Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake.
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain,
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain)
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake
- "The Pilot of the Galilean lake" refers to none other than Saint Peter, one of Jesus' star disciples. In these lines, he appears (the last of all the figures that have appeared before our speaker) with two keys made of two different kinds of metal and begins to speak.
- The golden key opens the gates (presumably to heaven) while the iron one shuts them quickly, or "amain." This is a reference to the fact that Saint Peter was the guy in charge upstairs; according to the Bible, he held the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:17-20).
- A miter, by the way, is a type of headdress or cap worn by certain religious figures. To have "mitred locks" means that Peter's hair is stuffed up underneath a miter, which makes sense when you consider that, according to the Catholic Church, Saint Peter was the first pope.
- Here's something that jumped out to Shmoop: in these lines, the speaker makes a biblical allusion, rather than a classical one. It marks a shift in the poem from pagan references to Christian ones. Why do you think our speaker makes this change?
"How well could I have spared for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies' sake
Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!
- He speaks! In these lines, Peter begins a speech that is confusing, to say the least. He seems to be saying to the speaker, "How well could I have saved for you, young shepherd. Enough of those guys who break into the fold only to eat ("for their bellies' sake")."
- In other words, Peter is not a fan of self-interested people, who find fame and belonging only for the sake of material gain.
- Peter could have reserved one of those guys for the speaker to sing about, but he didn't.
- Based on Milton's note at the beginning of the poem, which claims that the poem will also "foretell the ruin of our corrupted clergy," it is clear that the bad shepherds St. Peter goes on to detail refer to bad religious leaders who don't care about their "flocks," and care more about fattening their bellies.
Of other care they little reckoning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest
- St. Peter goes into more detail about these good-for-nothing shepherds.
- These dudes don't care about anything else ("of other care they little reckoning make") but scrambling for food at the feast and forcing out those who were actually invited ("shove away the worthy bidden guest").
- He's reinforcing the idea, introduced in Line 65, that shepherding just ain't what it used to be back when Lycidas was around.
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learned aught else the least
That to the faithful herdsman's art belongs!
- These guys not only come where they aren't wanted, but they don't even know how to hold a "sheep-hook" or do anything else that a shepherd should know how to do ("aught else the least / That to the faithful herdsman's art belongs"). Shepherd posers. Not cool.
- The "blind mouths" might refer to the fact that they eat without looking or are somehow blindly led by the desire to feed their mouths.
- Basically, the takeaway point is that the shepherding profession is being overrun by bad dudes. Peter is not happy, and neither, we imagine, is our speaker.
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list, their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw;
- These bad shepherds don't even care about their inabilities as shepherds because they have what they want and are perfectly satisfied, or "sped."
- When they choose, "list," they sing weak, bad, and "flashy" songs. These songs sound terrible and grating when they play them on their squeaky, or "scrannel" pipes.
- "What recks it them" means "what business is it of theirs?" Peter is referring to line 121, in which he talks about the "faithful herdsman's art." He is saying, why should these no-good shepherds even bother caring about the fine art of sheep herding, when they are perfectly happy being not-so-good at it.
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoll'n with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
- St. Peter isn't finished, folks. He still has a bone or two to pick.
- According to him, the sheep look to their inadequate shepherds because they're hungry; they are full ("swollen") with wind and mist, but not tasty food like, you know, grass.
- As a result, they're slowly wasting away and spreading diseases, or "contagion."
- Note the word choices here: "rank," "rot," and "foul." These words, in combination with the fact that we have Saint Peter, who literally holds the keys to Christian heaven saying them, hint at the corruption in the clergy that Milton alludes to in the preface to his poem.
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said;
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more."
- All this lousy shepherding going on is even worse when you add to it the fact that the sheep are already being attacked by wolves on a daily basis. Of course these lame shepherds don't even say anything about it.
- Peter also says that some "two-handed engine" is ready to "smite" or cut down these bad shepherds for good. Once this "engine" smites them, he will "smite no more," because the job is done.
- "Privy" means "clandestine," "secret," or "stealthy."
- Some critics think that the "wolf" is a reference to the Roman Catholic Church, which Milton, a radical Protestant, hated. Yep, hated.
- Nobody really knows what that "two-handed engine" is, and there are about as many speculations as there are lines in the poem. Some think that it refers to the sword in the book of Revelations, which represents the word of God. But it could also be a reference to just about any other sword that appears in the Bible – and there are a fair few, friends.
- Whatever that sword represents, it's ready to do some damage. We might think of this as Milton assuring his readers that the unworthy members of the clergy in England will pay the price for their corruption eventually. And his 1645 preface reminds us that they totally did.