Study Guide

Lycidas Analysis

  • Sound Check

    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.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "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.

    The name Lycidas occurs in a number of classical sources, chief among them Theocritus' Idylls (7 and 27) and Virgil's Eclogues (7 and 9).

    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.

  • Setting

    A Pretty, Wooded Area Near Cambridge University

    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."

  • Speaker

    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.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (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?).

  • Calling Card

    Strange Sentence Structure

    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.

  • Form and Meter

    Pastoral Elegy; Alternating Iambic Pentameter and Trimeter, Irregular Rhyme

    Dead friend? Check.

    Shepherds? 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).

    Meter

    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.

    Rhyme

    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, Plants, Bushes

    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.

    • Lines 1-5: The poet addresses "laurels" and "myrtles" with the word "o"; this is called an apostrophe. The plants haven't matured yet, but the poet is picking their berries and cutting their leaves anyway. This rather rude action is a metaphor for Lycidas' early death. "Laurels" are a symbol of poetic ability and fame, so these lines also describe the death of a potential poet who didn't get a chance to share his gift with the world.
    • Lines 39-41: We learn that the woods and caves – which are overgrown with vines – mourn for Lycidas. Woods and caves don't literally mourn, so this is personification, the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things. Lycidas' death must have been one sad affair if even the natural world is down in the dumps about it.
    • Lines 42-44: The willow and hazel leaves used to boogie to Lycidas' songs; they won't do that anymore because he's dead. This is yet another example of personification.
    • Lines 45-49: The speaker compares the news of Lycidas' death to the infection a rose suffers, or the effects of frost on flowers. He uses the word "as" to make this comparison, which means this is a simile. Lycidas' death is so affecting, it's like a disease. Yikes.
    • Lines 79-80: Fame is described as a plant that doesn't grow on "mortal soil, which means that the plant acts as a metaphor for fame.
    • Lines 82-3: In a repeat of likes 79-80, some kind of plant or tree is used as metaphor here for fame, which "lives and spreads aloft."
    • Line 106: The River Cam's "bonnet sedge" (104) is compared to the hyacinth using the word "like," which means we have a simile on our hands, folks. See the "Detailed Summary" for this section for more on the significance of the hyacinth in Greek mythology.
    • Lines 133-5: The speaker tells the "Sicilian Muse" (the muse of the first pastoral poet, Theocritus) to call the vales ("winds") and to tell them to send some flowers and bells the speaker's way. These poor muses sure have a lot on their plates.
    • Lines 139-141: The speaker implores the valleys to "throw hither" their "quaint enamelled eyes." These "eyes" are flowers, which "purple" the turf and "suck" rainwater from the ground. "Eyes" is a metaphor here for the flowers of the valley; it implies that the flowers are somehow aware of what has happened to Lycidas. They can see, after all (personification anyone?).
    • Lines 143-151: The speaker goes into more detail, telling the valleys to bring a bunch of different flowers to place on Lycidas' "hearse" or coffin. Some of the flowers are specifically associated with mourning, such as the "pansy freaked with jet" (speckled with black) and the "cowslips … that hang the pensive head." The speaker implies that these, and other flowers that he wants, wear "sad embroidery." Flowers don't literally wear anything, so this is yet another example of personification. "Wear" is also a metaphor to describe the way the flowers manifest their appearance. Now, the speaker is not killing flowers to represent Lycidas' death, but calling upon them all to help him mourn his dead friend. There's a shift, here, in the way our speaker sees flowers.
    • Line 186: We learn the poem is actually the quoted/reported song of an "uncouth swain" addressing "oaks and rills." Not only is he talking about and to plants in the poem, but he is also talking to plants as he recites the poem. Has this guy spent too much time in the great outdoors?
  • Classical Allusions

    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.

    • Line 1: Any reference to "laurels" in poetry recalls the story of Apollo and Daphne. The laurel is a symbol of both poetry and everlasting youth, thanks to Apollo.
    • Lines 15-16: The speaker implores the aid of the "sacred sisters," the nine muses of Mount Helicon who were long believed to inspire poetry. They were daughters of Zeus, and were often thought to hang out around one of two sacred springs on Mount Helicon: Hippocrene or Aganippe, which Milton mentions.
    • Line 50: The speaker wonders where the nymphs were when Lycidas died. It's a sign of just how much in pain our speaker is; he is willing to accuse the gods, rather than face the death of his friend.
    • Lines 58-63: The death of Orpheus is recounted in order to show that even nymphs and muses can't protect those they love from dying. It's a sad truth to face, but it does help lift Lycidas up to the level of one of the most famous mythological poets (Orpheus), who also met an early death.
    • Line 78: Phoebus (a.k.a. Apollo) tells the speaker to cool his jets about the whole fame thing. When he touches the speaker's ears, that's an allusion to Virgil's Eclogues, whose speaker is similarly reprimanded by the god.
    • Lines 82-83: Fame is described as a living thing that grows as a result of Jove's decisions. In Greek mythology, Jove referred to Zeus. A plant or something like a tree is here a metaphor for fame.
    • Lines 89-90: The speaker describes how Triton, Neptune's son, comes to say that Neptune is not to blame for Lycidas' death, just in case the speaker is still feeling all accusatory.
    • Line 96: Triton also asked the "rugged wings" (winds?), and they didn't know anything about Lycidas' death. Nor did Hippotades (a.k.a. Aeolus), god of the winds. If our speaker was hoping to blame the winds, well, no dice.
    • Line 99: The sea was calm when Lycidas died, because Panope, a sea Nereid (nymphs friendly to sailors), was too busy playing with her sisters to stir up any trouble.
    • Line 106: The speaker uses a simile to compare the River Cam's "bonnet sedge" (104) to the hyacinth, a flower created by the death of Apollo's friend Hyacinth.
    • Lines 132-3: The speaker tells Alpheus, a river and god in classical mythology, to return. In one story, Alpheus fell in love with a nymph (Arethuse) bathing in his river. He pursued her but she was transformed by Diana (goddess of the hunt and virginity; also called Artemis) into a stream that mingled with Alpheus, went underground, and reemerged in Sicily. 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. You might also say that it is a symbol of pastoral poetry.
    • Line 183: The speaker describes how Lycidas has become the "genius of the shore." A "genius" is a protective deity or spirit, often associated with a particular place in classical mythology. That's quite the promotion.
  • 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.
  • Music and Poetry

    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…
  • Bodies of Water

    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.

    • Lines 85-86: The speaker addresses the "fountain Arethuse" and "smooth-sliding Mincius." The Arethuse is a fountain near the city of Otygia, on the island of Sicily. The Mincius is a river ("flood") in northern Italy. This was Virgil's native river, and in the Eclogues, he comments on the "reeds" near it. Arethuse is a symbol of Greek pastoral, whereas the Mincius symbolizes Roman pastoral. Readers who are clued in to these associations will understand the wink and the nod. For readers who aren't clued in, well, good thing you've got Shmoop.
    • Line 98: Hippotades (Aeolus, god of the winds) notes that the sea ("brine") was calm ("level") when Lycidas died. In other words, his winds weren't responsible for the death, and neither was the sea.
    • Lines 103-106: The River Cam (Camus) appears, mourning Lycidas. The river Cam is associated with Cambridge University. In fact, you might say that the river is actually standing in for the university here, which would make it an example of metonymy.
    • Line 109: The phrase "pilot of the Galilean lake" is used to describe St. Peter. Galilea is an area in present-day northern Israel where Jesus spent a lot of time.
    • Lines 132-133: The speaker appeals to Alpheus, a famous river and god in Greek mythology.
    • Lines 154-158: The speaker mentions how the "shores, and sounding seas" have washed Lycidas' body far away. It is possible, he tells us, that Lycidas' bones are buried deep beneath the ocean, even beyond the Hebrides, which were islands off the coast of Scotland.
    • Line 174: The speaker describes the streams of heaven or paradise. These contrast with other bodies of water in the poem because they are full of nectar. Fancy a glass?
    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      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."

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References:

      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).

      In order of the poem:

      • Virgil, Eclogues 10.3 (10)
      • Edmund Spenser, Shepherd's Calendar October 8 (33)
      • Virgil, Eclogues 6.27-28 (34)
      • Moschus, "Lament for Bion" 1-7; 27-35 (39-44)
      • William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream I.i.184-5 (48-49)
      • Virgil, Eclogues 2.14-15 (67-68)
      • Tibullus, Elegies 3.2.11-12 (69)
      • Edmund Spenser, "Tears of the Muses" 454 (70)
      • Virgil, Eclogues 6.3-4 (77)
      • Virgil, Eclogues 7.12-13 (86)
      • Virgil, Georgics 3.14-15 (86)
      • Virgil, Aeneid 10.205-206 (86)
      • Virgil, Aeneid 1.52-63 (96-98)
      • Virgil, Aeneid 5.240 (99)
      • Virgil, Aeneid 8.31-34 (104)
      • Theocritus, Idylls 10.28 (106)
      • Moschus, "Lament for Bion" 6 (106)
      • Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.214-6 (106)
      • Virgil, Eclogues 3.27 (124)
      • Dante, Paradiso 29.106-7 (125-7)
      • Petrarch, Eclogues 9 (125-7)
      • Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.572-641 (132ff.)
      • Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene III.vi.45 (149)
      • Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.824 (153)
      • William Shakespeare, Pericles 3.1.64 (157)
      • Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene III.vii.9 (163)
      • William Shakespeare, Hamlet 4.1.25-7 (170)
      • Revelations 7:17 (181)
      • Revelations 21.4 (181)
      • Edmund Spenser, Shepherd's Calendar June 67 (188)
      • Virgil, Eclogues 1.83 (190)