About the Poet:
John Milton, an English poet, born on December 9, 1608, is a poet of steadfast will and purpose who moved amid the fears and hopes and changing impulses of the world regarding trivial and momentary things that can never swerve a great soul from their course. He was a polemist, man of letters, and civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell. Though he is best known for his epic poem “Paradise Lost” (1667), written in blank verse, he wrote about religious flux and political upheaval. His works reflect deep personal convictions, a passion for freedom and self-determination, and urgent issues and political turbulence of his day. His internationally renowned image had much to do with his indulgence in writing in a variety of languages such as English, Latin, Greek, and Italian; his celebrated work Areopagitica (1644) is considered one of the most influential defenses of free speech and freedom of the press.
He was born in Bread Street, Londo,n on December 9, 1608, to John Milton’s composer. Milton’s first compositions are considered to be two psalms at the age of 15. He graduated with a B—an in 1629 from Christ’s College Cambridge. Throughout the rule of Charles I and its breakdown in constitutional confusion and war, Milton played various roles; he studied, wrote poetry, traveled, and launched himself as a pamphleteer and publicist. His political attitude was responsible for his placement in public office under the Commonwealth of England; he also acted as an official spokesman in certain of his publications. After the restoration in 1660, Milton lost his public stardom and platform; though he was almost blind by then, he managed to complete most of his celebrated works.
Lycidas: Poetic Devices
Line 1-5: the poet addresses “laurels” and “myrtles” with the word “o”; this is called an apostrophe.
“line 1-5”: The immature plant whose berries the poet is picking and is cutting its leaves is a metaphor for Lycidas’s death.
Line 25-29: shepherds as a metaphor for their friendship.
Line 79-80: fame is described as a plant that does not grow on “mortal soil”; hence the plant is acting as a metaphor for fame.
Lines 82-83: the plant metaphor for fame once again is a metaphor as it “lives and spreads aloft.”
Lines 139-141: “Eyes” are the metaphor for the flowers of the valley.
Lines 143-151: “Wear” is a metaphor to describe how flowers manifest their appearance.
Line 1-5: “Laurels” is a symbol of poetic ability and fame.
Lines 39-41: woods and caves have been personified, who mourns.
Lines 42-44: Willow and hazel leaves have been personified who used to dance to Lycidas’s songs.
Lines 143-151: flowers have been personified by the use of the word “wear.”
Line 45-49: the speaker compares the news of Lycidas’ death to the infection that a rose suffers.
Line 106: the river cam’s “bonnet sedge” (104) is compared to the hyacinth using the word “like.”
Lines 45-49: Lycidas’ death has been compared to the effect on shepherds’ ears as caterpillars eating roses.
The poem has an abundance of classical allusions, starting from “laurels” recalling the story of Apollo and Daphne to the “sacred sisters” hinting at the nine muses of Mount Helicon who are long believed to inspire poetry.
“Lycidas” is one of the most remarkable poems, written as a pastoral elegy in 1637, and is the last of his Horton poems. A college friend Edward King had been drowned in the Irish Sea, and Milton, following the poetic custom of the age, depicts both himself and his friend in the guise of shepherds leading the pastoral life. The poem can be conveniently divided into six sections, a prologue, four main parts, and an epilogue. In the prologue (lines 1-24,) Milton invokes the Muse and points out the poem’s intention. This elegy is a product of the poet’s bitter experiences and sad memories; precisely, the memory is the untimely death of Lycidas. The second section (lines 25-84) is primarily concerned with the description of the time the poet and Lycidas have spent at Cambridge. The description is a series of perfectly painted pastoral images; the two friends began their study in the morning and continued till the night; they had some time for recreation too. But the account returns back to the original melancholic tone, with the realization that now that Lycidas is dead,
The description is a series of perfectly painted pastoral images; the two friends began their study in the morning and continued till the night; they had some time for recreation too. But the account returns back to the original melancholic tone, with the realization that now that Lycidas is dead, things have changed drastically. The poet questions the Muse as to where she was when his friend was dying but soon comes to the realization that even she would not have been able to save him. The poem lets the reader reflect on the nature of life and death, fame and fate. The futility of abandoning the pleasures and recreations to achieve a successful life which is the result of laborious days when all ends with death, has been touched upon in the poem. In the precariousness of human life lies the tragic irony, but Milton, in turn, rejects the pure earthy reputation as the true reward of life; this reward is in divine judgment. The third section (lines 164-184) commences with the poet’s return to the heavy pastoral images, and he indulges himself in the description of a procession of mourners lamenting the death of his friend. The procession is led by Triton, the herald of the Sea, and the last to come is St. Peter, “the pilot of the Galilean lake.” Milton gives us an image of a burning denunciation of contemporary clergy and the sad reality of the Protestant Church in England through St. Peter.
The fourth section (lines 132-164) is the section where the poet describes the “flowerets of a thousand hues” cast on the hearts of Lycidas as an “escape from intolerable reality into a lovely world of make-believe. The fifth section (lines 164-184) is invested in expressing the poet’s belief in immortality. Grief, sorrow, and pain are all temporary in life and need to be driven away; though the friend is dead, he has arisen from the dead: “through the dear might of Him that walked the waves.” And now his friend is in heaven, and therefore, there is no reason to cry, as he is in peace; he is being entertained by the saints in the “sweet societies/ that sing, and singing I their glory move.”
The August of 1637 was a gloomy month in Milton’s life; the month brought him the death of his friend Edward King. He was a fellow student at Cambridge who lost his life on a ship to Ireland at the age of 25. The death of his friend left a deep impression on Milton; Lycidas is not just a pastoral elegy, as the pastoral images are twice interrupted in the poem to give a personal emotional account of the poet. The poem begins with the invocation of the Muse. By naming the friend Edward King “Lycidas,” Milton follows “the tradition of memorializing a loved one through Pastoral poetry, a practice that may be traced from ancient Greek Sicily through Roman culture and into the Christian Middle Ages and early Renaissance.”
The friend is described by the poet as “selfless” even though he was a clergy; this statement is bold and also raises a number of questions: “through the allegory, the speaker accuses God of unjustly punishing the young, selfless King, whose premature death ended a career that would have unfolded in stark contrast to the majority of the ministers and bishops of the Church of England, whom the speaker condemns as depraved, materialistic, and selfish.” The use of pastoral images to represent aspects or ideals of life in a rural landscape was very common among Renaissance poets and authors. Critics have often pointed out the artificial character of pastoral nature: “the pastoral was in its very origin a sort of toy, a literature of make-believe.” The poem does not have any such deep hidden meaning. It is rather a simple lamentation of a friend for his dead friend; the poem begins with a pastoral image of laurels and myrtles, “symbols of poetic fame; as their berries are not yet ripe, the poet is not yet ready to take up his pen.”
The death of the friend forces the poet to pick up his tool and write an elegy: “yet the untimely death of young Lycidas requires equally untimely verses from the poet. Invoking the muses of poetic inspiration, the shepherd-poet takes up the task, partly, he says, in the hope that his own death will not go unlamented”. The poet recalls the life of the shepherds in the “pastures of Cambridge.”
The pastoral images are used by him to allegories the life that they both had spent together as fellow students at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Milton has used the symbol of “self-same hill” has been used to represent the university; their studies have been compared to the works of the shepherds driving the field and “battling… flocks”; Milton has described the classmates as “rough satyrs” and “fauns with cloven heel” and the dramatic and comedic pastimes they pursued are “rural duties…/tempered to the’ oaten flute”. More such images dominate the poem, such as a professor who is standing as the “old Damoetas [who] lov’d to hear our song.” The poem then gives an account of the “heavy change” that nature has suffered after the death of Lycidas- a pathetic fallacy, in which not just the poet but also the willows, hazel groves, woods, and caves lament his death.
Being an elegy, there is no doubt that the poem has a melancholic tone. The poem has many varied themes, from death to friendship, from man to the natural world. The poem vividly describes the poet lamenting the death of his friend and questioning the useless attributes and rules that we abide by to have a successful life, as death can come anytime and claim our lives. But the poet ends the poem with yet another realization that pain and sorrow are temporary, just like life. There is no more pain as the poet is now aware that his friend is now at peace and resides in heaven. Hence the poem though sorrowful ends on positive and determined notes.
The poem is a beautiful token of friendship that Milton gave to his dead friend. Even though he was not ready, he took his pen and wrote the untimely elegy for the untimely death of his friend. The pastoral quality of the poem is remarkable. Milton himself “recognized the pastoral as one of the natural modes of literary expression,” and he has effectively exercised the same throughout “Lycidas” to attain the juxtaposition between death and memories of the loved one who is lost (dead).
Updated by Anjali Roongta on 25th April 2023.
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