John Milton wrote ‘Lycidas’ in 1637 to commemorate the death of a college classmate that year. Perhaps Milton’s earliest publication, the poem gained immediate attention. It has been reprinted, anthologized, and studied in school ever since. It appears for example in The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics, edited by Francis Palgrave in 1861. Many readers have called ‘Lycidas’ beautiful, a model of lyric verse, and their favourite poem.
Many, but not all. Samuel Johnson went on a famous rant in his Lives of the Poets in 1789. Here is some of it:
One of the poems on which much praise has been bestowed is ‘Lycidas’; of which the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. . . In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral: easy, vulgar, and, therefore, disgusting; whatever images it can supply are long ago exhausted.
By ‘diction’, Johnson means Milton’s unusual word choices, both academic and earthy. The ‘rhymes’ vary throughout in a loose, fluid, complex pattern that Milton may have invented, and that Keats adopted for his odes. Keats also copied the half-lines of three metrical feet that occur here and there. Curiously refreshing, they recall the unfinished lines of Vergil’s Aeneid and some of Horace’s Odes. The word ‘numbers’ refers to the meter, which is rough for eighteenth-century taste, iambic pentameter with many off-beats, as in Shakespeare.
Johnson further objects: ‘This poem has yet a grosser fault. With these trifling fictions are mingled the most awful and sacred truths’, by which he means Christian beliefs. Also extraneous are some opinions on the ‘thankless Muse’ of literary life, the ‘corrupted Clergy’ of England, and fame, ‘that last infirmity of noble mind.’
In modern terms, we would say that Johnson condemns the pastoral for being artificial and conventional. Yet Johnson’s poetry is open to the same criticism. He is too clear, rational, and level-headed for our taste. ‘Lycidas’ may be familiar through old acquaintance, but it is strange, and deep emotion runs beneath the surface.
Edward King was the young man who died, in a shipwreck in the Irish Sea on August 10, 1637. He and Milton were students in Christ’s College, Cambridge, together from 1626. The Scottish professor David Masson wrote in an 1874 edition of Milton’s Poetical Works:
Milton, as we know, was indubitably the chief ornament of the little community, its ablest and noblest youth, supreme in everything; and before he left college as M. A. in July 1632, aged twenty-three, this had come to be recognized. . . Probably, however, no one was more liked in the college, both by dons and by students, than Edward King. Indeed, before Milton left the college, King, by what looks now like a promotion over Milton’s head, had become himself one of the dons.
That is to say, Milton was older and more qualified, but when a fellowship became vacant in 1630, it was awarded to King, who showed promise and was a youth of ‘hopeful parts.’ Having read what he could find written by King, Masson adds: ‘This we learn, however, rather from tradition than from any specimens of his ability that have come down to us.’
Milton returned to his father’s house at Horton in Buckinghamshire, about sixty miles from Cambridge. During the next five years, he may have heard news of King or visited Cambridge, but there is no evidence. King was training for a career in the Church of England, a project Milton had abandoned, when his life was cut short. A few on board escaped. King drowned, and his body was never found. When Christ’s College reassembled after the Long Vacation, someone proposed a volume of memorial verses to be published by the university press. It appeared the next year, a total of thirty-six contributions in Latin and English. Milton’s was the longest, and it was placed at the end, without a title and signed ‘J. M.’
The placement is deliberate. It accounts for the first three words in Milton’s poem, ‘Yet once more.’ Masson says: ‘All the more striking must it have been for a reader who had toiled through the trash of the preceding twelve pieces’ (I have read them one and all, and will vouch that they are trash) to come at length upon this opening of a true poem:
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.
The poem refers to King only by the pseudonym ‘Lycidas’, which Milton took from the Idylls of Theocritus, a Greek writer of the third century B. C. Originally from Sicily and possibly living in Alexandria, Theocritus wrote long lyric poems called “bucolics,” in which cultivated shepherds speak and sing in Doric, or low dialect. The details of costume and scenery are rustic, but the poetry is urbane. Vergil wrote a set of imitations in Latin, the Eclogues. The Renaissance seized on this bucolic or pastoral convention, and Milton follows the tradition.
King came from Ireland. The character Lycidas appears in Idyll 7, where he is identified as a goatherd from Crete.
Soon with a quiet smile he spoke—his eye
Twinkled, and laughter sat upon his lip.
Meeting three other shepherds in the country, Lycidas agrees to a singing contest. He begins:
Safe be my true-love convoyed o’er the main
To Mitylene—though the southern blast
Chase the lithe waves, while westward slant the Kids,
Or low above the verge Orion stand—
If from Love’s furnace she will rescue me,
For Lycidas is parched with hot desire.
The song continues for thirty-nine more lines on his darling and how he will toast her with wine. Then it mentions another singing shepherd, Tityrus, and yet another, Cometas, kept in a cedar chest and fed by honeybees. The whole poem is charming and inconsequential. Milton may have chosen the name ‘Lycidas’ at random, but the lines quoted above mention a sea voyage. King was unmarried, which parallels the situation of the Cretan goatherd. This might explain line 176 in ‘Lycidas’:
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
in which ‘nuptial’ is mysterious, and ‘unexpressive’ may mean ‘not expressed’.
The allusion is far-fetched, but the theme of love is relevant, in the Shakespearean sense of affection. Without delving into Milton’s troubled marriage history and the modern queer critique of male friendship in earlier centuries, we can acknowledge the strength of same-sex bonds. The death of King may have affected his friends in the way a soldier’s death affects his comrades.
Just as the rhyme and meter constantly shift in a way that recalls the movement of the sea, the voice in the poem moves about restlessly. We hear five speakers: the ‘uncouth swain’ who begins and returns, ‘Phoebus’ who is Apollo, ‘Camus’ who is the River Cam, ‘the Pilot of the Galilean Lake’ who is Saint Peter, and an unidentified voice in the last eight lines. The speakers address in turn the reader, the ‘woeful shepherds’ who are the college friends, mythological persons like the Muses and Saint Michael, ‘Ye valleys low’ who are told to strew flowers on the corpse, ‘O ye dolphins’ who are told to ‘waft the hapless youth,’ and finally Lycidas himself in lines 182-185. Characters appear and disappear as in a dream.
Lycidas is pictured alternately as dead, his bones washed far away, or lying on a hearse, or in some vague place:
Where, other groves and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
or most paradoxically, “sunk low, but mounted high,” like the sun that sets and rises again. In lines 12-13 we read:
He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind.
‘Welter’ evokes the turbulence of the sea, and by extension the grief of the poet. But ‘float upon his watery bier’ is fanciful. The body disappeared. Toward the end of the poem, line 183 exploits this fact in an image of transcendence. Lycidas becomes a guardian angel:
Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood.
On hearing of the death of someone we know, sad and confused, we wonder where they have gone. Milton reproduces this emotional confusion.
Milton had recently written two masques, Arcades and Comus, where humans and spirits enter and exit, make speeches, and use symbolic language. Comus was performed at Ludlow Castle in 1634, with music composed and performed by Henry Lawes. The masque was an aristocratic entertainment with instrumental music, song, dance, painted scenery, and stage effects of lighting, trap doors, and so on. It was a private theatrical production. ‘Lycidas’ could be called a masque of sorrow. Unlike Comus, the poem has no stage directions. It could not be performed, except perhaps in animation, but it can be read aloud. The overall effect is a fluid incantation, a disembodied voice that moves from image to image.
The movement is easy but illogical. There is no narrative. One image suggests another, while the sea, drowning, singing, the head, and the shepherds recur again and again. Grief is just this unbearable repetition of painful thoughts. The image of the sea leads to Lake Galilee, which leads to Saint Peter, and to the gospel story of “Him that walked the waves.” Though written, the poem is a song, and shepherds sing, and:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing and build the lofty rhyme.
To a Renaissance poet like Milton, these images lead naturally to the Muses and to Orpheus, who was killed and decapitated:
His gory visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.
The most interesting image is that of the shepherds. Milton amalgamates the shepherds of Theocritus with the poetical students of Christ’s College. In real life, these young men will become ‘pastors,’ the Latin word for shepherds. The loss of King, who would have been an asset to the church, prompts Milton in the guise of Saint Peter to denounce clergy who:
Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!
. . .
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learnt aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!
These incompetent pastors write badly, too:
. . . their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw.
Does Milton mean their poetry or the poor quality of their sermons and preaching? This was a lively concern in England, and one of many that would lead to civil war in 1640.
The most fully sketched of the apostles, Peter is impetuous and brave. In the gospel of John 18:10, in the garden of Gethsemane, he draws a sword and cuts off the right ear of the high priest’s slave. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus says, “I will smite the shepherd,” which alludes to Zechariah 13:7, “Awake, O sword . . . smite the shepherd.” If a sword can be called an “engine,” these passages explain the end of Saint Peter’s speech:
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.
Milton’s note in 1645 makes this a prophecy after the fact: ‘In this Monody, the Author bewails a learned Friend . . . and, by occasion, foretells the ruin of our corrupted Clergy.’
Last but not least in the catalogue of speakers and hearers, ‘Lycidas’ the poem addresses the preceding elegies. King’s college friends are present in the pages of the book. Various meanings of ‘the shepherds’ oscillate in the reader’s mind. Johnson says ‘there is nothing new,’ but he seems not to notice Milton’s sleight of hand. The complex imagery produces a dizzy effect that is both new and strange.
The poem won praise for the beauty of its language, its technique, and the deft way it handles a wealth of images, inherited from classical antiquity and taken from the natural world. Milton learned a great deal from Shakespeare and shows he is a worthy successor. The machinery of seventeenth-century verse does not prevent us from understanding and enjoying Shakespeare, and the convention of the pastoral should not deter us, either. American readers find a direct parallel in country-western songs, which pretend to be by and about simple country people, just plain folks. Nashville is our answer to Sicily in the third century BCE.
For all its poetry, the psychology of ‘Lycidas’ may be a stronger claim to fame. Milton shows a mind in the throes of grief. He requires effort and attention, homework to the reader today, but the reward is great. As for Lycidas, his reward is in heaven:
There entertain him all the Saints above,
In solemn troops and sweet societies
That sing, and singing, in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
The saints replace the shepherds,
and ‘wipe the tears’ leads to the next line:
Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more;
The address to Lycidas, the change in tone, and the repetition of ‘no more’ from earlier lines induce a slight jolt. But why does the dead man weep? The image of a celestial choir gives way to the image of ‘the Genius of the shore,’ which refers back to Saint Michael, patron of mounts and capes, in lines 159-163. Again, this is muddled and strange. Do these contradictory and impossible statements about Lycidas console anyone?
The last eight lines are an epilogue that does nothing to clear up matters. We are told:
Thus sang the uncouth swain to the oaks and rills
Since morning, he has been ‘warbling his Doric lay,’ and now it is sunset. He sings to nobody, and nobody tells us this. The pronoun ‘I’ is not in the poem, and the poet is absent. Is absence the message? The final couplet, an image of departure, seems to say so:
At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
The glorious language and images vanish. It was only an insignificant person who sang for his own pleasure. In musical terms, the masque of sorrow ends on an unresolved note. AQ