Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well,
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
- Sisters? No, not these sisters. Here, our speaker is calling on the Nine muses, who were Ancient mythical women thought to inspire poetry.
- As it turns out, the ancient Greek word mousa means "poem" or "song" as well as muse.
- This "sacred well" to which these sisters belong refers to either Aganippe or Hippocrene, two springs that, in Greek mythology, were thought to be the dwelling places of the muses on Mount Helicon.
- Here, the speaker is asking the muses for help in writing his poem for his friend Lycidas. He needs some inspiration, pronto, so he is hoping the muses will "sweep the string," which is a poetic way of saying, "play music."
- This appeal to the muses (called the invocation) is a frequent feature of western poetry, from Homer through the 19th century. No one likes writer's block.
- In these lines, the poet strays squarely into the world of myth. Our speaker is asking the muses for help, which means we're in a world of imagination and inspiration. We have left the poet's Cambridge home behind.
Hence with denial vain, and coy excuse,
So may some gentle Muse
With lucky words favour my destined urn,
And as he passes turn
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.
- More muse-invoking here. Essentially, our speaker is hoping that a "gentle Muse" will help him write. Only, instead of asking for help writing a poem about his friend Lycidas, our speaker is hoping that one day, when he dies, someone will do the same for him.
- Let's break it down. The phrase "hence with denial vain, and coy excuse" is a tough one, that's for sure. The speaker seems to be saying something like, "All right, quit being a baby. No more denial and excuses – it's time for me to get cracking on the poem."
- An "urn" is a vase that contains a person's ashes, but the speaker is probably just using it here as a metaphor for a grave or tomb. And a "shroud" is a sheet (usually white) in which a corpse is wrapped. A "sable shroud," however is a black one. This image gives the line a more melancholy, ominous tone.
- These last two lines are tricky, but our speaker seems to be saying, "Hopefully some future poet, when he passes by my grave or tomb, will say 'peace be with you' or 'rest in peace.'" Maybe this poem will help ensure that that happens.
For we were nursed upon the selfsame hill,
Fed the same flock by fountain, shade, and rill.
- Looks like the speaker and this Lycidas fellow were childhood friends.
- "Nursed upon the selfsame hill" is a poetic way of saying that the two of them grew up in the same countryside, and tended the same flock of sheep. These two were buddies from the start. By the way, a "rill" is a small stream or rivulet. Next time you're on a hike, you can impress your friends by dropping that vocab on them. Or maybe not.
Together both, ere the high lawns appeared
Under the opening eye-lids of the morn,
We drove a-field […]
- More of the same going on here. The speaker continues to describe his past with Lycidas, saying that they both used to get up before the sun rose to take their sheep out to the fields.
- "High lawns" here refers to open spaces between woods, not suburban front yards. There are no kids running through sprinklers here.
- Of course these lawns don't appear magically; they just seem to when the sun comes up – when the "morn" opens its eyes. Everything is dark, and suddenly, when the sun comes up, a whole world appears. That's a nice thought, huh?
- Oh, and "drove" refers to the act of driving or moving sheep.
[…] and both together heard
What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Battening our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose, at evening, bright,
Toward heaven's descent had sloped his westering wheel.
- Word alert! There's all kinds a crazy vocab being tossed around in these lines. Lucky for you, Shmoop loves to play dictionary: a "gray-fly" probably refers to any number of insects. Just imagine your standard bug; "sultry" does not mean attractive and alluring the way it does today. Nope, it just means hot and toilsome.
- Remember from the last couple lines that the speaker and his best bud Lycidas would be out before the dawn shepherding their flock. Well, when that morning comes, they hear the sound of this insect, the gray-fly, which indicates the sun is up, and hot.
- Apparently, they spend all day out there, "battening" or fattening their flocks on the dew that has accumulated overnight, until "the star that rose, at evening, bright" starts to set, or slope "his westering wheel."
- This star our speaker is talking about is probably not a star at all, but the planet Venus, which many folks in the way back days called the evening star. In other words, they used to hear the "gray-fly" for quite some time (even after the evening star had risen and started to descend).
- What's the takeaway point here? We're glad you asked. What these lines tell us is that Lycidas and our speaker were pretty inseparable. After all, they would spend all day together (and even some of the night), tending to their flock.
Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
Tempered to the oaten flute;
Rough Satyrs danced, and Fauns with cloven heel
From the glad sound would not be absent long.
And old Damoetas loved to hear our song.
- The speaker tells us that he and Lycidas would compose songs or poems ("ditties") to the tune of an "oaten flute" (a pipe made from the stem of an oat). Sounds like good times out on the lawn.
- Various mythological creatures, like satyrs and fauns danced along to their tunes; they couldn't resist, not even Damoetas.
- For all you pastoral poetry experts out there (anyone?), the name Damoetas just might sound familiar. It's a name often used in pastoral poetry for a shepherd, and Virgil, whose work inspired Milton, used it in his Eclogues.
- "Tempered" means "in harmony with" or "attuned to." "Rural ditties" might be a reference to the type of pastoral poetry found in "Lycidas."
- If we had any doubt before, the mention of satyrs and fauns seals the deal: we have entered into a dreamy, mythological world, one that is very different from Milton's real England.