Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Return, Alpheus, the dread voice is past
That shrunk thy streams; return, Sicilian Muse,
And call the vales, and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flow'rets of a thousand hues.
- Now that Peter has finally run out of steam, the speaker pipes up again. He tells Alpheus to come back now that St. Peter's speech is over, or his "dread voice is past." We guess Peter's little lecture had driven Alpheus off for a while. Because he is a river god, the speaker tells us that Alpheus had peaced out by saying he had "shrunk [his] streams." Oh, and you might find it interesting that Alpheus is often associated with Arethuse, a river the speaker mentions in lines 85-6.
- The speaker also appeals to the "Sicilian Muse" and asks her to tell the winds ("vales") to send flowers in all kinds of colors. Because the founder of pastoral poetry was a Greek poet from Sicily named Theocritus, invoking the "Sicilian Muse" means he is invoking the muse that inspired some of the world's very first pastoral poems – those of Theocritus.
- Alpheus refers to a river and god that is often associated with Arethuse (see lines 85-6 where the speaker talks about this river). In one story, Alpheus fell in love with the nymph Arethuse. He pursued her, but Diana (a.k.a. Artemis, goddess of the hunt and virginity) turned her into a stream before he could catch her. The stream mingled with Alpheus, went underground, and re-emerged in Sicily.
- We might think of this as the speaker addressing Alpheus as a stand-in for pastoral poetry, as if the poet were saying, "come back, my pastoral themes. How I've missed you."
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use,
Of shades, and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enamelled eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied showers,
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
- Our speaker must be a huge fan of addressing nonliving things, because we've got another apostrophe here. In these lines, he addresses valleys – with beautiful shades, winds, and brooks. He tells them to cast their eyes ("throw hither all your quaint enamelled eyes") where he is looking. Awesome. But wait, where's our guy looking? Perhaps toward Lycidas?
- "Whispers" refers to a soft, rustling sound, almost like the sound of – you guessed it – whispering voices. "Use" here means "go frequently" or "haunt." The speaker is referring to valleys in which there are often "whispers."
- Now that we have the first couple lines down, let's tackle the more confusing later lines.
- What's a "fresh lap" and a "swart star," you ask?
- Well, the word lap can refer to a hollow, or a place between hills, kind of like – you guessed it – a valley.
- The "swart star" is Sirius, the dog star. According to Homer, Sirius was the canine companion of Orion, a hunter in Greek mythology. When Zeus made Orion into a constellation, he let Sirius join his human master in the stars. Now, Sirius the star is associated with extreme heat and sometimes a lack of fertility.
- The word "swart" means dark in appearance, which is a bit of a strange description when you consider that Sirius is the brightest star in the sky. But maybe our speaker is alluding to the fact that the dog star looks on "sparely," which means it doesn't look on very much. In other words, the valley is so fertile the dog star doesn't affect it very much.
- The speaker is asking these valleys to toss around their "quaint enamelled eyes," which means he wants these valleys to spread their beautiful, many-colored eyes, or flowers.
- These flowers of the valley "suck" the sweet rainwater, or "honeyed showers," from the "green turf" and make the ground look purple with spring flowers.
- What's interesting here is that way back at the beginning of the poem, the speaker did not seem at all interested in having things bloom. Remember, he wanted to pluck all the berries and leaves from the trees before they had a chance to bloom and ripen? But now he's all about flowering. He wants the world to bloom – a lot.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freaked with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well-attired woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears:
- Let's dig a little deeper into this flower imagery, shall we? The speaker goes into more detail about these "enamelled eyes." He tells the valleys to bring the "rathe," or ripening, primrose, the wild hyacinth (which he calls a "tufted crow-toe"), jasmine, and the pink and the pansy (which we can just think of as generic flowers).
- That sounds nice and all, but these blooms are "freaked with jet," which means they are streaked with black, which is a sign of mourning.
- He also tells them to bring the violet, the woodbine, and pale ("wan") cowslips that seem to be hanging their heads. Basically, he is saying bring every flower that seems to look sad – the ones that wear "sad embroidery."
- It seems like he's okay with blooming, as long as that blooming doesn't involve happy flowers. If the flowers look sad, that's fine by him.
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
- The speaker continues, telling the valleys to ask "amaranthus" to shed his beauty and the daffodils to shed tears. We learn that the speaker wants these flowers, and all the flowers he mentioned in his earlier lines to decorate Lycidas' coffin. (That's where the "strew the laureate hearse" part comes in. Because Lycidas was an aspiring poet, his coffin has a laurel on it.)
- While the amaranth is a real flower, it also refers to a mythical one that supposedly never fades or loses its beauty. It is associated with Eden, or paradise, and the fact that the speaker is asking this always beautiful flower to shed its beauty is telling, don't you think? His grief for Lycidas is so extreme that he even wants the amaranth to show it.
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
- The speaker says that he must "dally with" (engage with or entertain) a "false surmise" in order to "interpose a little ease."
- What's that all about? Well, the "false surmise" refers to the act of strewing Lycidas' coffin with all those flowers, because technically there is no hearse: Lycidas' body is somewhere beneath the ocean.
- Still, he wants to have some sort of ceremonial grieving process to mark the occasion. Thinking about strewing Lycidas' coffin with flowers at least gives our speaker a little taste of solace.