The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 690 words.)