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.
Edward King, a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, died on 10 August 1637. He was drowned in the Irish Sea when his ship, destined for Dublin, sank in a storm shortly after leaving Anglesey. Later that year a volume of memorial verses was commissioned by King’s Cambridge acquaintances, and ‘Lycidas’ was Milton’s contribution. King and Milton were almost the same age (Milton four years King’s senior) and would have known each other in Cambridge, but there is no hard evidence to suggest that they were close friends. The legend that ‘a particular friendship and intimacy’ existed between them was begun by Edward Phillips (1694:54), principally to add biographical poignancy to the status of the poem. The title and name of Lycidas carry a number of literary resonances; he is a piper in the world of Theocritus, and a shepherd in Virgil’s Eclogues. These roles are customarily associated with those of poet and priest and Milton presents Lycidas-King as both: King was indeed an ordained minister in the Anglican Church and had published a number of poems.
‘Lycidas’ is brief, 193 lines in total, and, given the amount of intense critical scrutiny and scholarly decoding that has attended it, could claim to be the most complex and enigmatic short poem in English. It should also be regarded as exemplary in its respectful misuse of the sub-genre to which it belongs, the elegy, as while its ostensible subject is King, his brief life and tragic death, it deploys this as a framework for Milton’s own ruminations on poetry in general, religious belief and other aspects of the contemporary world (Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, Matthew Arnold’s ‘Thyrsis’ and W.H. Auden’s ‘In Memory of W.B.Yeats’ follow a similar line).
The opening is at once conventional and slightly puzzling.
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
The references invoke tradition: laurels were sacred to Apollo and formed the crown of poetic achievement; myrtle formed Venus’s crown and ivy Bacchus’s. The entire poem is embedded in such classical-poetic allusions and references (best decoded in Carey’s edition); there is nothing unusual about this routine Renaissance strategy but what causes us to suspect that something else is about to occur is the phrasing of ‘with forced fingers rude/Shatter your leaves…’. ‘Rude’ in the seventeenth century was used to signify an act that was unskilled, shocking and vigorously sincere; its general association with matters ribald or unsophisticated is a modern habit. Milton is announcing his intention to rudely ‘Shatter’ a number of complacent expectations.
Next, Lycidas is celebrated as shepherd and poet and the passage which has been looked at as both biographical and controversial is the verse paragraph of lines 25–6, in which Milton presents himself and Lycidas-King together as shepherd-poets in what is assumed by editors to be the gardens and meadows surrounding Cambridge colleges. It is, allegedly, controversial because the ‘Rough Satyrs’, and ‘Fauns with cloven heel’ (34) who danced to their music are assumed to be their fellow undergraduates who were evidently their intellectual inferiors (see Pyle 1948).
Milton appears to be as much promoting his own extraordinary talents as he is memorializing King’s, and a little later (37–8) he reminds us that ‘now thou art gone/Now thou art gone, and never must return!’ He follows this (50–63) with a strange passage which deals specifically with King’s death, referring to ‘Mona’ (Angelsey) and ‘Deva’ (the nearby river Dee) – strange because he also infers that King’s poetic and intellectual promise were of no practical benefit at his untimely death.
Where were ye nymphs when the remorseless deep
Closed o’er the head of your loved Lycidas?
The twenty-line passage following the reflection on King’s departure (64–84) is a disquisition on the function, practice and status of poetry. ‘Fame’ (70) would be the ‘spur’ to poetic eminence; and those who do not wish to ‘meditate the thankless Muse’ (66), that is, write serious poetry, can ‘sport with Amaryllis’ (68). Amaryllis was the young woman praised by Virgil’s poet-swain Tityrus and for contemporary readers the reference would have evoked the ongoing Metaphysical tradition of amatory verse which, Milton implies, is a diversion. Counterpointed with ‘Fame’ is ‘blind Fury’ (75), the most violent and nastiest of the Muses: her wrath is a key element of the human condition; she embodies the stark reality of life which poetry and poets, if they are to deserve respect, should address.
Lines 85–102 constitute a section that is both cohesive and transitional. In the former respect it centralises and emphasises a theme which features throughout the poem, water. Here the water in which Lycidas drowned, the sea, is contrasted with the constantly mobile, purer liquid of rivers, specifically the Sicilian fountain-stream of ‘Arethuse’ (85) and the ‘Mincius’ (86), Virgil’s native river. This shift towards the somewhat detached pastoral mode is brief and is partly a means by which Milton can alter the perspective again, because at line 103 a third river brings us much closer to home and the present day.
It is the ‘Camus’, the latinate name for the Cam which flows past the ancient colleges of Cambridge, and it opens the passage (103–31) which is the most debated and problematical of the entire poem. Cambridge has already been introduced as theintellectual home of King and Milton and it is generally accepted that Milton takes the reader there a second time in order to address a particular religious-political agenda. Suddenly we are introduced to ‘the pilot of the Galilean lake’ (109) who bears ‘Two massy keys … of metal twain’. The pilot is assumed to be St. Peter, to whom Christ gave the symbolic keys of the true Church (hence the term ‘pilot’). It should also be noted that the Papacy is regarded by Roman Catholics as the legacy of St. Peter, its authority similarly licensed by Christ, while Protestants regarded the Pope as the corrupt usurper of the word of Christ and status of St. Peter. This allusion to the central, divisive issue of the Reformation is significant because, as noted in Part 1 [ 12 –15], Cambridge at this time was well populated by powerful supporters of the official, Anglican Church of Archbishop Laud, effectively Anglo-Catholics who in alliance with Charles I sought to marginalise and suppress the more radical Puritan constituency. The former are introduced as ‘Blind mouths!’ (119). This image is much debated, and the most enduring and widely accepted interpretation comes from John Ruskin (Sesame and Lilies, I: 22). Ruskin commented that ‘A “Bishop” means “a person who sees”. A “Pastor” means “a person who feeds”’ and went on to decode Milton’s ‘Blind mouths’ as referring to the higher clergy of the Laudian church, who deserved neither the title of bishop, since they had blinded themselves to Christian truth, nor the generic term pastor since they were greedy and corrupt.
The next 12 lines (119–31) avoid specific reference either to religion or to individual practitioners of it – Christopher Hill, a Marxist critic, points out that ‘Critics who complain of Milton’s obscurity here forget the censorship’ (1977:51). All interpreters of the poem agree that the section is a savage indictment of the Laudian, Anglican Church as a debasement of scripture. Its senior members
Scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learned aught else the least
That to the faithful herdsman’s art belongs
They are not the shepherd-pastors who would care for their flock, but corrupt hedonists more concerned with the ‘lean and flashy songs’ of high ceremony. ‘The hungry sheep’ (125) have already become prey to ‘the grim wolf with privy paw’ (125) who ‘Daily devours apace, and nothing said’ (129) – the Roman Catholic Church. However, Milton warns that the
… two handed-engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.
The ‘two handed engine’ is the most debated image of the poem (see Carey and Fowler: 238–9). The general consensus is that it signifies a two handed broadsword, or possible axe, and anticipates the Protestant reaction to the Anglo-Catholic hierarchy, a shrewd diagnosis of the religious and political tensions that in less than a decade would lead to the Civil War.
The remainder of the poem returns us to pastoral figures and images, the most notable being that of Lycidas, ‘Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor,’ (16) transmuted to another realm of existence, ‘mounted high’, and united with ‘the dear might of him (Christ) that walked the waves’ (173). This enables Milton to integrate the contrasting images of sea and freshwater which inform the poem. Lycidas is now with ‘other groves and other streams’ (174) which ‘With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves’ (174). The ‘other’ streams are the brooks of Eden which, according to the book of Revelations, run with nectar. Lycidas can in these wash from his hair the oozy, salty memory of his drowning at sea. Milton finishes his celebration-remembrance of King with Lycidas as ‘the genius of the shore’ (187), ‘genius’ here meaning a beneficent protective spirit.
The closing verse paragraph (186–93) is curious because Milton switches from the ‘I’, with which he introduced himself at the opening of the poem, to the third person mode: ‘Thus sang the uncouth swain…’ (186). The key to this is his choice of the word ‘uncouth’. In the seventeenth century it was used in our understanding of it as meaning awkward or amateurish, but it also just as frequently indicated someone as yet unknown. In the first instance Milton is modestly understating his talents and in the second his yet to be realised potential. Significantly, via the switch to the third person, he is saying goodbye to both. The couplet which concludes the poem looks to the future, his own.
At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
Milton would set out on his European tour a few months after he completed ‘Lycidas’ and, while the ‘fresh woods and pastures new’ might have been a private allusion to this, the phrases also incorporate the sense of personal destiny as a poet which features in his early verse. ‘Lycidas’ itself, while occasioned by a tragic accident, is informed by a sense of something already planned. The metrical experiments of four years earlier, in ‘At A Solemn Music’, ‘On Time’ and ‘Upon the Circumcision’ anticipate the more complex structure of ‘Lycidas’, with their varying line lengths, stress patterns and rhyme schemes. It was as though Milton was preparing himself stylistically for a major poem that would receive wider public scrutiny, and King’s death offered him just this opportunity. Oras (1953) shows that ‘Lycidas’ involves an arrangement in which the verse paragraphs operate almost as poems in miniature; generally each paragraph begins and ends with relatively conventional schemes such as the couplet and quatrain and reserve the more complex, unpredictable patterns for the central part. This was not simply a display of stylistic dexterity and flamboyance. It should be remembered that Milton uses eachparagraph as a means of subtly shifting the perspective, sometimes toward King in particular and just as frequently toward a more universal agenda involving religious truth and the ultimate purpose of poetry. Oras has noted that the formal structure of the poem was, like those of its minor predecessors, influenced by Milton’s knowledge of Italian poetry, Tasso’s in particular. But, more significantly, its curious balance between regularity and unpredictability was unprecedented in English verse; it was deliberately, self-consciously radical in form. Milton seemed to be demonstrating his command of poetic design, his ability to reformulate its conventional demands so as to guarantee the uniqueness of the poem’s speaking presence, a voice that would make us pause, and listen.
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.