Milton’s Lycidas

As I first ventured to read this poem by Milton I was somewhat apprehensive. With a little concentration, however, and the help of Google, I found myself enjoying reading it very much. I think that this is partly due to its similarity with Wordsworth’s poems, a poet I am very fond of.

This is due to the pastoral nature of Lycidas, the idealisation of country life which both poets do; “What hard mishap hath doom’d this gentle swain?”, swain meaning country youth or shepherd. This is similar to Wordsworth’s There was a boy in which he paints a picture of a boy perfectly in tune with nature and therefore completely at peace. Milton’s excessive use of imagery containing nature and plants furthers how pastoral this elegy is. He mentions the “rathe primrose” (rathe meaning ready to bloom), the “pale jasmine”, the “white pink”, and the “glowing violet”. I particularly like the last description, and the combination of all of these in one stanza creates a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Despite the poem being an elegy, mourning a dead friend, this inclusion of spring and new life connects Lycidas’s death with life, and therefore places Lycidas within the whole cycle of nature and mother earth. In There was a boy, Wordsworth does the same thing when he describes the boy “while he hung listening”; the use of the word ‘hung’ gives of the impression that he was no leaving to go away from the vale, that he is part of the landscape. His death is also part of the landscape as the church yard in which he is buried also “hangs”.  Lycidas makes several references to Virgil’s Ecologues, which is considered the first poem in a classical style on a pastoral subject, such as the line “Who would not sing for Lycidas” which comes from “Who would not sing for Gallas” in the Ecologues. Furthermore, Lycidas is anachronistic (not chronological) which is like the original pastoral elegies.

Another similarity I noticed Lycidas has with Wordsworth’s poetry is the ending. In the final stanza, it is revealed to the reader that the narrator, which we were made to believe was the only one, was an “uncouth Swain” and actually another voice takes over, now telling us of this Swain and the end of his day; “At last he rose, and twitch’d his Mantle blew: To morrow to fresh Woods and Pastures new”. This is similar to the final lines of Wordsworth’s Nutting in which it is the audience that is suddenly changed from us, the reader, to a ‘Maiden’. In Lycidas, the function of this may have been to show us the ‘bigger picture’ and by placing the elegy in the mouth of a shepherd rather than Milton himself, he firmly places Lycidas within the pastoral setting, despite him too being a learned poet and academic. Milton places emphasis regularly in the poem on music, such as “th’Oaten flute”, a pan flute traditionally associated with the shepherd’s song, and now, Lycidas’s story of his death is part of that music.

There is one line in this poem that depicts such a beautiful image that I have to mention it here;

“Sunk though he be beneath the watry floar,

So sinks the day-star in the Ocean bed”


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