Lycidas Questions and Answers
by John Milton

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What is the effect of the shift to third person/past tense (“thus sang”) in "Lycidas"?

The effect of the shift to third person/past tense in "Lycidas" is to reinforce the sense that there are two Miltons in the poem. There is the Milton of the earlier stanzas, presented in the guise of the “uncouth swain” paying tribute to the fallen Lycidas. Then, in the final stanza, we have Milton the poet, describing Milton the swain as he gets ready to face a future without his good friend Lycidas.

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For virtually the whole of “Lycidas,” Milton presents himself in the guise of a swain or shepherd. This is indeed precisely the same guise in which he's presented his late friend Edward King, the subject of this pastoral elegy. The drowned King has been transformed into the character of the eponymous Lycidas, the shepherd mourned by Milton the swain.

In the final stanza, the sudden introduction of the past tense and the third person reinforces the sense that there are two Miltons at work in the poem. The first, as we've already seen, is Milton the shepherd mourning the loss of his fellow shepherd and close friend Lycidas. The second Milton is Milton the poet, the writer of “Lycidas.”

To be sure, Milton the poet was never really far beneath the surface in many of the earlier stanzas. In stanza 6, for example, we are treated to a discussion of poetry and whether it can really accomplish anything. Milton the poet's anxiety for lasting fame is much in evidence here. It takes the arrival of the god Phoebus, also known as Apollo, to calm Milton the poet's anxiety and reassure him that lasting fame awaits him in Heaven.

After Milton the swain has finished his fulsome tribute to the dead Lycidas, Milton the poet pops up once more. This time he expresses confidence that Milton the swain, a personification perhaps of Milton the poet's talent, is ready to meet new challenges in the future: “To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.”

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