Analysis of John Milton’s Lycidas

John Milton had known Edward King at Cambridge and wrote Lycidas (1638) as an elegy for his friend’s death. When word arrived that King had drowned in the Irish Sea returning to Dublin in 1637, his many friends were strongly moved. They combined their poems to honor their fallen friend, Milton terming his piece a Monody in which he “bewails” the loss of his friend. He also puts his elegy to political use, employing it to foretell “the ruine of our corrupted Clergy then in their height.” The collection adds little personal information regarding King, other than that he had proved a decent scholar who had chosen to serve the church. That choice allowed Milton to characterize King in his pastoral as a good shepherd caring for his sheep, the familiar biblical analogy that applied to Christ.

Milton begins the elegy in the traditional praise mode, calling on Myrtles and Laurels, traditional plants used to crown heroes. However, these plants will never fulfill their destiny, as they have grown brown and will “Shatter” their leaves before they mature. The speaker explains, “Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear, / Compels me to disturb your season due,” emphasizing that King, as the plants, died far too young, “dead ere his prime.”

Critical reaction to Lycidas has long been mixed. Milton’s highly stylized approach incorporates frequent syncope, or the omission of letters from the middle of words, for the sake of rhythm, a technique that seems unnecessary and distracting. Some find unintentional humor in the heavy pastoral tradition that incorporates hyperbole, as the speaker continues speaking of King,

He must not float upon his wat’ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.

He calls on the Muse for guidance, including what some find an annoying self-portrait as shepherd, joining King in guarding his flock:

Together both, ere the high Lawns appear’d
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove afield, and both together heard
What time the Gray-fl y winds her sultry hour,
Batt’ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night.

Milton continues by including the pathetic fallacy, so labeled later by John Ruskin, personifying nature to mourn the passing of Lycidas. He uses figurative language to compare the hero’s obliteration by death to nature’s cruel method, sending canker to kill the rose, “Or Taint-worm to the weanling Herds that graze, / Or Frost to Flowers.” Samuel Johnson added his voice to those critical of Milton’s style for the overwrought lines.


Others criticized the piece for lack of unity. Milton constructs the poems in three distinct sections, the first with a theme of loss of poetic fame, the second focusing on the corrupt clergy, and the third the deification of Lycidas, with the result that the sections do not hang well together. The voice that expresses concern over the survival of Lycidas’s poetic words contains a supplicant, almost groveling tone, speaking of the poets’ hope to burst into a “sudden blaze” of inspiration, only to be dashed when “Comes the blind Fury with th’abhorred shears, / And slits the thin spun life.” Jove’s voice enters to assure the speaker that the only true judgment of a man’s earthly deeds will take place in heaven. The speaker then summarizes Lycidas’s life, recalling his matriculation through Cambridge and describing the shipwreck.

The speaker then moves into a rant regarding the “foul contagion” of the clergy. In contrast to the good shepherd Lycidas, these clergy “shove away the worthy bidden guest;” have “Blind mouths!” a skillful use by Milton of synesthesia; and “scarce themselves know how to hold / A Sheep-hook.” Lines 128–129 adopt the metaphor of a wolf to expand criticism of the Catholic Church: “Besides what the grim Wolf with privy paw / Daily devours apace, and nothing said.” As the critic Eric C. Brown explains, etymology informs us that the name Lycidas is derived from the Greek lukos, or “wolf,” with the ending idas meaning “son of.” That knowledge suggests that Milton inexplicably deconstructs his own positive construction of Lycidas. However, critics have also suggested that Milton intends for a connection to be made, not to the church and the twin wolves appearing on the Jesuit coat of arms, but rather to the formal appellation Lycus or Lucos, names appearing in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Another view suggests simply that Lycidas may be a son of the church, his roots in ancient teachings, but one who has broken away from that heritage.

Critical evaluation deems the passage more interesting in a historical context than a poetic one. Much effort has been spent on study of the lines concluding that section, “ ‘But that two-handed engine at the door / Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.’ ” The image of the two-handed engine is taken from the biblical St. Peter, who notes the engines will smite evil within the church. At least 40 different explanations of the engines have been critically summarized, including the suggestion that the two handles represent the judgment of death and damnation. That symbolism echoes Milton’s earlier use of the image of St. Peter’s gold and iron keys as fitting the locks on heaven and hell.

Milton next includes a list of flowers that critics continue to discuss, as their meaning is not clear in the context of his poem. Some believe the poem represents a simple exercise in the use of as many poetic techniques as possible. In this section Milton adopts the approach of anthimeria, converting the adjective purple to a verb, describing rain showers that “purple all the ground with vernal flowers.” That conversion to an unexpected form also constitutes catachresis. He next begins the catalog of flowers, as seen in lines 143–147:

. . . the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Jessamine,
The white Pink, and the Pansy freakt with jet,
The glowing Violet,
The Musk-rose, and the well-attir’d Woodbine,
With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive head.

Milton concludes with praise for Lycidas, including the well-known phrase “Look homeward Angel.” The speaker bids “woeful Shepherds weep no more,” one of many phrases loaded with alliteration, assonance, and consonance. Adopting antithesis the speaker notes, “So, Lycidas, sunk low, but mounted high,” describing heaven’s celebration of the shepherd’s arrival and his conversion into “the Genius of the shore” to protect others from his fate. Milton draws on the tradition of VIRGIL, who imagines in his Eclogues Julius Caesar in the guise of Daphnis to be “good” to men below.

Critical reception of Lycidas remains mixed. Observant scholars have found multiple weaknesses in the poem. Added to those already noted is Russell Fraser’s observation that Milton has not written the “monody,” or poem in a single voice, that he claims because a second distinctive voice enters at the poem’s conclusion. A seemingly disapproving voice tells us, “Thus sang the uncouth swain,” suggesting Milton’s dismissive evaluation of his own voice. Fraser’s suggestion that Milton remains a poet “still at odds” with his own material may account for the uneven presentation others have observed.

Brown, Eric C. “Ovid’s Rivers and the Naming of Milton’s Lycidas.” Early Modern Literary Studies 7, no. 2 (September 2001): 51–53.
Fraser, Russell. “Milton’s Two Poets: Voices in John Milton’s Lycidas.” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 34, no. 1 (winter 1994): 109–118.
Horton, Alison. “An Exploration into the Etymology of Lycidas.” Milton Quarterly 32, no. 3 (1998): 106–107.
Kaminski, Thomas. “Striving with Vergil: The Genesis of Milton’s ‘Blind Mouths.’ ” Modern Philology 92, no. 4 (May 1995): 482–485.
Kirkconnell, Watson. Awake the Courteous Echo: The Themes and Prosody of Comus, Lycidas, and Paradise Regained in World Literature with Translation of the Major Analogues. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973.
Womack, Mark. “On the Value of Lycidas.” Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 37, no. 1 (winter 1997): 119–136.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry

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