The Use of Pastoral in Lycidas by John Milton
“Lycidas’ by John Milton is a pastoral elegy which deals with the process of grieving the while in the midst of a picturesque landscape. Milton drew inspiration for “Lycidas’ from his personal life, as the character of Lycidas embodies his good friend Edward King. The poem, much like real life, is a reflection on their explorative adolescence leading to King’s tragic death. Whilst Milton does not use his own name personally in the poem, it is evident to readers that Milton is indeed the “speaker”. One could infer that Milton presents the landscape in a pastoral sense to capture his desire for simplicity and escapism. “Lycidas’ had a large contribution to the world of early modern poetry and one might infer that Milton’s self-discovery and self-development as a poet is due to his use of the pastoral, as it reflects upon the concept of death, the purpose and meaning of life, as well as the confines and limitations within society.
Milton begins the narration of “Lycidas” whilst describing an idyllic landscape surrounded by the beauty of nature, focusing on the lush greenery around him. By having an emphasis on the natural beauty occurring amongst him, he becomes aware that he must disrupt the natural progression of nature by interfering by the usage of “Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear, / Compels me to disturb your season due” (6-7), this is necessary as his bitterness with the world must be expressed by him simply asserting his power to reclaim the situation. One could assume that Milton objectifies the simplicities within nature to mourn the loss of Lycidas (King) due to the power of nature. By Milton feeling compelled to disturb ones season, it objectifies the pain he is in, as he feels as though he must assert it onto another life source, more importantly; nature, who slaughtered Lycidas. The depths of his sadness deepen as Milton asserts “For we were nursed upon the selfsame hill, / Fed the same flock by fountain, shade, and rill.” (23-24), playing homage to the childhood shared by the speaker and Lycidas; using the landscape of a hill in the country creates picturesque imagery that depicts the simplistic life of two children who were free to wonder. This line of the poem makes one think of simpler times, before the complexities of life began. Readers can note that Milton’s usage of “As killing as the canker to the rose, / Or taint-worm to the weanling herds that graze, / Or frost to flowers, that their gay wardrobe wear, / When first the white-thorn blows; / Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd’s ear.” (45-49) uses a compilation of similes in order to express the grief that is occurring due to Lycidas’ death. He is heartbroken, relying on nature within the pastoral to help him relish his anguish and despair. The pastoral helps Milton to rationalize trauma, resorting to think of simpler times in ones life help Milton to understand the complexities of death and the ‘natural’ order of the world.
By use of the pastoral in the poem, Milton regains new perspectives and is able to identify the problematic areas of society as well as address a big question: what is the meaning of life and why is Lycidas cheated from a full life? The speaker accusatory holds nymphs responsible for not saving Lycidas, as he expresses “Where were ye, Nymphs, when the remorseless deep / Closed o’er the head of your loved Lycidas” (50-51), the blaming of Nymphs is merely a scapegoat for Milton, as he so greatly desires to hold someone/something accountable without acknowledging the power of nature and the inevitability of death. Caught in an imaginative state, Milton bluntly remembers the reality: that his friend is deceased and attempting to rationalize why he is no longer on earth as well as attempting to hold someone accountable for his death will not change the outcome. “Ay me, I fondly dream! / Had ye been there, for what could that have done?” (56-57), this seems to be a moment where the speaker finally realizes that he cannot continue to blame nature and mystical elements around him; death is inevitable and not even nymphs can attempt to stop it. The speaker soon gains a new perspective and wonders what the point of living is, “Alas! what boots it with uncessant care / To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade, / And strictly meditate the thankless Muse”(64-66), now that he no longer has Lycidas in his life, is shepherdry still worth doing?
Milton escapes the barriers of society to explore perspectives and ideas that are not possible within the confines of city-living. Upon the setting of a pastoral landscape, the speaker’s grief takes precedence and he explores greek mythology as well as the role that christianity plays into Lycidas’ death. This explorative nature takes on the task of addressing the purpose (or non-purpose) of muses, nymphs, and Apollo. One may infer that the use of the mystical creatures is to exaggerate qualities that define the pastoral and discovery into what really distinguishes the pastoral from any other literary category. By involving a Saint such as Peter, Milton incites and questions the Roman Catholic Religion, as Milton was a protestant which lead to his deterrence against Catholicism. By his exploration of these topics in the pastoral, it allows him time to think more critically and be creative in his reasoning.
In Conclusion, “Lycidas’ had a prominent role in Miltons discovery and self development as a poet as he seizes the opportunity to reflect and rationalize his emotions within the scope of the pastoral. The pastoral offers new, unique perspectives as there is a concentration and reflecting nature when viewing the simplicities that occur when granted freedom of expression and rationalization. Within this realm of freedom, is the exploration of death, the purpose and meaning of life, as well as the confines and limitations within society.
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“Lycidas’ by John Milton is a pastoral elegy which deals with the process of grieving the while in the midst of a picturesque landscape. Milton drew inspiration for “Lycidas’ from […]