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Pastoral verse essentially originated with the Greek poet Theocritus (ca. 275 BCE), who began the genre in part by observing and then putting to words the actions of shepherds as they guarded their flocks. Rather than adopting the realistic, but rustic, language of shepherds, Theocritus used very formal vocabulary and rhyme scheme to describe the natural setting. We have, then, the odd juxtaposition of very formal diction for very natural subject matter. In a pastoral elegy, the poet uses formal language to explore the theme of grief occasioned by the loss of a friend or person of importance, often someone dying at an unnaturally young age.
Milton's "Lycidas" exhibits several conventions of the pastoral elegy, beginning with the invocation of the muse:
Begin, then, Sisters of the sacred well,/That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,/Begin, and somwhat loudly sweep the string. (ll.15-17)
Milton invokes the aid of the Nine Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mneomosyne, and the "sacred well" is the Pierian Spring, a fountain in ancient Greece worshipped as the original home of the Muses.
A second, but equally important convention of the pastoral elegy, is the lament for the loss of a friend or, in the case of "Lycidas," a young person who has died unexpectedly:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,/Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:/Who would not sing for Lycidas? (ll.8-10)
Many pastoral elegies are based on lament for someone close to the poet--a good friend or relative--but in "Lycidas," the subject of the elegy was the death by drowning of Edward King, known to Milton not as a friend but as an alumnus of Christ's College, Cambridge.
One of the important elements of the pastoral elegy is the poet's questioning of life's purpose when someone's life can be taken so unexpectedly--King drowned, for example, when his ship foundered in a calm crossing of the Irish sea, not in the midst of a severe storm. This questioning of a person's susceptibility to random violence, however, is always resolved.
Milton acknowledges that although King had no control over how and when he lost his life, Christ's power ultimately to "save" him and grant him eternal life is cause for joy among the shepherds who lament King's death:
Weep no more, woful Shepherds weep no more,/ . . .So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,/Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves . . . (ll.165, 172-173)
In other words, though drowned, Lycidas is raised by Christ ("him that walk'd the waves") and finds his home "in the blest Kingdoms meek of joy and love," an end that the shepherds can rejoice at rather than lament.
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