Christening the Pagan: Poetry and Death in Lycidas
Justin Scott Van Kleeck
Living in a period of important religious and cultural flux, John Milton's poetry reflects the many influences he found both in history and in the contemporary world. With a vast knowledge of literature from the classical world of Greek and Roman culture, Milton often looked back to more ancient times as a means of enriching his works. At other times, however, he relies on his strong Christian beliefs for creating spiritually compelling themes and deeply religious imagery. Despite the seemingly conflicting nature of these two polarized sources of inspiration, Milton somehow found a way of bridging the gap between a pagan and a Christian world, often weaving them together into one overpowering story. The pastoral elegy Lycidas, written after the death of a fellow student at Cambridge, exemplifies this mastery over ancient and contemporary traditions in its transition from a pagan to a Christian context. Opening the poem in a setting rich with mythological figures and scenery, then deliberately moving into a distinctly Christian setting, Milton touches upon two personally relevant issues: poetry and Christian redemption. In this way, Lycidas both addresses the subject of being a poet in a life doomed by death and at the same time shows the triumphant glory of a Christian life, one in which even the demise of the poet himself holds brighter promises of eternal heavenly joy.
Confronted with the drowning of contemporary Cambridge student and fellow poet Edward King in 1637, John Milton faced the daunting subject of making sense of an existence that inevitably culminates in the ultimate destruction of human life. As M. H. Abrams states in his prefatory notes to Lycidas, Milton took part in the production of a volume of poems entitled Justa Eduardo King in memory of the dead man (645). This was the occasion that brought about the creation of Lycidas, a poem that both mourns the loss of a fellow human being and also makes a larger statement about the world in general. To do this, Milton turned to the pastoral elegy, a classically rich style of poetry found throughout literary history and most often associated with just such a topic. This was presumably a natural choice for Milton, as James H. Hanford says, since Milton's familiarity "with poetry of this kind in English, Latin, Italian, and Greek" made him recognize "the pastoral as one of the natural modes of literary expression, sanctioned by classic practice" (32). Going back to such masters as the Greek "superior genius" Theocritus and Virgil, the famous Latin poet, Milton clearly found himself employing a literary form with its roots in a world of almost exclusively pagan beliefs (32;35). Even with later Christian forms, pastorals relied on the ancients for their conventional characteristics. "From Virgil's time forth, conventionality in setting is a marked characteristic of the pastoral" that employed archetypal shepherds as its essential trait, and Milton hardly strays from the standard form in his work (40). This long-lived tradition of pastorals, then, immersed Milton in a surrounding of rich images and important mythological figures, taking him back in time to an age far removed from his own.
With this in mind, Milton begins Lycidas in an exclusively, and seemingly appropriate, classical setting, at the same time making the subject of poetry almost as important as that of life and death. The poem opens with, "Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more/ Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere" (Milton 1-2), introducing the importance of both classical symbolism and poetry to the work. The laurel is classically linked to "the crown of poetry given by Apollo", while the myrtle refers to the Greek goddess Venus, and ivy to the god Bacchus, the three plants together being "evergreens associated with poetic inspiration" (Abrams 646, fn. 2). With these three very symbolic plants, then, Milton brings in the mythology of the pagan cultures and introduces the classical elements into his poem. Not only do these lines emphasize the idea of immortality and conquering death, but they also make poetry an important part of the rest of the work. Also, since "Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime" (Milton 8), the narrator has to "pluck [the] berries" of these plants "with forced fingers rude," long "before the mellowing year" when they are ripe (3-5). This not only indicates that he is a poet, but it also shows that this dire occasion necessitates using his talent before it is quite ready or matured. In fact, since Lycidas also "knew/ Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme," the narrator and his subject are truly linked by a common thread, namely the art of poetry (9,10). They were "nursed upon the selfsame hill,/ Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill," and here the narrator also shows that they were shepherds, making Milton's use of the pastoral convention of the shepherd-poet appropriate for both of them (23-4). Establishing this bond obviously makes the premature death of Lycidas personally relevant to the narrator, and in this way it takes on even more importance for him. Invoking the help of the Muses, those "sisters of the sacred well" who spring from underneath the throne of Jove, the narrator begins his song (15-6). Thus, as David Daiches says in A Study of Literature, "with deliberate awareness of the classical pastoral tradition Milton begins the actual elegy" and moves on to more universal, transcendental matters (96).
This death of a fellow shepherd-poet quickly brings about a very pessimistic attitude in the narrator of Lycidas, and after the introduction Milton begins creating a setting of pagan elements as he questions the worth of being an artist of this sort. Against a backdrop of "[r]ough satyrs" and "fauns with cloven heel" dancing and singing merrily, he cries out about "the heavy change" that has occurred with the death of Lycidas (34-5; 37). He realizes the youth is truly gone "and never must return!" (38). This fact dawns on him as a staggering realization, and as he continues the narrator only becomes more convinced of the futility of poetry. He then asks, "Where were ye nymphs, when the remorseless deep/ Closed o'er the head of your loved Lycidas?", and continues by questioning the Druids, called "old bards" (53) as servants of the natural world that took the shepherd's life (50-1; 53). Here, "The water nymphs could not save him, nor could the tutelary spirits of that region near which the ship [of Lycidas] went down" (Daiches 100). By pointing out this fact, Milton implies that the beautiful landscape around them is in reality a world that only leads to death and that the spirits associated with it are powerless to do anything about this fact.
Making the link to poetry, the narrator ponders, "What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore" have done to save Lycidas? (Milton 58). This presents an important reference to the Muse of epic poetry Calliope and her son Orpheus (Abrams 647, fn. 9). Detailing the gruesome dismemberment of Orpheus, telling how "[h]is gory visage down the stream was sent" (Milton 62), Milton shows that "the very embodiment of poetic genius," "the founder and symbol of poetry and a son of the Muse, could not be saved from a more frightful death than that which befell Lycidas" (Daiches 101). Seeing all these examples of how the life of an artist results only in an untimely destruction with no protection coming from the spirits associated with poetry, the narrator adamantly states his opinion on the futility of devoting oneself to that art. The lines, "Alas! What [profits] it with incessant care/ To tend the homely slighted shepherd's trade,/ And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?" (Milton 64-6) shows the development of the narrator's skepticism and doubt in his trade. Even more vivid is his depiction of Atropos, the Fate from Greek mythology responsible for cutting the thread of human life with her scissors (Abrams 648, fn. 7). Milton's narrator says that just when a poet thinks he has found the rewards of fame, "the blind Fury with th' abhorred shears" surely comes to slit "the thin-spun life," depicting death as a truly unhappy and frightening experience (73-6). The strength of the narrator's, or Milton's, language in these different lines shows just how much the death of Lycidas affects him, and this makes his negative view towards a poet's life quite understandable in light of what has happened.
Lycidas might easily have continued on in this very sour tone, but Milton introduces a new aspect to the poem after the very powerful questions posed by his narrator. With this gradual turn in imagery and ideas, Milton moves his poem towards a distinctly Christian setting, one where the death of Lycidas becomes in truth an entrance into eternal life. Set in contrast to the initial pagan elements of the opening of Lycidas, Milton begins mixing in Christian figures and ideas as a means of expressing his belief in the superiority of his faith over the older religions of pagan cultures. The first instance of this is the reply of Phoebus Apollo to the remark by the poet on the impossibility of achieving fame as an artist. "Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil," Phoebus tells him, "Nor in the glistering foil/ Set off to th' world, nor in broad rumor lies" (Milton 78-80), essentially expressing that true fame can never come from the world alone. Instead, fame is what "lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes,/ And perfect witness of all-judging Jove" (81-2). In this way, as the god Jove looks down on man's actions and judges accordingly, Phoebus assures the poet that "[o]f so much fame in heaven expect that thy meed" (83-4). Despite the pagan terminology Milton uses, he expresses a very Christian idea in the belief of true reward for good actions coming in heaven under the judgement of God. Even though Phoebus Apollo is a pagan deity, the fact that he asserts a fundamental Christian doctrine and uses the word "heaven," rather than "Mt. Olympus" or some similar term from mythology, introduces a very new element into Lycidas. Starting in a surreal setting of pagan figures and classical scenery, the world that ultimately took the life of young Lycidas, this sudden shift towards a Christian perspective introduces a strong departure from the initial language of the poem.
As Milton continues, his gradual and deliberate move towards a Christian tone only reinforces the negative qualities of the classical world that steals the life of the poet long before his labors come to fruition. After the somewhat reassuring statement from Phoebus Apollo, the narrator moves from the short digression on fame to the more traditional procession of mourners, Milton again returning to the conventional pastoral form. Before continuing his sad song, the narrator calls to the "fountain Arethuse" and the river Mincius (Milton 85-6), "the former associated with the pastorals of Theocritus" and linked to the nymph Arethusa, "the latter with [the pastorals] of Virgil" (Abrams 648, fn. 1). So even with the short reference to a Christian theme from Phoebus Apollo and the attempted reassurance that heaven's glory outshines any fame received on earth, Milton deliberately returns to a classical landscape as he returns to traditional form and the three mourners come forth.
With the return to the classical setting, the conventional procession of mourners begins, and the first figure that comes is "the herald of the sea/ That came in Neptune's plea" (Milton 89-90). The reference here is to Triton, who pleads his master Neptune's innocence in Lycidas' drowning, since Neptune is the Roman god of the sea (Abrams 648, fn. 3). Triton questions "the waves, and asked the felon winds" about the death of the shepherd, but none of the other deities and nymphs dancing about on the shore know the answer to his inquiries (Milton 91-9). With the ignorance of Triton and the other figures, Milton only reinforces his earlier message that all these wondrous pagan characters are really powerless when it comes to human mortality. "Next Camus, reverend sire" (103) and god of the Cambridge river (Abrams 648, fn. 7) mourns the loss of Lycidas, who he calls "my dearest pledge" (Milton 107). This reference not only makes a connection to Cambridge and Edward King but also once again ties in local pagan deities with the death of the young shepherd. Since the description of Camus is that he "went footing slow," Milton makes another insinuation that even a god of the waters, much like Neptune, did not have the ability to rescue Lycidas as he drowned (103). The last mourner that appears in the procession is St. Peter, "The pilot of the Galilean lake," who appears as the first exclusively Christian figure in the poem and also becomes linked with water like the other two characters (109). However, his words are more compelling than the previous messages were. "He shook his mitered locks, and stern bespake:/ 'How well could I have spared for thee, young swain'" puts him in the usual role as a bishop or pastor of the church and also links him to the shepherd figure as well (112-3) . Using St. Peter here is appropriate, since a "shepherd as a spiritual leader is of course an old Christian usage, and goes right back to the Bible" (Daiches 105). In classical poetry, though, the shepherd is also pictured as singing and piping his various songs. "So by combining Christian and classical traditions Milton can use the shepherd as a symbol for the combination of priest and poet" that is such a fundamental part of Lycidas, and this makes St. Peter a perfect transitional figure at this point (105). With this in mind, what St. Peter says in memory of the dead shepherd sounds more like a lament over the fact that Lycidas did not find the salvation he offered, as an agent of Christ, rather than sorrow over Peter's own weakness. His connection to the water is also important, one of salvation rather than death, and set against the first two mourners this fact marks a notable shift in Milton's focus. With the procession of the three mourners, Milton makes his second distinct mixture of classical and Christian elements and slowly begins the transition between two different realms.
Though making two rather obvious references to Christianity already, Milton holds off in totally departing from the pastoral landscape and employing a more contemporary religious message. Once St. Peter, speaking his grim words on divine punishment and the sorry state of the church, makes his exit (113-131), the narrator can once again return to his song:
Return, Alpheus, the dread voice is past,
That shrunk thy streams; return, Sicilian muse,
And call the vales, and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flowerets of a thousand hues. (132-5)
With these lines, the narrator does indeed return to older times and continues his song with the lengthy catalogue of flowers meant as condolence for the loss of Lycidas. Though the flowers are meant "[t]o strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies," since the death came from drowning they have no body to bury (151). This disheartening fact leads to another Christian reference by the narrator, who says, "For so to interpose a little ease,/ Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise" (152-3). This "false surmise" is, in fact, "that the body of Lycidas has been recovered and can receive a Christian burial" (Abrams 650, fn. 9). This is a very interesting statement because it introduces the idea that those mourning over Lycidas may find a little solace in the thought that he received a Christian burial, even though they know the body is lost at sea.
Concluding this part of the shepherd's song, Milton uses his most obvious attempts yet to fuse the pagan and Christian elements into one poetic work. With the narrator pondering where the body could be, he refers to "the fable of Bellerus old" (Milton 160), the story of a great giant who supposedly lies buried in Cornwall (Abrams 650, fn. 2). But right after this pagan reference, the narrator identifies this same place with "the vision of the guarded mount" that "looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold" (Milton 161-2), alluding to St. Michael's Mount (Abrams 650, fn. 3). At this site, also in Cornwall, "the archangel Michael is envisioned as looking south to Bayona and the district of Namancos" (650, fn. 3). Thus, Milton goes beyond just using historically unrelated elements and blends these pagan and Christian tales into one united idea, allowing a smooth crossover to the message and imagery contained in the consolation.
Having traversed through the pagan world of death present throughout most of Lycidas, Milton finally leaves that setting behind and moves on to one that allows for a truly fitting consolation in which the shepherds can move on in confidence that Lycidas has found peace. The narrator opens this section on a very distinct Christian theme, that of resurrection, with an emphatic and moving plea to his fellow men:
Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky. (Milton 165-71)
Just like the sun he so vividly describes, the narrator assures that "[t]hrough the dear might of him that walked the waves," namely Christ, Lycidas as well is "sunk low, but mounted high" in heaven (173; 172). "There entertain him all the saints above," wiping all "the tears forever from his eyes" as he dwells in that glorious kingdom (178; 181). This message of eternal life and infinite bliss serves its purpose well, since the narrator tells his dead friend that, "Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more" and that he will be remembered as a guardian spirit of the shore near where he died (182-3). Ending his song with this theme of life after death, using the image of the rising sun and the sacrifice of Jesus, the narrator ushers in an ultimately Christian conclusion to his originally sorrowful elegy. Because the belief in resurrection through Christ provides a much more positive outlook on life and death, disembarking from the classical mythological figures that offer no promises of salvation brings out a message of hope rather than destruction. On this note, the "uncouth swain" who told the tale of Lycidas' death finds himself able to see beyond his own impending demise (186). His sorrow gone and a higher lesson learned, he concludes confidently, "Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new," as he looks toward the future instead of dwelling on the painful past (193).
According to Isabel G. MacCaffrey, "These deliberate allusions to literary tradition" that occur in the consolation take the poem to a pastoral setting "now made more potent as a vehicle of human meaning because its patterns are seen to be reproduced in the divine plan of the universe" (264). The simplicity and weakness of Milton's original pagan landscape, then, becomes one in which death is not final, life is not futile, and the glory of heaven promises reward for the pains of mortal existence. Constructing Lycidas in this way, Milton can both deal with the struggles of human life and, more importantly, assert his belief in the truth and superiority of Christianity over the classical pagan world that he so often used in his poetry. Edward W. Tayler, in his essay "Lycidas in Christian Time," shows that using the pastoral form provided Milton with the perfect opportunity of doing just that. "In using the pastoral as a standard from which to depart significantly," Tayler suggests, "Milton reanimates the Christian commonplace that is the consolation for the loss of Lycidas," the key part in his addressing the subject of death (314). Adds Tayler: "Lycidas is so constructed that as a poem it does exactly what Lycidas himself is described as doing," sinking in order to rise once again triumphant over a finite world that could so violently rob him of his young life (314). Through the poem as a whole, then, "Milton readies [the reader] to acknowledge yet once more the truth of the Christian truism" of resurrection and the power of Jesus (314). By starting off in such an overtly pagan setting, stealing the life of Lycidas "ere his prime," and ending in a much more reassuring environment, Milton makes a clear statement about his belief that Christian faith is the ultimate truth before all others (8).
John Milton, like all mortal men, knew that life must inevitably end in death for everyone. Faced with the drowning of his fellow Cambridge student Edward King, however, Milton came face to face with the often unfair nature of existence. With the knowledge that King was a poet like himself, Milton surely recognized the personal relevance of the death and the fact of his own mortality. The result of this event is Lycidas, a pastoral elegy that mourns the loss of a contemporary yet at the same time expresses Milton's own views about life, poetry, and death. Looking back to the ancient origins of traditional poetry, Milton sets an appropriate mood in his work with exotic imagery and classical conventions before taking his reader towards more personal, spiritual issues. Drawing on the ancient pagan beliefs and mythologies that gave birth to the earliest forms of the pastoral, Lycidas becomes a forum for Milton to present his own fears and then reassure both others and himself that life is not a futile exercise. By establishing a pagan context in the opening of the poem and then closing on a strong Christian note, John Milton shows that poetry is not wasted labor, since even poets, like all others who believe in the power of Christ, find their own personal glory in heaven.
Daiches, David. "A Study of Literature." Milton's Lycidas: The Tradition and the Poem. Ed. C. A. Patrides. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1983. 92-110.
Hanford, James H. "The Pastoral Elegy and Milton's Lycidas." Milton's Lycidas: The Tradition and the Poem. Ed. C. A. Patrides. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1983. 31-59.
MacCaffrey, Isabel G. "Lycidas: The Poet in a Landscape." Milton's Lycidas: The Tradition and the Poem. Ed. C. A. Patrides. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1983. 246-66.
Milton, John. "Lycidas." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. 646-51.
Tayler, Edward W. "Lycidas in Christian Time." Milton's Lycidas: The Tradition and the Poem. Ed. C. A. Patrides. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1983. 303-18.
Table of Contents