Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Alas! what boots it with uncessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd's trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse
- We've got another exclamation to open these lines. Our speaker is all kinds of unhappy.
- Shmooptionary to the rescue: "Boots" here is a verb, meaning something like to profit, or to gain. And "uncessant" is just an older spelling of incessant, or without stopping.
- Essentially, in these lines, the speaker is wondering what he would gain by continuing to live like a shepherd (without good old Lycidas by his side), and dwelling, or "strictly meditat[ing]" on the fact that the Muse does not seem interested in helping him out (in other words, she is "thankless").
- We can't help but thinking that he probably doesn't have much to gain at all, the poor guy.
- You know what's interesting here? Earlier, when the speaker was describing the shepherd's life, it sounded pretty awesome, right? He and Lycidas frolicked with the fauns and salsaed with the satyrs. But now that life seems not-so-great; in fact, it's "homely" and "slighted" (or ugly, and ignored). What's the point anymore?
Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair?
- In other words: Wouldn't it be better to "sport with Amaryllis" and the "tangles of Neaera's hair" like everyone else ("better done as others use") than think about the muse and live the difficult life of a shepherd?
- Okay, now we understand the question, but do we actually know what he's asking? It might help to get a little background:
- Amaryllis is a shepherdess who appears in the work of several ancient pastoral poets, most notably Virgil (in the Eclogues) and Theocritus (in the Idylls).
- Neaera is another nymph who pops up in pastoral poetry; she appears in Virgil's Eclogues and the work of several later poets. The "tangles" of her hair are always mentioned. May we recommend conditioner?
- Here, the speaker builds on the idea he introduced in the previous lines: He might have a better time of it if he ditched the shepherd life and took up with some nymphs. Maybe then he could get over the loss of his buddy.
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days;
- For the past few lines, the speaker has been asking the age-old question: Why bother?
- Now, he gives us the answer. The speaker is saying that the only we reason we "scorn delights" (like hanging out with Amaryllis and Neaera) and live a life of labor is because the prospect of fame "spur[s]" us on.
- Milton has always been a fan of strange syntax, and these lines are no exception. When you read "Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise," it sounds like the clear spirit is raising the spur of fame, right? Wrong. It actually means that the spur of fame raises the clear spirit. Funky, huh?
- Basically, he is using a metaphor to say that fame prods the spirit to action, much like a spur prods a horse to move.
- Awesome. We have that part down. Now what's this "last infirmity of noble mind" all about? Well, that phrase modifies fame, which means that fame is something that makes a noble mind sick.
- If you think about it, that makes perfect sense. If noble people get caught up in trying to be famous, they probably will ignore fun things and focus too hard on their work.
- Wait, but people become famous now for all kinds of "delights." And many famous people have barely done any work at all.
- True, but in Milton's day, you became famous through your work. Milton wanted to be a very famous poet, so he probably scorned a fair number of delights in his day, and focused only on toiling away at the pen.
- Again, he is continuing the idea he started a few lines ago: shepherding is no longer the fun it used to be, when Lycidas was around. Now it sounds like tough work.
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th' abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life. […]
- This fame thing is pretty fickle. In fact, it's downright elusive. The speaker continues talking about the elusiveness of fame: When we think we've finally found it, or that our time has come ("and think to burst out into sudden blaze"), Fate comes and kills us.
- A "guerdon" is a reward, which means that fame is presented as a reward. The problem is, just when we think we have found that guerdon, "blind Fury," or fate, comes to take it away.
- How does fate rob us of fame? With its "shears" that can easily cut through the flimsy, or "thin-spun" material that is human life.
- In other words, just when Lycidas was about to "burst out in a sudden blaze" (now there's an image) of fame, fate intervened and killed him. Tough break.
- This "blind Fury," by the way, is yet another classical allusion to Greek mythology. The Fates, of which this Fury in an example, were three female figures who were in charge of determining how long a person would live. The specific Fury, or Fate that our speaker is referring to here is probably Atropos, who was the one in charge of cutting the "thread" with "abhorred shears," which ended a person's life.