Posted: May 27th, 2021

Certain Anarchist Tendencies in the Poem “Lycidas” by John Milton

The great poetic tradition of pastoral elegies survives in modern times predominantly by literary allusion and through the interests and efforts of scholars. At the time of Milton’s writing of “Lycidas,” in 1637, the tradition of pastoral elegy remained sufficiently topical that the poem was hailed as a masterpiece by readers and judged to be among Milton’s finest compositions. However, the poem displayed certain anarchistic tendencies, even upon its publication, and a sense of too-controlled formality for some readers, among them Samuel Johnson who remarked: “the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing [..] in this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new” (Thorpe,66).
In fact, what might be called the weakest lines of “Lycidas” demonstrate a type of strained heroicism, or emotional fabrication, which contrasts sharply with the intended theme of the poem:
Had ye been there, for what could that have done?

What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself for her enchanting son,
Whom universal nature did lament,
When, by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His gory visage down the stream was sent,
The phrasing in this passage, including the densely packed allusion of classical mythology and the proliferation of adjectives “enchanting,” “universal,” “hideous,” “gory,” at the expense of active verbs dampens the impact of the lines, as well as dampening the overall impact of the poem. Other passages of the pome stand out with a peculiarly modern tone and sentiment; in fact, “Lycidas offers a passage, which when taken away from the rest of the poem, could stand as, itself, an elegy to the drowned Shepard: “The musk-rose, and the well-attired woodbine,/With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,/ And every flower that sad embroidery wears./Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed, And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,/To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.” (Lycidas).
In this passage, the sentiment of the poem overrides any sense of artifical diction or meter. Interestingly enough, the restraint demonstrated in these lines proved a Literary “premonition” of another famous elegy, composed by the American poet, Hart Crane, in 1922.
Crane’s poem “Praise for an Urn” may be the most famous elegy in American poetry. Like “Lycidas,” the poem is lyrical and formal in diction and prosody.   Milton’s poem, composed with an irregular rhyme patter, sought to evoke the sense of formal oratory; Crane’s poem traces a similar strategy, but is written in a form of blank verse, without rhyme. The greatest distinction between the two poems is a distinction intone. Whereas Milton’s poem is openly passionate and  public, Crane’s poem is restrained and intimate.
Where Milton utilized plentiful allusion to classical poetry, myth, and history — Crane relies, instead, upon hermetic allusion : “The slant moon on the slanting hill/Once moved us toward presentiments” (Crane) and the poem’s power is grasped — not by what is articulates, precisely, but what it cannot articulate. The closing lines of “Praise for an Urn” are, in fact, a denial of the elegy itself as a meaningful gesture of grief:
Scatter these well-meant idioms
Into the smoky spring that fills
The suburbs, where they will be lost.
They are no trophies of the sun.
If the poetic elegy survives in the modern world, it will likely follow Crane’s example more closely than Milton’s. The modern reader and one presumes, the modern poet, has become less of a public orator given to extensive allusion to classical myth and literature, and has become more of a private confessor, a singer of subjective, rather than collective, feelings and impulses.
Work Cited
Thorpe, James B., Milton Criticism: Selections from Four Centuries; Rinehart, 1950.
In Memoriam: Ernest Nelson
It was a kind and northern face
That mingled in such exile guise
The everlasting eyes of Pierrot
And, of Gargantua, the laughter.
His thoughts, delivered to me
From the white coverlet and pillows,
I see now, were inheritances —
Delicate riders of the storm.
The slant moon on the slanting hill
Once moved us toward presentiments
Of what the dead keep, living still,
And such assessments of the soul
As, perched in the crematory lobby,
The insistent clock commented on,
Touching as well upon our praise
Of glories proper to the time.
Still, having in mind gold hair,
I cannot see that broken brow
And miss the dry sound of bees
Stretching across a lucid space.
Scatter these well-meant idioms
Into the smoky spring that fills
The suburbs, where they will be lost.
They are no trophies of the sun.
Hart Crane (1922)
by John Milton
In this monody the author bewails a learned friend, unfortunately drowned in
his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637; and by occasion foretells
the ruin of our corrupted clergy, then in their height.
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,
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.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat’ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well,
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
Hence with denial vain, and coy excuse,
So may some gentle Muse
With lucky words favour my destined urn,
And as he passes turn
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.
For we were nursed upon the selfsame hill,
Fed the same flock by fountain, shade, and rill.
Together both, ere the high lawns appeared
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove a-field, and both together heard
What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt’ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose, at ev’ning, bright
Toward heav’n’s descent had sloped his west’ring wheel.
Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
Tempered to th’ oaten flute;
Rough Satyrs danced, and Fauns with cloven heel
From the glad sound would not be absent long;
And old Damoetas loved to hear our song.
But O! the heavy change now thou art gone,
Now thou art gone and never must return!
Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods, and desert caves,
With wild thyme and the gadding vine o’ergrown,
And all their echoes mourn.
The willows, and the hazel copses green,
Shall now no more be seen
Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.
As killing as the canker to the rose,
Or taint-worm to the weanling herds that graze,
Or frost to flow’rs, that their gay wardrobe wear,
When first the white-thorn blows;
Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd’s ear.
Where were ye, Nymphs, when the remorseless deep
Closed o’er the head of your loved Lycidas?
For neither were ye playing on the steep
Where your old bards, the famous Druids, lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream.
Ay me, I fondly dream!
Had ye been there, for what could that have done?
What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself for her enchanting son,
Whom universal nature did lament,
When, by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His gory visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?
Alas! what boots it with uncessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair?
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th’ abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life. “But not the praise,”
Phoebus replied, and touched my trembling ears:
“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glist’ring foil
Set off to the world, nor in broad rumour lies,
But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in heav’n expect thy meed.”
O fountain Arethuse, and thou honoured flood,
Smooth-sliding Mincius, crowned with vocal reeds,
That strain I heard was of a higher mood;
But now my oat proceeds,
And listens to the herald of the sea
That came in Neptune’s plea.
He asked the waves, and asked the felon winds,
What hard mishap hath doomed this gentle swain?
And questioned every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beaked promontory:
They knew not of his story,
And sage Hippotades their answer brings,
That not a blast was from his dungeon strayed;
The air was calm, and on the level brine
Sleek Panope with all her sisters played.
It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in th’ eclipse, and rigged with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.
Next Camus, reverend sire, went footing slow,
His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,
Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge
Like to that sanguine flower inscribed with woe.
“Ah! Who hath reft (quoth he) my dearest pledge?”
Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake.
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain,
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain)
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake
“How well could I have spared for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies’ sake
Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!
Of other care they little reckoning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learned aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list, their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw;
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoll’n with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said;
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.”
Return, Alpheus, the dread voice is past
That shrunk thy streams; return, Sicilian Muse,
And call the vales, and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flow’rets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
Of shades, and wanton winds, and gushing brooks
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enamelled eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honeyed show’rs,
And purple all the ground with vernal flow’rs.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freaked with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well-attired woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears.
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
Ay me! whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where’er thy bones are hurled,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold.
Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth;
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.
Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor.
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-pgled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves,
Where, other groves and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
There entertain him all the saints above,
In solemn troops, and sweet societies,
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more;
Henceforth thou art the genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood.
Thus sang the uncouth swain to th’ oaks and rills,
While the still morn went out with sandals grey;
He touched the tender stops of various quills,
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay:
And now the sun had stretched out all the hills,
And now was dropped into the western bay.
At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
Instructions from the instructor:
1. Lycidas is in the tradition of great pastoral elegies. But often it seems a relic of the past, when in fact the elegiac tradition has continued. Or has it?
Find a post-1850 elegy (not necessarily a pastoral elegy) and compare/contrast it with Lycidas in order to show how the elegiac tradition has or has not continued or changed. Please provide a copy of the elegy you choose with your paper
praise for an urn
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