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Lycidas

"Lycidas" is a poem by John Milton, written in 1637 as a pastoral elegy, first appearing in a 1638 collection of elegies entitled Justa Edouardo King Naufrago dedicated to the memory of Edward King, a collegemate of Milton's at Cambridge who had been drowned when his ship sank in the Irish Sea off the coast of Wales in August 1637. The poem is 193 lines in length, and is irregularly rhymed.

In a revised edition, Poems of Mr. John Milton (1645) in the Rauner Collection at Dartmouth College, known as Hickmott 172, Milton gave the explanation that "the Author bewails a learned Friend, unfortunately drown'd ... on the Irish Seas, 1637. And by occasion foretels the ruine of our corrupted Clergy then in their height."

The name "Lycidas" comes from Theocritus' Idylls, where Lycidas (Λυκίδαν) is most prominently a poet-goatherd encountered on the trip of Idyll vii. The name later occurs in Virgil and is a typically Doric shepherd's name, appropriate for the pastoral mode.

Milton's poem makes extensive references to these classical authors, and is difficult for most modern readers without the help of explanatory footnotes. The classical themes of the poem are blended with particularly British mythology, such as Druids, "Mona" a "personification of the Isle of Anglesey (from the Welsh Ynys Môn), "Deva" and her "wizard stream" (Deva is the Celtic name for the River Dee, Wales in its aspect as river sacred to the Great Goddess) and Camus, the river spirit of the Cam, as well as Christian allegory. The references to Deva and "the shaggy top of Mona high" are included because King drowned in the Irish Sea in which Ynys Môn stands and into which the Dee flows.

The topic of the poem is a shepherd who mourns his drowned friend, Lycidas, first alluding to the immortal fame of a poet (King had also written verse, but not with particular distinction; Milton is using the occasion for much more general sentiments not necessarily directed at King personally). Then, the metaphor of "shepherd" for priests is explored. King and Milton were both preparing to become ministers, and the death of one good shepherd mourned as a severe loss to the flock, i.e. the salvation of the faithful (108–131):

Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake,
Two massy Keyes he bore of metals twain,
(The Golden opes, the Iron shuts amain)
He shook his Miter'd locks, and stern bespake,
How well could I have spar'd for thee young swain,
Anow of such as for their bellies sake,
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck'ning make,
Then how to scramble at the shearers feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouthes! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A Sheep-hook, or have learn'd ought els the least
That to the faithfull Herdmans 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 swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,
But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.

The phrase "blind mouths" describes the corrupt clergy who "creep, intrude and climb into the fold", i.e. who acquire their position with dishonest means, referring to their greed, and uselessness as guardians. The "Wolf" has been interpreted as an allegory for the Catholic Church, and the "two-handed engine at the door" may refer to Judgement Day, although the precise metaphor intended is uncertain, and the lines are among the most discussed in English literature. An "engine" in Milton's day needed not be a mechanical machine, but could also refer to a simpler device or weapon, such as a two handed sword used for execution.

The final lines of the poem,

And now the Sun had stretch'd out all the hills,
And now was dropt into the Western bay;
At last he rose, and twitch'd his Mantle blew:
To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new
may refer to Milton's imminent departure to Italy, and they are reminiscent of the end of Virgil's 10th Eclogue,

Surgamus; solet esse gravis cantantibus umbra;
iuniperi gravis umbra; nocent et frugibus umbrae.
Ite domum saturae, venit Hesperus, ite capellae.
Come, let us rise: the shade is wont to be
baneful to singers; baneful is the shade
cast by the juniper, crops sicken too
Now homeward, having fed your fill —
eve's star is rising — go, my she-goats, go.

Influence

The poem was exceedingly popular. It was hailed as Milton's best poem, and by some as the greatest lyrical poem in the English language. Yet it was detested for its artificiality by Samuel Johnson, who found "the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing" and complained that "in this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new."

It is from a line in "Lycidas" that Thomas Wolfe took the name of his novel Look Homeward, Angel:

Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth:
And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth. (163-164)

The title The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner is also taken from this poem (line 125 quoted above).

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