Pastoral elements are important throughout John Milton’s poem titled “Lycidas,” but the combination of pastoral and religious elements becomes especially important beginning in line 76. In the preceding lines, the speaker had been wondering about the worth of hard work and lofty goals, especially when death can strike at any moment, making all work and all goals seem insignificant. In response, Phoebus, the god of poetry, declares that even more important than any fame a dedicated person might win on earth are the eternal fame and praise granted by God in the heavenly afterlife:
“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soul . . .
But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes,
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove [that is, God].” (78, 81-82)
In these lines, the god of classical pastoral poetry (Jove) is clearly equated with the Christian God, and from this point forward, the blending of pastoral elements with elements of the Christian religion will be especially conspicuous.
This blending is particularly apparent when Milton attacks corrupt Christian clerics by describing them as selfish shepherds. They the kind of shepherds who
. . . for their bellies’ sake
Creep and intrude and climb into the fold!
Of other care they little reckoning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest. (115-18)
Rather than being true pastors (the Latin equivalent for “shepherds”), they have abandoned their flocks to “the grim wolf” (128), a phrase that Milton (a devout Protestant) would have equated both with Satan and with Roman Catholicism. As a result of neglect by these selfish pastors, “The hungry sheep” (that is, the English people) “look up, and are not fed” (that is, are not given proper spiritual nourishment ). But what do these corrupt shepherds (pastors) care? After all, their own material needs are well taken care of by the corrupted, exploitative church, so that they can indulge themselves in mere earthly pleasures (122-24).
It is in this passage dealing with the corruption of the contemporary Anglican church and its unworthy pastors that Milton most obviously combines pastoral and religious elements in his poem.