Is it a song, or a poem? With all the blurring between the two that goes on in "Lycidas," you'd be forgiven for wanting to belt a few lines out in the shower. The problem is, this poem is so irregular, so full of jarring rhythms and tough names that you would be hard pressed to find your groove.
Alliteration abounds, with moments like "forced fingers" (line 4), "sisters of the sacred" (like 15), and "daily devours" (129). Within the lines, repetition of phrases and sounds adds a satisfying sense of harmony and melody. But when you add to that sense of harmony the irregular rhythms, coupled with a rhyme scheme that never quite finds its footing, you've got a rollicking, somewhat bumpy ride ahead of you.
The poem constantly surprises you with its sounds. Just when you think you've fallen into step, it will trip you up all over again. But that is one of the great joys of reading Milton. He expects a lot of you, and you have the distinct pride of rising to the occasion.
"Lycidas" is a poem that mourns the death of Milton's college buddy Edward King, whom he refers to in the poem as Lycidas. You're probably wondering why in the world Milton would write a poem for his best friend and opt to call him by an old Greek name, instead of just calling him, say, Eddie. But there's more at work here than mourning the death of a friend. Using the name "Lycidas" has its poetic advantages.
Who was Theocritus? Glad you asked. This guy was a Greek-speaking poet who lived in Sicily in the third century B.C.E. He is often credited with inventing the pastoral genre – that's right, inventing it. Virgil was a famous – perhaps the most famous – Roman poet, who wrote The Aeneid, one of the most famous epic poems ever written. Before he wrote that whopper, he wrote a series of pastoral poems called the Eclogues, which were (and are still) arguably even more famous than Theocritus' Idylls.
Lycidas is a pastoral elegy, which we talked about briefly in "In a Nutshell." These poems have a tradition in which the poet gives the dead person whom they're mourning a name from the works of Virgil, Theocritus, or other similar poets. For example, Percy Shelley calls his poet friend John Keats Adonais in his pastoral elegy of the same name.
Lycidas, as you might have guessed, isn't just a randomly chosen name. As it turns out, in Theocritus' Idylls, Lycidas is called the "best of pipers." (Lo and behold, Milton's Lycidas is one heck of a musical talent, too.) Even though he is praised by Theocritus' speaker, however, he loses a singing contest. Virgil's Lycidas is also quite the talent, although he expresses some doubts about his poetic abilities. Despite the fact that Virgil and Theocritus use the name Lycidas for different purposes, one thing is clear: Lycidas, while a talented singer, either loses out to another poet or fears that he will.
The Lycidas of Theocritus and Virgil bears some strong similarities to Milton's schoolmate King. By calling him Lycidas, Milton is drawing attention to the fact that King was himself a budding poet, and a good one at that. But Milton also draws attention to himself as a poet. By writing about a guy named Lycidas, Milton might be signaling to his readers that he sees himself as on par with the greats like Theocritus and Virgil, who wrote about the same dude (sort of). It's a bold move, but considering that Milton is one of the most famous and loved poets in the English language, you might say he knew exactly what he was doing.
Let's suppose you're a diligent student of English literature who knows that many of England's finest poets, including John Milton and William Wordsworth, attended Cambridge University. One autumn you decide to take a trip to England to visit the houses, graves, and haunts of many of your favorite British authors. During your visit to Cambridge – one of the most anticipated stops on your trip – you stumble upon a nice, lush spot near the river Cam. You can't help being reminded of that line in "Lycidas" about the "bells and flow'rets of a thousand hues" (135). You've done extensive research on the flowers in that poem and you quickly recognize violets, woodbines, cowslips, and primroses. You're stunned by the serene beauty and tranquility of this quiet retreat. If only they had a place like this back home.
As you walk around and explore the area, you notice that you're near a clearing. You make your way toward it, and just when you thought the landscape couldn't get any more pastoral, you stumble into an actual pasture for sheep and other animals. Way out in the distance, you can see a local shepherd, crook in hand, and you can't help thinking of that "uncouth swain" in "Lycidas" – you know, the guy who actually recited the poem? At any rate, you have to take some pictures of this spot; they might come in handy if and when you teach "Lycidas."
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?
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.
(7) Snow Line
With its wonky syntax, obscure classical allusions, and confusing vocabulary, "Lycidas" makes for a tough and tricky read. Our man Milton was practically a legend when it came to making long, complicated, downright exhausting sentences. And as for those allusions, well, Milton is a fan of obscure ones. But if you're willing to spend some time sifting for verbs and searching for gods in Shmoop's mythology section, you'll find this poem well worth the effort. Oh, and you might want to have a dictionary handy for those more unfamiliar words (what in the world does "gadding" mean, anyway?).
Even the best of us can be left scratching our heads at some of Milton's lines. Our guy is known for his crazy syntax (that's a fancy word for sentence structure), requiring us readers to go hunting for the subject and verb with a flashlight and, perhaps, a shovel.
People have often characterized Milton's verse as Latinate, meaning that he writes English as if it were Latin. What does that mean, exactly? Well, in Latin, word order doesn't matter as much as it does in English, and verbs tend to come at the end of sentences. Sound familiar? Milton is always writing things out of order, and sticking the verb in at the tail end of the sentence.
Take these lines for example: "Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods, and desert caves, / With wild thyme and the gadding vine o'ergrown, / And all their echoes mourn" (39-41). Notice how the object of the verb comes first ("Thee, Shepherd," i.e. Lycidas), then the subject of the verb ("the woods, and desert caves"), then a description of that subject ("with wild thyme," etc.), and finally the verb ("mourn"). All it's saying is that the woods and caves (that are overgrown with thyme and vines) mourn for the shepherd. In other words, the sentence is sort of backwards, but in a pretty way. That's classic Milton.
There are a number of examples of this. Take lines 25-27: "Together both, ere the high lawns appeared / Under the opening eye-lids of the morn, / We drove a-field." Normally we might say, "We drove a-field together before the high lawns appeared," but Milton says, "Together, before the high lawns appeared, we drove a-field." Again, the verb comes at the end. As you read through "Lycidas" you'll notice lots of examples of this strange Miltonian syntax.
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?
Flowers and trees and bushes, oh my! There are blooming things in "Lycidas," and they're not just here to look pretty. Sometimes flowers are used to evoke early death, as in the opening of the poem. At other points, they serve a more decorative, ritualistic function, as when they are strewed on Lycidas' coffin. These plants are beautiful, of course, but for our speaker they are tied closely to death.
As a pastoral elegy, "Lycidas" is practically required to pay homage to classical mythology. Milton does so by tipping his hat to just about every mythological figure ever. We're not kidding. Practically every line has a god or a goddess in it. The many allusions in "Lycidas" are partly Milton's attempt to signal to his readers that he is a Poet-with-a-capital-P. And they are partly an effort to cling to something stable, like a long literary and mythological tradition, after the devastating loss of his friend. If you want to boggle your mind, head on over to "Shout Outs" to see just how often Milton alludes to classical sources.
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?).
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?
Milton's best bud Edward King (Lycidas) drowned at sea, so it's no wonder that water plays such a big role in this poem. A boatload of bodies of water, both real and mythological, are mentioned. Sometimes the speaker refers to them for inspiration, or because he wants his readers to make a connection to something with which that particular body of water is associated. At other times, he just wants to remind his readers that his close friend met a tragic end at the hands of the sea.
This is a poem about the death of a good friend, so as you might expect, that means there is no sex to be found in "Lycidas."
This poem has more shout-outs than drive-time radio. The echoes, allusions, references, and sources in "Lycidas" are practically innumerable. We've included a number of the most important and mainstream sources, with specific citations for where you can track down Milton's allusion in its source text. When several sources mention the same thing, we have listed all of them, as in line 86. But remember, Shmoopers, there are even more allusions – especially classical ones – for the curious reader (see the "Detailed Summary" and "Symbols" sections for more information).