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by John Milton

Classical Allusions

Symbol Analysis

As a pastoral elegy, "Lycidas" is practically required to pay homage to classical mythology. Milton does so by tipping his hat to just about every mythological figure ever. We're not kidding. Practically every line has a god or a goddess in it. The many allusions in "Lycidas" are partly Milton's attempt to signal to his readers that he is a Poet-with-a-capital-P. And they are partly an effort to cling to something stable, like a long literary and mythological tradition, after the devastating loss of his friend. If you want to boggle your mind, head on over to "Shout Outs" to see just how often Milton alludes to classical sources.

  • Line 1: Any reference to "laurels" in poetry recalls the story of Apollo and Daphne. The laurel is a symbol of both poetry and everlasting youth, thanks to Apollo.
  • Lines 15-16: The speaker implores the aid of the "sacred sisters," the nine muses of Mount Helicon who were long believed to inspire poetry. They were daughters of Zeus, and were often thought to hang out around one of two sacred springs on Mount Helicon: Hippocrene or Aganippe, which Milton mentions.
  • Line 50: The speaker wonders where the nymphs were when Lycidas died. It's a sign of just how much in pain our speaker is; he is willing to accuse the gods, rather than face the death of his friend.
  • Lines 58-63: The death of Orpheus is recounted in order to show that even nymphs and muses can't protect those they love from dying. It's a sad truth to face, but it does help lift Lycidas up to the level of one of the most famous mythological poets (Orpheus), who also met an early death.
  • Line 78: Phoebus (a.k.a. Apollo) tells the speaker to cool his jets about the whole fame thing. When he touches the speaker's ears, that's an allusion to Virgil's Eclogues, whose speaker is similarly reprimanded by the god.
  • Lines 82-83: Fame is described as a living thing that grows as a result of Jove's decisions. In Greek mythology, Jove referred to Zeus. A plant or something like a tree is here a metaphor for fame.
  • Lines 89-90: The speaker describes how Triton, Neptune's son, comes to say that Neptune is not to blame for Lycidas' death, just in case the speaker is still feeling all accusatory.
  • Line 96: Triton also asked the "rugged wings" (winds?), and they didn't know anything about Lycidas' death. Nor did Hippotades (a.k.a. Aeolus), god of the winds. If our speaker was hoping to blame the winds, well, no dice.
  • Line 99: The sea was calm when Lycidas died, because Panope, a sea Nereid (nymphs friendly to sailors), was too busy playing with her sisters to stir up any trouble.
  • Line 106: The speaker uses a simile to compare the River Cam's "bonnet sedge" (104) to the hyacinth, a flower created by the death of Apollo's friend Hyacinth.
  • Lines 132-3: The speaker tells Alpheus, a river and god in classical mythology, to return. In one story, Alpheus fell in love with a nymph (Arethuse) bathing in his river. He pursued her but she was transformed by Diana (goddess of the hunt and virginity; also called Artemis) into a stream that mingled with Alpheus, went underground, and reemerged in Sicily. The poet wants to return to the pastoral themes discussed earlier in the poem; because Alpheus is associated with pastoral poetry, this is an example of metonymy. You might also say that it is a symbol of pastoral poetry.
  • Line 183: The speaker describes how Lycidas has become the "genius of the shore." A "genius" is a protective deity or spirit, often associated with a particular place in classical mythology. That's quite the promotion.

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