Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

John Milton was an intensely religious writer, which is to say, a political writer, since in the seventeenth century, politics and religion were inseparable elements of English society. Milton’s greatest work, Paradise Lost (1667), retells the story of Genesis in the form of an epic in order to “justify the ways of God to men” (Paradise Lost, line 26). The great political conflicts of the age, that led ultimately to the English Civil War in the 1640’s, involved questions about the doctrinal and administrative nature of the Church of England. In the eyes of many of Milton’s contemporaries, episcopacy (church administration by a hierarchy of bishoprics) left control of church doctrine in the hands of a few when people needed to be free to encounter scripture in light of their own rational understanding. Such a hierarchy of clergy also opened the church to abuse by individual clergymen whose motives were personal gain and political ambition, rather than the moral and spiritual instruction of their parishioners, their “flocks.” Milton did not separate these political and religious concerns from his poetic interests. In fact, as one can judge from “Lycidas,” these concerns constitute the motivation and foundation for his career as a poet.

Although the occasion of “Lycidas” is the death of Edward King, Milton’s reflections on this loss lead to the central moral and political questions of the poem and of his own life:...

(The entire section is 576 words.)