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Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
This poem of Milton's, published half-anonymously in 1638 in the Cambridge volume of Memorial Verses to Edward King, was in circulation just as Milton was going abroad on his Italian journey. It, and his Comus, printed for him quite anonymously in the previous year by his friend Henry Lawes the musician, were all but the only poems of Milton in print till 1645, when the first edition of his collected Poems was given to the world by Moseley. In that edition, and in the subsequent edition of 1673, Lycidas is printed with its present complete title, thus: "LYCIDAS. In this Monody the Author bewails a learned Friend, unfortunately drown'd in his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637. And by occasion foretells the ruine of our corrupted Clergie then in their height." A portion of this extended title (from "In this Monody" to the date "1637") appears in the original MS. draft of the poem at Cambridge, inserted, clearly by way of afterthought, in 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.
"Together both, ere the high lawns appeared
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," etc. (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,
At last he rose and twitched his mantle blue;
SONNETS AND KINDRED PIECES.
In one well-known sonnet Wordsworth has given the very essence of the history of the Sonnet down to Milton's
"Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours!
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound;
With it Camoens soothed an exile's grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow; a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
Milton, however, is notable in the succession of chief Sonnet-writers, not only on account of the intrinsic power of the few Sonnets he did write, but also because he helped, by means of them, to establish or re-establish in England that stricter mechanism of the Sonnet which had been in favour with the Italians.
The Sonnet may be defined, generally, as a little poem of fourteen lines, complete in itself, and containing a condensed expression of some one thought or feeling. The Italian poets, however, who had first practised the Sonnet, and from whom the Spaniards, the French, and the English had taken it, had practised it in one particular form, or rather in a certain variety of forms. Not only were the fourteen lines rhyming lines, of the norm of five Iambi each, but the rhymes interlaced each other in a peculiar manner. On the whole, the legitimate Italian Sonnet may be said to have contained either four rhymes or five rhymes altogether, of which two governed the first eight lines, and the remaining two or three the last six, the linking of the rhymes within this general provision admitting of variety, though some arrangements were preferred to others. The least common arrangement in the last six lines was that which ended the Sonnet in a rhyming couplet, so as to round it off with a kind of epigrammatic effect.
On account of the paucity of rhymes in English as compared with Italian, the first English Sonnet-writers had made pretty free with the Italian model. There was some effort indeed to keep more or less close to that model, and especially not to go beyond five rhymes in all in the building of the Sonnet. Instances will be found in Wyatt (1503-1542), and in Surrey (1515-1547). From the first, however, there was a tendency to the convenience of more numerous rhymes than the four or five allowed in Italian, and also, with or without that convenience, to the epigrammatic effect of an ending in a couplet. Hence, at length, a laxness in the English idea of the Sonnet, which permitted any little poem. of fourteen lines, rhymed anyhow, to be called by that name. Perhaps, however, two forms emerged from this confusion as normal or customary forms of the English Sonnet. One of these forms, largely exemplified in Spenser (1553-1599), is a form which finds five rhymes in all still sufficient, but does so by throwing he first twelve lines into three interlinked stanzas of four lines each, and then adding a couplet. The formula, more expressly, is A 1, 3, B 2, 4, 5, 7, C 6, 8, 9, II, D 10, 12, E 13, 14; where the rhymes within the three stanzas, it will be observed, are alternate, but, by the device of making the last rhyme of the first stanza begin the second, and he last of the second again begin the third, four rhymes