Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
O fountain Arethuse, and thou honoured flood,
Smooth-sliding Mincius, crowned with vocal reeds,
That strain I heard was of a higher mood:
- Phoebus out. Now that Phoebus has finished yammering on, the speaker resumes, well, speaking. Here, in another apostrophe, he addresses the Arethuse and the Mincius.
- For those not in the know, the Arethuse is a fountain on the island of Sicily. And the Mincius is a river (or "flood") that runs through northern Italy. Virgil mentions it in his Eclogues, in which he mentions the river's "reeds," which our speaker describes as "vocal." Our speaker sure has a thing for Virgil, doesn't he?
- In his address to the fountain and the river, the speaker tells us that Phoebus' speech was of a "higher mood," meaning that it was a bit too fancy-pants for a pastoral poem.
But now my oat proceeds,
And listens to the herald of the sea
That came in Neptune's plea,
He asked the waves, and asked the felon winds,
What hard mishap hath doomed this gentle swain?
- Oat? Is he talking about a piece of grain with ears, toddling along, listening to the ocean?
- We wish. No, he's talking about his song, the pastoral poem he's writing. "Oat" is a stand-in for a musical instrument made out of an oat-stalk, like the "oaten reed" he mentioned way back in line 33.
- When he says "my oat proceeds," the speaker means he is continuing his song. He describes how Triton, the "herald of the sea," comes to defend ("came in […] plea") Neptune, who is the god of the sea, from the charge of Lycidas' death.
- Milton's friend Mr. King drowned in the ocean, so it makes sense that our speaker might blame the god of the sea for his friend's death. But Triton isn't having it.
- In fact, Triton wants to understand what went down, too. So he asks the waves and the savage (or "felon") winds what happened to Lycidas, the "gentle swain."
- Sure Triton, just blame it on the weather, why don't you?
And questioned every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beaked promontory:
They knew not of his story,
And sage Hippotades their answer brings,
That not a blast was from his dungeon strayed;
The air was calm, and on the level brine
Sleek Panope with all her sisters played.
- This Triton dude is all about getting some answers. He also asked the "wings" blowing from pointed ("beaked") promontories (a piece of land jutting out into the sea), and they didn't know anything about Lycidas' story.
- These wings might be a synecdoche for birds, flying from sea-cliffs, or perhaps it's just referring to the wind.
- Who is this Hippotades guy? Well, that's just another name for Aelous, the god of the winds. He kept the winds stored in a cave ("dungeon") and tells the speaker that all of his winds were at home when Lycidas died, so they couldn't have had anything to do with the tragedy.
- Hippotades also says that the "air was calm," and Panope, one of fifty sea Nereids, was seen playing on the calm ("level") sea, or "brine."
It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in the eclipse, and rigged with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.
- "Perfidious bark"? Is there a dog around? Perfidious means deceitful, or untrustworthy, and bark is another word for ship. Here, our speaker is saying that the ship is to blame for Lycidas' death, not the winds or the sea. The ship is what "sunk so low that sacred head of thine." In other words, "The ship is what drowned you, Lycidas."
- Eclipses were once considered evil omens, and the speaker implies that because the ship was built during one it was "rigged with curses dark," which caused Lycidas' death. Let that be a lesson, all you shipbuilders out there.
Next Camus, reverend sire, went footing slow,
His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,
Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge
Like to that sanguine flower inscribed with woe.
"Ah! Who hath reft" (quoth he) my dearest pledge?"
- Camus appears, another word for the river Cam (which runs near Cambridge University, the home of Milton and King). The speaker personifies the river by saying that it is clearly mourning for Lycidas – it is "inscribed with woe." He also asks who has taken ("reft") his dearest "pledge." The river wants to know who has taken Lycidas.
- The speaker goes even further with his personification, describing Camus as a university student, complete with a furry academic gown ("mantle hairy") and wearing a "bonnet sedge." A "sedge" is a rush-like plant that grows near water.
- The bonnet is compared to the "sanguine flower," the hyacinth. In Greek mythology, a Spartan youth named Hyacinthus was accidentally killed while playing with Apollo, god of the sun, music, and poetry. According to one myth, hyacinth flowers sprung up from his blood that was spilled. Supposedly, the flower was marked with the Greek word "AI," which translates to "alas," which is a pretty woeful word, if we may say so.