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Milton's own hand under the heading LYCIDAS; the words "Novemb. 1637," which had originally accompanied that heading, being then erased as superfluous.
The poem is a Pastoral. It is the most pastoral in form of all Milton's English poems, more so considerably than the Arcades and Comus. It is not a direct lyric of lamentation by Milton for the death of King; it is a phantasy of one shepherd mourning, in the time of autumn, the death of a fellow-shepherd. The mourning shepherd, however, is Milton himself, and the shepherd mourned for is King; and, through the guise of all the pastoral circumstance and imagery of the poem, there is a studious representation of the real facts of King's brief life and his accidental death, and of Milton's regard for him and academic intimacy with him.
Here is the recollection, pastorally expressed, of their companionship at Cambridge, their walks and talks together there, and their common exercises. In the same manner it has already been hinted to us that among those common exercises was poetry. One reason why Lycidas was now lamented in song was that he himself had known how "to sing and build the lofty rhyme." All the more inexplicable was his loss. Where had the Nymphs been when this loved votary of theirs was drowned? Not, certainly, anywhere near the scene of the disaster. Not on the steeps known to the old Bards and Druids (the mountains of North Wales), nor on the shaggy top of Mona (the Isle of Anglesey), nor by the wizard stream of the Deva (the river Dee and Chester Bay). The topographical exactness here, under the poetic language, is worthy of remark, and is one of Milton's habits. But, had the Nymphs been there, what could they have done? Had the Muse herself been able to save her son Orpheus? Dwelling a little on this thought, of the non-immunity of even the finest intellectual promise from the stroke of death, Milton works it into one of the
most beautiful, and most frequently quoted passages of the poem, “Alas, what boots it," &c. (lines 64-84). That strain, he says, at the end of the passage, had been "of a higher mood," rather beyond the range of the pastoral; but now he will resume his simple oaten pipe and proceed. There pass then across the visionary stage three figures in succession. First comes the Herald of the Sea, Triton, who reports, in mythological terms, which yet veil exact information, that the cause of King's death was not tempestuous weather, for the sea was as calm as glass when the ship went down, but either the unseaworthiness of the ship itself or some inherited curse in her very timbers. Next comes Camus, the local deity of the Cam, footing slowly like his own sluggish stream, and with his bonnet of sedge from its banks, staying not long, but uttering one ejaculation over the loss to Cambridge of one of her darling sons. Lastly, in still more mystic and awful guise, comes St. Peter, the guardian of that Church of Christ for the service of which King had been destined—the apostle to whom the Great Shepherd himself had given it in charge "Feed my sheep." Not out of place even his grave figure in this peculiar pastoral. For has he not lost one of his truest under-shepherds, lost him too at a time when he could ill be spared, when false shepherds, hireling shepherds, knowing nothing of the real craft they professed, were more numerous than ever, and the flocks were perishing for lack of care or by the ravages of the stealthy wolf? It is to the singularly bold and stern passage of denunciation here put into St. Peter's mouth (lines 113-131), and especially to the last lines of the passage, prophesying speedy vengeance and reform, that Milton referred, when, in the title prefixed to the poem on its republication in 1645, he intimated that it contained a description of the state of England at the time when it was written, and foretold the ruin of the corrupted English clergy then in their height. In 1638 it had been bold enough to let the passage stand in the poem, as published in the Cambridge. memorial volume, without calling attention to it in the title. But, indeed, this passage too had transcended the ordinary limits of the quiet pastoral. The poet is aware of this. Accordingly, when "the dread voice is past" that had so pealed over the landscape and caused it to shudder, he calls on Alpheus and the Sicilian
Muse, as the patrons of the pastoral proper, to return, and be with him through the pensive remainder. Beautifully pensive it is, and yet with a tendency to soar. First, in strange and evidently studied contrast with the stern speech of St. Peter which has just preceded, is the exquisitely worded passage which follows (lines 143-151). For musical sweetness, and dainty richness of floral colour, it beats perhaps anything else in all Milton. It is the call upon all valleys of the landscape, and the banks of all the secret streamlets, to yield up their choicest flowers, and those dearest to shepherds, that they may be strewn over the dead body of Lycidas. Ah! it is but a fond fancy, a momentary forgetfulness. For where, meanwhile, is that dead body? Not anywhere on land at all, to be strewed with flowers and receive a funeral, but whelmed amid the sounding seas, either sunk deep down near the spot of the shipwreck, or drifted thence northwards perhaps to the Hebrides, or perhaps southwards to Cornwall and St. Michael's Mount. But let the surviving shepherds cease their mourning. Though that body is never again to be seen on earth, Lycidas is not lost. A higher world has received him already; and there, amid other groves and other streams, laving his oozy locks with the nectar of heaven, and listening to the nuptial song, he has joined the society of the Saints, and can look down on the world and the friends he has left, and act as a power promoted for their good. Here the Monody or Pastoral ends. The last eight lines of the poem do not belong to the Monody. They are not a part of the song sung by Milton in his imaginary character as the shepherd who is bewailing the death of Lycidas, but are distinctly a stanza of Epilogue, in which Milton speaks directly, criticises what he has just written in his imaginary character, and intimates that he has stepped out of that character, and is about to turn to other occupations:
"Thus sang the uncouth swain to the oaks and rills,
Perhaps there is not in the whole of English critical literature. a more amazing piece of criticism than that of Dr. Johnson on Lycidas in his Life of Milton. "It is not to be considered as the "effusion of real passion," wrote the sturdy man, "for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and the ivy, nor calls upon "Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of 'rough satyrs,' and ‘fauns "with cloven heel.' Where there is leisure for fiction, there is "little grief. In this poem there is no nature, for there is "nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and "therefore disgusting; whatever images it can supply are long ago " exhausted, and its inherent improbability always forces dissatis"faction on the mind. . . We know that they never drove "a-field, and that they had no flocks to batten; and, though it be "allowed that the representation may be allegorical, the true meaning is so uncertain and remote that it is never sought, "because it cannot be known when it is found. . Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure had "he not known its author."
Were readers horses, one is tempted to ask, when this criticism was written? That there should have been a time in the English world of letters when the dictator of that world could put it forth, and have it accepted, suggests strange thoughts respecting the changes that may take place from age to age in the very fibre of men's minds, and their notions of Art and Poesy. Not so much because the criticism can have the intended effect now, even though it is Dr. Johnson's, as because it suggests an additional remark or two on Lycidas in particular, and on the nature of Poetry generally, we give the heads of a reply:-(1) It is a sheer assumption that Milton offered the poem as an utterance of passion, or intense personal grief. We have indicated, as faithfully as possible, from the records, the degree of Milton's intimacy with Edward King, and of his probable affection for him, while King was yet living. The intimacy and the affection were considerable, but less perhaps than what bound Milton to other friends of his youth, of whom he has left no similar commemoration. They were certainly less than the intimacy and affection that bound him to one other friend of his youth, of whom he has
left various commemorations. The bosom-friend of Milton's youth, his very friend of friends from his boyhood to the time of his Italian journey, was that Charles Diodati to whom are addressed two of his Latin Familiar Epistles, the First and Sixth of his Latin Elegies, and one Italian Sonnet, and whose death, as premature as King's, and but one year later, gave occasion to perhaps the most remarkable of all Milton's Latin poems, his Epitaphium Damonis. Only the accident that these pieces to and about Diodati are in Latin and Italian has prevented the fact of Milton's paramount friendship with him from being generally known, and has led to the idea that the unique friend of Milton's youth was Edward King of Christ's. The death of that young scholar, so melancholy in its mode, did indeed move Milton, as it must have moved many. Here was one fine young life cut short, recklessly cut short, when thousands of coarser lives were spared, and England and the Church of England had need that the best only should be prolonged. The recollection of his face and voice, and of hours spent in his society, would return at the news, and would mingle with the keen imagination of the last scene, when one meek praying figure was marked on the deck of the sinking ship, resigned amid the shrieks, the mad hurry, and the gurgling waters. What more natural than that Milton should throw his feelings on the event, and the whole train of thought which it suggested, into artistic form in a memorial poem? This is precisely what Lycidas is. It is the same kind of tribute from a poet to the memory of a friend as a bust, with pedestal and basreliefs, would have been from a sculptor, or some thoughtful picture, of a few figures with fit landscape or sea-view, would have been from a painter. Personal feeling is present; but it blends with, and passes into, the feeling of the artist thinking of his subject. (2) Johnson's criticism would abolish, by implication, all Poetry whatsoever. In that crude sense of what is " natural " which his criticism begs, all poetry is unnatural. No poem, even of passion, can possibly be "natural" in the sense of being a record of the exact mental procedure consentaneous with, or appropriate to, the immediate moment of the passion. If passion
runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions,” if passion "plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon