Lycidas

Original Text: 
John Milton, Poems 1645. Facs. edn. (Menston: Scolar Press, 1970). PR 3552 S4 1645a Trinity College Library.
In this Monody the author bewails a learned friend, unfortunately drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637; and by occasion foretells the ruin of our corrupted clergy, then in their height
2Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
4And with forc'd fingers rude
7Compels me to disturb your season due;
8For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
9Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
11Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
12He must not float upon his wat'ry bier
16That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring;
17Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
18Hence with denial vain and coy excuse!
19So may some gentle muse
21And as he passes turn
23    For we were nurs'd upon the self-same hill,
24Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill;
26Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
27We drove afield, and both together heard
31Toward heav'n's descent had slop'd his westering wheel.
32Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
33Temper'd to th'oaten flute;
35From the glad sound would not be absent long;
37    But O the heavy change now thou art gone,
38Now thou art gone, and never must return!
39Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods and desert caves,
41And all their echoes mourn.
42The willows and the hazel copses green
43Shall now no more be seen
44Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.
47Or frost to flowers that their gay wardrobe wear
49Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd's ear.
51Clos'd o'er the head of your lov'd Lycidas?
52For neither were ye playing on the steep
53Where your old bards, the famous Druids, lie,
54Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
55Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream.
56Ay me! I fondly dream
57`Had ye bin there'--for what could that have done?
59The Muse herself, for her enchanting son,
60Whom universal nature did lament,
61When by the rout that made the hideous roar
62His gory visage down the stream was sent,
63Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?
64    Alas! what boots it with incessant care
65To tend the homely, slighted shepherd's trade,
66And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
67Were it not better done, as others use,
69Or with the tangles of Neæra's hair?
72To scorn delights and live laborious days;
73But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
74And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
78"Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
79Nor in the glistering foil
80Set off to th'world, nor in broad rumour lies,
82And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;
83As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
84Of so much fame in Heav'n expect thy meed."
86Smooth-sliding Mincius, crown'd with vocal reeds,
87That strain I heard was of a higher mood.
88But now my oat proceeds,
91He ask'd the waves, and ask'd the felon winds,
92"What hard mishap hath doom'd this gentle swain?"
93And question'd every gust of rugged wings
94That blows from off each beaked promontory.
95They knew not of his story;
97That not a blast was from his dungeon stray'd;
98The air was calm, and on the level brine
100It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
102That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.
104His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,
105Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge
106Like to that sanguine flower inscrib'd with woe.
108Last came, and last did go,
111(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).
114Enow of such as for their bellies' sake
115Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
116Of other care they little reck'ning make
117Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast
118And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
119Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
120A sheep-hook, or have learn'd aught else the least
121That to the faithful herdman's art belongs!
125The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
127Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
129Daily devours apace, and nothing said,
131Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more".
133That shrunk thy streams; return, Sicilian Muse,
134And call the vales and bid them hither cast
135Their bells and flow'rets of a thousand hues.
137Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
139Throw hither all your quaint enamel'd eyes,
140That on the green turf suck the honied showers
141And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
143The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
145The glowing violet,
146The musk-rose, and the well attir'd woodbine,
147With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
148And every flower that sad embroidery wears;
150And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
152For so to interpose a little ease,
153Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
154Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
155Wash far away, where'er thy bones are hurl'd;
157Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
162Looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold:
165    Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
166For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
167Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor;
169And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
171Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
172So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
174Where, other groves and other streams along,
177In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
178There entertain him all the Saints above,
179In solemn troops, and sweet societies,
180That sing, and singing in their glory move,
181And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
182Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more:
184In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
185To all that wander in that perilous flood.
187While the still morn went out with sandals gray;
188He touch'd the tender stops of various quills,
189With eager thought warbling his Doric lay;
190And now the sun had stretch'd out all the hills,
191And now was dropp'd into the western bay;
192At last he rose, and twitch'd his mantle blue:
193To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

Notes

1] First printed in 1638, in Obsequies to the memorie of Mr. Edward King. Present text, that of Poems, 1645. Edward King, Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, was drowned on a voyage to Ireland, and his Cambridge friends issued a volume of verse in his memory, consisting, first, of poems in Latin and Greek, under the title Justa Eduardo King, and, secondly, with separate title-page (as above), English poems. Lycidas, signed I.M., is the last poem in the volume. The name "Lycidas" is fairly common in pastoral poetry (e.g., in Theocritus, Idyl I, Virgil, Eclogues VII and IX). The note under the title was added in Poems, 1645.
By plucking laurel, myrtle, and ivy, constituents of the poet's crowning, is symbolized Milton's return to the writing of verse (after the interval of four years since Comus); the reference to this enforced and premature action indicates Milton's unwillingness to write poetry at this time while still preparing himself for his magnum opus. Back to Line
3] crude: unripe. Back to Line
5] shatter: scatter. Back to Line
6] dear: grievous, but with overtones from other meanings of the word. Back to Line
10] Milton treats Edward King as at once priest and poet. Like others with a humanistic education, King could, and on occasion did, write Latin verses. Back to Line
13] welter: roll about. Back to Line
14] meed: token of honour; tear: commonly used as a poetic synonym for elegy (as in Spenser's Teares of the Muses). Back to Line
15] One of the haunts sacred to the Muses was the spring Aganippe on Mount Helicon, near which was a temple to Zeus. See P.L. I, 10-12. Back to Line
20] my destin'd urn. The urn, used by the ancients for burial (cf. Sir Thomas Brown, Urn Burial), here stands for the poet's death. Back to Line
22] Say, Requiescat in pace; shroud (burial cloth) here stands for the dead. Back to Line
25] lawns: grass lands. Back to Line
28] gray-fly: so called from its colour, and also the trumpet-cry from the noise it makes. Back to Line
29] battening: making fat. Back to Line
30] Though some inexactness in the description has been noticed, Milton probably intends the Evening Star (Hesperus). Back to Line
34] Satyrs in Greek myth were human figures, but with pointed ears and clad in skins' beasts. By the Romans they were identified with their fauns and represented with goat's horn, tail, and cloven hoof (hence cloven heel). Here they stand for Milton and King's fellow students. Back to Line
36] Damœtas: presumably standing for some fellow of the college. Back to Line
40] gadding: wandering, that is, growing naturally, not subjected to control. Back to Line
45] canker: canker-worm, which by feeding on it produces canker in the blossom. Back to Line
46] taint-worm: a worm thought to taint or infect cattle. Back to Line
48] white thorn: the common hawthorn. Back to Line
50] An appeal to the nymphs was one of the conventions of pastoral elegy. The places named in Greek and Latin pastoral belonged to the ancient world and were selected with some reference to the subject. As is appropriate in Eclogue X, the lament for Gallus, a poet, Virgil appeals to the Naiads in association with places sacred to the Muses, and may suggest that by Naiads he really means the Muses. Milton appropriately substitutes British places in the vicinity of King's fatal journey; and by Nymphs he probably means the Muses, since he associates them with bards, and the Bards formed a division of the Druids, the priests of the Britons, while traditions accessible to Milton traced a connection between ancient Greek and ancient British religion and culture. His first allusion refers vaguely to some burial place of the Druids in the Welsh mountains (the steep); the second, and more specific, is to the island of Anglesey, which the Romans called Mona; the third is to the river Dee, marking the border of England and Wales and supposed to possess magic powers by which it predicted the fortunes of the hostile nations; over the Dee stood Chester, whence travellers took ship for Ireland. Back to Line
58] Orpheus, the mythical originator of poetry and song, was reputed to be the son of the Muse Calliope, and gifted with the power of charming by his music all animate and inanimate things, which subsequently united in lamenting his death. After his final loss of his wife, Eurydice, he wandered through Thrace mourning for her, where he was encountered by the wild female worshippers of Bacchus. Enraged by his repelling of their advances, they hurled their spears at him, but these, charmed by his music, fell harmless to the ground, whereupon the women set up a loud cry, drowning the music, and the spears took effect. They cast the head of Orpheus and his lyre into the river Hebrus which bore them out to sea and cast them up on the island of Lesbos. Back to Line
68] Amaryllis and Neaera are names which occur in erotic pastoral poetry. Milton is perhaps thinking of the amatory court poets of his own day. Back to Line
70] clear: noble (Lat. clarus). Back to Line
71] Alluding to the saying of Tacitus, Histories, IV, VI, that "for even the wise man the desire of glory is the last to be put aside." Back to Line
75] Milton alludes to Atropos, the one of the three Fates who cut the thread of life. Thinking of her inexorable character and the fear she inspires, Milton deliberately calls her not a Fate, but a Fury. Back to Line
76] Phoebus, god of poetry, intervenes with the counterstatement that praise is not ended by death. It can be shown from the Latin poets that touching the ear was a way of reminding one of something forgotten (Virgil, Eclogue, VI, 3 ); trembling here is a transferred epithet, signifying: "touch'd my ears, I trembling the while." Back to Line
77] foil: a thin leaf of metal placed behind a gem to enhance its brightness. Back to Line
81] True fame depends on merit in the sight of God and will be enjoyed in heaven. (Jove here stands for God, as often in Christian humanist poetry.) Back to Line
85] Arethusa, the spring Arethusa, in the island of Ortygia, off the coast of Sicily, here symbolizes Greek pastoral poetry, and especially the Idyls of Theocritus, born in nearby Syracuse. Mincius, the river flowing roumd Mantua, claimed by Virgil as his birth, symbolizes Latin pastoral poetry, and especially the Eclogues of Virgil. The vocal reeds are the stems used for making the shepherd's pipes. The words of the preceding paragraph were of a higher order and transcended the pastoral mood, to which the poet returns, as suggested in Now my oat [another synonym for the shepherd's pipes] proceeds. Back to Line
89] herald of the sea: Triton. Back to Line
90] in Neptune's plea: that is, to exonerate Neptune (the sea) from blame for the death of Lycidas, by calling witnesses to the calm weather. Back to Line
96] Hippotades: Aeolus, son of Hippotes and guardian of the winds. Back to Line
99] Panope: one of the Nereids or sea-nymphs, who was associated with calm weather and invoked by Roman sailors. Back to Line
101] An eclipse was proverbially of evil omen. Back to Line
103] Camus, thought of as the genius of the Cam, and the representative here of Cambridge University, built on its banks. His appearance suggests the slow-flowing, weed-grown river. The sanguine flower inscribed with woe is the hyacinth as it is accounted for in the myth of Hyacinthus (Ovid, Metamorphoses, X, 174-217) accidentally slain while at play with Apollo: his blood fell on a lily, staining it purple, and on the petals the god wrote ai, ai (ahs, ahs). The implication is that the sedge of the Cam bears a like sign of woe. Back to Line
107] pledge: child (Lat. pignus). Back to Line
109] As a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, and leader of the Disciples, St. Peter is here called the Pilot of the Galilean lake. Back to Line
110] The starting point of these lines is Christ's words to St. Peter, "And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven'' (Matthew 16:19), read perhaps in the light of, ''he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open" (Isaiah 22:22). Back to Line
112] mitred, referring to the crown of the bishop, St. Peter being presented in the role of ideal bishop. Back to Line
113] Commencing with an indictment of the clergy as entering the ministry from worldly motives and excluding those with a true vocation, Milton describes their neglect of their duties and the consequences to the flock. Lines 123-25 are usually explained as an allusion to their infrequent and valueless sermons which do nothing to nourish the flock; but quite possibly it is a reference (couched in the language of shepherd life) to their neglect of their duty while they give themselves to song and other secular recreations. Back to Line
122] sped: provided for. Back to Line
123] flashy: destitute of meaning, trifling. Back to Line
124] scrannel pipes. Virgil has the phrase stridenti stipula (Eclogues, III, 27). Milton's scrannel appears to be his invention, though possibly based on some dialect word meaning thin; its sound suits well with his verb Grate. Back to Line
126] allude to the corrupting effect of the false doctrines taught them. Back to Line
128] allude to conversions to the Roman Catholic Church (here symbolized by the wolf), at which, as the Puritans erroneously believed, Archbishop Laud connived. Back to Line
130] This is the most disputed passage in Milton's poetry. It seems evident from the context that the two-handed engine is some heavy weapon, ready at the door of the sheepfold, to be used against the wolf. This must be the starting point for any interpretation of meaning. Back to Line
132] Alpheus, a river god in Arcadia, pursued the nymph Arethusa (see above, lines 85-87 n.) and when she, to escape his pursuit, was transformed to a spring by Diana and passed beneath the sea to Ortygia, the river Alpheus followed her and reached the same island. Here the association with Arethusa makes Alpheus likewise a symbol for Sicily and pastoral poetry. To ensure that the meaning is not missed, Milton adds an invocation to the muse of pastoral verse, "Return Sicilian Muse." Back to Line
136] use: are accustomed (to dwell ). Back to Line
138] swart star: Sirius, the star whose rising in August was said to burn the fields swart or dark. Back to Line
142] rathe: early. Back to Line
144] freakt: spotted or streaked. Back to Line
149] amaranthus: an imaginary everlasting flower. Back to Line
151] laureate hearse. The hearse, or frame supporting the bier, here stands for the bier itself; laureate (by its association with the laurel of the poet's crown) signifies that the bier is a poet's. Back to Line
156] stormy Hebrides: islands off the northwest coast of Scotland subject to Atlantic storms. Back to Line
158] Reference is to the monsters of the deep. Back to Line
159] moist vows: tearful prayers. Back to Line
160] Bellerus old. Milton appears to have invented the person from Bellerium, the Roman name for Cornwall. Back to Line
161] Milton appears to refer to a tradition that on St. Michael's Mount, a rock off the south coast of Cornwall, the archangel Michael, one of England's two patron saints, had been seen standing on guard against the traditional enemy Spain, here represented by the district of Namancos and the castle of Bayona. Back to Line
163] Angel: i.e., St. Michael. Back to Line
164] A reference either to the rescue of the poet Arion by a dolphin, which bore him safely ashore, or to Melicertes, whose body was brought to shore by a dolphin, and who was deified as the god of harbours (as Lycidas was to become "the Genius of the shore'" below line 183 ). Back to Line
168] day-star: probably the sun. Back to Line
170] ore: i.e., gold. Back to Line
173] "And ... Jesus went unto them walking on the sea" (Matthew 14:25). Back to Line
175] nectar: in classical mythology, the drink of the gods. Back to Line
176] The saints may refer either to the blessed dead in heaven, and entertain mean receive into their company, or to the angelic host, and entertain mean receive as a guest. The unexpressive (i.e., inexpressible) nuptial song may refer either to the song of rejoicing of the former group (Revelation 14:1-4) or to that of the latter group (Revelation 19:6 7). Back to Line
183] Genius of the shore. Among its various meanings in Latin, genius betokened a local deity or guardian spirit. Back to Line
186] The song proper ends at 185, and is followed by this brief narrative passage. The uncouth swain is Milton in his guise of shepherd poet. The quills are the shepherd's pipe. Doric, the dialect used by Theocritus, hence denotes the simple language of pastoral poetry. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1638
RPO poem Editors: 
Hugh MacCallum; A. S. P. Woodhouse
RPO Edition: 
3RP 1.232-36.
Rhyme: