“Lycidas” was composed in November of 1637, by John Milton, and is a poetic elegy for Milton’s friend and classmate at Cambridge, Edward King, who passed away in a shipwreck over the Irish Sea.

Both Milton and King were aspiring poets; however, King was also a promising young minister; something that Milton was urged by his family and classmates to become as well. To Milton, their similarities must have made King’s death all the more frightening; and this fear was driven by his overwhelming ambition.

Famously, Milton, in both “Paradise Lost” and “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” speaks of himself as a prophet and even compares himself to Moses. He sought, as a young man, to write an English epic poem of Arthurian legend that would rival Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” This envisioned epic would eventually become “Paradise Lost,” the greatest work of English poetry. However, in this poem, Milton tries to cope with the idea that he may not be allowed to fulfill his dreams; Fate or God may cut his life short, as it did for the pious and promising young man: Edward King. 

The poem is an elegy written in the pastoral style which, stretching back to Greece in the third century BCE, romanticizes ancient agricultural life as pure and in “Lycidas” portrays the narrator as a wandering shepherd in mourning. Throughout the poem, we hear the voices of pagan and Christian figures such as Apollo, Camus and St. Peter, all of whom commiserate over the death of King.

One theme in “Lycidas” that is particularly powerful is the disillusionment of the Shepherd. There are two sections in particular where this is present, both of which begin with the phrase, “Ay me!” (Milton, 56, 154). In one section, from lines 132 to 164, the Shepherd calls on Alpheus, a river god and Arcadian hunter from Greek mythology, and requests that he throw flowers on the hearse carrying Edward King’s body. Milton writes, “Throw hither all your quaint enammll’d eyes, / That on the green turf suck the honied showers, / And purple all the ground with vernal flowers” (Milton, 139-141). These lines are colorful and melodious and go on to describe, beautifully, the flowers that are to be thrown, but Milton soon realizes that this cannot be; King’s body is lost forever. 

Milton writes in overwhelming lines, “Whilst thee the shores and sounding Seas / Wash far away, where’er thy bones are hurl’d, / Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides, / Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide / Vist’st the bottom of the monstrous world” (Milton, 153-157). Additionally, the entire poem, until the arrival of the voice of St. Peter, is simply a Christian poet daydreaming about ‘pagan’ figures who he imagines as being the guardians of nature, but are not able to save Lycidas.

“Lycidas” is a poem that is difficult to understand through the first reading because of its many allusions, however, it is an acute example of Milton’s powerful poetic voice; and given that “Lycidas” has been revered for centuries, many great minds have provided commentaries to the poem and have given many different perspectives through which to read it.

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