"Lycidas" is a pastoral elegy or dirge written to honor a former classmate of Milton's at Cambridge who was drowned. The poem follows the conventions of the pastoral elegy:
- The speaker is a shepherd;
- The lament is for another shepherd;
- The invocation of the muse;
- An expression of grief at the loss of a friend;
- The procession of mourners;
- Used as a medium for satire;
- The consolation and resignation of a harsh fate;
- Floral symbolism;
- Nature reflects grief-stricken response of the speaker, i.e., pathetic fallacy;
- A statement of belief in immortality and
- Resignation that everything has happened for the best.
Edward King, the subject of the poem, is presented with evergreen laurels at the beginning, which represent creative writing and honor the young poet's untimely death. The narrator complains that "with forced fingers rude," he's forced prematurely to write in this way. The image is of the shepherd fashioning a laurel wreath for Lycidas' funeral bier as well as fashioning this intricate elegy.
In line 17, Milton uses the metaphor of the Aeolian lyre that plays itself, which alludes to contemplaive readiness and divine inspiration. In lines 40-41, the pathetic fallacy, of the "wild thyme...and gadding vine...their echoes mourn," appear; then the poem shifts to the clerical diatribe, "As killing as the canker to the rose," against the Anglican hierachy.
On line 50, the shepherd plaintively wails to the sea nymphs, "Where were ye?" and why did you forsake the clever young poet who gave you life while you forsook his. Then in line 64, Milton makes the clever marine allusion, "What boots it (bootly-less)" if a young poet puts his faith in "the thankless Muse" when he's struck down before he can complete his work. He then wonders if King should've just consorted with loose women rather than keep his aesthetic integrity. King was denied fame in this life; however, fame is only truly assessed above.
In line 109, St Peter, one of the mourners, appears, with his "mitered locks" and two keys, one to heaven and one to Hell, images that appear repeatedly in "Paradise Lost." Peter gets a jab at the Anglo-Catholic priesthood and its greed, "their lean and flashy songs...from pipes of wretched straw," which can't be eaten like hay and provide spiritual sustenance.
From lines 143 through 150, Milton uses a transferred epithet and catalogs the flowers, which show melancholy for the dead poet; then by line 165, the poem reaches its nadir with the phrase, "Weep no more, woeful shepherds." Then, Edward King suddenly ascends to the sun and becomes radiant through Christ's intercession and joins the communion of the saints. The poem has suddenly gone from mournful commemoration to a celebration of King's life, who becomes the patron of travellers across the sea.