Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Where were ye, Nymphs, when the remorseless deep
Closed o'er the head of your loved Lycidas?
- The speaker wonders where the nymphs who supposedly love Lycidas were when he drowned in the ocean, which he calls "the remorseless deep."
- He's addressing these nymphs directly, as though he wants to call them out. He is none too pleased with their behavior. Not cool, nymphs.
For neither were ye playing on the steep
Where your old bards, the famous Druids, lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream.
- The speaker says the nymphs weren't at any of their normal hangouts when Lycidas was drowning.
- What are those normal hangouts? Well, they should have been on the "steep," which refers to a pinnacle or mountain. The phrase "old bards, the famous Druids, lie" tells us that this mountain just might be located on an island called Bardsey, off the north coast of Wales. In Milton's time, it was rumored that 20,000 saints were buried there.
- Druids were priests in the pre-Roman Celtic cultures of Ireland, Wales, England, etc. We don't know much about them, and neither did Milton, but they have become the stuff of legend. In some traditions, they were viewed as priests of Apollo, which explains why Milton relates them to the nymphs.
- And these nymphs weren't on the "shaggy top of Mona" either. No, he's not talking about a bad haircut on a girl. In this case, Mona probably refers to the Isle of Anglesey, an island off the northwest coast of Wales. It was thought to have been inhabited by druids at one point, too.
- Lastly, the nymphs weren't near the Deva, either. Deva refers to the Dee, a river that runs through Wales and England, and partly marks the border between them. "Wizard" here means enchanted or magical. Sounds like quite the river.
Ay me, I fondly dream!
Had ye been there, for what could that have done?
- This speaker has a habit of being lost in daydreams, only to shake himself out of them when he remembers the cruel fact of Lycidas' death. His use of the exclamation shocks us out of our reverie, too.
- After calling out the nymphs for not being where a jolly old Englishman might usually find them, the speaker realizes he shouldn't blame the nymphs; that's just fantasizing ("I fondly dream").
- He seems to think that they wouldn't have been able to do anything even if they had been there, a point he makes by asking another rhetorical question.
What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself for her enchanting son,
Whom universal nature did lament,
When, by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His gory visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?
- As evidence that the nymphs couldn't have prevented Lycidas' death, the speaker alludes to the story of Orpheus, a poet in Greek mythology whose mother (the Muse Calliope) wasn't able to save him from being dismembered and washed downstream by the "rout that made the hideous roar."
- These lines are tough, but here's a way you might paraphrase them: "what could the muse that mothered Orpheus, [what could] the muse herself [do] for her son whom nature mourned, when his head was sent down the river Hebrus by a group of hooligans who had it out for him?"
- Who were those hooligans? Well, it might help to know some background on this Orpheus dude. For more info, check out Shmoop's page on Orpheus and Eurydice.
- Hebrus is the Ancient Greek name for a river that runs through modern-day Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. And "Lesbian shore" refers to the island of Lesbos, off the coast of Greece.
- That's a pretty long, complicated allusion. But really, all the speaker is saying here is that if even Calliope couldn't save her own son, why should he expect the Muses to have saved Lycidas? Maybe he should cut them some slack.