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Short poem

John Milton (1608-1674)


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

              1    Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
              2Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
              3I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
              4And with forc'd fingers rude
              5Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
              6Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
              7Compels me to disturb your season due;
              8For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
              9Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
            10Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
            11Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
            12He must not float upon his wat'ry bier
            13Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
            14Without the meed of some melodious tear.

            15    Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well
            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
            20With lucky words favour my destin'd urn,
            21And as he passes turn
            22And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud!

            23    For we were nurs'd upon the self-same hill,
            24Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill;
            25Together both, ere the high lawns appear'd
            26Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
            27We drove afield, and both together heard
            28What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
            29Batt'ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
            30Oft till the star that rose at ev'ning bright
            31Toward heav'n's descent had slop'd his westering wheel.
            32Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
            33Temper'd to th'oaten flute;
            34Rough Satyrs danc'd, and Fauns with clov'n heel,
            35From the glad sound would not be absent long;
            36And old Damætas lov'd to hear our song.

            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,
            40With wild thyme and the gadding vine o'ergrown,
            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.
            45As killing as the canker to the rose,
            46Or taint-worm to the weanling herds that graze,
            47Or frost to flowers that their gay wardrobe wear
            48When first the white thorn blows:
            49Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd's ear.

            50    Where were ye, Nymphs, when the remorseless deep
            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?
            58What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
            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,
            68To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
            69Or with the tangles of Neæra's hair?
            70Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
            71(That last infirmity of noble mind)
            72To scorn delights and live laborious days;
            73But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
            74And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
            75Comes the blind Fury with th'abhorred shears,
            76And slits the thin-spun life. "But not the praise,"
            77Phoebus replied, and touch'd my trembling ears;
            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,
            81But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes
            82And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;
            83As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
            84Of so much fame in Heav'n expect thy meed."

            85    O fountain Arethuse, and thou honour'd flood,
            86Smooth-sliding Mincius, crown'd with vocal reeds,
            87That strain I heard was of a higher mood.
            88But now my oat proceeds,
            89And listens to the Herald of the Sea,
            90That came in Neptune's plea.
            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;
            96And sage Hippotades their answer brings,
            97That not a blast was from his dungeon stray'd;
            98The air was calm, and on the level brine
            99Sleek Panope with all her sisters play'd.
          100It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
          101Built in th'eclipse, and rigg'd with curses dark,
          102That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.

          103    Next Camus, reverend sire, went footing slow,
          104His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,
          105Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge
          106Like to that sanguine flower inscrib'd with woe.
          107"Ah! who hath reft," quoth he, "my dearest pledge?"
          108Last came, and last did go,
          109The Pilot of the Galilean lake;
          110Two massy keys he bore of metals twain
          111(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).
          112He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:
          113"How well could I have spar'd for thee, young swain,
          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!
          122What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
          123And when they list their lean and flashy songs
          124Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw,
          125The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
          126But, swoll'n with wind and the rank mist they draw,
          127Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
          128Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
          129Daily devours apace, and nothing said,
          130But that two-handed engine at the door
          131Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more".

          132    Return, Alpheus: the dread voice is past
          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.
          136Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
          137Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
          138On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
          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.
          142Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
          143The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
          144The white pink, and the pansy freak'd with jet,
          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;
          149Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
          150And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
          151To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
          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;
          156Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
          157Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
          158Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world,
          159Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
          160Sleep'st by the fable of Bellerus old,
          161Where the great vision of the guarded mount
          162Looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold:
          163Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth;
          164And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

          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;
          168So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
          169And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
          170And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore
          171Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
          172So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
          173Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves;
          174Where, other groves and other streams along,
          175With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
          176And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
          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:
          183Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore,
          184In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
          185To all that wander in that perilous flood.

          186    Thus sang the uncouth swain to th'oaks and rills,
          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.


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.

3] crude: unripe.

5] shatter: scatter.

6] dear: grievous, but with overtones from other meanings of the word.

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.

13] welter: roll about.

14] meed: token of honour; tear: commonly used as a poetic synonym for elegy (as in Spenser's Teares of the Muses).

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.

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.

22] Say, Requiescat in pace; shroud (burial cloth) here stands for the dead.

25] lawns: grass lands.

28] gray-fly: so called from its colour, and also the trumpet-cry from the noise it makes.

29] battening: making fat.

30] Though some inexactness in the description has been noticed, Milton probably intends the Evening Star (Hesperus).

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.

36] Damœtas: presumably standing for some fellow of the college.

40] gadding: wandering, that is, growing naturally, not subjected to control.

45] canker: canker-worm, which by feeding on it produces canker in the blossom.

46] taint-worm: a worm thought to taint or infect cattle.

48] white thorn: the common hawthorn.

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.

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.

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.

70] clear: noble (Lat. clarus).

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."

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.

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."

77] foil: a thin leaf of metal placed behind a gem to enhance its brightness.

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.)

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.

89] herald of the sea: Triton.

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.

96] Hippotades: Aeolus, son of Hippotes and guardian of the winds.

99] Panope: one of the Nereids or sea-nymphs, who was associated with calm weather and invoked by Roman sailors.

101] An eclipse was proverbially of evil omen.

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.

107] pledge: child (Lat. pignus).

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.

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).

112] mitred, referring to the crown of the bishop, St. Peter being presented in the role of ideal bishop.

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.

122] sped: provided for.

123] flashy: destitute of meaning, trifling.

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.

126] allude to the corrupting effect of the false doctrines taught them.

128] allude to conversions to the Roman Catholic Church (here symbolized by the wolf), at which, as the Puritans erroneously believed, Archbishop Laud connived.

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.

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."

136] use: are accustomed (to dwell ).

138] swart star: Sirius, the star whose rising in August was said to burn the fields swart or dark.

142] rathe: early.

144] freakt: spotted or streaked.

149] amaranthus: an imaginary everlasting flower.

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.

156] stormy Hebrides: islands off the northwest coast of Scotland subject to Atlantic storms.

158] Reference is to the monsters of the deep.

159] moist vows: tearful prayers.

160] Bellerus old. Milton appears to have invented the person from Bellerium, the Roman name for Cornwall.

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.

163] Angel: i.e., St. Michael.

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 ).

168] day-star: probably the sun.

170] ore: i.e., gold.

173] "And ... Jesus went unto them walking on the sea" (Matthew 14:25).

175] nectar: in classical mythology, the drink of the gods.

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).

183] Genius of the shore. Among its various meanings in Latin, genius betokened a local deity or guardian spirit.

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.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: John Milton, Poems 1645. Facs. edn. (Menston: Scolar Press, 1970). PR 3552 S4 1645a Trinity College Library.
First publication date: 1638
RPO poem editor: Hugh MacCallum, A. S. P. Woodhouse
RP edition: 3RP 1.232-36.
Recent editing: 1:2002/6/1

Composition date: 1637
Rhyme: irregular.

Other poems by John Milton