Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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 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.