Monday, 28 April 2014

Lycidas John Milton

 John Milton is certainly one of the greatest of the poets in English literature.  His major poems are Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. His pastoral elegy Lycidas is a fine example for his classical spirit. It is written to mourn the death of the poet’s friend and classmate Edward King, who drowned in a shipwreck in the Irish Sea in 1637. Pastoralism in literature is an attitude in which the poet looks at life from a shepherd’s angle.  Theocritus of Sicily and the Roman poet Virgil have developed this art form. Milton’s Lycidas is one of the greatest pastoral elegies in English literature

2. The poem starts with an invocation to the Muses. He compares himself to a shepherd plucking berries, laurels and myrtle before their mellowing time. The poet describes Lycidas and himself spending their time in the solitude of Nature writing poetry and singing them.  The undergraduates used to crowd around them and dance according to the tune of their music. They are compared to Satyrs and Fauns of Greek Mythology. The teachers are compared to old Damoetas who also appreciated the songs of Milton and Edward King.

3. The poet is very sad on the accidental death of his classmate. He wonders what the nymphs were doing when the waves of the sea closed on Lycidas. But even the Nymphs were helpless when facing Death because the great Muse Calliope could not save her dear son Orpheus the great divine musician from the mad women of Thrace.

4.  Milton now takes the liberty of making a digression, which is the most important part of the poem. But curiously enough the most remarkable part of the poem is made up of two digressions. The first digression is on Fame. The accidental death of Edward King makes Milton think about the purpose of life and his anxiety about future.  Milton knows that writing poetry is a hard work and in order to become a great poet he must work hard. Other poets write about the beauty of hair of the shepherdesses sitting on the shade of the trees and their poems are sold like hot cakes. Milton cannot follow such cheap popularity. He is a Puritan and he writes lofty rhymes. It is not easy but sheer hard work. But if his life is cut off by blind Fury, what is the value of this hard life? Milton is an honest Puritan and he doubts about the value of his Puritanism and ascetic life if death comes to him in the night. But his doubt is soon vanished when God speaks to him that he will get true reward in heaven, which is safer.

5. The second digression in the poem shows Milton’s true attitude to religion.  He introduces St. Peter into the mourners. St. Peter angrily speaks about the corrupt clergymen of his day. He laments the death of King Edward who was doing the subject of Theology in Christ College of Cambridge University. There are three types of corrupted clergies in the Church. They come to Church for “their bellies sake”.  “Some creep, and some intrude and some climb into the fold”.  Those who creep into the fold do not care for office or name. But they are cunning.  Those who intrude are lazy clergymen and those who climb are selfish, wicked and ambitious.  They wanted dignities and authorities. These clergymen had no spiritual vision and they were greedy for power, wealth and luxurious life. Clergymen competing for materials pleasures through corrupt practices are compared to the guests running after the sheep-shearing festival without taking part in the work of gathering wool. Their ignorance about the spiritual aspect of the church and the wrong doctrines they preach poison the spiritually starved people. So Milton calls them “Blind mouths”. Milton has predicted that God would punish these corrupted clergymen very soon.

7. After the second digression, again Milton comes back to his pastoral elegy. He invites the valleys to cast their flowers of different colour and fragrance on the dead body of Lycidas. But suddenly the poet realizes that the dead body has not been found.

8.  The poem ends with a note of joy and hope. This hope is based on the Christian belief that Lycidas has resurrected on the third day with the help of Jesus Christ who walked on the waves of the Sea. Lycidas rose up to heaven just as the sun rises up in the Eastern horizon.  Lycidas is welcomed in Heaven with “nuptial songs sung by angels and saints and his tears are wiped out by the angels”. So the poet asks the shepherds not to weep any more on the death of Lycidas because Lycidas has been resurrected and become the guardian angel of the shore. The guardian Angel will protect anyone who falls in the sea. The shepherd who sang this pastoral elegy goes to a new pasture because he cannot live in this place any longer where the memories of Lycidas haunt him day and night. They had been such intimate friends who composed songs and sang together, grazed sheep together and ate together and lived together.

9.  Lycidas is a pagan poem.  But Milton, the great Puritan could not help introducing Christian elements into it. Thus with its curious mixture of pagan loveliness and Christian theology, it becomes a great pastoral elegy. Milton speaks of woodland deities like Styrs and Fauns, sea deities like Neptune, Panope and Triton. Rivers like Alpheus and Arethusa are personified. Pagan superstitions like the ship not being sea worthy just because it was built during the eclipse are also mentioned.
Paragraph questions:
1.      Christian and pagan elements in Lycidas
2.      Milton’s Puritanism in Lycidas
1.      Lycidas as a pastoral elegy.
2.      Comment on Milton’s attitude to the Church of England as reflected in Lycidas.
3.      Comment on the two digressions in Lycidas.


My dear students,  please prepare your own answers on the above questions on the basis of this note. Study this note well and make your own notes. May God bless you!


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