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.
Significance of Nature in Tintern Abbey and Lycidas
The Romantic era of literature can be defined in a variety of ways, sometimes cited as a time where individualism and human importance were at their peak, other times a period where science was condemned and the arts were promoted. However, the most everlasting theme is the promotion of nature and its importance in the wellbeing of humans; notable Romantic poets William Wordsworth and John Milton even use the interplay between nature and their own minds to distinguish a dual role of nature in the very formation of thought and emotion. In their respective writings, both garner a creative muse and a worldly wisdom through their exposure to nature. To those who take the time to observe and reflect, experiences in nature offer a more pure conception of reality and reflection of humanity. In their respective poems “Tintern Abbey” and “Lycidas,” Wordsworth and Milton expand upon these themes in two divergent ways, depicting nature as the spirit of imagination, allowing for interpretation of their own human experiences through a lens not influenced by cultural bias, but only the limits of the human mind.
William Wordsworth is notable for creating narratives which demonstrate that insightful thought is a result of the perception of nature, rather than one’s inner consciousness. In his “Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth returns to the Banks of the Wye after a long absence, where he detached himself from nature. He comments on the wonderful memories of his youth spent in the natural environment, fondly admiring his surroundings, but also reprimanding his childish innocence. In his youth, he was “more like a man/ Flying from something that he dreads, than one/Who sought the thing he loved”. As a young man growing up in nature, Wordsworth’s surroundings directly guided his actions; there was no analytical filter between him and his environment, as he acted how nature compelled him to. After returning to the source of his happiness, Wordsworth realizes he has lost the purity in his life, instead trying to convince himself that he has developed a more sophisticated view of nature, “For I have learned/ To look on nature, not as in the hour/ Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes/ That still, sad music of humanity”. Here, nature acts as a creative muse through Wordsworth’s reintroduction with it. By viewing his surroundings through his sister Dorothy’s eyes, Wordsworth’s view of nature through a Christian perspective returns, as he worships nature with a religious fervor once again. Wordsworth then shares his deepest desire, that in the future after his death, the power of nature and the memories of himself imbedded in the surroundings of his childhood will stay with Dorothy, “If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief/ Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts/ Of tender joy wilt thou remember me”. Even as Wordsworth thinks about dying, his unlimited imagination gives him a new sense of vitality knowing he will rise to the heavens.
John Milton’s “Lycidas” is dedicated to lamenting the death of his closest friend, Lycidas, who devoted his terse life to pastoral poetry. Similarly to Tintern Abbey, the poetry follows the conventions of the classic romantic elegy, and envisions a scene where the two friends live a sheperds. Like Wordsworth, Milton’s very character was formed by the impact of nature on his childhood, “Or we were nurs’d upon the self-same hill/ Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill;/ Together both, ere the high lawns appear’d”. These pastoral themes render the close relationship between the two characters. Now, after Lycidas passed away, the poet reflects on the meaning of life and death and questions the divinity and omnipotence of nature. His friend was seemingly devoted to the point where he worshipped pagan gods and muses, and this prompts Milton to wonder whether nature has any significance at all. In Wordsworth’s case, his absence from nature has desensitized him from its wonder and is the cause of his internal turmoil. Eventually, the inspirational muse in the form of his sister is the catalyst for the reunion of two long lost lovers. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the muses, Greek gods, and natural elements are the sole reason for Milton’s suffering. He has confided in nature for all of his life, and when such an entity is no longer viable, Milton feels nothing but emptiness. Despite the differences between the two stories, the power of imagination unites them both; once a Greek god in the form of Phoebus appears to Milton to inform him that Lycidas’s death was not in vain, it is then that the poet begins to celebrate the life and fame of his lost friend and he feels a sense of resolve, informing the shepherds to “weep no more”. After spending his life believing in a miraculous force, Milton is finally visited by that divine figure, so that Lycidas can “day-star sinks in the ocean bed”, and rises again into Olympus.
It is quite evident that both poems end on an optimistic vote supporting immortality and remembrance beyond death. In both poems, the Romantic authors express their opinions through many voices. Opening with the debate about the significance and validity of nature in society, both stories draw upon divine themes to reaffirm the prominence of nature as a reliable deity. Throughout the struggles of the poems, it was expected that the deadlocked conflict would have a clear declaration of victory in favor of either forms of natural muses (being Christian themes or Pagan gods). However, Wordsworth and Milton seem to come together with a rather simplistic, yet powerful synthesis of the two. Because the authors ultimately prove that childhood memories of communion surrounded with natural beauty are part of the same entity, they strive for a transcendent harmony. The true meaning of nature draws its strength from the power of imagination and ultimately the belief in immortality, and the romantic authors unite the positives and negatives of nature to form what is known as beauty.
Critique of the Intellectual Stagnancy in L’Allegro, Il Penseroso and Lycidas
In the Classical Republicanism of John Milton, P.A. Rahe contests that it is “impossible to categorise Milton” (Rahe, 82). Indeed, this view is seen to be well supported by Milton’s vast use of variety of space and narrative within his Poems of 1645: He is seen to emulate and utilise polarised narrative voices and ideologies, particularly in his dichotomised companion works, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. One might speculate that Milton’s use of the pastoral and carpe diem sentiment in L’Allegro indicates the existence of Cavalier tendencies and sympathies. However, it can also be argued that Milton’s emulation of the Cavalier genre is heavily stylised in order to satirise and critique the movement’s intellectual shortcomings, specifically the apparent stagnancy of this poetry and its associated school of thought. This aspect of Milton’s fluidity also extends to his polemic works: although originally displaying Puritan tendencies through his rejection of the Episcopal nature of the Catholic Church, Milton’s Polemic writings demonstrate his eventual transformation into an ‘Independent’, exemplifying his incredibly adaptive and fluid nature as an intellectual. Although written prior to the mainstream emergence of Cavalier poetry as a recognised genre, Milton made a conscious decision to include Lycidas in his 1645 collection, potentially indicating a cultural relevance and comment: it can be argued that the poem’s anachronistic quality is an extension of Milton’s critique and fluidity, melding the pastoral with elements of the political and thus potentially presenting an altered and idealised demonstration of a Cavalier ideology without stagnant limitation. As such, it is necessary to analyse Milton’s 1645 poetry in the particular context of fluidity and stagnancy, the arguable source of his critique of Cavalier poetry: rather than directly criticising the ideology itself, Milton is seen to satirise and highlight the intellectual stagnancies of Cavalier poetry through his use of emulation and contrast, as well as potentially present an alternative to this stagnancy through the intellectually charged pastoral scenes of Lycidas.
One of the main aspects of Cavalier stagnancy that Milton arguably criticises is intellectual stagnancy, particularly through his implicit use of self-awareness and awareness of genre in L’Allegro. Thematically, L’Allegro is seen to contain many of the stereotypical features of Cavalier poetry whilst particularly maintaining a tone of languorous predictability, however it is Milton’s apparent self-awareness of genre that alludes to an almost satirical tone: Milton is seen to “wanton wiles” and “wreathed smiles” (Milton, John), this sense of wantonness and sensual sexuality being a direct reflection of the Cavalier sexual persuasions seen for example in Suckling’s Why So Pale and Wan (Suckling, 12), and being practically synonymous with the “amorous languishment” and “sweet ecstasy” (Carew, 32) described in Carew’s Rapture. This imitation serves to highlight the predictability, tropes and therefore stagnancy of Cavalier poetry, allowing Milton to begin his implicit critique. This imitation also extends to the narrator’s implicit mention of time, of “wrincled Care” expressing a sense of subtle disdain and capturing the quintessentially Cavalier notion of carpe diem. These examples are particularly subtle in nature; however, Milton arguably draws attention to a self-awareness of genre in mentions of “Dames” and “Hounds and Horn” (Milton, John) as well as the mention of “Debonair” figures, which arguably directly pertain to the Cavalier poets. It is interesting to note that in these references to the aristocracy, the aforementioned “Hounds and Horn” as symbols of the hunt are depicted in a solely sensory manner that reflects the sensual, hedonistic writings of the Cavalier ideology: The dames are seen to “strut”, and embody an incredibly visceral image of physicality, and the mention of “Hounds and horn” are accompanied by “list’ning”, thus pertaining to a strong sense of sensory physicality, sight and audibility. This primal physicality is particularly interesting when considered in conjunction with the lack of the sensory in Il Penseroso: the earthy senses depicted in L’Allegro are directly contrasted by the narrator’s desire to transcend “the Sense of human sight” in order to embrace true intellectual and divine truth, as Melancholy, being a personification of ideal intellectualism, is “too bright” to be perceived by “human sight”. This directly highlights the limitations of the Cavalier associated primality, and the stagnancy of such an existence: the narrator of Il Penseroso is not limited by the human body and is therefore able to access a higher truth, unlike the personified Cavalier stagnancy and hedonism, which stays the same in its cyclical human nature. The clear association of the Cavaliers with such limiting hedonism is further highlighted by the reference to “Ivy-crowned Bacchus”: This can be read as a direct reference to the classical Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy in its comparative sense, with Bacchus being a direct personification of sensuality, sexuality and unapologetic hedonism that appears to encapsulate the Cavalier ideology in their “taste for erotic fantasy and sensual over-indulgence” (McDowell, 125).
L’Allegro is arguably the satirical and poetic embodiment of the Dionysian, whereas Il Penseroso appears to embody the Apollonian polarity of the comparison in its intellectual focus, with Apollo being the god of creative and rational thought. Whilst L’Allegro acts as a poetic example of the Cavalier excess, Il Penseroso exemplifies the Miltonic intellectualism associated with Apollo, who also appears as his Roman counterpart “Phoebus” in the arguably ‘ideal’ pastoral setting in Lycidas and illustrates the ideal medium between the two polarities depicted in Il Penseroso and L’Allegro: a pastoral intellectualism that should be strived towards, cemented by Tate’s assertion that the “idea of the alert man…is stronger than that of the cheerful or the pensive man” (Tate, 589). Thus, in L’Allegro, Milton depicts an unchanging presence self-indulgent stagnancy, and, by extension, a lack of intellectualism that is further highlighted by direct contrasts of physicality in Il Penseroso. Furthermore, “Ivy-crowned” appears as an attempt to imitate the poet’s laurels, alluding to Milton’s criticism of Cavalier poetry as a false imitation of the craft that is warped and corrupted by their characteristic excess, a parody being unable to evolve and thus, cementing the presence of cerebral and creative stasis. It can therefore be argued that Milton’s self-awareness of genre and deliberate use of imitation allow L’Allegro to be read as a satire, due to conscious excess of hedonistic, and thus Cavalier tropes existing in conscious excess within the poem, allowing for a direct link between imitation and critique to be observed in the context of intellectual stagnancy.
Milton’s substantial focus on hedonism within L’Allegro is seen to exist in conjunction with the themes of routine and its consequential stasis, and when considering the poem in context of an emblematic Cavalier reading, the nuances of critique continue to emerge. In light of the conclusion of Milton’s satirical intent, it is possible to read the depicted lack of mobility as a critique of Cavalier poetry in context of its predictability and thus perceived intellectual stagnancy. Such stasis is explicitly depicted within Milton’s thematic contrast of mobility and stagnancy, respectively, in Il Penseroso and L’Allegro. In L’Allegro, Milton utilises simple lexis in conjunction with a regular rhyme scheme to convey an ingrained sense of rhythm and languid tempo, reflective of the lack of mobility associated with a self-indulgent, and thus Cavalier lifestyle: The repetition of “And the” during the narrator’s description of the pastoral scene in lines 65 – 67 directly and ironically juxtaposes the simple mobile verbs of “singeth”, “whets” and “tells”: although physically mobile, Milton’s depiction of repetition highlights the fact that this physical mobility does nothing to mobilise the mind: the repetitive emphasis of simple verbs also pertains to a sense of a lack of cerebral development, of simple, monotonous tasks that do nothing to exercise mental or creative potential, and thus allowing Milton to once again imitate a Cavalier emphasis on physicality in order to highlight the limitations of such intellectual stasis. The narrator of Il Penseroso, on the other hand, displays such mobility that the “immortal mind” is able to both travel to and occupy “Worlds” and “vast regions”, whilst evoking the image of “Hermes”, the arguable embodiment of such abstract mobility as the messenger to the Gods. Milton also uses this scope of mobility and setting to introduce the “symbol of conquered space” through the mention of the “wondrous Hors of Brass…on which the Tartar King did ride” (Tate, 589) and thus placing this sense of mobility into a political context, one of battle and domination to arguably reflect the terse political climate and highlight the lack of direct political and intellectual engagement within Cavalier poetry.
Although it is most likely that Il Penseroso and L’Allegro were written during Milton’s Cambridge years, and therefore predate the conflicts of the English Civil War, it is still possible for these works to be read as relevant political statements: Milton made a conscious decision to publish these works during the terse political climate of 1645, and so it can be argued that he did potentially present these poems to respond to such, with published works arguably needing the appeal of relevance to current events. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that Milton’s critique of stagnant Cavalier hedonism can also be extended to include a sense of stagnancy in a political context. One such example of grouped intellectual and political stagnancy is depicted in L’Allegro with the offhanded mention of “sport”: Charles I’s reissued defence of leisure and sport in 1633 allocated an intrinsic political connotation to the word ‘sport’, which was now associated with the Puritan struggle to ban a perceived hedonistic past time. Thus, the politically charged mention of “Sport”, juxtaposed immediately by the mention of “laughter holding both his sides” can arguably be seen as a comment on the Cavalier’s lack of political and therefore intellectual commentary, being too concerned with merriment to observe the importance of political and intellectual authority and thus cementing the narrative as a critique of ignorant bliss and stasis. Such ignorance and frivolity are seen to be directly rejected in Lycidas, however, seen through the appearance of St. Peter, “The Pilot of the Galilean lake”, as a potential political metaphor through a condemnation of corrupted clergy as Milton attempts to reconcile and resolve this stasis in the form of an altered pastoral ideal. Despite its existence and intention as an elegy, Milton arguably presents Lycidas in the 1645 collection as the idyllic compromise between the sheer intellectualism and prophetic authority and mobility in Il Penseroso and the overly indulgent stagnancy of the Cavaliers as arguably satirised and highlighted in L’Allegro. Lycidas is seen to encapsulate and illustrate the aesthetic and pastoral elements of the Cavalier sentiment without the excess and frivolity that caused the intellectual stagnancy and thus Milton’s critique: despite its elegiacal nature, the narrator displays quintessentially Cavalier features of the injustice of time, in this case pertaining to a young life in its “prime” “pluck”ed prematurely with “forced fingers rude” rather than this ‘plucking’ and forceful tone being in pursuit of Earthly pleasure, presenting an altered, idyllic version of the Cavalier spirit whilst simultaneously acting as a critique of its stagnant, excessive nature. The presence of Orpheus within Lycidas allows for a compromise to be made and suggested to improve the Cavalier ideal: within L’Allegro, Orpheus’ role is limited to the Cavalier sensory, with visual and audible evocations of “golden slumber” and “hear such streins” further serving the monotonous and stagnant sensory bliss that Milton serves to highlight. In Lycidas, however, Milton serves to bring Orpheus down to a more human level by referencing his failure to save Eurydice, and focuses the image more centrally on Calliope, “The Muse herself”, alluding to the bigger picture of philosophical and intellectual commentary and highlighting a sense of prophetic importance reminiscent of that abstract intellectual truth depicted in Il Penseroso. Milton therefore reframes and recreates an adapted, Miltonic version of enthusiastic Cavalierism that centres around the grounded wisdom of the pastoral. In creating this version of Cavalierism and presenting it in conjunction with his critique of such in L’Allegro, Milton is able to deeply critique and emphasise the intellectual stagnancy associated with the repetitive excess, which in turn is reformed in Lycidas, which presents a perfect medium of mobility and ideology: Lycidas is able to emulate the Cavalier sentiment in terms of emotion and personal experience due to its narrative being grounded in the loss of a friend, this grief also allowing the poem to emulate the sorrow and epic scope of mobility demonstrated in Il Penseroso. Lycidas, therefore, allows Milton to present a critique of Cavalier poetry’s excess and thus intellectual stasis, emphasising these faults by actively using such absent intellectual skill and authority to improve it.
Ultimately, it can be concluded that Milton’s 1645 poems indeed present a critique of the intellectual stagnancy and primitive self-indulgence of Cavalier poetry and ideology. L’Allegro presents an arguable exemplified parody of the Cavalier genre, predictable in its imagery, content and visions of excess and existing without any potential mobility. Although L’Allegro is the most obvious in its critique of Cavalier stagnancy, the presence of true intellectualism in Il Penseroso and Lycidas act as a collective foil to Milton’s critical excess, highlighting the spiritual truth that a commitment to Melancholy, and thus, intellectualism will bring about, and thus intensifying the frivolity of the depicted Cavalier monotony. Lycidas acts as the other half of the intellectual foil, highlighting instead what the Cavalier poetry could be when mobilised by the condemnation of hedonism and excess, and thus highlighting the then current limitations of the genre. In Herotodus’ Histories, Lycidas appears as an Athenian proposing a compromise to appease an invading Persian king, this sense of compromise further echoed by his manifestation of a centaur in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Milton has made it clear that it is within the titular nature of Lycidas to mobilise through intellectual fluidity and compromise, one of intellectual argument and reason as seen in the Histories, and a physical compromise within Metamorphoses, reflecting the fluidity and mobility of true intellectualism, one that is able to incorporate and adapt to the physical and abstract, the Cavalier and the Melancholy. Thus, Milton presents a parody and two foils within this collection, to emphasise the limitations of a genre riddled with excess, a lack of abstract thought, and thus, stagnancy.
Semblance and Truth in Milton’s Lycidas
The speaker of Milton’s “Lycidas” has been the subject of much debate–debate concerning his identity, his principal topic, and his attitude toward that topic. Thus far, the critical conversation has been uninformed by current linguistic theory, which has the potential to further complicate a poem that many think requires no further complication. Why do it, then? On the one hand, the poem’s many inconsistencies are obvious and frequently discussed; on the other, as Victoria Silver asserts in “‘Lycidas’ and the Grammar of Revelation,” we all–even Stanley Fish–resist them, attempting to make sense of and thus erase the incoherence. Basing her claims on reformed theology, Silver argues convincingly that Milton planned the incoherence of “Lycidas,” deliberately emphasizing the gap that always exists between semblance and truth, sign and meaning, and that he did so because it is in this gap that God operates. Besides Silver, I know of two others who accept the unreconcilable cont!
radictions of “Lycidas”: Elizabeth Hanson, who argues that “the poem denies its own ecstatically proclaimed end to the pain and anxiety which propel it” (70), and Russell Fraser, who reads the poem as a conflict between two poets, in which the “last two lines are only formally conclusive and suggest a different poet, still at odds with his material” (118). With its contradictions firmly grounded in Milton’s theology and intuitive psychology of grief, it is not surprising that the poem resists our resistance, our attempts to close the gap.
Linguistic analysis confirms the unreconcilable contradictions and ambiguities of “Lycidas,” particularly those of the poem’s multiple speakers and subjects. Multiple voices and subjects coexist within the first 185 lines; as Paul Alpers writes, the speaker of the poem possesses “unusual openness and flexibility” as he “enact[s] . . . the play between monody and dialogue–sometimes taking heard voices into his own and sometimes producing voices attributed to others” (481). In addition to his interplay with other speakers such as Phobus, Chamus, and “the Pilot of the Galilean lake,” the swain himself possesses at least two distinct voices: one commenting, reflecting, on the other. Furthermore, the Pilot’s digression also contains a voice of commentary, which is similar but not identical to the swain’s reflective voice. The last eight lines introduce an impersonal, third-person voice, which differs from all previous voices, and further complicates the poem. As Catherine Belsey queries, “Where now is the (authorized) voice of Lycidas?” (33).
Not only is “Lycidas” what Walter Schindler calls “a polyphony of voices,” but a polyphony of subjects as well (37; cf. Judge 6). Although the final eight lines demonstrate a single focus on the swain, the first 185 lines concern multiple inter-related topics, including the swain, Lycidas, poetry, learning, and spiritual matters. Moreover, while some critics would agree with John Reesing that “Lycidas, whatever its universal implications may ultimately be, is in the first instance a poem about Lycidas,” the majority have taken the subject of the poem as Milton himself, whether they judge this a good or an evil (21). Christopher Hill, for instance, argues that “Lycidas is ostensibly a poem about the tragedy of youthful death” but is really a means for Milton “to ask how important worldly success is, and to assess his own life in the light of King’s death” (49- 50). Other proposed subjects of the poem include grief; the community of shepherds and Milton’s “desire for companionship”; Christ; the church; death and rebirth; forgiveness; baptism; music; youth; homoerotic love transcended by God’s eternal love; the tutor as surrogate father; and the poetical succession in which the mantle passes from Lycidas to the “mature consciousness” of the last lines (Bourdette; Davies 83; Frye 121; McLoone 79; Baier; Moore; Lieb; Watterson 50; Martz 547). I would group the possible topics of “Lycidas” into three categories: the speakers, the deceased, and the nonhuman. Many of the last are implied; they transcend the poem’s syntax and are thus outside the scope of this discussion.
“Modern criticism has rejected the view that the poem’s form is incidental to its meaning; the meaning of Lycidas is thought to reside in its elected form” (Johnson 69). Barbara Johnson thus summarized critical thought of the 1970’s to introduce her article on the pastoral and grief, but her words are equally applicable to another aspect of the poem’s “elected form”: its grammar. Two recent linguistic theories concerning sentence structure affirm that the speaker and subject of “Lycidas” are deliberately multiple. One of these theories has been previously used in a discussion of literature (Tolliver’s analysis, using Kuno’s empathy theory, of “La novia fiel” by Pardo Bazan); otherwise, both have remained until now in the realms of speech and expository prose.
According to Susumo Kuno, syntax reveals the speaker’s attitudes toward others. In Functional Syntax: Anaphora, Discourse, and Empathy, Kuno defines “empathy” as “the speaker’s identification, which may vary in degree, with a person/thing that participates in the event or state that he [/she] describes in a sentence,” or as “a camera angle on x rather than y” (206). Kuno assumes that the sentence in its natural state is egocentric–that is, in the case of “Lycidas,” that the uncouth Swain will empathize more with himself than with Lycidas. The speaker may still choose to limit the self-empathy; in literature, the writer makes this choice on behalf of the speaker. Language, argues Kuno, contains mechanisms which enable the speaker to limit or disguise self-empathy, mechanisms such as passivization: “Mistakes were made,” rather than “I made mistakes.” Similarly, the speaker may alter his or her syntactic bias toward others: consider the difference in empathy between “John hit Bill” and “Bill was hit by John.” In the former, any bias is in John’s favor, while the speaker of the latter probably sides with Bill. Another such mechanism is seen where John and Bill are brothers, and the speaker refers to Bill not by name but as “John’s brother”; this last term “can be used to refer to Bill only when the speaker has placed himself closer to John than to his brother; the term . . . does not give Bill an independent characterization, but a characterization that is dependent upon John” (204). Kuno’s rule for the latter method of altering empathy is the Descriptor Empathy Hierarchy, while passivization falls under his Surface Structure Empathy Hierarchy (207).
Empathy is further complicated by multiple topics within a single sentence. The “empathy relationships” within a sentence must be logically compatible, as stated in Kuno’s Ban on Conflicting Empathy Foci; thus “John’s brother was hit by him” sounds odd because “John’s brother” declares the primary focus to be John, while the passive voice asserts a bias toward Bill (206-7). On the other hand, a grammatical sentence may contain uninterpretable empathy relationships. For instance, in “John and his brother talked to Mary about her sister,” the speaker empathizes with John more than his brother and with Mary more than her sister, but gives no clues about the four other empathy relationships: between John and Mary, John and Mary’s sister, John’s brother and Mary, John’s brother and Mary’s sister (207-8). Further, a sentence may contain a hierarchy of empathy relationships, as in “John talked to his wife about her sister,” where the speaker empathizes most with John and least with John’s wife’s sister (208). Finally, empathy may differ from sentence to sentence (Kuno’s Transitivity of Empathy Relationships rule), so a discourse must be analyzed one sentence at a time (207).
Kuno posits several other grammatical rules governing empathy, including the Syntactic Prominence Principle, which states that the noun representing the person or thing receiving empathy tends to be found in a prominent position in the sentence. For instance, the speaker of the following sentence reveals a primary interest in Susan’s presence when he or she makes “Susan” the left-most noun in the coordinate structure: “I wonder if Susan and Carol are coming to the meeting this afternoon.” When the speaker includes himself or herself in the coordinate structure, however, the Modesty Principle dictates “Jill and I just can’t agree on the first sentence of our business plan” rather than “I and Jill.” Kuno argues that the latter version is more natural, while the former is “artificial,” “taught repeatedly at the grade school level” (232- 33). Finally, Kuno’s rule of Semantic Case Hierarchy states that “other things being equal, the more agentive or experiencer- like a role an NP [noun phrase] plays vis-a-vis the action/state represented in the sentence, the easier it is for the speaker to empathize with its referent” (238). According to this rule, the speaker of the sentence “Melissa showed Mary a picture of little William” expresses the most empathy with Melissa, the agent of the action as well as the noun in the most prominent position. Mary receives secondary empathy: she is not ac
Comparing John Milton’s Lycidas and Sonnet 7
In the journey of life Man will often question his or her position in the universe. Questioning ones worth and purpose in the universe will harbor the attention of Man until the end of time. The antidote for the majority of the world comes in maintaining a religion. In Sonnet 7 and Lycidas, John Milton takes the reader on the journey Man takes in fulfilling Gods will. In the poems Milton examines the importance of being readily prepared for Gods will, the willingness to truly fulfill Gods will, and the resolution he comes to with his own life as well as Edward Kings in terms of Gods will.
Miltons personal journey in fulfilling Gods will is essential to Milton. He believes his daily activities are in preparation for a greater purpose. In believing in such discipline it becomes apparent to Milton that he must be readily prepared for Gods plan for his life. Milton expresses the need for spiritual maturity repeatedly in Sonnet 7 and in Lycidas. In Sonnet 7 Milton expresses anxiety in his own life. In line 6 and 7 Milton wrote:
That I to manhood am arrivd so near,
And inward ripenes doth much less appear.
It is relevant to notice that Milton is having a time of reflection in writing such words. He is questioning his own being and asking himself if he is making the necessary decisions in life to lead to spiritual maturity.
Milton examines the same idea in the pastoral elegy that he writes for Edward King. In contrast to the Sonnet, which is about Milton, Lycidas explores what happens when ones life ends abruptly. In line 3 of Lycidas Milton wrote:
Shatter your leaves before your mellowing year.
Miltons concern with Kings death displays a concern of dieing before possibly reaching spiritual maturity. Because both Milton and King went to school to be a priest, and King was also a poet, the questioning of Kings death mirrors a concern for his own life. The quote mirrors Sonnet 7 in that it raises the same question: what would happen if death came to Milton at the time in which he wrote Lycidas? Milton questions his own life in questioning what Gods judgment would be on his own life if his death came in his youth.
Milton displays concerns not only with the idea of being spiritually mature, but also a willingness to do Gods will in Gods timing. Knowing Gods direction for his life is important, but he also wants to be sure hes living on Gods clock, and not his own. Milton has completed years of education, and feels the pressure to succeed in life. This idea is also a time of reflection for Milton in that he must ask himself what success really means. He asks the question: does success mean becoming a priest, or does God have other plans for me? Milton wrote in lines 1 and 2:
How soon hath Time the suttle theef of youth,
Stoln on his wing my three and twentieth yeer!
The underlying question is merely about time. No one truly knows when their life will end, and the question that remains is if one knew when he or she were to die, would he or she still make the same decisions? The idea of time is apparent in Lycidas as well when Milton wrote:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer. Lines 9 and 10
And Comes the blind Fury with th abhoored shears
And slits the thin- spun life. Lines 75 and 76
Milton questions whether or not King had fulfilled his purpose for God even though his life ended in youth. Milton offers the answer to this question later in his resolution of the poem, however it remains imperative to examine the question not just in terms of King, but also universally.
Although it seems Milton expresses anxieties in his tribulations of youthful doubt, he does offer resolutions in both poems. In Sonnet 7 Milton comes to the conclusion that as long as hes doing his part in finding spiritual maturity, and staying open to Gods will, then he will be ready to do Gods will. In the last lines he wrote:
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heavn;
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great task Masters eye.
Milton realizes that God has a plan, and part of fulfilling it is being patient for Gods timing.
Milton also comes to a resolution with King. Although Kings life ended unexpectedly and before he could become a priest, Milton wrote about Kings rewards in heaven.
Now Lycidas the Shepards weep no more,
Hence forth thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wanderin that perilous flood. Lines 182-185
Although King didnt become a priest, he lived a life in search of Gods will, and thus will be rewarded in heaven.
Although Milton, like many, questions his own life, the ultimate conclusion he comes to is that the answer lies in eternity. Milton understands there is a purpose for his life and that he has been given spiritual gifts from God that he must use for Gods will. Although he may doubt himself from time to time, or he may question his success in fulfilling Gods will, he also recognizes the gift God has given him in salvation. In the end Milton believes that Gods plan will reveal itself, and truth will win, in his own life and in the world around him.
A Close Study Of John Milton’s Literary Device
A Closer Look into the Literary Devices in “Lycidas” by John Milton
Literary devices are the different structures in which writers use to give a distinctive interpretation of their work. In lines 1-24 of the poem, “Lycidas” (1637), John Milton continuously utilizes literary devices in order to emphasize pathos – which in rhetoric, is an appeal to emotion. The literary devices Milton uses includes: imagery, allusion, metaphors, and diction. By adding these literary devices, the audience is able to sense the sentiments behind the words of the speaker.
“Lycidas” commences with the use of imagery in order to appeal to the speaker’s sentimentalities. In lines 1-5, Milton writes:
Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “pluck” as “a sudden, sharp pull… a tug, jerk, or snatch.” In these lines, Milton uses the image of the speaker picking berries from flowers in a harshly manner. Although the speaker does not yet express the reason for his emotions, the act of “plucking” the berries implies some aggression which suggests that he is angry or upset about something. Another element that adds on to this imagery is apostrophe. Within these same lines, the speaker uses the word “your”: “I com to pluck your berries” (3), “shatter your leaves before the mellowing year” (5). By personalizing the inanimate objects, it gives a sense that the speaker is so affected by a particular event that he feels the need to hurt another being. The use of imagery in these lines successfully allows the readers to understand how the speaker feels without even having to explain why it is he is feeling that way.
In the subsequent lines, Milton writes, “Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew/Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme” (10-11). The verb “to sing” in these lines is a metaphor for writing poetry, which is hinted when Milton mentions “lofty rhyme”. In this portion of the passage, the speaker decides that he want to write a poem for King in reminiscent of his previous works. Singing is a very powerful way of expression, especially in religion. During mass in a Catholic church, the choir sings their praises to the Lord. The act of singing is also known to come from angels; when Jesus was born, angels were present and they were singing a hymn to express their happiness. When Milton uses this metaphor, it appeals to emotion by emphasizing that he wants to give back to his friend by acknowledging how great he was. In addition to singing being a powerful action, the speaker also mentions that King’s rhymes were “lofty”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “lofty” means “extending to a great height….” By describing King’s poems as lofty, the speaker underlines the grandness of his works.
To further accentuate the greatness of Edward King, the speaker of the poem also adds: “He must not flote upon his watry bear/Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,/Without the meed of som melodious tear” (12-14). In these lines, the speaker proposes that King deserves to be mourned and that he deserves to be sung about – or in other words, written about. Knowing that the speaker looks up to King insinuates that he was a good person, which then adds on to pathos because it gives the audience more of a reason to sympathize for the speaker’s loss. Milton uses the phrase “melodious tear” in line 14 to describe the poem that should be made for King. The diction he uses in this line gives the term more beauty, recommending that the poem written for King should consist of beauty rather than being plain.
In the succeeding line, the speaker says, “Begin then, Sisters” (15). When the speaker addresses the “Sisters”, he is referring to the muses who are able to help him find inspiration (OED) for the poem he is in the midst of writing. Wanting the help of the muses contributes to the pathos of the speaker because it shows that he wants his poem for his friend to be very good. He wants the help of the muses so that he can make the best poem he can for his friend who is now deceased. This also adds on to the speaker wanting the poem for King to be more than ordinary.
Finally, the passage closes with the lines 23 and 24 which state, “For we were nurst upon the self-same hill/Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill.” In these lines, the speaker expresses that him and King had grown up together and have known each other for a very long time. Adding this fragment enhances the emotional aspects of this poem because we realize that the two characters had a very close bond, thus contributing to the pain that the speaker is going through now that his friend is gone. We know, from these lines, that the speaker and King were close especially because of the use of the word “same”: “…upon the self-same hill” (23), “fed the same flock…” (24). The reason why knowing that the speaker and King were close adds on to the pathos of this poem is because it is confirmed that the reader had some sort of emotional attachment to the deceased. Had we known that the reader had no connection to King whatsoever, his death would probably not have been as sad.
In conclusion, John Milton carefully chooses the words within his poem “Lycidas” to really highlight the emotion that is felt after Edward King dies. He also carefully chooses the diction in order to explain to the audience why Lycidas (Edward King)’s death affected the speaker. Milton successfully achieves pathos by employing literary devices such as imagery, allusion, metaphors, and diction.
Analyzing The King’s Eulogy As Depicted In John Milton’s Poem Lycidas
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.
Milton’s Death: Beginnings and Endings in Lycidas and Paradise Lost
John Milton’s first encounter with death sent him reeling and kept him off balance for a long time. He found an escape in poetry, pouring out his confusion and frustration and sorrow in the now-famous poem Lycidas. The young Milton was struck with a realization of his own mortality, and spent a lot of time in the poem pondering on his tasks in life and how he could fulfill his calling. Lycidas records Milton’s turn to both Christian and pagan gods for answers and his journey with the ones he receives. Milton’s attitude towards death has changed dramatically by the time he writes Paradise Lost. Having been involved in a lengthy rebellion and watching many people die, Milton must have become adjusted to death and settled into a method of understanding. The characters of Paradise Lost face death for the first time when they eat the fruit, but leave the garden cheerfully, prepared for a long, fulfilling life of the kind they couldn’t live before. As one reads Lycidas and Paradise Lost, one can see Milton’s evolution as he came to believe that death is a tool of God because it shapes who people are and what they do with their lives.
Though Milton didn’t know Edward King well, his original grief and shock is readily visible in the early lines of Lycidas. He mourns, “Now thou art gone, and never must return!” (38). Milton’s struggle to deal with King’s death is fascinating considering they barely knew each other. This line suggests that Milton’s trouble was not with King specifically, but with the reality of death facing him for the first time. He created “tensions . . . in the tragic dynamics of the poem, as between calm and reconciliation on one side and lament and questionings on the other, until finally, all passions are spent” (Brown 7). Milton’s struggle with dealing with the tragic event made Lycidas a raw, multifaceted poem that covers many of young Milton’s ideas and questions. He makes specific mention of the fact that King died young: “Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime” (8). Milton himself was in his youth at the time of the event, and this line suggests a certain amount of self-reflection. Milton wanted to believe that he had a divine mission in this world, a purpose for being on earth. King’s death forced him to recognize that he might not get the chance to fulfil that destiny. It was this fear of failure that drove Milton to write this poem in the first place. He begins Lycidas by explaining his concerns about writing poetry so young. “Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere, / I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude, / And with forced fingers rude / Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year” (2-5). Worried that he’s writing too soon, Milton uses the imagery of plucking berries before they’re ripe to alert the reader to his fears. Being forced to write before he’s ready, however, is better than missing the opportunity completely because he’s dead. King’s death had a profound effect on Milton and was a major factor in spurring the poet into writing serious poetry. Milton began to recognize the importance of taking advantage of his time on earth to fulfil what he felt was his divine duty: writing an epic poem for God. King’s demise taught Milton that death shapes the lives of the living, both in the form of preparation for their own demise and as reactions to those who are gone.
Milton deals with death originally as a tragic ending to the lives of those who could have given much more to the world. Throughout the poem he romanticizes King as though they had spent a lot of time together. “For we were nursed upon the selfsame hill,” he writes, “Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill” (23-4). This is patently untrue, but is extremely revealing about the way Milton lauds the dead. He continues to do so throughout the poem, casting King as a shepherd. In both Christian and pagan traditions, shepherds are known for being righteous, often heroes or even gods in disguise. David, future king of Israel, was a shepherd when he had his legendary battle with Goliath. Orpheus, Pan, and Paris were all shepherds, and other heroes such as Romulus, Remus, and Oedipus were all saved and cared for by shepherds. Christ referred to himself as the good shepherd. By casting Lycidas as a shepherd, Milton put him in a position of apparent lowliness but really made him a hero in disguise. By lamenting his early death, Milton implies that Lycidas was a hero like David, Orpheus, or Paris who had not yet been given the opportunity to break out of his shepherd disguise and embrace his true nature and contribution to the world. By romanticizing and lauding this man he barely knew, Milton unwittingly reveals one portion of his difficulty in dealing with death. He creates an image of King as a potential hero who never got the chance to offer himself to the world or to enact the great changes he could have had he not been taken too soon. Though this was ostensibly about Edward King, really this is all a reflection of Milton’s opinion of himself. Realizing that he could die at any moment, Milton began to worry that he would never have the chance to break out of his life as a figurative shepherd and fulfil his destiny as a great poet on a divine mission for God. He began to see the importance of acting on his opportunities immediately despite his fears of lack of preparation, because he might not get the chance otherwise. This experience taught Milton how much death shapes the lives of all humans; Milton, like most people, started his real work because he was faced with death. In his desperate search for answers, Milton surprises himself by going to the pagan gods to know how this could possibly have been allowed to happen. He demands, “Where were ye, nymphs, when the remorseless deep / Closed over the head of your loved Lycidas?” (50-51). Though Milton is a Christian, he doesn’t demand why God didn’t save King, he asks the nymphs.
Milton’s faith at this point was less absolute than it is in Paradise Lost, when his references to pagan gods and figures are always brief and demeaning compared to the position of Christian figures. At this point, however, Milton goes to pagan gods before he goes to Christian ones, and receives no satisfactory answers. He questions “the meaning of that loss in the unfolding providential plan” (Brown 6). Believing that there is a plan and purpose for life, Milton questions how this could possibly have been the plan for King, and why it was necessary. He does not question that Lycidas was loved, so his crisis of faith did not go so far as to wonder whether there was a kind of divine power who loves humanity. He firmly believes that it true, but that to Milton does not answer why people like Edward King are allowed to die young. This question is not answered until Paradise Lost when death is allowed to enter the world and God reveals his view of death. Inevitable questions later arise about what the point of life is if everyone is going to die no matter what. In commenting on King’s early demise, Milton complains, “Alas! What boots it with uncessant care / To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade, / And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?” (64-6). King spent his whole life as a shepherd not yet ready to break free of his disguise and become the hero he was meant to be. If Milton is to spend his life as a shepherd, then his life has no purpose, because he makes no real difference in the world. He will not be remembered for looking after sheep, and the world will be no different without his existence. It is Phoebus, a pagan god, who helps him at this stage of his journey and teaches him how to achieve immortality: “Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil . . . Of so much fame in heav’n expect thy meed” (78, 84). The point of life, and the way to avoid death, is to do something worth doing so that he’ll be remembered for it, in earth or in heaven. It is no coincidence that the plants he references at the beginning of the poem are symbolic of immortality (Adams 184). The writing of Lycidas, and others to follow, became Milton’s way of achieving immortality. This something to be remembered for became the writing of Paradise Lost, the sum total of Milton’s life experiences and beliefs.
With this background of death early on in Milton’s life, his characterization of death becomes even more fascinating in Paradise Lost. Though he could have chosen otherwise, Milton made death a character with lines, actions, and an agenda of his own throughout the poem. However, Death has no body in Paradise Lost; he can smell and taste, and is identified as a he, but he “has no body and feeds on life” (Goldsmith 69). His overriding characteristic is hunger; no matter how much death there is in the world, Death will never be satisfied. So Death is a character, but not a character; he has no regular form, but he has senses and urges. Furthermore, his shape changes; when he grows angry, he “grew tenfold / More dreadful and deform,” adding to his eerie, unearthly persona (II 706-7). At no point is Death made a sympathetic character; his insatiable hunger is repulsive and frightening. He is described as “black . . . as night, / Fierce as ten furies, terrible as Hell” (II 670-1). He is a “non-character who operates as [a] virus, spreading disease and destruction throughout the cosmos” (Goldsmith 54). To Milton, death is a force that cannot be stopped, except by the other powerful figure to whom he gives a form and a name: God. By making Death a character, Milton also gives him an identity, which means that he too can be overcome by God. God does not and cannot overcome abstract ideas such as justice, mercy, and emotion in Paradise Lost, but he does have the power to overcome every embodied figure, even if he chooses not to. Though Death’s characterization is abstract and frightening, it also makes him a person instead of an idea or inevitability, and just as we know that God can overcome Satan if he chooses, we also know that he can overcome Death. Milton also chose to make Death a part of a corrupt family by making him the son of Sin. Significantly, Death and Sin do not simply appear on the world after the Fall: Death actually comes from Sin. Milton takes the view that dying is part of living in a fallen world, but he also makes the point that we die because we sin.
However, when Death is born, he nearly kills Sin, ripping his way out of her body. Death is so powerful that he can destroy everything in his wake, including Sin. Indeed, Death wears “the likeness of a kingly crown,” again suggesting his sovereignty (II 673). Death is unstoppable, and it is useless for mortals to fight it, bemoan it, or avoid it. While being born, Death does what no human can do: overcome sin. The message here is clear: death is more powerful than any human, and can only be overcome by those very few who are not subject to it: God, the Son, and the angels, because everyone else will die. These beings are also the only ones who do not sin, and Milton’s view is that one is beneath the other. If one is not subject to death, one is not subject to sin. Though he does not appear often in the poem, Death is nonetheless a powerful and frightening presence, as he is in the lives of all mortals. His power over mortals and ability to overcome Sin establish him as a nearly unstoppable force who can be overcome only by the highest of celestial beings. When Death becomes a reality, God treats him like an opponent, but not an enemy; in God’s eyes, Death is an unpleasant but necessary part of the plan for his children. God states that Death must be paid, adding to the impression of the curious formlessness of Death throughout Paradise Lost. Death isn’t treated as much of a character by the celestial beings of the poem; God never interacts with him directly and speaks only of him as a debt to be paid by humanity.
Death is a stand-in for justice to God. He refers to death as “the final remedy” for mankind (IV 197). Adam’s vision at the end of the poem shows him the unending mercy of God the people who repeatedly fall away and do wicked things. Adam weeps to see the horrors his posterity will do to each other, but Michael reminds him that God will send a Messiah to pay the debt and save God’s children. The one debt, in Milton’s view, that humans must pay is death. As Christ himself must die, so must all people, because death has to be paid. It is a necessary part of the plan for all people, including God’s own son, who died to fulfill the redemption of all mankind. There is clearly a power in death beyond what people are inclined to see; Christ saved everyone through death, but came back to overcome it, defeating humans’ one undefeatable foe. As one of God’s messengers, Michael comforts Adam on the subject of death and teaches him how to live. Upon hearing Eve’s suggestion that she and Adam commit suicide, Michael advises, “Nor love they life nor hate but what thou liv’st / Live well, how long or short permit to Heav’n” (VI 553-554). Michael has a very different perspective on death than any mortal. His advice to neither love nor hate life is intriguing because most mortals would recommend loving life, because it’s the only one we get. Michael, however, lives in heaven, and understands that there is more that comes afterwards and heaven is infinitely better than fallen Earth. Despite this knowledge, he does not tell Adam and Eve to simply wait out life until they can return to heaven, but tells them to live their lives well. Death to Michael is merely a change of scenery; when Adam and Eve die, they will return to heaven and all will be well (McElroy 17). The importance is to live well, which can be interpreted as “virtue is obedience, sin disobedience,” or living in obedience to God’s commandments and teaching their children to do the same (Erskine 580). From this trusted celestial being Milton gives one of his life philosophies: life is to be neither hated nor adored. Loving life too much can become a form of idolatry, for in being too caught up in the glories of this life it is possible to forget the importance of the next.
Milton believed that everything is inherently good because it comes from God, but he also believed that everything is good because it reminds us of who God is and what he is given us, and so to focus too much on the things God has given us instead of God himself is wicked. This is why Michael tells Adam and Eve simply to live well, and by keeping God’s commandments and teaching others to do the same, they will have their reward in heaven. By the devilish characters, Death is treated with disdain, both as a person and as a concept, and Milton uses these characters to disagree with popular heroic conceptions of death. When Satan first meets Death, despite their familial relationship, the two aren’t at all allied; they feel mutual enmity and fight like “two black clouds / With heav’n’s artill’ry fraught” (II 714-5). The confrontation between the two follows the pattern of a chivalric duel between knights that would have taken place during King Arthur’s reign (Rovang 4). Milton follows this same mockery of traditional heroic epics (a change from his faith in the pagan gods earlier on in his life) in the garden when the serpent protests Eve’s assertion that she would die if she ate the fruit. He frames the temptation as a heroic test like those of the classic Greek epics: Eve’s willingness to risk death by eating to fruit, to him, is a sign of courage and commitment. By risking death, Eve would be proving herself a classic hero. The serpent argues that God will be impressed by her “dauntless virtue” and would never actually carry out his threat (XI 694). He also makes the cyclic argument that God would never allow anything fearful to exist, and since Eve fears death, death must therefore not exist. Because both these arguments come from the devil himself, Milton automatically invalidates them without even having to argue against them. Obviously death exists, and death is the consequence of eating the fruit, or in other words, succumbing to temptation. As aforementioned, death comes from sin, and so by partaking of the fruit and sinning, Eve opens herself up to death, and all of her posterity so far have followed her example. Milton also makes special note of the argument that death is heroic, cool, and admirable, but dismisses it, again by having Satan present it. Death to Milton is not something to be defiantly and virtuously disregarded, but something to be accepted and respected, and Satan’s blasé attitude towards death is both hypocritical and inappropriate.
After partaking of the fruit, Adam and Eve experience the same thing that Milton does in Lycidas—an understanding of death that takes away their innocence. They have no understanding of what death is while still in the Garden of Eden, and with their enlightenment comes additional fear and loss of innocence. Lycidas is essentially about Milton experiencing death for the first time and losing his childishness because of this event. He is forced to grow up and face his role in the world, and to begin writing to fulfil his destiny even though he doesn’t feel that he is ready. Adam and Eve, though still very childish in many ways, now have to grow up and accept their lot in life. The garden will no longer provide for their every need, and they will no longer live in a paradise without sin or hardship. Milton ties an understanding of death with the acceptance of the need to grow up and to see the world as it really is. By the end of the poem, Adam and Eve see death not as “a curse but a comforter, not the gift of Satan but the gift of God” (Erskine 573). Though Adam and Eve lose their innocence by partaking of the fruit, Eve wakes from a dream from God and tells Adam that she has received “propitious, some great good presaging,” a hopeful view neither of them has possessed until that moment (XII 612-3). Despite Eve’s earlier brief flirtation with the idea of suicide as a means of avoiding their punishment, Adam and Eve conclude that it is better to live and be obedient to God to improve their standing with him (Waddington 15). In this passage, Milton reveals his changed thoughts about death: he no longer begrudges death, or seeks a way to immortalize himself. Instead, he, like Adam and Eve, wishes to live fully and do what God asks of him. Though they now can die, all is not lost, and it is better to follow Michael’s advice to “live well.” Adam and Eve eventually leave the garden cheerfully, prepared to live long, full lives together.
To complete his transformation of understanding of death, Milton’s own beliefs about death evolved to become more complex than the average Christian of his time, and they are reflected within his work. “In the Christian Doctrine Milton divides death into the following four degrees: the punishments which are preludes to death, spiritual death, temporal death, and eternal death” (Woelfel 33). Everyone is subject to the first three kinds of death, and these are the kind that Milton reassures his audience are okay because they can be overcome. The first two kinds of death are a result of human blindness and failure, and in order to overcome these, we need to live and work. The third is what shapes the rest of human life and drives people to either obey God or disobey him, which determines life or death of the fourth kind. “In Paradise Lost the first degree of death establishes that fallen man’s happiness is transformed into misery; the second degree conveys man’s helplessness as a consequence of obscured reason; the third degree is presented as a remedy to what seems an endless punishment; the fourth degree establishes the penalty for continued disobedience–eternal punishment” (Woelfel 34). Through Adam and Eve, we experience the first three kinds of death, and through Satan we experience the fourth. By understanding and accepting that all will die in three ways, Milton makes death more commonplace and thus acceptable. He portrays all four methods of death in Paradise Lost, but it is only Satan who experiences the fourth kind. Milton’s insistence that death is a necessary and godly tool is compelling only when one chooses not to partake in the fourth kind of death and accept the existence of the others. Coming to understand all four kinds of death is a way of coming to better understand and accept death as a reality, and not necessarily a negative one. Adam and Eve left the Garden able to die, but they also left prepared to follow Michael’s advice to live well and with the increased ability to understand and reason through life instead of their open, innocent optimism at the beginning.
Milton’s journey of acceptance of death is reflected throughout Paradise Lost. As a young man, he was traumatized when a classmate was killed, and spent most of the poem Lycidas wrestling with why people have to die, and what the point of life is when we are all going to die anyway. He fears and seeks ways to avoid death, or at least immortalize himself through other means. He explains his final conclusions to his audience through Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost. After they lose their innocence as Milton did, Adam and Eve fear death and try to think of ways to overcome it. Eve suggests committing suicide to keep death from affecting their children, but some timely advice by the archangel Michael convinces them that life is to be lived fully before they can return to heaven. Adam and Eve conclude that living is more important than dying, and that while death is important, the way they live (and are obedient to God’s commandments) is the far more important and worth their time. They choose to be “heroes of faith [who] serve to keep before us the paradox of good emerging from evil and to hold forth the possibility of redemption” (Waddington 11). Adam and Eve’s behavior is a reflection of Milton’s final statement: that death shapes our ability to live our lives, but it is important to focus on life, not death.
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