The Poet Shepherd
This guy is a free spirit. He's talking to the myrtles and the laurels, he's singing a song to no one in particular, and he's talking about strange-sounding nymphs, gods, and goddesses of which you have never heard (unless you're a mythology expert). But before you give the guy the side-eye and head on your merry way, you might want to stop and hear what he has to say.
At first glance, the speaker of "Lycidas" is a tough nut to crack. But with Shmoop's help, you'll realize he's not a nut at all. His strange words and kookily arranged sentences disguise an inner turmoil. He's in mourning. He has lost a dear friend. Oh so that explains it.
For much of the poem, this speaker tells us all about his best bud Lycidas, and about how the whole world, from top to bottom, is majorly bummed that Lycidas has gone and found himself a "wat'ry" grave on the "ocean bed" (Lines 167-68). He is at turns mopey, accusatory of whoever it was that took his buddy away from him, and hopeful that he might find some comfort in the fact that at least Lycidas has gone to heaven. He tells his fellow mourners to "weep no more" (165).
In many ways, our speaker is a stock and standard mourner. He goes through the five stages of grief like just about any other person who has lost a loved one. We think we've got a handle on him, right?
The Second Speaker
Oh, how wrong we are. You see, it turns out that this speaker we have been getting to know for 185 lines is not our speaker at all. Milton has pulled a fast one on us. In the end, we learn that the entire poem has been a performance by some other speaker, who tells us:
Thus sang the uncouth swain to the oaks and rills,
While the still morn went out with sandals grey;
He touched the tender stops of various quills,
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay: (186-89)
We can forgive Milton for fooling us with this poetic twist. But we still have to ask the question: why bother with the twist at all? What is the effect of having the reader learn, at the very end, that the speaker is not who we thought he was, and is someone different altogether?
One possible explanation is that doing so helps enhance the metaphor. Most people in Milton's day would have known about the tragic death of Edward King. And the fact that this poem was first published in a collection dedicated to the memory of King gives us a lens through which we read the poem.
Now that the shepherd (or Milton) has finished his song, perhaps he can finally let Lycidas (or King) go. Or maybe this twist of an ending helps reinforce the connection between poetry and song by reminding us that this poem is being performed – not read. Or perhaps we can take the second speaker to be Milton himself, reinforcing the metaphor we have already guessed at – that Lycidas is King in shepherd's clothing. However you choose to interpret the ending, and the sharp shift in speakers, it's a conundrum that has befuddled critics, readers, and poets alike for hundreds of years.