In John Milton's poem "Lycidas," how does Milton compare and contrast Christian and pagan notions of fame?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his pastoral elegy titled “Lycidas,” John Milton explores both pagan and Christian notions of fame, ultimately advocating the latter as superior to the former. The mere fact that Milton writes a poem in honor of his dead fellow student Edward King shows that Milton considers worldly, earthly fame of some importance, and of course Milton himself sought to achieve such fame for himself partly by writing this poem and others. It is significant that King’s personal name is never mentioned in the poem; Milton, if he had so chosen, could have helped King become far more personally famous. Instead, King is transformed into “Lycidas,” allowing Milton to enhance his own fame by showing how skillfully he can handle the requirements of pastoral elegy, a classical literary genre.

Milton’s focus on himself becomes, if anything, even clearer when he gets to the passage in which he wonders why any person (such as himself) should work and study so hard, dedicating himself so diligently to ambitious literary tasks:

Alas! What boots it with incessant care

To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,

And strictly meditate the thankless muse? (64-66)

In other words, why sacrifice easier, more obvious, more immediate pleasures, dedicating oneself to learning how to write great poetry, especially when poetry so often goes unrewarded and disregarded? Wouldn’t it make more sense, merely in terms of personal pleasure (he asks in lines 67-69) simply to enjoy the pleasant company of women? Answering his own question, he responds that “Fame is the spur” that motivates worthy persons to sacrifice trivial pleasures for lofty goals, such as the writing of great poetry (70). It is the prospect of worldly fame that leads worthy, would-be poets to “scorn delights, and live laborious days” (72). Indeed, the same might be said of any worthy enterprise of earth: the prospect of fame might cause any good person to work toward achieving any good goal.

No sooner does he announce worldly fame as a potential reward for self-sacrifice, however, than Milton immediately imagines the prospect of early, unanticipated death, which might make the achievement of fame impossible (73-76). It is now, ironically, that Milton uses the voice of Phoebus Apollo (the pagan god of poetic inspiration), to announce and extol a Christianized ideal of fame:

“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,

Nor in the glistening foil

Set off the th’world, nor in broad rumor lies,

But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes,

And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;

As he pronounces lastly on each deed,

Of so much fame in heaven expect they meed” [that is, reward]. (78-84)

In other words, earthly fame, while gratifying to some degree if it can indeed be achieved, is ultimately unimportant when compared and contrasted with the kind of heavenly reward that only God (“Jove”) can bestow. Fame on earth can only survive, at best, until the end of human history, but being judged meritorious by God is a kind of “fame” that is eternal. Earthly fame depends on the respect of other humans; heavenly “fame” depends on the positive assessment of the only Being whose opinion truly matters: God. The pursuit of mere earthly fame can result in (and result from) egotism and pride; the hope to be found worthy in God’s eyes reflects true humility. The pursuit of earthly fame glorifies the self; the hope for heavenly fame glorifies God.