Dr Johnson, while recognising Milton's genius, took a famously dim view of this week's poem. "Such is the power of reputation justly acquired that its blaze drives away the eye from nice examination. Surely no man could have fancied he read 'Lycidas' with pleasure had he not known its author."
Most readers since have united in disagreement with Johnson about the stature of "Lycidas." But does his argument have any points in its favour?
One of his accusations is that the poem is artificial, and therefore lacks passion. The artifice can't be denied. That's the nature of pastoral. Theocritus, who provides the model for Milton, didn't portray real shepherds, either. Whether all-singing, all-dancing, engaging in a dialogue of the dispossessed, or bewailing a lost companion, the shepherds and nymphs of pastoral poetry were figments of imagination from the start. Yet many poets, Virgil not the least of them, struck gold in the pastoral play-pen – reminding us, perhaps, of Marianne Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads in them".
The narrator of "Lycidas" is an unnamed shepherd, an "uncouth swain." Maybe that description is a little in-joke. Lycidas himself represents Edward King, Milton's fellow-student at Cambridge, and also an aspiring poet, drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Anglesey. King had planned to take Holy Orders, and Milton uses pastoral allegory in the religious context, too. When, in the voice of the Pilot of the Galilean Lake (St Peter), Milton angrily tackles the unfit "shepherds" of anti-Protestantism, his pastoral becomes far more harsh and realistic: "The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,/ But swol'n with wind, and the rank mist they draw,/Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread …"
The poem was commissioned for a memorial anthology for King. It begins with the author claiming reluctance to start work because he feels unready: his poetic garlands have no ripe fruit, only "berries harsh and crude" I don't think this is just a conceit. Milton is expressing a reluctance he really feels, and perhaps (though he wasn't directly involved in the shipwreck) a trace of what today we call "survivor's guilt". As he told another friend, he longs to be an immortal poet. He hesitates – and yet, what if death intervenes before he can achieve anything? The composition of "Lycidas" is a heavy challenge. There are many themes in the poem, but this implicit "memo to self" is finally the most significant – true fame is decided by heavenly, not earthly, judges, so gather your forces, lucky poet, and carry on. One thing is clear: Milton's passions are complex and, as Johnson intuited, not dictated purely by simple grief for his friend.
"Lycidas" isn't as difficult at it looks. Good footnotes will unlock plenty of its secrets. Milton is vastly learned, of course, but he's also a ready communicator. One of his aims is "to justify God's ways to man" and you, the reader, catch the urgency. He is a performer, and a performer, despite the masks, always seeks to fire an audience with imaginative empathy. The poem, a canzone, has verse-paragraphs of varied shape and size; sometimes they resemble mini odes, with uneven line-lengths and unpredictable rhymes (another cause of Johnson's grumbles) but the fluidity is energising. Milton always knows where to pause, take a breath, and so keep us interested. His procession of eloquent gods is not stagey: it's cinematic.
One of the most beautiful passages is a digression concerning the flowers to be strewn on Lycidas's "laureate hearse": "the tufted crow-toe and pale jessamine,/ The white pink, and the pansy freaked with jet,/ The glowing violet." Then the dreamy fantasy is halted, and the poet confronts what has actually happened. King's body is irrecoverable. The flowery coffin is a "false surmise." The mood darkens with a lamentation ("Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas/ Wash far away…") and culminates in the famous cry to the mariners' patron, St. Michael: "Look homeward Angel now and melt with ruth …" This is followed by the most tender of cadences: "And, O ye dolphins waft the hapless youth."
Even in that single couplet you can read Milton's daring fusions: elegy and foreign politics, Christian and classical imagery. It all seemed an indecent mix-up to Johnson, and his own piety got in the way of his response. But the harsh discords of one age or one ear are often the rich harmonies of another. Immune to piety but affirming "relativism", our period is well-placed to appreciate the 17th-century "modernist" phenomenon that is "Lycidas."
To whet your appetite, I've chosen the concluding strophes to represent this week's poem. The whole work, with useful annotations, is here.
From Lycidas by John Milton
Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor,
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with newspangled ore,
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low but mounted high,
Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves,
Where other groves, and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
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 forever from his eyes.
Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more;
Henceforth, thou art the genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood.
Thus sang the uncouth swain to th'oaks and rills,
While the still morn went out with sandals grey;
He touched the tender stops of various quills,
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay:
And now the sun had stretched out all the hills,
And now was dropped into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
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...
(The entire section is 1322 words.)