because the tall figure in the long robe seems to be selecting his victims, or at least he is not blind; whereas the blind Fury doesn't care a bit about whom it cuts down. To call a tool an "engine" does not seem like much of a stretch, considering how many differences there were between Milton's vocabulary and ours in modern times.