Milton Lycidas

Copyright J V Ward. 25th June 2003 

Contrasts and Unity in Lycidas

Lycidas is a poem of contrasts. Milton switches themes constantly, disrupting the flow and making it a poem of parts, disconcerting the reader who expects a unified entity. However, if we consider Lycidas to be a work in which Milton himself is the central persona, then the disparate parts can be brought together in a multi faceted unity.

The opening section is replete with the imagery of unripeness ‘harsh and crude’ and ‘bitter’, which, although applied to evergreens and to the occasion, suggest the unpreparedness of the poet to undertake the task in hand. The first line, with its non-rhyming ending, warns the reader not to anticipate an accomplished poem. Indeed as we progress through the work, we find several unrhymed lines in an erratic rhyme scheme together with an irregular stanza pattern and eccentricities of meter. The intrusive six syllable lines amongst a majority of iambic pentameter have their origins in the Italian canzone but the occasional extra syllable must be regarded as a sign of the poet’s immaturity.

However the small eccentricities (they are too insignificant to be called errors) may well be deliberate. Take, for example, the case of the first line. The sentiment expressed is as out of place as the bachelor rhyme. Milton had at that time written verses on certain insignificant individuals but no one deserving ‘Laurels’ and therefore the ‘once more’ is inexplicable. This particular eccentricity can easily be rectified. Firstly the first line could be deleted. Then in the second line delete the words ’brown with’ and replace with ‘Laurels’. The first stanza is now balanced in rhyme and metre. Bearing this in mind, Milton’s eccentricities seem premeditated.

The death imagery of the second stanza seems to pertain more to the poet himself than the subject matter as the funerary appurtenances ‘urn’ and ‘sable shroud’ are his own. Milton identifies himself with King in the words ‘nurs’t upon the self same hill …Fed the same flock’. Milton grossly exaggerates his relationship with King in order to insinuate himself into his own poem. The death imagery continues into the fourth stanza with ‘killing as the canker to the rose’ and ‘never must return’. Here we see the poet’s fear of his own death. ‘The willows and the hazel copses green/ Shall now no more be seen’ express the viewpoint, or the non viewing point, of the deceased and the imagery of corruption in ‘canker, taint-worm, frost’ show the poet’s fear and loathing of death. The anticipation of death is made the more poignant when Milton considers its inevitability and the fact that even a poet cannot escape it as even Orpheus could not be saved by his divine mother Calliope.

The inevitability of death and the fragility of life expressed in ‘th’abhorred shears’ leads the poet to doubt the value of his mission. Milton fears that his voluntary celibacy which he has endured that he might perfect the poetic craft has been futile:--‘Alas what boots it with uncessant care/ scorn delights’. His limited time on earth might have been better spent in ‘To sport with Amaryllis in the shade’ rather than seeking ‘fame’ which ‘is no plant that grows on mortal soil’. It is Milton’s lost opportunities which are lamented here and not his late acquaintance as can be seen in ‘Phoebus ‘touch’d my trembling ears’.

The water imagery ‘fountain, flood, sea, waves’ of the seventh stanza recall King’s death in the chilly waters of the Irish Sea. However Neptune and other aquatic deities disavow all responsibility for the death and the poet is obliged to place the blame on ‘the fatal and perfidious bark/ Built in th’eclipse, and rigged with curses dark’. The ship is a metaphor for the soul, condemned by original sin to suffer death. The poet laments not specifically King’s death but the common death of all mankind with particular reference to his own fate. Milton links King’s death to his own by the introduction of the spirit of their shared Alma Mater, the reverend Camus who laments ‘my dearest pledge’ without naming him or ascribing to him any identifiable features. The ‘dearest pledge’ might as easily be Milton as King as the reference is as obscure as the ‘figures dim’ on his apparel.

The bishop’s passage (lines 108/131), a departure from the theme of the dead shepherd, a diatribe against the bishops of the Anglican Church seems to interrupt the flow of the poem and destroy its unity. The ‘Pilot of The Galilean Lake’ is identifiable as St Peter an account of the keys he carries recalling the New Testament passage ‘and I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Mathew 16:19). St Peter was the original pastor taking his authority from Christ ‘The Good Shepherd’ who instructed Peter to ‘feed my sheep’. Milton takes the opportunity to introduce into a pastoral poem, biblical allegories concerning contemptible shepherds. St Peter’s ‘Mitr’d locks’ give him the Episcopal status and authority but his outburst against bishops of the Anglican Church condemns the theological doctrine of apostolic succession by which bishops claim authority. ‘Creep include and climb into the fold’ refers to the gospel passage ‘he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber’ (John 10/1), undermining the bishops’ authority to act as pastors. ‘Swoln with wind....rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread ‘ brings to mind Christ’s denunciation of the Pharisees who as bad priests are ‘whited sepulchres’ (Matthew 23/27) lavishly dressed on the exterior but inside full of corruption. The ‘grim wolf’ a reference to the Catholic Church reminds the reader of the command to ‘beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves’ (Matthew 7/15). The passage culminates in a reference to a ‘two-handed engine’. This could refer to the two handed sword wielded by St Michael, imprecated later in the poem, or possibly to an individual man acting as the instrument of God’s will. Possibly Milton here refers to himself who volunteers to be the Divine agent, engineering the end of the bishops’ power with a single stroke (‘smite once and smite no more’) which will take off the head of the king and leave the bishops impotent.

The poem abruptly changes course with the apt introduction of Alpheus, a mutable stream, and also the announcement that ‘the dread voice is past’. The flowers which are ordered for the obsequities are somewhat ambiguous. They wear ‘sad embroidery’, ‘hang a pensive head’ and ‘fill their cups with tears’ as befit funereal floral decorations. However they are described as ‘honeyed, green, vernal’ which carries with it an implicit promise of new life. Death and its appurtenances are being sidelined and even the eponymous hero loses a syllable of his name in line 151 where the meter becomes more important than the titular subject matter. He finally loses his identity when his bones are cast to the extremities of the British Isles.

The dangers of the ‘Whelming tide’ are countered by the security which the ocean affords to Britain as an island. The ‘Angel’ alludes to St Michael, the legendary inhabitant of the ‘guarded Mount’ a look out post in Cornwall, who suspiciously watches the Spanish territories of ‘Namancos and Bayona’. This reference serves to tie together the disparate parts of the poem. The Druids ‘on the shaggy top of Mona high’ were unable to save a poet at sea but St Michael, a Christian symbol, has saved England from the Catholic ‘Wolves’ by defeating the Spanish Armada. He is urged to ‘look homeward now’ and look to the machinations of the bishops, perhaps with his two handed engine.

The poem which has previously been conducted on a baleful note turns again in the penultimate stanza when the watery imagery is intermixed with metaphors of light in ‘day-star, spangled, Flames’. Milton appears to have purged his doubts and fears through the medium of writing the poem and takes comfort in the anticipation of his eventual entry onto the ‘blest Kingdom’ where his alter ego has already obtained his apotheosis.

The poem has served as a catharsis for Milton’s feelings and in the final stanza he can refer to his former self as an ‘uncouth swain’. This stanza is a perfect ottava rima of regular rhyme and rhythm likening the writing of a poem to the passage of a day. The ‘various Quills’ of the shepherd’s pipe are analogous to the quill pens of a poet and the manifold forms of his poetry. Milton has merely been practicing so far, -- ‘tomorrow’ he moves on to ‘pastures new’.

Viewed as a tribute to the late Edward King, the work is a collection of fragments continually digressing from the supposed theme. But seen without reference to the eponymous hero, we discover a unity which serves to work out Milton’s inner psyche—an examination of conscience which will manifest itself in his forthcoming works.

Links to other essays
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Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar
Brian Friel Translations
Shakespeare Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V
Shakespeare Henry VI and Richard III
DrydenAbsolem and Achitophel and other works
Virginia WoolfThe Use of Symbolism
Sir Walter Scott Heart of Midlothian and Waverly
Keats and Shelly Adonais and other works
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice and Emma
Shakespeare Notes on Twelfth Night