Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Lycidas by John Milton.

John Milton, attributed to Godfrey Kneller (1690).
Lycidas is a poem by John Milton written in 1637 and published in Justa Edouardo King Naufrago, 1638: Obsequies to the Memory of Mr. Edward King, a collection of poems by King's friends. The poem is dedicated to his friend Edward King who drowned in 1637 when his ship sank in the Irish Sea. Lycidas, a shepherd in this pastoral poem, represents King.

The poem begins,
Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more,
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not flote upon his watry bear
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of som melodious tear.
These plants: the laurel, myrtle, and ivy all symbolise love; that with the stark statement, "For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime, Young Lycidas" suggests real loss. Milton continues,
Begin, then, Sisters of the sacred well,
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,
Begin, and somwhat loudly sweep the string.
This reminded me of the beginnings of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey ("Sing, O Muse"); the mention of Jove or Jupiter sets the poem up as an imitation of ancient literature, specifically the Romans (Jove or Jupiter is the Roman equivalent of the Greek's Zeus). Yet the name Lycidas suggests Greek - Lycidas (Λυκίδας) is mentioned in Herodotus' Histories - he was stoned to death. Then again we can find the name Lycidas in Theocritus - a 3rd Century B.C. pastoral poet. Finally though we see him in Virgil, used as the name for a shepherd. This must be the source of Milton's inspiration - Virgil is mentioned and alluded to again in this poem. 

Milton goes on to remember his friend in this idealised pastoral setting, possibly one of my favourite parts of the poem:
We drove a field, and both together heard
What time the Gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt'ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the Star that rose, at Ev'ning, bright  
Toward Heav'ns descent had slop'd his westering wheel.
Mean while the Rural ditties were not mute,
Temper'd to th'Oaten Flute;
Rough Satyrs danc'd, and Fauns with clov'n heel,
From the glad sound would not be absent long,  
And old Damætas lov'd to hear our song.
  But O the heavy change, now thou art gon,
Now thou art gon, and never must return!
Thee Shepherd, thee the Woods, and desert Caves,
With wilde Thyme and the gadding Vine o'regrown,  
And all their echoes mourn.
The Willows, and the Hazle Copses green,
Shall now no more be seen,
Fanning their joyous Leaves to thy soft layes.
As killing as the Canker to the Rose,
Or Taint-worm to the weanling Herds that graze,
Or Frost to Flowers, that their gay wardrop wear,
When first the White thorn blows;
Such, Lycidas, thy loss to Shepherds ear.
Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus
by John William Waterhouse (1900).
His pain is evident in the next lines, his accusing question to the Muses - "Where were ye Nymphs when the remorseless deep / Clos'd o're the head of your lov'd Lycidas?". He then remembers how the Muses could prevent others from drowning: mentioning Orpheus,
What could the Muse her self that Orpheus bore,
The Muse her self, for her inchanting son
Whom Universal nature did lament, When by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His goary visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.
And, with a allusion to Virgil, he asks,
Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair?
Amaryllis is a shepherdess that appears in Virgil's Ecologues; Neaera is a nymph from the same. Milton is essentially asking why one works hard, what is the point? But he answers his own question, "Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise". He then dwells on the fickleness of Fame and Fortune, and that poor Lycidas died before attaining any such position. Here Apollo arrives - Milton refers to him as Phoebus, meaning god of light, and he tells the speaker that Fame is found in heaven according to Jove's will:
But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes,
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in heaven expect thy meed [reward].
Yet still the speaker is not comforted - he wants to know why Lycidas died, and how anyone could let it happen. Neptune, the god of the sea, wonders too -  "What hard mishap hath doomed this gentle swain?" With no real answers, the speaker blames the ship itself:
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.
Up to here we have seen the Muses, Apollo, Neptune, and then Camus, a personification of the River Cam that runs through Cambridge (which was where Milton and King attended university). The final figure in Milton's poem is Saint Peter - "The Pilot of the Galilean lake", clearly not a Greek or Roman figure but a Biblical one; Saint Peter speaks of shepherds after Lycidas as unworthy - 
How well could I have spar'd for thee, young swain,
Anow of such as for their bellies sake,
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck'ning make,
Then how to scramble at the shearers feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouthes! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A Sheep-hook, or have learn'd ought els the least
That to the faithfull Herdmans art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list, their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel Pipes of wretched straw,
The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,
But that two-handed engine at the door, Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.
The Hireling Shepherd by William Holman Hunt (1851).
Here Milton seems to attack the church, 'a shepherd and his flock' being a common symbol of the church and its congregation (William Holman Hunt does the same in the painting to the right).

Milton then returns to Alpheus, the river god, and the pastoral images are picked back up:
Return Alpheus, the dread voice is past,
That shrunk thy streams; Return Sicilian Muse,
And call the Vales, and bid them hither cast
Their Bels, and Flourets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low where the milde whispers use,
Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart Star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enameld eyes,
That on the green terf suck the honied showres,
And purple all the ground with vernal flowres.
Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies.
The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Gessamine,
The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jeat,
The glowing Violet.
The Musk-rose, and the well attir'd Woodbine.
With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive hed,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears:
Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the Laureat Herse where Lycid lies.
Flowers each have a special meaning; Primrose - devotion, being unable to live without the one you love; Crow-toe (Crowfoot) - beautiful but poisonous; the pansy - loving thoughts; violet for faithfulness, etc. And these flowers are too in mourning - the pansy is "freakt with jeat" - 'streaked with jet', the Cowslips "wan", and the Daffodils cry. Milton's speaker bids "Amaranthus all his beauty shed" - this mythical flower is believed never to lose its beauty. He goes on to think of a memorial for Lycidas, given that his body is lost at sea. He then thinks of the rebirth of Lycidas:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves
Where other groves, and other streams along,
With Nectar pure his oozy Lock's he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptiall Song,
In the blest Kingdoms meek of joy and love.
This thought gives the speaker comfort, and he finishes with,
Thus sang the uncouth Swain to th'Okes and rills,
While the still morn went out with Sandals gray,
He touch'd the tender stops of various Quills,
With eager thought warbling his Dorick lay:
And now the Sun had stretch'd out all the hills,
And now was dropt into the Western bay;
At last he rose, and twitch'd his Mantle blew:
To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.
And there finishes Milton's Lycidas. It is one incredibly tough and complicated poem but somehow satisfying. If one can put aside it's sad subject matter it can be treated as a code: it is so dense, so full of Greek, Roman, and Biblical allusions piecing them together is quite enjoyable. What makes it a great poem is the sensitivity he shows to mourning - the shock, anger, denial, depression, and finally acceptance. For that it is an incredibly good poem. Nonetheless it is a very hard one and very intimidating, and, dare I say, quite contrived. You can read the poem in full here.

And that was my fifth title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week, another Zola: Story of a Madman.


  1. "with nectar pure his oozy locks he laves"": grabby line, there. i found milton harder to read than chaucer, i think because of the richer imagery and metaphor and the larger, more complex vocabulary. wonderful lines, though... tx.

    1. Milton, I found, was MUCH harder than Chaucer - I do agree! He's excellent, but so hard. So so much work to do just to read those 190 or so lines :)


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