Milton`s Lycidas is a pastoral elegy, written in the face of the death of Edward King. The pastoral imagery is prevalent from the very beginning of the poem, as it opens with flower imagery. In line 1 and 2, three flowers are mentioned: The laurel, the myrtle and the ivy. All of these evergreens are symbols of poetic fame and the laurel is also associated with triumph while the myrtle can be associated with mourning and lament (see Thomas, 23). The image of flowers is closely connected to nature and is mentioned time and again during the poem, for example in line 148 to 151, when all flowers are said to wear “sad embroidery” (Milton, line 148) as an expression of their mourning. “The flower passage stands for the lament of nature for the dead shepherd, decking his bier with offerings of flowers.” (Thomas, 31)
The poem also celebrates the homosocial bond of Lycidas and the speaker. This closeness and friendship between the speaker and his friend who passed away is described in pictures relating to nature and especially in metaphors connected to a shepherd and his sheep. Line 22 to 31 describe the relationship emphatically as a close one by stating that the two men grew up on the same hill (cf. Milton, line 23) and “[f]ed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill” (Milton, line 24). The cited quote puts the speaker and his friend in an active position: they were not the ones to be fed, but the ones feeding others. This leads to the conclusion that both are considered to be shepherd in this poem, which is confirmed in several other lines, for example when the speaker mentions the “[b]att'ning [of] our flocks” (line 29). However, reading the pastoral imagery solely as a description of the life aspects the two shepherds shared would be insufficient. The use of this imagery also “links their function as poets to the whole of Western literature” (Thomas, 25). Therefore, the pastoral imagery is not only used for purposes of description, but also has the specific function of positioning Lycidas and the speaker in relation to other poets and other poetry (cf. Thomas, 25).
As James Holly Hanford states in his essay The Pastoral Elegy and Milton's Lycidas, the image of Edward King as a shepherd leads to "the fiction that he is the particular darling of all the creatures of the vale, and that they all lament his death" (Hanford 415). This can be seen especially in lines 39 to 41: “Thee Shepherd, thee the Woods, and desert Caves, / With wilde Thyme and the gadding Vine o'regrown, / And all their echoes mourn.” Like the other examples given above, this quotation is a further illustration of how the use of pastoral imagery “tend[s] to idealize and dignify the expression of [the speaker's] sorrow, and to exalt this tribute to the memory of his friend [...]” (Hanford 403/404). Therefore, the pastoral imagery is used to enhance the feeling that an ideal has been lost.
However, pastoral imagery is also used as a means to criticize in a safe and subtle manner. Line 119 to 132 demonstrate criticism of the church using the very fitting metaphor in which the church is a shepherd who is unable to take care of his flock (“The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed”, Milton, line 125). Here, there is a “direct combination of the classical pastoral imagery with the Christian figure of the pastor and his flock" (Hanford 427). The speaker goes on to describe that this flock – the religious community – is more than just spiritually unfulfilled. The speaker's allegations are much stronger than that: The religious community receives nothing but empty words (it is “swoln with wind”, Milton, line 126) and, in consequence, “rot[s] inwardly” (Milton, line 127). The accusation is therefore not only one of unsatisfactory spiritual fulfilment, but one of spiritual decay caused by the church. This fairly angry speech is directed at “the false Anglican clergy […] The unfaithful shepherds are those who bring discredit on the profession through their greed and ambition” (Thomas, 30). Furthermore, the negligence of the Protestant pastors leaves the religious community unprotected against the Roman Catholic Church, which is described as “ the grim Woolf with privy paw [that] [d]aily devours apace” (Milton, line 128 / 129).
Due to the anger which can be detected in said passage, “the pastoral tone [of the poem] is shattered” (Thomas, 31). The tone has changed from sad and mourning to angry and almost aggressive: there is no question that the speaker feels very strongly about both of the churches mentioned. In this passage of church critique, the pastoral imagery is used to create a strong contrast between the religious community of the common people – the sheep – and the church, which is presented as greedy and narcissistic by comparing it to a hungry wolf. Also, this critique is made possible particularly through the use of pastoral imagery, as it allows the poet to safely inscribe his criticism onto the landscape and the imagery of tending sheep.
Starting in line 132, the pastoral tone is fully restored when the speaker calls on Alpheus and the Sicilian Muse. As mentioned in the introduction of this essay, a whole “catalogue of flowers” (Thomas, 31) is used at this point and this brings the elegy back to the starting point of nature's mourning of Lycidas' death. This passage of pastoral imagery has the structural function “to mediate between the harsh lines about corruption in the Church and the reception of Lycidas into the bliss of paradise” (Thomas, 31). Thus, it provides a bridge between the deviation in tone as well as topic and smooths the way to a return to the classical, traditional images used in a typical pastoral elegy. Here, it is important to note that the speaker lets himself imagine a scenario where Lycidas' body and bier is decked with the offerings of the flowers, even though this is not a possible scenario as Lycidas' body has not been found (see Thomas, 31 / 32). This imagined scenario seems to represent the idea of admission back into nature and back into earth.
The very end of the poem then continues to use pastoral images with the intent to comfort as it already imagines the days when the mourning will be over. The comforting thoughts can be found for example in the descriptions of line 184 to 192, describing how Lycidas must have risen after his death (see Milton, line 192). The optimistic view into the future can be found in statements such as “Now Lycidas the Shepherds weep no more” (Milton, line 182) and the reference to a tomorrow with “fresh Woods, and Pastures new” (Milton, 193), using the imagery of young trees and fresh grass to picture a new beginning.
References Primary Sources:
Milton, John. “Lycidas.” <http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/lycidas.html#21> Accessed on October, 5th, 2015.
- , James Holly. "The Pastoral Elegy and Milton's Lycidas."PMLA, 25.3 (1910): 403-447.
Thomas, C.T. (ed.) “Lycidas 1937 – 1945: Commentary.” India: Orient Blackswan, 1975.