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Lycidas

Lycidas

by John Milton

Flowers, Plants, Bushes

Symbol Analysis

Flowers and trees and bushes, oh my! There are blooming things in "Lycidas," and they're not just here to look pretty. Sometimes flowers are used to evoke early death, as in the opening of the poem. At other points, they serve a more decorative, ritualistic function, as when they are strewed on Lycidas' coffin. These plants are beautiful, of course, but for our speaker they are tied closely to death.

  • Lines 1-5: The poet addresses "laurels" and "myrtles" with the word "o"; this is called an apostrophe. The plants haven't matured yet, but the poet is picking their berries and cutting their leaves anyway. This rather rude action is a metaphor for Lycidas' early death. "Laurels" are a symbol of poetic ability and fame, so these lines also describe the death of a potential poet who didn't get a chance to share his gift with the world.
  • Lines 39-41: We learn that the woods and caves – which are overgrown with vines – mourn for Lycidas. Woods and caves don't literally mourn, so this is personification, the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things. Lycidas' death must have been one sad affair if even the natural world is down in the dumps about it.
  • Lines 42-44: The willow and hazel leaves used to boogie to Lycidas' songs; they won't do that anymore because he's dead. This is yet another example of personification.
  • Lines 45-49: The speaker compares the news of Lycidas' death to the infection a rose suffers, or the effects of frost on flowers. He uses the word "as" to make this comparison, which means this is a simile. Lycidas' death is so affecting, it's like a disease. Yikes.
  • Lines 79-80: Fame is described as a plant that doesn't grow on "mortal soil, which means that the plant acts as a metaphor for fame.
  • Lines 82-3: In a repeat of likes 79-80, some kind of plant or tree is used as metaphor here for fame, which "lives and spreads aloft."
  • Line 106: The River Cam's "bonnet sedge" (104) is compared to the hyacinth using the word "like," which means we have a simile on our hands, folks. See the "Detailed Summary" for this section for more on the significance of the hyacinth in Greek mythology.
  • Lines 133-5: The speaker tells the "Sicilian Muse" (the muse of the first pastoral poet, Theocritus) to call the vales ("winds") and to tell them to send some flowers and bells the speaker's way. These poor muses sure have a lot on their plates.
  • Lines 139-141: The speaker implores the valleys to "throw hither" their "quaint enamelled eyes." These "eyes" are flowers, which "purple" the turf and "suck" rainwater from the ground. "Eyes" is a metaphor here for the flowers of the valley; it implies that the flowers are somehow aware of what has happened to Lycidas. They can see, after all (personification anyone?).
  • Lines 143-151: The speaker goes into more detail, telling the valleys to bring a bunch of different flowers to place on Lycidas' "hearse" or coffin. Some of the flowers are specifically associated with mourning, such as the "pansy freaked with jet" (speckled with black) and the "cowslips … that hang the pensive head." The speaker implies that these, and other flowers that he wants, wear "sad embroidery." Flowers don't literally wear anything, so this is yet another example of personification. "Wear" is also a metaphor to describe the way the flowers manifest their appearance. Now, the speaker is not killing flowers to represent Lycidas' death, but calling upon them all to help him mourn his dead friend. There's a shift, here, in the way our speaker sees flowers.
  • Line 186: We learn the poem is actually the quoted/reported song of an "uncouth swain" addressing "oaks and rills." Not only is he talking about and to plants in the poem, but he is also talking to plants as he recites the poem. Has this guy spent too much time in the great outdoors?

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