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 forc'd 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 destin'd urn,
And as he passes turn
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.
For 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
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove afield, 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 slop'd his westering wheel.
Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
Temper'd to th'oaten flute;
Rough Satyrs danc'd, and Fauns with clov'n heel,
From the glad sound would not be absent long;
And old Damætas lov'd 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 the grazes,
Or frost to flowers 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
Clos'd o'er the head of your lov'd 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 bin 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 incessant 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 Neæra'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 to the blind Fury with th'abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life. "But not the priase,"
Phoebus replied, and touch'd my trembling ears;
"Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glistening foil
Set off to th'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 they meed."
O fountain Arethuse, and thou honour'd flood,
Smooth-sliding Mincius, crown'd 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 ask'd the waves, and ask'd the felon winds,
"What hard mishap hath doom'd this gentle swain?"
And question'd 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 stray'd;
The air was calm, and on the level brine
Sleek Panope with all her sisters play'd.
It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in the'eclipse, and rigg'd 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 inscrib'd 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 spar'd 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 reck'ning make
Than how to scramble at the shearer's feast
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn'd aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman's art bleongs!
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 they 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 enamel'd eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied showers
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
That tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freak'd with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well attir'd 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 hurl'd;
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps 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 towards Namancos a Bayona's hold:
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth;
And, O ye dolphins, waft the helpless youth.
Weep no more, woeful sheperds, 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 spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
Through the dear might of him that walk'd 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 the perilous flood.
Thus sang the uncouth swain to th'oaks and rills,
While the still morn went out with sandals gray;
He touch'd the tender stops of various quills,
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay;
And now the sun had stretch'd out all the hills,
And now was dropp'd into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitch'd his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
Why do bad things happen to good people, and how can we deal with that? That is the central question of Milton's great lyric masterpiece. Before we delve too deeply into the waters of this poem, reader, I feel a bit of background is necessary.
The poem is a memorial to Milton's dearly departed friend, Edward King, who was at Cambridge with him. He drowned when his ship sank in the Irish Sea off of the west coast of Wales. King was to enter the clergy, which, as Milton explains in the poem, is diseased, and sorely needed a pure force such as King. It's always hard to fathom how someone so good can die so young. I know that myself, I have lost two friends far before their prime, one in high school, and one last year. Both were the same age as myself, and both times, it was so hard to wrap my brain and heart around it. It's a heartbreak so unnatural and abhorrent that we all struggle to deal with it, and that is a central part of Milton's struggle here. To help cope with it, he eulogizes King as a new figure, Lycidas, and writes a pastoral elegy.
To begin with, Milton feels that he is premature in writing these poems. Famous poetic images, laurels, myrtles, ivy, are not yet ripe, but "with forc'd [forced] fingers rude" Milton must "shatter your leaves before the mellowing year." It is "sad occasion dear" which "compels me to disturb your season due; For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime." Milton cannot let his friend die without proper mourning. "He must not float upon his wat'ry bier unwept...without the meed [reward] of some melodious tear."
Milton then moves on to invoke a Muse, some Classical guide to shape his poem and to honor Lycidas. In the third stanza, the speaker, the "uncouth swain" as he is called, recalls their upbringing together. They grew up together ("we were nurs'd upon the self-same hill, fed by the same flock") and in this pastoral context, would play music and dance, as if with Satyrs. Their song was loved by all, and was right by nature. After that though, the terrible change is acted in the poem.
"But O the heavy change now thou art gone, now thou art gone, and never must return!" It pains Milton so to have his friend taken from him, this Shepherd of men, as he is referred to in the poem. All of nature mourns his loss. His loss is "as killing as the canker to the rose, or taint-worm to the weanling herds that graze, or frost to flowers." His death is poisonous to nature, out of harmony with the rightful way of things. It's that painful for Milton to bear, as if Lycidas' death was a parasite within him.
Milton then moves to blame Nature, accusing them of being absent in Lycidas' time of need. He asks the Nymphs where they were when his ship went down, where were the mystic bards and druids to save him? Milton quickly realizes however that this is a fool's errand, blaming nature. It's part of the grieving process, lashing out in anger at the world. "Ay me! I fondly dream." Fondly, in early modern English, means foolishly. He reflects that even the Muse herself, in Classical tales, could and did not save Orpheus, when he was murdered on the island of Lesbos, his body carried down the Hebrides to that Lesbian shore.
The comparisons go on and on, with various classical figures meditating on the loss of Lycidas. The Fury has slit the thread of his life, ensuring his fame in the afterlife. "Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil." This is true, as we would likely never have known Edward King were it not for this elegaic remembrance. "Of so much fame in Heav'n expect thy meed." Lycidas' fame is to come in heaven, not on earth. He will be exalted, Milton tells us, I suspect as a comfort to himself for having lost so good a person and so good a friend so early.
At this point, in the stanza beginning with "Next Camus..." our speaker changes from the "uncouth swain," that is, Milton's self-insert shepherd character, to that of St. Peter. We're told that "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:" This is clearly St. Peter who is about to speak. At this point, Milton transitions into a discourse on the state of the Church. This account was so scathing that the Church actually banned this poem up to twenty years after Milton's death.
Milton describes the current clergy as snakes, who "creep and intrude, and climb into the fold? Of other care they little reckoning make." They are not shepherds, but spies who care little for the welfare of their flock. They are so useless as shepherds (remember that Lycidas, in this elegy, was a shepherd, an in life, about to be a member of the clergy) that they "scarce themselves know how to hold a sheep-hook, or have learn'd aught else the least that to the faithful herdman's art belongs!" They are clueless! Useless! Their songs grate like nails on a chalkboard. The congregation, like "hungry sheep look up, and are not fed." They cannot nourish spiritually their congregation. They fill them with "wind and the rank mist they draw" and the people "rot inward and foul contagion spread." These vipers are poisoning the sheep, the honest people seeking God's love and nourishment.
After this episode, Milton calls the voice of the uncouth swain to return. He assembles flowers for Lycidas' grave. The descriptions are most beautiful, and I do not think I need to explain those in much detail. Just read slowly and imagine vividly.
To end, Milton tells us, "Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead, sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor." Lycidas, though he sank with his ship, is not dead. He lives on in heaven, and he now daily lives "in blest kingdoms meek of joy and love." He is now in Heaven, living forever, where "there entertain him all the Saints above."
The very last stanza is a pulling back from the scene. No longer is the uncouth swain speaking to us, but Milton himself, as narrator. "Thus sang the uncouth swain to th'oaks and rills, while the still morn went out with sandals gray." He has finished his song, his elegy for Lycidas, and now he is moving on. The uncouth swain moves on, "to-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new." He is moving towards the future, a brighter future, having memorialized Lycidas forever.
To me, this is one of the most beautiful poems in the English language. Apart from the sentiment, the language and intermittent rhyme interspersed throughout the poem are just lovely. We watch the mourning process unfold, centered on a theme we're all familiar with; why do bad things happen to good people and how do we deal with it? Milton, ever the political and theological menace to his age, can't help but poke the establishment in the eye with his strong opinions, but it fits, when the person taken from the world too young may have been the panacea to those awful wrongs. I know this is a demanding poem, and if you've stuck with me this long, reader, I appreciate it. I didn't offer a very in-depth analysis, and I left many of the Classical allusions unexplained (more for your sake than mine, I do not want to bore you with constant exegesis that takes away from the overall message), but if you're like me, you stayed because the poem exerts an almost magnetic draw. Its beauty and power have stuck with me ever since I first read it years ago, and I've long wanted to post it here. I hope you've enjoyed it!