John Milton’s Lycidas first appeared in 1638, is a collection of elegies, mostly Latin. It was written on Edward King, Milton’s contemporary at Cambridge University, who had been drowned in the Irish sea. Milton did not compose Lycidas on spontaneous impulse. King had not been a close friend and it should be understood that the present elegy is about Lycidas. The poet has actually transformed the individual king into a symbolic pastoral character. In Theocritus we can see that Lycidas was considered as the best of pipers. In Spenser’s The Shepherd’s Calendar , the protestant pastor is called Lycidas. So Lycidas is a poet-priest. Milton actually makes little of Edward King, the fellow of Christ’s Church College, Cambridge.
“For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.”
Milton speaks in form of a guise of a ‘Shepherd’ or ‘swain’. He expresses his grief, through the literary convention known as pastoral. It is pastoral because all the characters represented in it are from pastoral background. Conventionally, nothing was for shepherds more painful than the death of a friend. It was the occasion for an elegy which is a poem of lamentation. Milton associated king’s death with a long tradition in which the deaths of young men had been lamented. The death of young men has always been considered deeply pathetic. It is evoked in the Iliad. Perhaps nothing is more affecting in the Bible than David’s mourning for his young friend, Jonathan. It is this traditional pathos that Milton evokes from the death of Edward King. Perhaps we would not have responded positively if he had tried to express a more personal feeling. What engages us is the universal appeal of the emotion. Lycidas is often described as Milton’s literary autobiography. He makes Lycidas as much as possible as himself. He has actually succeeded in bringing together his concept of priesthood and lordship. The single symbolic figure is the good shepherd who keeps himself busy with his flock. For the poet, pastoral and agricultural activity always symbolized the basic features of life. He always thought of each season with its definite rural activity. The pastoral tradition was not for him an impractical convention. Lycidas as the name of the shepherd is familiar to readers of pastoral poetry. It is used in Theocritus, Virgil, Spenser and many more. Milton describes his close association with the king at Cambridge in pastoral imagery. The poet imagines that he is a shepherd, laments the death of another shepherd, Lycidas. The death is being painfully experienced not only by shepherds but all the objects of nature. The objects of nature are subjectified. It can be felt in the following lines-
“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.”
In the beginning of this elegy we can find the traditional life and duty of shepherds. It is reflected through the words like ‘flocks’, ‘oaten flute’ etc. even in the controversial St.Peter passage we have nothing but pastoral imagery. In line number one hundred and sixty five Milton asks the “woeful shepherds” not to weep for Lycidas anymore because he is immortal. In the epilogue to the monody- the poet forgets his pastoral machinery and speaks about the swain that is to say about his own life. Words like mantle blue, new pastures, fresh woods, reflect this poem as pastoral.