Lycidas by John Milton: Summary and Critical Analysis

Milton's elegy 'Lycidas' is also known as monody which is in the form of a pastoral elegy written in 1637 to lament the accidental death, by drowning of Milton’s friend Edward King who was a promising young man of great intelligence. The elegy takes its name from the subject matter, not its form. No rules are laid down for the meter. The theme of the elegy is mournful or sadly reflective.

John Milton (1608-1674)

It is usually a lamentation of the dead. Besides some somber themes, such as unrequited love, or a great national disaster can as well be the elegiac theme. Though lyrical, it is not spontaneous, and is often the result of deliberate poetic art, and can be as elaborate in style as the ode. We read the elegy as a conscious work of art, and not as a spontaneous expression of sorrow.

Any elaborate and conscious mode of utterance might cause us to question the sincerity of the poet’s emotion. Dr. Johnson, criticizing 'Lycidas' remarks, “where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.” Neither is elegy a mere expression of a sense of loss. The elegiac poet engages himself in discursive reflections. Death, the primary theme of most elegies, is a vast evocative theme. It leads the poet to regions of reflections usually lying beyond the lyric imagination. Death can be, and is often, the starting point for the poet to deal with serious themes.

Milton, for example, gives us in 'Lycidas', speculations on the nature of death, tributes to friends, as also literary criticism. He comments on the degradation of poetry and religion in 'Lycidas'. And “Lycidas” would be a poor poem without its passage on fame, and the onslaught on the corrupt clergy of that day. Though grief is the dominant condition in the early parts of an elegy, many elegies end on a note of joyful resignation, and also on a note of affirmation. The pastoral elegy uses the mechanism of pastoral convention-shepherds and shepherdesses, incidents form bucolic life, and rustic speech. Originally developed among the Sicilian Greeks, it was later developed by Virgil and introduced into England during the Renaissance.

The poem 'Lycidas' can be conveniently divided into six sections (1) a prologue, four main parts, and an epilogue. In the prologue (lines 1-24) Milton invokes the Muse and explains the reasons for writing the poem. Although Milton had decided not to write poetry till his powers matured, “bitter constraint and sad occasion” compels the poet to attempt an elegy. That occasion is the untimely death of Lycidas. In the Second Section (lines, 25-84) he describes the type of life Lycidas and the poet had at Cambridge. The descriptions are in pastoral imagery. They together- Lycidas and Milton - began their study early in the morning, continued throughout the day late into the night. Besides, there were innocent recreations. But now that Lycidas was dead; a great change, heavy change had taken place. Milton laments the death of Lycidas in the manner of traditional elegiac poets. He asks the Muse where she had been when her Lycidas was dying, and adds that even her presence would not have saved him.

This leads to reflections on the nature and meaning of life and death, and of fate and fame. Why should one, abandoning all pleasures, live a life of strenuous discipline, and cultivate the Muse? Fame (the last infirmity of the noble mind) is the reward of living laborious days. But as one is about to obtain his reward of fame, then fate intervenes and he dies. In the precariousness of human life lies the tragic irony. But Milton rejects pure earthy reputations as the true reward of life; that reward is in the divine judgment.

At the beginning of the third section (which contains lines 85-131) Milton returns to the pastoral style, and describes a procession of mourners lamenting Lycidas’s death. The procession is led by Triton, the herald of the Sea, and the last to come is St. Peter “The Pilot of the Galilean lake.” Through the mouth of St. Peter, Milton gives us a burning denunciation of contemporary clergy, and the sad condition of the Protestant Church in England. In these lines, we have powerful expressions of some of Milton’s passionate convictions. The fourth section (lines 132-164), in which the poet describes the “flowerets of a thousand hues” cast on the hearts of Lycidas, is an “escape from intolerable reality into a lovely world of make-believe.”

In the fifth section (lines 164-184) Milton expresses his belief in immortality. Grief and sorrow are temporary. And though Lycidas is apparently dead, he has arisen from the dead: “Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves.” Lycidas is in heaven, and therefore “Weep ye no more.” The saints there to entertain him in “sweet societies / That sing, and singing in their glory move.” The epilogue (lines 185-193) brings us back to the portal images again, and refers indirectly to the Greek Pastoral poets. The conclusion points to a new determination both to face life hopefully, and to rise up to greater poetic achievements.

Thus though 'Lycidas' is a conventional pastoral elegy, which has its origin in the loss of a friend, the poem becomes impersonal and timeless. The elegiac mourning is twice interrupted to invest the personal sorrow with universal significance. This is achieved by making the tragic death of Lycidas as one example of the precariousness of existence, and the tragic irony of fate which renders all human effort futile. A second theme of equally great concern is the degeneration of the Church, and the contemporary neglect of the things of the spirit. 'Lycidas' is undoubtedly one of the greatest short poems in English language.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "Lycidas by John Milton: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 11 Nov. 2013,

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