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] Damtas: 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
Other poems by John Milton