Study Guide

Lycidas Quotes

  • Death

    I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
    And with forced fingers rude
    Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year (3-5)

    The connection between this opening and the poem's subject matter (the death of a young man) is clear, but there might be something else going on. Perhaps the speaker feels that he might be writing this type of poem (pastoral elegy) too soon, almost as if he is plucking his own berries before he should.

    For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
    Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer (8-9)

    This is the first description we get of Lycidas' death. His name is repeated, as is the fact that he is dead, just in case you had any doubt. In fact, it almost seems as if the speaker is trying to convince himself of Lycidas' death, as if he can't quite believe it himself. But we also might think of the repetition of the name as somehow keeping Lycidas alive – in poetry at least.

    So may some gentle muse
    With lucky words favour my destined urn,
    And as he passes turn
    And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud (19-22)

    Okay, now we're getting the whole story. In these lines, the speaker suggests that he is writing this poem for Lycidas so that some poet will do the same for him in the future. That sounds a lot more self-interested than a typical man in grief. We can't help but wonder why he is so focused on his own death, so early on in the poem. Shouldn't he be more worried about Lycidas? Could it be that the only reason he is upset that Lycidas is gone is that it's a reminder of his own mortality?

    But O! the heavy change now thou art gone,
    Now thou art gone and never must return! (37-38)

    Just like in lines 8-9, it's as if the speaker has to keep repeating the fact that Lycidas is dead in order to face the facts. Or maybe he thinks that if he just says it over and over again, it might hurt a little less each time.

    Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods, and desert caves,
    With wild thyme and the gadding vine o'ergrown,
    And all their echoes mourn.
    The willows, and the hazel copses green,
    Shall now no more be seen
    Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays<em> </em>(39-44)

    The natural world mourns for Lycidas in a way that makes it seem dead as well. Did you notice how line 43 ends with the phase "no more be seen"? For a second (before we get to the next line), it appears that the plants have disappeared entirely as a result of Lycidas' death. Even though it turns out they're still there, they seem strangely lifeless, with no reason to move their "leaves." Poor plants.

    Where were ye, Nymphs, when the remorseless deep
    Closed o'er the head of your loved Lycidas? (50-1)

    Oh those negligent nymphs. What nincompoops. In all seriousness though, it seems our speaker is convinced that these mythological figures could have and should have helped out his poor buddy. Our speaker is somewhat unwilling to accept the fact that nothing could be done, which we can tell by the fact that he proceeds to ask all kinds of gods, nymphs, etc. where they were when their supposedly beloved Lycidas fell victim to the powerful and "remorseless" ocean. Eventually, though, he'll realize that even these ancient figures are powerless against fate.

    But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
    And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
    Comes the blind Fury with th' abhorred shears,
    And slits the thin-spun life (73-76)

    Gee, aren't we pessimistic? According to our speaker, whenever we think we're about to achieve fame, fate comes by and kills us. Harsh. To him, life is fragile ("thin-spun"), and death comes to us all, regardless of who we are. That's why that pesky Fury is blind.

    To strew the laureate hearse where Lycidas lies.
    For so to interpose a little ease (151-2)

    The speaker calls on the "valleys low" (136) to send flowers to place on Lycidas' "laureate hearse." The thing is, there is no "hearse" or coffin, because his body is somewhere beneath the ocean. So what's plan B? Honestly, it doesn't seem like there is one. Instead, it seems like the poet has to imagine that Lycidas' body has been recovered in order to say a proper goodbye.

    Weep no more, woeful shepherds weep no more,
    For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
    Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor.
    So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
    And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
    And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
    Flames in the forehead of the morning sky. (165-171)

    These are some of the most important lines in the poem, since they are the first moment we can detect some sense of consolation. Finally. Lycidas isn't really dead, the speaker is saying, because he has gone to a better place (which we find out a few lines later). The simile used here – Lycidas is like a sun that sets and then rises again – is odd because it implies that Lycidas, even though he has risen, will sink again. How does that work? Can someone die again after they're already dead?

  • Man and the Natural World

    I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
    And with forced fingers rude
    Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year (3-5)

    These lines can be read in at least two ways. The act of plucking berries before they're ripe is a metaphor for what the poem is about, the death of a young man before his time. But the poet might be also thinking of his own poetry as premature; it's too soon for him to be writing a poem about his dead friend. In either case, this prematurity is reflected in the natural world and his interaction with it.

    Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods, and desert caves,
    With wild thyme and the gadding vine o'ergrown,
    And all their echoes mourn.
    The willows, and the hazel copses green,
    Shall now no more be seen
    Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays<em> </em>(39-44)

    The speaker describes how Lycidas' death has affected the natural world, which mourns his loss. Lycidas is described as a poet with incredible gifts; in fact, he resembles Orpheus (mentioned in line 58), a poet who was able to charm nature in the same way as Lycidas. The effect of his death on nature makes him a member of a distinguished poetic and mythological tradition. Lucky him?

    Where were ye nymphs when the remorseless deep
    Closed o'er the head of your loved Lycidas<em>?</em> (50-51)

    The nymphs weren't paying attention when Lycidas drowned, or rather when the "deep" took him down. Nymphs are often associated with particular natural features (oceans, rivers, forests), and the speaker here suggests that the natural world, to a certain extent, failed one of its beloved charges. But our fickle friend will change his tune in a few lines (57), but at this point he still can't understand why Lycidas wasn't saved.

    What could the muse herself that Orpheus bore,
    The muse herself for her enchanting son
    Whom universal nature did lament (58-60)

    The speaker compares Lycidas to Orpheus, a mythological poet who was able to enchant the natural world in the same way Lycidas did. Orpheus, too, suffered a violent death, despite the fact that he was totally beloved. Lycidas' story reminds the speaker of Orpheus' story, and the two together remind him of his own potential death. (After all, he is a poet too.)

    Were it not better done as others use,
    To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
    Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair? (67-69)

    In these lines, nature seems like the total opposite of grief (or at least the opposite of writing poetry about grief). The speaker wonders if he'd be better off hanging out in the shade than moping about the death of his friend. It's possible that he is also arguing for a different kind of pastoral poetry, one less obsessed with sadness and grief and more concerned with celebrating and enjoying nature. Not a bad idea at all, right?

    O fountain Arethuse, and thou honoured flood,
    Smooth-sliding Mincius, crowned with vocal reeds. (85-86)

    Our nature-loving speaker is having a chat with some rivers in these lines. But this apostrophe isn't just for show. These two rivers are richly symbolic, reminding the clued-in reader of Greek and Roman pastoral, respectively. Try comparing these rivers to some of the other rivers in the poem – such as the Cam. Do you think the poet might be trying to associate his own native river (the Cam) with the pastoral tradition? That seems plausible, when you consider the fact that Milton worked very hard to make people think of him as a grade-A Poet.

    He asked the waves, and asked the felon winds,
    What hard mishap hath doomed this gentle swain?
    And questioned every gust of rugged wings
    That blows from off each beaked promontory<em> </em>(91-94)

    This passage reminds us of lines 50-51, in which the speaker talks about the nymphs not being there for Lycidas. Here, Triton tells the speaker how he asked the winds and other natural elements about Lycidas' death, just as the speaker asked the nymphs. But neither one of them receives a satisfying answer. It looks like an explanation for the tragedy cannot be sought in nature.

    It was that fatal and perfidious bark
    Built in the eclipse, and rigged with curses dark,
    That sunk so low that sacred head of thine (100-102)

    Looks like nature is off the hook. Instead, it looks like the boat was to blame, because it was cursed from the get-go. Can blaming Lycidas' death on an old curse give our speaker any real solace? From the looks of the poem, probably not. The only solace he gets is when he realizes that Lycidas has gone to a better place.

    Next Camus, reverend sire, went footing slow,
    His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,
    Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge
    Like to that sanguine flower inscribed with woe. (103-106)

    Notice that the River Cam's bonnet is "inwrought with figures dim." Images of writing pepper this description, suggesting that nature is like the poem, or the poem is like nature. Here the flowers are "inscribed with woe"? Does the speaker "inscribe" the natural world and project his grief onto it, or is it sad all on its own?

    Henceforth thou art the genius of the shore,
    In thy large recompense. And shalt be good
    To all that wander in that perilous flood (183-185)

    In these lines, Lycidas is made a part of the natural world, a protective deity or "genius" who will safeguard future travelers. It's almost as if Lycidas has become one of those nymphs or other figures that the speaker had criticized for being absent when Lycidas died.

  • Friendship

    For we were nursed upon the self-same hill,
    Fed the same flock; by fountain, shade, and rill (23-24)

    Let's follow this poem's metaphor all the way through, shall we? If the speaker is Milton, and his shepherd buddy is Milton's fellow poet, Edward King, then the fact that they were "nursed upon the self-same hill" might mean that Milton thinks he and King are descended from the same poetic ancestors, that they were raised on the same verse (like, say, pastoral poetry). If this is the case, the speaker is picking up where Lycidas left off, or, rather, Lycidas' death makes room for the speaker to occupy the poetic hill all alone.


    Together both, ere the high lawns appeared
    Under the opening eye-lids of the morn,
    We drove afield (25-27)

    These two really had it made in the good old days, huh? The fact that they both were shepherds again suggests that Lycidas was a fellow poet, a member of the same distinguished tradition. The speaker here is more interested in the fact that the two were friends, though, than in what they did. Note how the phrase "together both" comes first, and how the verb ("drove afield") comes almost two lines later.

    There entertain him all the saints above,
    In solemn troops, and sweet societies
    That sing, and singing in their glory move,
    And wipe the tears forever from his eyes (178-181)

    In the second half of the poem, Lycidas exchanges one group of friends, his fellow shepherds, for another – the "sweet societies" of angels in heaven. If we read this metaphorically, we might take this to mean that he has left his fellow Cambridge students (the shepherds) for the company of angels. Thinking of Lycidas' or King's new friend up in heaven just might help ease the pain of his comrades back on earth.

    Henceforth thou art the genius of the shore,
    In thy large recompense. And shalt be good
    To all that wander in that perilous flood (183-185)

    Now Lycidas is the friend of all sea-faring people. That's his "recompense" or reward for suffering a terrible death before his time. An entire new community is established – between Lycidas and "all that wander in that perilous flood." This community will outlive both Lycidas and the poem's speaker. Hey, the more friends the better, right?

  • Sadness

    Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
    Compels me to disturb your season due (6-7)

    Duty calls. The speaker implies that this song, this tribute to his friend, is something of an obligation. It is a "constraint," not something voluntarily undertaken, at least not completely. This might be because the speaker doesn't want to use his poetic gifts for such a sad subject. Or maybe he is so overcome with grief that he can't quite control his own decisions.

    He must not float upon his watery bier
    Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
    Without the meed of some melodious tear. (12-14)

    The speaker wishes that Lycidas could hear this elegy, or "melodious tear." We can't help but notice that he describes the poem with a reference to water ("tear"), which is fitting considering that Lycidas met his death at sea. The fact that the tear is "melodious" suggests that the speaker is converting grief into art, beauty, poetry. We have a feeling Lycidas would be pleased.

    What could the muse herself that Orpheus bore,
    The muse herself for her enchanting son
    Whom universal nature did lament. (58-60)

    By comparing Lycidas to Orpheus, the speaker tells us just how much of an impact Lycidas' death will have. Even "universal nature" will be bummed to hear the news. Oh, and by the way, it is a convention of the pastoral elegy to describe all of nature mourning for an especially beloved poet. Milton is checking off all his boxes, like a good poet should.

    Look homeward angel now, and melt with ruth (163)

    If this angel is Lycidas, does this mean he has to mourn his own death? There are other places in the poem (166 especially) where the speaker seems to imply that Lycidas should continue to be sorrowful. Why might that be?

    Weep no more, woeful shepherds weep no more,
    For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
    Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor.
    So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
    And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
    And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
    Flames in the forehead of the morning sky. (165-171)

    The speaker tells the shepherds to stop being so sad, because Lycidas isn't dead. Nope, he is just reborn in heaven. That's not so sad at all, right?

    There entertain him all the saints above,
    In solemn troops, and sweet societies
    That sing, and singing in their glory move,
    And wipe the tears forever from his eyes (178-181)

    This passage picks up the themes from lines 165-171, where it isn't clear exactly what the word "sorrow" refers to. In this passage, "forever" is ambiguous, suggesting both cessation – Lycidas' tears have been wiped away for good – and continuance, as if the "saints" were wiping Lycidas' tears for all time. How do you read it?

    Now Lycidas the shepherds weep no more (182)

    The shepherds no longer weep for Lycidas, but why? Is it because they know that Lycidas is in heaven being entertained by saints? Or is it because the proper time for mourning has come to an end? Either way, it takes most of the poem for the shepherds to stop crying their eyes out, which helps emphasize the importance of time in the mourning process.