by John Milton
Shepherds and Sheep Herding
You can't have a pastoral without shepherds and their fuzzy friends. Are we right or are we right? The pastoral, or shepherding imagery in this poem partly works to idealize the speaker's relationship with Lycidas. They seem like the best of buds, frolicking around on the lawns. But Milton also uses this imagery on his behalf as a poet. Using the pastoral genre helps him make a case for his membership in a long, distinguished line of poets who wrote pastorals (Virgil, Theocritus, Spenser). Plus, there's a third option. At other points, Milton uses pastoral imagery to criticize bad religious leaders (pastors – get the pun?).
- Lines 23-24: The speaker describes how both he and Lycidas grew up on the same hill and "fed the same flock." Sounds like shepherds to Shmoop.
- Lines 25-29: The speaker grows nostalgic about his shepherding life with Lycidas. They would get up before the sun rose, go out to the fields, hang out all day, and live the life. Milton and Edward King (Lycidas) didn't literally tend flocks, so we should probably read the story of their life as shepherds as a metaphor for their friendship. There's a metaphor within a metaphor here, too: when he describes the "morn" opening her "eye-lids," he is really talking about the sun. Lines 45-9: The speaker says that Lycidas' death has the same effect on shepherds' ears as caterpillars eating roses, frost destroying flowers, and worms infecting cows. He uses the phrase "as" to make the comparison, which means this is a simile, and a gross one at that.
- Line 92: Lycidas is again described as a "gentle swain" which means he's a nice farmer.
- Lines 113-118: St. Peter addresses the speaker as a "swain" and describes a type of person that breaks into the fold only to eat food and force more worthy people out of the way. While "fold" implies a sheep-fold, or a corral for those fuzzy creatures, it's pretty clear that this is also a metaphor for a religious community infected by a bad pastor. (Notice how the word "pastoral" contains "pastor?" Pastors are shepherds of human flocks. The pun is not lost on Milton.)
- Lines 120-1: St. Peter describes these greedy men as bad shepherds, who don't even know how to hold a "sheep-hook" or carry out the rudimentary tasks of a shepherd.
- Lines 125-127: St. Peter gives even more evidence of these shepherd/pastors' bad behavior, describing how the sheep are starving and spreading diseases ("foul contagion") because their shepherds are clueless and neglectful. The state of the sheep is a metaphor for the state of the parish under a bad religious leader.
- Lines 165: The speaker tells the shepherds to stop weeping. Lycidas isn't dead; he has been reborn in heaven. Lucky him.
- Line 182: The shepherds have stopped weeping because they now know that not only is Lycidas in heaven, but he has also become the "genius of the shore" (183).
- Lines 186: We learn that the whole poem is the quoted speech or song of some "uncouth swain," in other words, the speaker of the poem, or song, is a shepherd himself, and he's singing it to the countryside.