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Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 303


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Death is John Milton's purpose for writing Lycidas. Edward King, a friend he attended college with, drowned, and his body was lost at sea. Milton was asked to write an elegy for him. He gives King the poetic moniker Lycidas and mourns him in the poem. He says King was taken before the prime of his years. He asks the Nymphs why they did not intervene before realizing that they couldn't even save their own loved ones at times. Death is the guiding principle for the poem and is discussed, mourned, accepted, and finally overcome by Milton through his lasting lines.


Rebirth is another theme in Milton's poem. In the end, Milton's speaker says that Lycidas isn't really dead. Rather, he is like the sun which sinks into the ocean at night but rises high again in the morning. By focusing on the possibility of rebirth, he offers comfort to people who mourn the dead. The idea that some part of Lycidas lives on is a positive one that can help people who still miss him. It gives them some kind of hope that he's not completely gone from the world, even though they cannot even bury his body.


Corruption in the church is another theme—and one that might seem out of place at first. Milton addresses Saint Peter and discusses the fact that some of the people who represent the Church of England aren't what they should be. He puts King above them by showing that he was a good man while the other men aren't. Instead, they're more interested in their own careers than in doing good things for the Lord. Saint Peter agrees with him on all counts and also mourns the loss of King with him. Milton refers to Saint Peter as The Pilot of the Galilean lake.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576

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: What is the meaning of a moral life when death can cut it off at any time? The rewards of the greedy and self-indulgent are evident in the physical pleasure they take from life; but what are the rewards of the good? What is the good of a religion administered by a corrupt clergy? What help is it to be a good man and, for Milton, a good poet?

Pastoral poetry was thought of by Renaissance writers as the poet’s apprenticeship; poets must hone their skills in this form before attempting the greater achievement of epic. Milton’s two chief models for this conception of the poet’s career were Vergil (70-19 b.c.e.), the classical Roman poet who composed his pastoral Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e.) before writing his great epic, the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.); and in English poetry, Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599), who began his career with the pastoral Shepheardes Calender (1579) before writing his greatest work, the epic The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). In this pastoral, Milton gives this progression from pastoral to epic, from apprenticeship to full acceptance of the poet’s task in mature society, a psychological dimension. As the poem moves from allegorical pastoral deities to more explicit references to the figures of Christianity itself, without the mask of the pastoral, so the pleasures of youth, including indulgence in “false surmise,” give way to recognition of the truth, however awesome it may be, and to mature acceptance of life’s responsibilities. For Milton, that maturity required the responsibility of the poet to confront the imperative political issues of his age. Milton did not, as Edward King had done before his untimely death, choose a career in the clergy. Instead, he chose to find a wider audience as a poet. The restoration of order at the end of the poem announces Milton’s control over his craft and his acceptance of responsibility for a literary career committed to an unflinching engagement with the political and religious conflicts that shaped English society in the mid-seventeenth century.