Analysis

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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.

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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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“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...

(The entire section contains 1563 words.)

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