Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ is one of the greatest pastoral elegies in English literature. Pastoralism in literature is an attitude in which the writer looks at life from the view point of a shepherd. In classical literature this has been successfully handled by Theocritus of Sicily, and after him by Virgil and Bion. In English literature it was popularised by Sir Philip Sydney and Edmund Spenser, but the scintillating star in the firmament of pastoralism is certainly John Milton.
Pastoral elegy has its own conventions handed down from generation to generation. Let us see how far Milton has observed them in ‘Lycidas’. The pastoral poet begins by invoking the Muses and goes on referring to other figures from classical mythology. In ‘Lycidas’ we find an invocation to the Muses from line 15 to 22. Milton concludes by expecting a similar service from some other poet when he is dead.
Secondly, the mourning in pastoral poetry is almost universal. Nature joins in mourning the shepherd’s death in ‘Lycidas’, private sorrow giving place to public sorrow. Lines 37-49 in Lycidas describes the mourning. Woods and caves once haunted by Lycidas now mourn for him.
The inquest over the death is another tradition found in Pastoral poems. In lines 50-63, Milton charges the nymphs with negligence. But the next moment it dawns on him that they would have been helpless. Triton, the herald of the sea questions every wind and is assured that the air was calm when Lycidas set sail. The conclusion drawn is that the fatal ship that sank Lycidas was built during the eclipse and fitted out in the midst of curses.
Then comes a description of the procession of mourners as found in all pastoral elegies. Camus, representing Cambridge university and leadership, leads the procession. The last among the mourners is St.Peter mourning the loss to the church incurred by the death of Lycidas. With a denunciation of the corrupt clergyman, St.Peter disappears. Lines 88-111 are occupied with this description.
Post-Renaissance elegies often included an elaborate passage in which the poet mentions appropriate flowers of various hues and significance brought to deck the hearse. Lines 133 to 151 carry such a description. Among the primrose, the crowetoe, the pink and the woodbine, the amaranth alone signifies immortality with its unfading nature.
In orthodox pastoral elegies there is a closing consolation. The poet accordingly asks the shepherds to weep no more, for Lycidas is not dead, but has merely passed from one earth to heaven. Lines 165 to 185 offer consolation. In Christian elegies, the reversal from grief to joy occurs when the writer realizes that death on earth is entry into a higher life. But Milton adds that Lycidas has become a genius of the shore to play the guardian angel to those who wander in the dangerous flood.
Milton has followed the conventions in pastoral poetry, but he has mingled in it Greek mythology and Christian theology. In addition there are two digressions from pastoral strain: a) a discussion on the true values of life, and, b) a bitter criticism of the clergyman of the day. He introduces St.Peter into the list of mourners which shows the deepening puritanical fervour of the poet. In the other parts of the poem he has merely used the images handed down from classical ages. But when questions about the religious state of England rose in his mind, he could not restrain himself. He puts into the mouth of St.Peter a trade against the corrupt clergymen of his day. He prophesies that the domination of the corrupting leaders is doomed. The note of keen personal regret is conspicuous by its absence. Milton here laments the loss of the church, for Edward king was intended for the church. He would have certainly set an example of purity and devotion to the other priests. In addition, the poet is bewailing the loss of another poet, who also knew “to build the lofty rhyme”.
‘Lycidas’ is unquestionably a pagan poem. But Milton, the austere puritan could not help introducing Christian elements into it. Thus with its curious mixture of pagan loveliness and Christian austerity, it becomes the offspring of Milton’s unparalleled genius. The poem starts with an apology for breaking the poet’s resolve not to write any poetry until his poetic talent has matured fully. The concluding eight lines from a sort of epilogue in which Milton speaks directly, having stepped out of the character of the shephered. Having passed through many moods and sung in different strains, the shepherd draws his clock around him and leaves the spot.