In A Nutshell
In August of 1637 Edward King, a young Cambridge student, set out for Ireland to visit his family. Unfortunately, young Mr. King never made it to Ireland; his ship sank just off the coast of Wales, and he drowned at the age of 25. That's sad to say the least.
For the young John Milton, and a host of other Cambridge students, King's death was far more than a big bummer. It was devastating. King was a well-liked, loyal friend of Milton's, and an aspiring poet, too. Shortly after his death, a number of King's Cambridge buddies, including John Milton, put together a two-part collection of poems as a tribute to their fallen comrade. The second part was called Obsequies to the Memory of Mr. Edward King, and "Lycidas" was the last and longest poem in this part. It was signed "J.M."
"Lycidas" is a poem mourning the loss of a good friend, sure. But it's also a specific kind of poem about loss – a pastoral elegy, to be precise. That means it's a poem mourning the loss of someone (elegy) that also makes extensive use of shepherd themes and imagery (pastoral).
You might be asking yourself, what in the world do shepherds have to do with the death of a good friend? Technically, not much. But that's not the point. Milton had other motives in mind.
For one thing, the whole shepherd thing is partly a way of mythologizing King and Milton's relationship, of making it seem like the stuff of legends of the countryside. But it's also Milton's attempt to make his own poetry memorable, to solidify his membership in a long line of distinguished poets. Many of Milton's biggest influences, such as the Roman epic poet Virgil and the English poet Edmund Spenser, got their start writing various types of pastorals. "Lycidas" is the poetic equivalent of Milton jumping up and down, waving his hands in the air, and shouting "Guys! I'm totally a poet!" In practically every other line, Milton points his elbow at Virgil or Theocritus, who invented the pastoral way back in Ancient Greece.
Because he was so bent on becoming a Poet-with-a-capital-P, Milton would have thought of the pastoral poem as a necessary rite of passage, like passing the Bar Exam, or playing for the Minors before you make it to the Big Leagues. Milton would eventually make it to the majors and the hall of fame with Paradise Lost, arguably the greatest and most important epic poem in the English language. But that was later. First, "Lycidas."
Why Should I Care?
Just imagine how John Milton would have felt to have a close friend die so young. When King drowned at sea in 1637, Milton was shocked and sad. The poem keeps repeating the fact that Lycidas (King) is dead, almost as if the speaker were trying to convince himself that it was really true.
Our hearts go out to him. How could they not? But it's not only the speaker's shock and horror that speak to us; Milton also seems to understand the finer points of dealing with death, such as the struggle to grieve and "get over it." Milton seems to have understood, long before any of us modern amateur psychologists did, that when we lose somebody we love, we have a tendency to cling to his memory for a long time, so we can avoid saying goodbye.
Just think of a funeral. While we have them to remember the dead, they are really about providing solace for the living. We show slideshows and videos of the deceased. We sing songs and talk about our memories. It's all in the name of healing and moving on. Well, Milton is pretty much saying the same thing. Basically, in order to get through the grieving process, Milton has to invent a story – a pastoral – that helps keep his friend alive in his mind. Our slideshows, songs, stories, and ceremonies work in the same way. They all "interpose a little ease" (152).