by John Milton
Lines 1-14 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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,
And with forced fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
- Laurels? Myrtles? Say what now? The speaker of "Lycidas" opens his lengthy poem by talking to some flowers. Yep, flowers. He tells them he is again coming to pick their berries and trim their leaves.
- The laurel is a small evergreen tree, and it's one of those plants that means something in literature. In fact, it's associated with poetry, and with a god named Apollo, who was often depicted wearing a laurel wreath on his head. Why? Well, it's all goes back to the story of Apollo and Daphne, so make sure you brush up on your Ancient romances.
- A myrtle is yet another kind of tree. "Sere" means "dry" or "withered," so we're thinking it's probably evergreen, too, if the myrtles are "never sere."
- Oh, and "rude" doesn't mean impolite here, but rather "harsh" or "violent." And "mellowing" doesn't mean calming down; it means "maturing." So the speaker is violently picking the flowers and berries off these trees before they have ripened; in other words, too early.
- Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let's take a closer look at these lines:
- First things first: our speaker doesn't seem too happy, now does he? What is his big beef with these trees? They never did anything to hurt him.
- And speaking of those trees, what's with all the natural imagery going on here?
- Let's talk rhyme. Did you notice any? We've got the pairing of "sere" and "year," plus "crude" and "rude." We might have a rhyming pattern going on, but we'll have to read more of the poem to see if we can figure it out.
- And while we're on the subject of form, we'll go ahead and mention that each of these lines (except for line 3) appears to be in a little something we like to call iambic pentameter. For more on this, check out our "Form and Meter" section.
- Finally, it's also worth noting that the speaker is using a little something we like to call apostrophe here. No, we're not talking punctuation. We're talking about the fact that our speaker is speaking to objects that can't speak back – trees.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
- Oh, now we get it. Our speaker's beef with trees is all because of some "sad occasion." Although, now that Shmoop thinks about it, that doesn't tell us much, because we still have no idea what this sad occasion is.
- Patience, dear Shmoopers. Line 8 tells us that the "sad occasion" is the death of some guy named Lycidas before ("ere") his "prime" or peak, and that's what is compelling him to pick the berries before their time.
- Wait a minute, why would a death be a "dear" occasion? Well, because "dear" in this instance means "hard," "grievous," or "burdensome." So the occasion is sad, and also really tough. Sounds about right.
- "Peer" means something similar to what it means nowadays, as in a fellow or equal. According to these lines, Lycidas has died, and he hasn't left us with anybody as good as he was.
- Awesome. We totally get it, right? This guy Lycidas has died before his time and that is what's making the speaker pick the berries before they're ripe, right?
- Hold your horses. Does that even make sense? Well, it sort of does in an elaborately poetic kind of way. He is picking the berries before their prime because Lycidas died before his; it's a metaphor for the death of a young man "ere his prime."
- Of course we know by now (thanks to our handy "In a Nutshell" section) that Lycidas is a stand-in for Milton's dear friend Edward King, who was also a poet, and who also died before his time; the poor guy drowned at sea. Make sure you keep these tidbits in mind as you read through the rest of the poem.
- One more thing before we move on to the next few lines: rhyme. Yep, we've still got some of that going on with "dear" and "peer." Plus, "due" sounds a bit like "rude" and "crude" from the first couple lines. We call an almost rhyme like this slant rhyme.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
- Abandoning the trees for now, the speaker asks us a rhetorical question, as if to say, how could he not write a poem for Lycidas? After all, Lycidas was also a poet, and a pretty good one at that (he built "the lofty rhyme").
- Singing in English verse is often synonymous with poetry (remember Apollo?), so the speaker is essentially saying that it is impossible not to write a poem about Lycidas, who wasn't just a poet, but one who wrote in a lofty style.
- And of course, we've got some rhyme going on here, too. "Knew" rhymes with the "due" at the end of line 7, and "rhyme" takes us back to "prime" in line 8. We're having a tough time spotting an actual pattern or rhyme scheme, though. While there is definitely rhyme going on, it doesn't seem to be following any rules we know about. As you read through the poem, keep your eye out for more rhymes, and see if you can't spot a pattern Shmoop can't.
He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
- First, we're going to go ahead and give you the scoop on some of these more obscure words, then we can tackle the meaning of these lines: "bier" is another word for tomb; "welter" is being used as a verb, here, and it means tossed or tumbled; "meed" means a fitting reward or accompaniment.
- Phew. Now that we have that out of the way, we can get down to business.
- According to our speaker, Lycidas must be mourned with the fitting reward of the tears of his friends. And we're not just talking about the saltwater that gushes out of our eyes when we're sad. We're talking poetry, or "some melodious tear."
- Basically, Lycidas should not remain "unwept" or unmourned while floating in the ocean (his "watery" tomb), where he might get tossed around by the wind.
- Of course the ocean is not actually a tomb, so we might consider Milton's use of the word "bier" as a metaphor. Add to that the metaphor of the "melodious tear," which represents poetry, and we've got some major comparing going on.