The connection between music and poetry is an old one, and "Lycidas" finds itself squarely in that tradition. The speaker makes all kinds of connections between poems and songs, and often uses the word song when he's actually referring to a poem.
The poem's first speaker describes how he and Lycidas used to compose songs together while herding their flocks, emphasizing that Lycidas was a poet before he died. By the end of the poem, however, another speaker enters and distances himself from the song that has occupied most of the poem, almost as if he were turning his back on Lycidas, and on a certain type of poetry. Maybe Milton has had it with the little ditties, and is ready for something a bit heftier, like, say, an epic?
- Line 1: The laurel is a plant sacred to Apollo, the lustful god of the sun and music in Greek mythology. It is often a symbol of poetry, poetic fame, and general awesomeness. The speaker's destruction of its leaves foreshadows the story about Lycidas' death "ere his prime" (8). He's killing the leaves before they reach their prime, too. The destruction is also a metaphor for great poetic potential or talent never realized, like that of Lycidas (or his real-life alter ego, Edward King).
- Lines 10: The poet suggests that Lycidas was a figure so inspiring that nobody could refuse to "sing" for him; "sing" acts a metaphor for writing poetry, but in earlier literature a song and a poem were exactly the same thing.
- Line 11: Lycidas is described as an awesome poet. The speaker says he (Lycidas) was fond of building the "lofty rhyme." "Build" is a metaphor here for writing poetry, and it helps us think of a poem as a concrete object that has structure in its lines.
- Line 17: The speaker invokes the aid of the muse to inspire his song, which is a practice that's as old as poetry itself. He asks this muse to "loudly sweep the string." "Sweep" here means strum, as you would do on a guitar or a lyre, and the playing of an instrument is a metaphor for the act of composing poetry.
- Line 32-33: The speaker describes how he and Lycidas used to compose songs or "rural ditties" with their "oaten pipe." Pastoral poetry could be described as a "rural ditty," so the phrase here refers to the poem itself.
- Line 44: Lycidas is described as a shepherd who sings "lays" (this is a term referring to short poems that are meant to be sung). His songs are so delightful that the trees dance along. Of course, nature doesn't literally move to Lycidas' "lays" so the description is a metaphor for his connection to the natural world or the power of his song.
- Lines 58-60: The speaker compares Lycidas to Orpheus, a famous poet in Greek mythology who was able to charm and "enchant" nature with his song. Nature mourned for him in the same way it does for Lycidas.
- Lines 86-87: The speaker describes the "vocal reeds" near the river Mincius; these are probably reeds from which one could make a pipe or other wind instrument, or they make music when wind blows over them as they grow on the riverbank. He also mentions Phoebus's "strain," which refers to a melody or tune.
- Line 88: The speaker describes his song or poem as an "oat." "Oat" is what the pipe or instrument is made out of. Because the musical instrument is standing in for the song or poem (he says "oat," not "song played on an oat"), this is an example of metonymy.
- Lines 123-124: St. Peter refers to a bad type of shepherd who can't even write good songs. This description is a metaphor for a bad poet, who is probably nothing like the talents that Lycidas and the speaker are.
- Line 132: Returning to the pastoral themes of the poem, the speaker tells Alpheus, a river and god in classical mythology, to come back. The poet wants to return to the pastoral themes discussed earlier in the poem. Because Alpheus is associated with pastoral poetry, this is an example of metonymy.
- Lines 133: The speaker tells the "Sicilian Muse" to return as well. This is a reference to the muse of Theocritus, the first pastoral poet, and hence an attempt to tap into the same source of inspiration. Here's hoping she answers.
- Lines 176: The speaker mentions an "unexpressive nuptial song." The song is "unexpressive" because angels were thought to be able to communicate without having to resort to speech. That's just how they roll.
- Lines 180-181: Lycidas is entertained by a bunch of saints, who continually sing to him. It's as if he's found another group of poets/singers in the next world, which doesn't sound like a bad deal.
- Lines 186-189: We learn that the whole poem has been a quotation of some "uncouth swain" who was singing a "Doric lay." Doric refers to a dialect of ancient Greek used by Theocritus and other pastoral poets in their writing, and a "lay" is a type of song. Anyone want to grab a guitar and set "Lycidas" to music? Yeah, we didn't think so…