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Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 322

John Milton’s famous poem Lycidas is about the death of his friend Edward King—whom the poet calls “Lycidas,” following the pastoral tradition—who drowned at sea.

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The first few lines of this approximately 200-line poem explain the circumstances of King’s death in a shipwreck aboard the Chester in the year 1636. The speaker explains that he is picking unripe berries on the occasion of Lycidas’s death. Lycidas himself was a poet, and the narrator describes himself and his late friend as shepherds tending a flock. Lycidas’s death, according to the poet’s metaphor, is like a parasite infecting cattle or a rose.

In the middle of the poem, the poet turns to ask the nymphs why they did not protect Lycidas. He then moves into a contemplation on the topic of fame, which many poets seek in order that they live past their mortal life. Apollo (god of music and poetry) replies, saying that fame is not necessarily within a mortal’s power to control. Next, Lycidas explains that the ship sank despite fair weather and so may have been cursed.

The speaker next describes the procession of deities and river gods, such as “Camus” for the river in Cambridge, who attend Lycidas’s funeral. St. Peter next appears and rails (using a shepherding metaphor) against unfit clergy in the Church, whom Christ will eventually smite upon their death.

This is not so for Lycidas. In death, Lycidas will become a “genius of the shore” (183), guarding and protecting travelers by sea. The poet encourages the shepherds and others in attendance at the funeral procession to cease their lament for Lycidas, as he will not stop being remembered when the funeral ends but will rise again, like Orion’s star, by means of his songs.

Finally, the poet gathers his mantle as the sun sets and retires for the day. Tomorrow, the poet will sing again in other pastures.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1322

John Milton wrote “Lycidas,” considered the greatest poem of its type in English, near the start of his literary career, when he was invited to contribute to Justa Edouardo King (1638), a volume of poems commemorating Edward King (called “Lycidas” in the poem), whom he had known as a classmate at Cambridge University. King had drowned while traveling on the Irish Sea. The two had not been close friends, and Milton chose the formal structures of the pastoral elegy not only to honor King but also to examine issues that concerned Milton himself as he sought to make a life in poetry.

The traditional elements of the pastoral elegy were familiar to Milton, who had studied classical literature. These conventions include treating the speaker and his subject as if they were shepherds (pastor in Latin), invoking the Muse of poetry, rehearsing the history of the friendship being celebrated, questioning the fate that allowed the death to occur, describing a procession of mourners and flowers being strewn on the corpse in preparation for burial, and providing a consolation for the loss of one’s friend. Milton uses all of these conventions, but he adapts them to make them appropriate to his particular purpose.

The pastoral has roots in Greek classics, but in “Lycidas” Milton is concerned with explicitly Christian subjects: the death of a man preparing for the ministry, Milton’s future as a poet, and the state of the Christian Church in England (Milton was writing as a staunch Puritan on the eve of the English Civil War). Thus, Milton uses water as a unifying image that draws together the Christian elements, King’s own history, and the mythological structures of the pastoral. The poem is in iambic pentameter with irregular rhyme.

The first twenty-two lines of “Lycidas” introduce Milton as a shepherd who uses a water metaphor to call on the Muses (“sisters of the sacred well”) for inspiration as he sings a dirge for Lycidas. Throughout the poem, Milton employs the pastoral tradition of using song to represent poetry. Lines 23 through 36 describe his friendship with Edward King. The two young men are portrayed as fellow shepherds, tending their flocks and competing in songmaking. (Like the sheep, the “oaten flutes” of the poem are a traditional element of pastorals.) Presumably this passage represents the two men’s time together as Cambridge students; thus, the “old Damoetas” who listens to their songs is usually taken to represent one of their teachers.

Lines 37 through 63 express the mourner’s protest over the injustice of the young man’s death. Again, Milton uses a wide range of water images and allusions. He asks the nymphs—mythological deities who inhabit woods, pools, and streams—why they failed to protect Lycidas, and he imagines that they were not watching from the Celtic island of Mona in the Irish Sea (appropriate because King drowned in that sea) or the river Deva (or Dee), which flows into the Irish Sea from Cheshire. The speaker then chides himself for being foolish, knowing that even the Muse—who was mother of the mythical Orpheus, the most skilled poet ever—was unable to protect her son when he was torn into bits by the wine-maddened Bacchantes and thrown into the river Hebrus.

At this point, the focus of the poem shifts to the first of Milton’s personal concerns. Beginning in line 64, he uses the pastoral metaphor of the shepherd to ask whether there is any point in working to become a poet. Perhaps it would be more enjoyable to court shepherdesses as other shepherds do. He considers the justification that poets may win the fame for which they long, but he sees fame as an unworthy goal (the “last infirmity of noble mind”) and asserts that, even if it were worthy, a poet’s efforts to secure fame may seem pointless in the light of the possibility of an early death. In response to his questions, Phoebus Apollo, the patron god of poetry, speaks to the poet and explains that real fame is meted out appropriately by God (Jove) in heaven, where all poets will receive whatever they deserve.

In line 85, Milton begins to describe a procession of mourners; again, he employs a wealth of water imagery. He addresses Arethusa and Mincius, a fountain and river associated with the pastoral in classical literature. Milton then introduces Neptune, god of the sea, who asks how the tragic drowning of Lycidas happened. Next comes Camus, god of the river Cam, which flows through Cambridge. The last mourner is “the pilot of the Galilean lake”—that is, Saint Peter, recognizable by his miter (the pointed headgear of a bishop) and the keys to heaven that he carries. Milton’s description recalls Peter’s association with water (Peter was fishing on Galilee when Jesus called him) and at the same time allows Milton to avoid a jarring mixture of Christian and mythological names.

Saint Peter mourns the loss of King as a young, Christian minister, but Milton has a larger concern as well, which he voices in Saint Peter’s words. As a Puritan, Milton feels that the Church of England is served by unworthy priests (unlike King) who are more interested in self-advancement than in being shepherds to their parishioners. Here, the pastoral serves Milton especially well, since “pastor,” shepherd, is often a title for ministers. Peter’s impassioned outburst against these faithless shepherds pictures them pushing worthy guests away from the shepherds’ feast, ignorant of the basics of their vocations, unable even to hold a shepherd’s crook (the staff that bishops carry is shaped like that herding tool). Such worthless shepherds (“blind mouths,” Milton calls them) allow their sheep to sicken or to be stolen by wolves (an allusion that is usually understood to refer to the Roman Catholic Church). This climax of the poem concludes with Peter’s ambiguous warning that a “two-handed engine” stands ready to avenge these abuses.

Beginning in line 132, Milton moderates his tone and calls on nature for flowers to decorate the funeral bier. There was no actual bier, because King’s body was lost at sea, but Milton hopes to “interpose a little ease” by comforting readers with this imaginary scene (a “false surmise,” he calls it). By line 155, however, the reality of King’s death is reestablished. Milton suggests the many watery places the body may rest, ranging from the Hebrides in the north to St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall in the south. He urges the angel associated with the Mount to “look homeward” and urges dolphins to send King’s body to land.

Lines 165 through 185 name the consolation to be found in King’s death. He is no more dead than is the Sun, which daily seems to sink beneath the sea but rises anew each morning. Lycidas, too, has risen “through the dear might of him that walked the waves.” That is, he has eternal life in heaven through the power of Christ (who walked the waves). Milton pictures Lycidas near heaven’s rivers, where he hears heaven’s hymns of joy. In a secondary way, Lycidas has also become a spirit of the shore, guarding all sea travelers.

The last eight lines of the poem return the reader to the poem’s initial picture of the shepherd, who has now completed his elegy. He looks across the “western bay” at the sunset, gathers his cloak around him, and sets out for “fresh woods and pastures new,” lines that suggest Milton’s commitment to the next part of the life in poetry that he is claiming for himself. “Lycidas” is a remarkable poem in many ways, particularly in Milton’s skillful adaptation of the conventions of the pastoral elegy for the double purpose of commemorating the death of Edward King and, more significant for later readers, expressing Milton’s concerns about his calling as a poet and the state of faith in England.

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