Analyzing The King’s Eulogy As Depicted In John Milton’s Poem Lycidas

January 12, 2021 by Essay Writer

Does Milton’s Lycidas Justly Honor his Deceased Friend?

Milton was half-hearted about writing a poem in the wake of Edward King’s death, but the poet had no other choice. Edward King, Milton’s friend at Cambridge University and fellow poet, died prematurely, drowning at sea before he was able to be ordained as an Anglican priest. In Lycidas, Milton reminisces about why God has caused such a tragedy to occur and is forced to question his own poetic endeavors. This poem was written in 1967, three years after Comus was performed at Ludlow Castle and about six years after he wrote Sonnet 7 (“How Soon Hath Time”) on the occasion of his twenty-third birthday. Even though Milton had matured as a poet during his mid-twenties, he still felt that he wasn’t ready to eulogize King. In the lines “Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear/ Compels me to disturb your season due” (Lycidas 6-7), Milton is speaking to the laurel tree from which he is plucking berries from before they are ripe. This is a metaphor both for how Lycidas— Milton’s name for King in the poem— has died too young and Milton must address a serious subject before his poetic potential has not fully blossomed, a sentiment he expressed in Sonnet 7:“That I to manhood am arrived so near,/ And inward ripeness doth much less appear” (Sonnet 7 6-7).

Lycidas also tackles subjects of virtue and God’s ways that the Lady’s brothers argued about in Comus. Whereas the Elder Brother states that virtue is always rewarded, and “if this fail,/The pillared firmament is rottenness,/And earth’s base built on stubble” (Comus 597-599), Milton questions the validity of unwavering justice. He invokes mythological characters and wonders why they did not intervene to save King. “Where were ye nymphs when the remorseless deep/Closed o’er the head of your loved Lycidas?” (Lycidas 50-51), Milton asks, but he then admits that is it silly to expect the nymphs to have been able to have helped, since not even “the Muse herself that Orpheus bore” (58) was able to rescue her son. Milton tries to blame “the herald of the sea” (89) for letting King drown, but Triton is actually just as desperate to understand the tragedy as Milton: “He asked the waves, and asked the felon winds/ ‘What hard mishap hath doomed this gentle swain?’” (91-92). In the end, Milton cannot know why God let his friend die so early, but that does not stop him from challenging himself and the Church with theodicies throughout his career in order to rationalize a life of virtue.

Lycidas has been heralded as one of the greatest poems in the English language. Yet, Samuel Johnson, a literary critic of the eighteenth century, accused Lycidas for what he considered a lack of passion, “for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions” (Johnson). Though Johnson’s criticism has merit, denouncing Milton’s pastoral elegy as being unfit for the occasion seems extremely harsh and limiting. Milton knew King very well, and he felt feel sorrow when he died, without a doubt. If Milton had composed an ostensibly more personal, emotional poem devoid of mythological references and digressive criticism of the corrupt English clergy through metaphors, — a poem that Johnson would approve of— someone still could have criticized his work being just as unfit, since poetry can only express emotions to a certain extent, and the time spent writing poetry is time that one is not purely mourning. To approach Lycidas from Johnson’s perspective is to miss out on the beauty of the poem. For example, John Ruskin celebrates the careful use of the verbs “creep”, “intrude”, and “climb” to describe the how the self-interested men of the Roman Catholic church gain ecclesiastical power, claiming “no other words would or could serve the turn, and no more could be added” (Ruskin, 239). The pastoral elements of the poem further capture the tenderness of death. Though King was drowned, Milton calls upon the Sicilian muse to decorate the body with flowers and whisks the reader into a sensual reverie of “the musk-rose, and the well-attired woodbine,/ With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head” (Lycidas 146-147) before exclaiming “Ay me!” (154) upon realizing that the body remains in the sea.

Milton’s poem is humbling and confessional, and lines such as “fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise/ (That last infirmity of noble mind)/ to scorn delights, and live laborious days” (Lycidas 70) prove that Lycidas was an exercise in grappling with death that forced him to rethink his pursuit of poetic fame; Milton did not publish Lycidas as a way of profiting off his friend’s death. By incorporating extensive metaphor and learned references, Milton expands the obvious feeling of sorrow to open up discussion of larger themes of justice, religious virtue, ambition, and the afterlife all within less than two hundred lines. Lycidas is the kind of poem one can go back to over and over again and find something new. Over the hundreds of years that Lycidas has been a popular object of academic scrutiny, readers have never forgotten the legacy of Edward King.

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