Analysis

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Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

"Lycidas" is an elegiac poem by English poet John Milton. The elegy, published in 1637, is dedicated to Milton's friend and former Cambridge classmate Edward King, who drowned in the Irish Sea the same year the poem was published. The titular character in the poem was a council member in...

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"Lycidas" is an elegiac poem by English poet John Milton. The elegy, published in 1637, is dedicated to Milton's friend and former Cambridge classmate Edward King, who drowned in the Irish Sea the same year the poem was published. The titular character in the poem was a council member in ancient Athens. Lycidas was falsely accused of colluding with the Persians—a major political and military rival of the Greeks—and was murdered by other members of the council and some members of the public. He was stoned to death by the mob and, afterwards his wife and children were also stoned to death by a group of women. The massacre showed the violence and ugliness of nationalism during warfare, as well as the mass paranoia that stems from it.

Milton immortalized his friend, Edward King, by associating him with Lycidas, because the two men shared similar qualities, such as being selfless. In the Greek story, Lycidas was level-headed and tried to suggest a more diplomatic approach when dealing with the Persian king. This innocent suggestion is what led to the accusations of treason. Likewise, Milton perceived his friend as someone who devoted his career in the clergy, as well as a former scholar at Cambridge, to helping others and guiding them to the right path.

Milton also drew on a different classical Lycidas—a character in the Roman poet Lucan's epic Pharsalia—who was a sailor that drowned at sea after an accident on board a ship. Therefore, the Lycidas which represents King in Milton's poem is a composite of different characters and historical figures who have the same name.

The poem is also a noted pastoral elegy, which uses references to shepherds and rural life to create analogies. In the fictionalized account of Lycidas's death, a shepherd mourns the loss of the late man's life.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 690

“Lycidas” is a pastoral elegy in which John Milton laments the drowning of his friend and schoolmate, Edward King, at the University of Cambridge. Mainly iambic pentameter, with irregularly appearing short lines of six syllables, the poem’s 193 lines are divided into verse paragraphs of irregular length and changing rhyme schemes. In the convention of the pastoral poem, the first-person persona of the poem is a shepherd, who speaks of King as the lost shepherd Lycidas; in the convention of the elegy, “Lycidas” progresses through sadness over an individual’s death and reflection on human mortality to a final consolation—not only in the redemptive message of Christianity, but in recognition of the social value of the poet’s art. Milton uses these two forms not primarily to express personal grief over King’s death, but to engage the dominant political and religious issues of his age.

“Lycidas” opens by addressing the laurels and myrtles, symbols of poetic fame; as their berries are not yet ripe, the poet is not yet ready to take up his pen. Yet the untimely death of young Lycidas requires equally untimely verses from the poet. Invoking the muses of poetic inspiration, the shepherd-poet takes up the task, partly, he says, in hope that his own death will not go unlamented.

The poet recalls his and Lycidas’s life together in the “pastures” of Cambridge, and notes the “heavy change” suffered by nature now that Lycidas is gone—a “pathetic fallacy” in which the willows, hazel groves, woods, and caves lament Lycidas’s death. Milton concludes this passage, however, by suggesting that nature’s apparent sympathy is, in fact, the subjective perception of the mourning shepherds: “Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd’s ear” (line 49).

The shepherd-poet reflects in the following verse paragraph that thoughts of how Lycidas might have been saved are futile. The poet turns from lamenting Lycidas’s death to lamenting the futility of all human labor: What meaning can work have when all life comes to this? Why not give oneself over to physical pleasures, the poet asks, when life may be cut short before one can attain the rewards of a moral life?

At this point, another voice asserts itself in response to the poet’s questions; Phoebus, the sun-god, an image drawn out of the mythology of classical Roman poetry, replies that fame is not mortal but eternal, witnessed by Jove (God) himself on judgment day.

Milton then turns “Lycidas” to one of pastoral poetry’s chief functions in the Renaissance, as commentary on ecclesiastical abuses. Following a procession of mythical nautical figures, “the pilot of the Galilean lake” (either Saint Peter or Christ) derides those shepherds (clergymen) who, unlike Lycidas, care more for their own well-being than for their sheep. Such shepherds neglect their flocks, “rot inwardly,” and spread only disease. In a couplet that is clearly apocalyptic, the poet stresses the fate of such clergymen at the hands of God’s avenging angel: “But that two-handed engine”—apparently a double-edged sword—“at the door,/ Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more” (lines 129-130).

The poem’s pastoral landscape and elegiac tone then reassert themselves. The poet calls for flowers to deck the hearse of Lycidas but then recognizes that this is a foolish and simply rhetorical plea: Lycidas has no hearse since his body remains adrift in the sea. Such expressions are merely “false surmise” to comfort frail minds reticent to confront the awfulness of Lycidas’s death and the dispiriting reflections to which it gives rise. The poet then invokes an explicitly Christian angel rather than a pagan, pastoral deity to “look homeward” (line 163) and pity those who grieve over the loss of Lycidas.

The last two verse paragraphs establish the elegy’s Christian consolation and the poet’s readiness now to embark on his poetic career. Lycidas is not dead but resurrected in Christ (lines 172-73). Shifting into third-person narrative, the poem concludes with the “uncouth swain,” the shepherd-poet himself, rising and, in a gesture of hope, preparing to leave the pastures he shared with Lycidas for “fresh woods, and pastures new” (line 193).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 365

The first function of the language of the poem is to create a sense of the pastoral environment, and Milton does this by continual reference to the natural elements of the countryside and to the pagan deities that haunt the pastoral landscapes of classical Greek and Roman poetry. The poet also needs to establish the allegorical reference of this pastoral to an English setting and to the issues that concerned King and himself as divinity students at Cambridge. Milton thus adds some specifically English and Christian figures to his cast of mythological characters: for example, Camus, the god of the River Cam that runs past Cambridge, and “the pilot of the Galilean lake.”

The shifting rhyme scheme of the poem (and some lines have no rhymes at all) suggests the disorder created by Lycidas’s death and, perhaps, the shepherd-poet’s admitted inadequacies as a poet, although one recognizes it as the creation of Milton’s own exceptional poetic talent. The irregular lengths of the verse paragraphs, ranging from eight to thirty-three lines long, also contribute to this atmosphere of disorder. The shepherds’ sense of disorder in nature is reflected in the rhythm (the sound) of the poem: “Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd’s ear” (line 49).

The upset emotions that are themselves the true source of disorder are expressed also through the expletive repetition of key words and phrases: “once more” in line 1, “dead” in line 8, the name of Lycidas used three times in the first verse paragraph and continually throughout the poem, and “now thou art gone” in lines 38-39. Repetition also serves to introduce the final consolation of the poem, with “weep no more” repeated twice in line 165; here, however, the repetition is not an emotional expletive but a forceful imperative. This closing sense of consolation must then, in some way, dispel the psychological disorder of the shepherds and reestablish harmony in the poem. Indeed, the final verse paragraph, the shortest and most concise in the poem, contains the simplest rhyme schemeabababcc—rhyming words that refer again to the beauties of the pastoral setting. Order can once again be found in nature and heard in the ears of the poem’s readers.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 202

Abrams, M. H. “Five Types of ’Lycidas.’” In Milton’s “Lycidas”: The Tradition and the Poem. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983. Surveys critical analyses of “Lycidas” ranging from New Criticism to archetype analysis.

Boesky, Amy. “The Maternal Shape of Mourning: A Reconsideration of ’Lycidas.’” Modern Philology 95, no. 4 (May, 1998): 463. Examines feminine and maternal images in the poem, connecting them to events in the poet’s life.

Miller, David. “Death the Gateway to Life: ’Lycidas.’” In John Milton: Poetry. Twayne’s English Authors 242. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A detailed and careful close reading of the poem.

Post, Jonathan F. S. “Helpful Contraries: Carew’s ’Donne’ and Milton’s ’Lycidas.’” George Herbert Journal 29, nos. 1/2 (Fall, 2003): 76. Argues that Thomas Carew’s elegy to John Donne influenced Milton’s very different elegy to Edward King.

Shohet, Lauren. “Subjects and Objects in ’Lycidas.’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 47, no. 2 (Summer, 2005): 101. Argues that “Lycidas” uses two modes of poetic subjectivity—a human voice and a set of utterances attributed to nonhuman things. The two modes create an element of asymmetry in the poem.

Womack, Mark. “On the Value of ’Lycidas.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 37, no. 1 (Winter, 1997): 119. An examination of how “Lycidas” has earned its exalted reputation in English literature.

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