The nominal subject of “Lycidas” is the death of Edward King, a fellow student one year behind Milton at Cambridge, who died when his boat capsized in the Irish Sea on August 10, 1637. In a commemorative volume of poems, Milton saw an opportunity to test his poetic skill and comment on those whom he considered to be the corrupt clergy in his day. He chose the form of pastoral elegy, wherein a shepherd laments the death of a fellow shepherd, because the pastoral elegy was a classic type of poem rooted in Greek and Roman literature that allowed for the presentation of allegorical meaning. As the poet speaks of an idyllic rural life of shepherds, it is understood that he can be talking about contemporary life and universal truths at the same time. Milton uses a traditional pastoral name, Lycidas, to refer to King, and he employs a number of other pastoral conventions.
It is customary to see “Lycidas” as a poem in three parts, opening with a conventional pastoral lament for the premature death of the friend, portrayed as a fellow shepherd. The surviving shepherd has a responsibility to commemorate the friend in song, so he asks the Muses to inspire the song/poem he has now undertaken. This invocation is followed by another convention of the pastoral elegy, the accusation that protective forces (in this case, the pastoral nature deities) failed to prevent the death. In a poem filled with associative leaps, Milton moves at this point to a complaint about being an artist in an unappreciative world. Even Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, was not able to save from destruction her own son, the poet Orpheus, when the mob, or “rout,” disapproved. It is clear, continues the speaker, that the poet’s task in this world is a thankless one. Why then does the poet persist? The pursuit of fame is the most obvious answer, but fame can be denied by premature death, as was the case with Lycidas. The final answer to this line of questioning, provided by Phoebus Apollo, the god of poetic inspiration, is that “Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.” True fame is winning the salvation of Jove (or God). With this consolation, the first section of the poem ends.
In the second section of the poem, Milton...
(The entire section is 909 words.)