by John Milton
Analysis: Form and Meter
Pastoral Elegy; Alternating Iambic Pentameter and Trimeter, Irregular Rhyme
Dead friend? Check.
That's it, folks. That's all you need to know about this poem to conclude that "Lycidas" is a pastoral elegy.
Great. But wait, what's a pastoral elegy? Awesome question. It's a type of poem invented by the Greek-speaking Sicilian poet Theocritus in the third century BCE. There are two parts to this poem: the elegy part, and the pastoral part.
Milton covers the elegy angle by making this poem about his dead friend Edward King. An elegy is a poem mourning the death of someone, who is almost always a fellow poet. Done.
As for the pastoral portion, well a pastoral poem is one that idealizes shepherds and country life, often presenting it as timeless and easy-going. In the poem, Lycidas and the speaker are shepherds who, before Lycidas' death, had a merry old time steering their sheep around the countryside.
These two types of poetry are combined in the pastoral elegy, a genre in which the speaker of the poem memorializes a fellow poet using a number of features of the pastoral poem. In "Lycidas," the speaker frequently refers to an idyllic past in which he and Lycidas were shepherds. They would get up early in the morning to tend their flocks and play instruments frequently found in pastoral poetry (such as the "oaten reed" of line 33).
The meter of Lycidas shuttles back and forth, whenever it wants, between iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter.
"Hold your horses," you say. "What it the world are you talking about, Shmoop?"
Allow us to explain. Iambic pentameter means that each line of the poem can be divided into five groups or feet (that's the pentameter part), which each contain an iamb. "What's an iamb," you ask? Well, it's an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. That's a lot of mumbo jumbo to throw at you, so let's check out an example so we can see the meter at work:
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere (Line 2).
da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM
Got the beat? Awesome. Line 2 is nice and neat – five simple iambs in a row. Line 3, however, proves a bit trickier:
"I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude." (Line 3)
This line introduces a little something we like to call metrical variation. In other words, Milton is straying away from the iambic pentameter a bit here. How so? By inserting a spondee at the beginning of the line. A spondee is another type of metrical foot, just like the iamb. Only unlike the iamb, a spondee contains two stressed syllables, rather than an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. We call a line like this a line of iambic pentameter with a spondaic substitution. Keep that one in your pocket for the next time you need to impress a friend at a dinner party.
We can't forget, too, that here and there Milton tosses us a line of iambic trimeter. That's a line, much like line 2, which contains a bunch of iambs in a row. Only in a line of trimeter, there are three iambs, instead of five. Of course, Milton wouldn't be Milton if he didn't throw us for a loop, so in some of his trimeter lines he includes a great deal of metrical variation, too. They don't want to be left out, now do they?
Take line 56 for example:
"Ay me, I fondly dream."
The first two beats are spondees, while the third is an iamb. What do we call this? The short answer is nothing – there really isn't a name for it.
And wouldn't you know, as it turns out, this is pretty much true for the whole poem. Milton was and still is famous for his crazy metrical variations. While there are certainly pure iambic lines (such as line 41), the majority of the poem's lines are irregular at best. Every once in a while, you'll hear the old familiar da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM, but for the most part, you'll be dancing to a jazzier, more improvisational beat.
Why all this variation? Is Milton just a messy poet, too lazy to go back and polish his lines? Probably not. This guy was a master after all. We might consider his wild meters a reflection of the wild pastoral countryside about which he writes.
There are rhymes in this poem, that much is sure. But do they fall into any particular pattern or scheme – you know, the ol' ABAB? Nope. The rhymes are irregular at best, and downright wonky in general. This strange scheme raises the question: John, why bother rhyming in the first place if you're not going to rhyme in a pattern? But since Milton is long gone, we'll just have to settle for asking our dear readers: what do you think is the effect of these random rhymes?