Saturday, 31 October 2015

Lycidas (poem) by John Milton

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. He is regarded as one of greatest upholders of the classic spirit in English poetry in which he blended the dedication of Puritan movement and profound knowledge of Christianity. 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 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 Virgil from Italy have developed this art form. Milton’s Lycidas is one of the greatest pastoral elegies in English literature

2. The poem starts with an apology for breaking the poet’s decision not to write any poetry until his poetic talent is fully developed.  He compares himself to a shepherd plucking berries, laurels and myrtle before their mellowing time. He invokes the help of the Muses and hopes that just as he is writing a poem in memory of Lycidas, some other poet may write an elegy on his death. 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. 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 of Lycida’s head. But even the Nymphs were helpless when facing Death because the great Muse Calliope could not save her dear son Orpheus 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 is a discussion on the value and nature of everlasting 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. But if his life is cut off by blind fate, what is the value of this hard life? Milton was an honest Puritan and he doubts that what is the value of his Puritanism and ascetic life if death becomes supreme and kills the youth. 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 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 for 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 predicted that  God would punish these corrupted clergymen very soon.

6. After the inquest we have the funeral. The mourners include Camus, the God of river Cam, symbolising the University of Cambridge on its shore. St .Peter comes last among the mourners and laments the loss to the Christian church caused by the death of Lycidas, while Camus mourns the loss of learning. Edward King was a brilliant student doing Theology.
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. The poem ends with a note of joy and hope. This hope is based on the Christian belief that Lycidas has passed from earth to heaven just like the sun going down the sea only to reappear with renewed brightness.  Similarly Lycidas drowned in the sea is lifted up by Jesus to Paradise. Lycidas is welcomed in Heaven and his tears are wiped out by the angels.

8.  Finally, Milton goes back to classical Mythology from Christianity. In Latin poetry of Virgil, a drowned man is represented as the guardian spirit of the local people. So the poet asks the shepherds not to weep any more on the death of Lycidas because Lycidas has resurrected and became 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 haunts 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.

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!

Drafted, printed and circulated  by K.J. Thomas among the students of BA III year at Prathibha College, Karuvarakundu dated 25th Sept. 2006

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