Practice English Speaking&Listening with: 6. Lycidas

Difficulty: 0

Professor John Rogers: The best way,

I think, to introduce the central issues of this wonderful

poem, "Lycidas," is to return to Milton's

Comus. So yet once more -- and I promise this will

be one of the last times that we look back at Milton's mask --

but yet once more, let's look at Comus.

Now you will remember that the mask Comus was

everywhere concerned with questions of the power of --

well, the strangely intertwined

questions of the power of chastity on the one hand and the

power of poetry on the other. The two brothers in the mask

engaged in that philosophical debate about the force,

or the strength, of virginity.

The Second Brother, you'll remember,

had taken what I take to be the perfectly reasonable position,

the cautious position, that the Lady is in danger --

that she's a sitting duck, in fact, out there in the

dangerous forest. According to the Second

Brother, it's virtually impossible for a single,

helpless maiden to pass uninjured in this wild,

surrounding waste. Now the Elder Brother,

we remember, hastily dismissed his brother's

pessimism, and then he insisted that the

Lady's virginity was fully capable of protecting her from

any such physical attack.Now to the extent that this

discussion is actually about the virginity of the Second Brother

and the Elder Brother's sister, it seems, I think,

to border on the ridiculous; but the debate,

I think, we have to take seriously.

It's an important one for Milton, and it's important

because it touches on a lot of more consequential questions.

I'm thinking of the general problem of the abstraction of

virtue, an abstract notion of virtue.

Think of all the questions that all of us at some point or other

tend to associate with virtue. Is virtuous behavior repaid

with some kind of ultimate good? Are we rewarded for our virtue

and for our virtuous deeds? Are we recompensed in some way

for all of those sacrifices that we make in the name of virtue?

These are questions that Milton will never stop asking and that

he will never stop attempting to answer.

The position that Milton -- this is how I like to read it --

the position that Milton would like to be able to take on this

question of virtue's reward is formulated by the Elder Brother

in Comus. I'm thinking of the passage

near the bottom of page 103 in the Hughes.

This is Comus, line 588 -- the Elder

Brother. The brother says:

Virtue may be assail'd but never hurt, Surpris'd by

unjust force but not enthrall'd, Yea even that which

mischief meant most harm Shall in the happy trial prove

most glory. But evil on itself shall back

recoil And mix no more with goodness, when at last

Gather'd like scum, and settl'd to itself, It

shall be in eternal restless change Self-fed and

self-consum'd; if this fail, The pillar'd

firmament is rott'nness, And earth's base built on

stubble. Virtue invariably protects

itself. Virtue is invariably rewarded

with glory and evil -- and this is the flip side of the coin --

evil is always punished. In this amazing image,

it's gathered like scum in some eternal cesspool where it's

self-fed and self-consumed -- problem solved!

The Elder Brother continues, though, "if this fail" -- by

which he means, if virtue does not in every

single instance triumph over evil,

then this is a world whose heaven, whose pillared

firmament, is rotten to the core,

and whose base, or whose very foundation,

is nothing but stubble. If virtue fails to triumph over

evil, then what? Then this simply isn't a world

worth living in. That's what I take the Elder

Brother to mean here.These are unquestionably strong words,

and I think it's impossible for us to overestimate the weight of

these words. The speech is more than just a

pious bit of optimism like a lot of the speeches,

in fact, that the other brother has given us.

We have to confess that it's more than that.

This speech is a challenge. The Elder Brother is

challenging God to see to it that some kind of justice is

actually effected on this earth; and so I'm going to be placing

a particular amount of pressure on this passage because this is

the first expression in Milton of a very particular kind of

argument: a religious argument, and it's one that becomes

central to all of Paradise Lost.

The speech of the Elder Brothers is a theodicy.

Theodicy is the term coined by the eighteenth-century

philosopher Leibniz, and he applied this term

theodicy to just that kind of philosophical sentiment

that's implied by its etymology. The theodicy is an account of

the justice (the dike) of God (theos).

And so, to use the words with which Milton would begin

Paradise Lost, a theodicy is an attempt "to

justify the ways of God to men."Now for a lot of

orthodox Christians in Milton's time -- and I think we can say

the same for a lot of orthodox Christians in our own time -- to

embark upon anything like a theodicy at all can be

considered heretical, or at the very least heterodox.

A theodicy can be seen as heretical or even blasphemous

for the simple reason that it -- think of what it assumes.

It assumes that the ways of God are in fact justifiable.

A theodicy assumes that God's justice can be witnessed,

that it can be accounted for here on earth.

A theodicy assumes that things on earth actually make sense and

that God's ways are ultimately rationally accessible,

that they are comprehensible by human beings,

and that God can in some way -- and this is,

I think, the central implication of the Elder Brother

here -- that God can in some way be held accountable for his

actions. To justify the ways of God to

men is essentially to put God on trial for the actions that he

performs. Of course in the central test

case this is what we all care about, for the unfortunate

events that befall virtuous people.The next major poem

that Milton writes after Comus is "Lycidas."

You'll remember that Milton published Comus in 1637.

It's 1637, later that same year, that Milton writes

"Lycidas." In "Lycidas," Milton

looks back at the Elder Brother's theodicy,

and it's almost as if he's attempting to test its validity.

You can figure Milton asking in this poem "Lycidas" if it's

true: is it true what the Elder Brother said,

that virtue is always rewarded and evil punished?

Now "Lycidas," and this is undeniable,

is ostensibly, and maybe more than ostensibly,

an elegy. It's a poem about a death.

It mourns the loss of a friend of Milton's from Cambridge.

The young man was named Edward King, and he drowned in a

shipwreck in the Irish Sea shortly before he took up orders

as a minister for the Church of England.

Like so many -- and I mentioned this before -- like so many of

the young men studying with Milton in Cambridge,

King was being prepared to pursue a career in the

church.Now, and I don't think this is

unimportant, King was also -- it would seem

he was also a minor poet, an amateur poet.

Like Milton, he wrote verses. There is nothing like a shred

of evidence to suggest that Edward King had any talent

whatsoever. Nonetheless,

the fact that he attempted to be a poet, I think,

is important here. Edward King,

in fact, seems to have been sufficiently well liked or

admired that when news of his death hit Cambridge,

a group of his friends organized something like an

anthology of poems in his honor. This is on the handout.

The title of the book is Justa Eduardo King naufrago,

Obsequies on Edward King, Lost at Sea or Drowned.

We have no evidence that King was a particularly close friend

of Milton's, but nonetheless Milton -- as an ambitious

literary figure in college, he was asked to contribute some

verses to the anthology, and "Lycidas" is the

product of that request. We shouldn't be surprised that

Milton has to be compelled to write this poem.

He's still in that awkward phase of unreadiness and under

preparation.Now readers have always seemed to have agreed

that Milton's "Lycidas" is an enormously admirable

poem, but for a few hundred years now

there has been a controversy over how admirable Milton's

"Lycidas" is, specifically as an elegy.

The poem is obviously magisterial.

It's moving and just about everyone concedes that at many

junctures it's extraordinarily learned -- it's obviously

learned, but it's also very moving.

This is the question now: is it properly elegiac?

Is "Lycidas" an appropriate expression of grief over the

death of Edward King, and furthermore,

does it console others for their grief over Edward King's

death? Now this is a debate that fits

into the same category, as far as I'm concerned,

as the one between the elder and the Second Brother.

This is a debate that will forever and forever be fruitless

because it's unanswerable. Nonetheless,

I still think there's something about this controversy

surrounding this poem -- the poem as an elegy -- that we need

to take as instructive; because if Milton's

"Lycidas" isn't an expression of grief over the

death of Edward King, then just what -- this is what

we have to ask -- then just what is it an expression of?

So let us begin our examination of this question

with the consideration of the poem's form.

Now the most distinguishing feature of Milton's elegy is the

fact that it's a pastoral elegy. It engages the ancient art of

pastoral poetry initiated and made famous by the great Greek

poet Theocritus, which was later imitated by

Moscus and then finally by the Roman poet Virgil in his

celebrated pastoral eclogues. You can see on the handout

those poems by those classical authors that Milton's

"Lycidas" is most indebted to.

The pastoral elegy is clearly one of the most stylized and

most self-consciously artificial of all of the poetic genres.

The poet of a pastoral elegy usually represents himself as a

shepherd, a shepherd mourning the death of a fellow shepherd,

and he often explains that the death of his shepherd friend is

exerting a magical effect on the entire natural world.

This is called the pathetic fallacy.

The trees, the rocks, and the streams are all weeping

for the loss of the shepherd-speaker's beloved

companion. It's at this point in the

pastoral elegy -- the conventional,

stereotypical pastoral elegy -- that the poet-shepherd sings a

mournful song. He sings a song in which he

recalls all of those happy days that he had spent with his

shepherd friend in the countryside.So we have in

the pastoral elegy a generic form that's highly predictable.

Not only now, but, I think,

on some level it has always struck some of its readers as

ludicrous. We're not being merely

churlish, I think, if we want to ask why someone

would want to write a poem in such a form.

As you can imagine, it had long been out of fashion

in Milton's own day. The pastoral genre in fact even

for Theocritus, its inventor,

was always highly artificial. Theocritus knew no more about

shepherds or sheep or shepherdesses or nymphs and

satyrs than you or I know and later urban poets -- and

Theocritus was an urban poet --later urban poets like Virgil

or Milton (Milton our Londoner) knew even less than Theocritus,

we have to assume. It's almost as if the entire

point of a pastoral is that it is set in a world that neither

the urbane poet nor the urbane reader has actually any real

experience with.Another way into this problem:

let's look at the comments that Dr.

Johnson made about Milton's "Lycidas" in the

eighteenth century. This is reading from the packet

assigned for today, and I'm going to ask you to do

what you can to get through the biography of Milton in the

packet, as well as the notes on

Milton's poetry that we have from Dr.

Samuel Johnson. Make sure you all have done

that by the midterm. Okay.

Famously, Dr. Johnson couldn't bear this

poem, "Lycidas" -- Dr. Johnson, the greatest of all

literary critics of the eighteenth century.

Because Milton's poem is probably considered to be the

most important elegy written in any language by any poet,

Johnson's assessment of it has become famous for being one of

the most wrong-headed evaluations ever made of a work

of literature by a great literary critic -- but inspired

wrong-headedness, which is what I take Dr.

Johnson to be guilty of, is invaluable.

And so I want to quote Dr. Johnson here,

and this is on the handout. ["Lycidas"]

is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion;

for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure

opinions. Passion plucks no berries from

the myrtle and 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."

[The] form [of the pastoral elegy,

or the form of "Lycidas"] is that of a pastoral,

easy, vulgar and therefore disgusting

Now I have to say, although the last word is

obviously incredibly powerful and sort of wonderful,

it doesn't have quite the punch that it does -- it didn't have

quite the punch in the eighteenth century that it has

for us now. Disgusting really means

literally for Johnson merely "distasteful."

These are still strong words. There has to be something more

here than merely Johnson's massive blunder as a literary

critic. Johnson tells us that "Lycidas"

is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion,

for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure

opinions. It's difficult to imagine that

as an expression of genuine grief over the death of a

genuinely close friend would take the form of a poem so

learned, so filled with remote literary

allusions and obscure opinions. Johnson obviously has a point

here.But we have to remember that King himself was a poet,

or thought of himself as a poet.

He was a poet who died before he could take up his career,

and it's not unlikely that -- he wasn't married -- that he was

also a poet who died while he was still a virgin.

King's death provides Milton with an occasion on which Milton

is able to write the most personal poem that he has yet

written and perhaps that he will ever write.

He gets to ask all of those questions that are most pressing

to him, John Milton. What if the virginal Milton

were to die before he was able to take up his career?

What if he died before he was able to fulfill his promise as a

poet, before he could publish or make public his talent?

The very structure, in fact, of Milton's poem here

is what Dr. Johnson would be obliged to

call a remote allusion. The poem is based most closely

on Virgil's Tenth Eclogue. This is the poem in which the

speaker grieves over a death by imagining a procession of

mourners at the funeral. This really provides the

central rhetorical base for Milton's "Lycidas."

The speaker of the poem mourns the death of the

shepherd-poet Lycidas and describes this parade,

this procession of mourners who make their tribute to the

deceased.So look at line -- I'll run through some of the

essential sections here. Lines seventy-six to

eighty-four. We have the god of poetry,

Phoebus Apollo himself, who makes an appearance,

and he chides Milton for being so concerned with earthly fame

-- more on that later. Line eighty-eight,

the next section: Triton, the herald of the sea.

He tries to make sense of Lycidas' death.

He asks the gods what has happened to Lycidas and who

exactly was responsible for the sinking of Lycidas' ship.

In the next line four lines, we have Camus;

the god of the river Cam appears.

He represents Cambridge University, the alma

mater, where Edward King and John Milton had been students.

And finally at lines 108 through 131, we have Saint

Peter, he of the pearly gates. Peter bursts onto the scene.

Without question he's the most terrifying of all of the

mourners, and he gives an angry, powerful, vitriolic speech

about the terrible state of England -- the terrible state of

the Church of England and, as a consequence,

of the terrible state of England in 1637.So the

structure of this poem is unquestionably Virgilian,

but the sentiments that are voiced in this poem are

unquestionably Miltonic, and we will recognize them.

Who but Milton could speak the poem's famous opening lines?

Turn to the beginning of "Lycidas."

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... Milton is lamenting,

once again, that Milton has been compelled to begin writing.

Edward King had died, and the editor of the Edward

King Memorial Anthology has pressed Milton into service.

What could the young poet do? Bitter constraint and sad

occasion are forcing him to write, even though,

of course, he's not yet ready. The laurels and the myrtles

that he addresses here are, of course, the traditional

plants classically associated with great poets;

but for Milton in this passage, importantly these plants simply

aren't ripe yet. Their berries are still harsh

and crude. They haven't yet had time to

develop. Milton is telling us that he is

himself in the process, still in the process,

of maturing. He's not yet up to the task of

a great poem yet. The only fingers with which

he'll be able to hold his pen and write this poem are his

forced fingers rude.Now you're right:

you're right if you have the [laughs]

feeling that you've heard a lot of these same ideas before.

Milton's nearly twenty-nine years old when he writes

"Lycidas." He's making exactly the same disclaimer that

he had made in Sonnet Seven. You remember Sonnet Seven,

"How Soon Hath Time," the sonnet that he had written on

the sad occasion of his twenty-third birthday.

Milton had claimed there that he seemed to have all the

outward appearances of an adult male,

of a man, but "[an] inward ripeness doth much less

appear." His poetic talent,

his poetic promise, his poetic ripeness -- it

hasn't yet burgeoned or made itself manifest.Well,

this is six years later. Six years later when Milton

writes "Lycidas," he's employing the same fiction of unreadiness

and filled with all of the same anxiety of under-preparedness.

As in Sonnet Seven, Milton writes the first verse

paragraph of this great poem, "Lycidas" -- the first

fourteen lines -- in essentially the form of a sonnet.

The lines have distinctly a sonnet rhyme-scheme,

but look closely. It's not a perfect sonnet in

quite the same way that Sonnet Seven was.

Look at line number four, which is so clearly -- simply

by looking at this, you can tell it's deficient in

the number of syllables. There are only six syllables

here rather than the conventional ten.

It's this line, "And with forc'd fingers rude"

-- this is called a broken line or a half-line,

and this broken line has been read, I think,

rightly as Milton's indication to his reader that he's not even

up to the task of writing a sonnet at this point.

Anything he writes is going to be forced, compelled -- and with

his forced fingers rude he violates the formal prosodic,

the metrical, scheme of his elegy at its very

opening. Just like Edward King who died

before his prime, Milton has to write this poem

before his own poetic prime and so it is with this deeply

apologetic, intensely hesitant beginning

that John Milton opens what many consider to be the greatest poem

in the English language.The fact that the death here in

"Lycidas" is the death of a young,

virginal poet at the very outset of his career,

as you can imagine, resonates in a lot of powerful

ways. The very idea that a figure so

virtuous could have been dealt such a tragic and early death

strikes Milton, or Milton's speaker here,

as the rankest injustice. It's this sense of injustice

that keeps pushing this elegy in the direction of a theodicy:

an attempt to justify the ways of God.

Milton has to justify or at least understand this seemingly

incomprehensible and unjustifiable event.

It's this drive to theodicy that accounts for the poem's

most painful moments. Look at line fifty.

This is where Milton asks the ocean nymphs where they were

when Edward King's boat was lost while crossing the Irish Sea:

why didn't you do anything? "Where were ye Nymphs,

when the remorseless deep / clos'd o'er the head of your

lov'd Lycidas?" If you loved Lycidas so much,

how could you let him die? No sooner has the speaker asked

this question -- and you see this rhythm, this dynamic,

appear continually throughout "Lycidas" -- he asks the

question, and then immediately he acknowledges the inadequacy

of the question. Look at line fifty-five:

"Ay me, I fondly dream! / Had ye been there -- for what

could that have done?" The nymphs, of course,

are powerless, and worse than that,

[laughs] the nymphs, as we know and of

course as John Milton knew, are merely fictions.

This is all made up. It's folly to think that we

have about us protective spirits who might actually keep us from

harm.Milton continues: 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? Why after all should we expect

the nymphs to have helped poor Lycidas?

Not even the muse Calliope, the muse of epic poetry,

was in a position to avert a human tragedy like this.

Calliope hadn't even been able to save her son,

the poet Orpheus, when the terrifying Bacchae had

torn his body limb from limb -- when the terrifying Bacchae had

sent his head rolling down the Hebrus River all the way to the

Isle of Lesbos. If you've read "L'Allegro" and

"Il Penseroso," you know that the image of the great

mythological poet Orpheus is always a loaded one for Milton.

This is a myth that has and will continue to haunt Milton

all the way up through Paradise Lost.Let's

have a little review of the career of the great poet Orpheus

as we get it certainly in "L'Allegro" and "Il

Penseroso." Orpheus was the poet who had attempted to

bring his wife, Eurydice, back from the

underworld, and he did that by charming Pluto with his song.

The attempt failed and, saddened by Eurydice's death,

Orpheus spent the rest of his life avoiding the company of

women. He kept himself solitary and

chaste. He devoted himself to poetry.

He sang songs of such beauty that the entire natural world

would move and dance in response.

This is the story of Orpheus that we have received up to this

point in Milton's poetry. This is the story of the

empowerment of the poet, his empowerment through his

experience of a terrible loss. Clearly this is a myth that

Milton is identifying with very strongly here.But the

subject of "Lycidas" isn't the empowerment of the poet.

It's about the untimely death of a poet.

And so when the figure of Orpheus appears in this poem,

it's the second half of the Orpheus story that Milton is

forced to tell. Orpheus devotes himself to his

beautiful poetry, and he keeps himself sexually

abstinent. He rejects all of the advances

of the women who are attracted to him but Bacchantes,

the female followers of the god Bacchus, are enraged by what

they take to be his coyness. They drown out Orpheus' music

with the hideous roar of their howlings and their screamings

and they tear him limb from limb.

The chaste poet was unable to pass uninjured in that wild

surrounding waste. This violence was so terrible

that not even his mother, the muse Calliope,

could save him.Orpheus had provided Milton with a paradigm

of the poet, the poet whose discipline and

whose abstinence nourished and strengthened his poetry.

Orpheus in a lot of ways seemed like the perfect model of a poet

because he had the power to do something with his poetry.

His verse actually had a physical impact on the world.

The rocks, the woods, and the trees danced in

response to Orpheus' music. In Comus, the

Lady had identified with Orpheus as she described to Comus what

her speech about virginity would do if she were actually to

deliver it. She would bring all of Comus'

magic structures down around his head.

It's just this Orphic power that Milton, like the Lady,

was always anticipating for himself.

He's been waiting and waiting for his season due so that he

can ripen into a powerful Orphic poet.How then can we justify

the ways of God to men? How can we justify the fact

that the abstinent Orpheus, the virtuous Orpheus,

was so brutally assaulted and without any aid from the higher

powers? It would seem that the Elder

Brother and his sister were way too optimistic in their

assessment of the protected status of the virtuous poet and

the protected status of the virgin,

the favored role of the poet. Virginity does nothing.

Virtue does nothing. Poetry does nothing.

All of the self-discipline and all of the self-denial in the

world can do nothing -- this seems to be one of the

implications of this poem -- can do nothing to protect the poet

from an untimely death.It's at this moment that the poem

reaches a remarkable climax, and I have to say that this is

actually only one of the poem's remarkable climaxes.

This poem has amazing ebbs and flows throughout its entirety,

but without question this is one of the most intense personal

moments in the elegy. Look at line sixty-four.

Here we have Milton asking himself all of those questions,

all of those vocational questions,

that this fact -- the fact of Edward King's death -- seems to

open up for him: Alas!

What boots it with uncessant 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 Neaera's hair?

I think these lines at this point -- I'm going to read them

again. They're too important simply to

have been read once: Alas!

What boots it with uncessant 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 Neaera's hair?

At this point in our reading of Milton, I think these lines have

an amazing impact. We've spent a couple of weeks

now reading Milton's declarations of the importance

of the shepherd's trade. This is the vocation of poetry

in this pastoral lexicon. You remember he's written his

father in "Ad Patrem" that the trade,

the vocation of poetry -- it may be homely and slighted in

his father's eyes, but it was of course worth all

of Milton's time, all of Milton's uncessant care

and investment. And now Milton's in the

position of asking, "What for?

What's this all about? Look what happened to Edward

King. What's the point of all of this

study, all of this work, all of this self-denial if I

could just wind up" -- this is a good question -- if I could just

wind up dead tomorrow? And now that I'm thinking of

it, why deny myself sexually? Why deny myself physical

gratification if I could just instead sport with Amaryllis in

the shade or with the tangles of Neaera's hair?"

And Milton's asking in these lines not simply about actual

erotic entanglements -- although I think that's there,

a relation with women -- but it's a question about erotic

poetry as well. Why can't he write love poetry,

secular poetry, instead of this much more

disciplined, much more difficult mode of

sacred and prophetic poetry that he seems already to have wedded

himself to? What's the point of making life

so hard for himself?Look now, and this is on the handout,

at the letter that Milton had written to his friend,

Charles Diodati. This letter was written at

nearly the same time that Milton was writing "Lycidas." He

wrote -- and this too is in the packet -- he wrote:

Listen, Diodati, but in secret lest thy

blush, and let me talk to you grandiloquently for a while.

You ask what I am thinking. So help me, God,

an immortality of fame. And we would read -- can you

imagine getting such a letter? Milton may well blush at this

extraordinary confession. He is courting poetic fame more

shamelessly at this point in his career than he has before and

perhaps that he will after. The death of Edward King is

really forcing him to question the point of his pursuit of

greatness, of poetic fame, and all of his ambition.

The poem continues at line seventy:

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 the blind Fury with th'abhorred shears, And

slits the thin-spun life. It's the pursuit of fame,

the noble pursuit of fame, that spurs us to scorn delights

and to live laborious days. Fame spurs us to pursue the

abstinent life of the poet. It's the guerdon,

the reward, the prize of fame that we're continually

anticipating will burst out someday in a sudden blaze of

glory. But as soon as we hope to find

that guerdon, the golden ring,

comes the blind Fury with the abhorred shears -- ouch!

-- and slits the thin-spun life. The blind Fury here is the

mythological figure Atropos; this is the Fate that cuts the

slender thread by which our lives dangle.

Milton lends a special horror, I think, to this image of a

blind Fury, and I hope you will agree with those critics -- I

didn't make this up -- who find embedded in these lines

something like a figurative intimation of castration.

Like the furious Bacchae, the furious Atropos emasculates

the man who dares to aspire to poetic greatness.

With the abhorred shears she cruelly punishes the virgin poet

for his failure on the one hand to use the sexual body that God

has endowed him with, but you also have the image

here of the poet's death. You have the image of the

cutting off, the castration, of the power of generativity.

All poetic potency, all power to assert oneself in

the world, can be severed and that's it.I don't think that

the critics who see here an image of castration are just

imagining it, because there is such a weird

and such a persistent interest in the human body,

and especially in the poet's body, throughout this poem --

Milton's focus on the body, on the entire realm of the

corporeal. I'm hoping that it feels a

little strange to you and it seems strange,

I think, when you consider what is

obviously here the Christian context of Milton's "Lycidas."

Orthodox Christianity teaches us to put aside our concerns for

the body when we consider our death.

The Old Testament prophet had said, "All flesh is grass," an

important verse for the new dispensation of Christianity.

The only thing that matters is the salvation of the

incorporeal, the bodiless soul, but Milton is so unorthodox,

or at least heterodox, in his insistence on the

importance of the body in this poem.Look at the verse

paragraph that begins at line 132.

Oh, this passage! Milton asks the Sicilian muse

-- this is the muse of pastoral poetry -- asks the muse to help

him strew the flowers over the hearse,

to strew with flowers the casket in which Lycidas' body

lies. The body of Lycidas,

even in death, is of an unusual interest to

our poet. The speaker employs -- this is

an amazingly physical, and I think it's even a

sensual, language as he catalogs the

flowers that he imagines will cover Lycidas' body.

Line 135: 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

enamell'd eyes, That on the green turf

suck the honied showers

Okay: maybe the Elder Brother in Comus was wrong.

The virgin's body can't -- you remember that amazing

counterfactual fantasy -- the virgin's body can't,

perhaps we're acknowledging here, can't be transmuted into

spirit or soul. But we can still tend,

and we can nurse, the dead body.

We can lovingly care for it and ornament it here in our very

corporeal way on earth. It's an intensely erotic

passage, this image of decorating King's tomb with

flowers. And it's at the height of this

vision of our floral decoration of Lycidas' hearse that the

speaker is suddenly caught up short.

Look at line 154. We read line 154 and we realize

we have been had. We have just -- we've been

sucked in. We have just participated in

one of the biggest cheats that poetry can offer.

"Ay me!" he says as he realizes,

of course, there will be no flowers.

There's not going to be a hearse.

Why not? There's no body!

There's no body to decorate. What have we been thinking?

Lycidas was drowned. His remains are unrecoverable.

This is a terrible moment of realization on the part of the

speaker. 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 under the whelming tide

Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world

Milton's confronting here the awful fact that Lycidas' bones

-- they've been hurled to the four corners of the sounding

seas. They could be anywhere.

And as if that weren't terrible enough a realization,

he goes on to envision an even more grotesque end for Lycidas'

body. He conjures -- surely this is

indecorous. This is wildly inappropriate,

I think, in such a pious poem. He conjures the indecorous

image of the dead Lycidas under the whelming tide visiting the

bottom of the monstrous sea. It's that word "visit" that

gets me every time. It's so inappropriate and

ghoulish, I think, in this already sufficiently

ghoulish context. First of all,

it's like a parody of the epic journey to the underworld

that we have in so many great classical texts,

and it forces us to think, at least for a moment here,

of Lycidas as some ghastly underwater visitor:

a skeletal, monstrous version of Jacques

Cousteau peering into the unknowable monstrous,

mysterious depths of the bottom of the world.This intensely

intimate focus on the human body is out of place in a Christian

elegy and this, of course, Milton knows.

It's because the investment in the bodily world is so great

here that Milton ultimately turns to the Christian vision,

the more familiar Christian vision, of a bodiless afterlife.

This is how this logic goes -- we are all familiar with this:

our body remains to molder in the earth or welter in the ocean

(where'ere), but our incorporeal spirit

rises to heaven where it can enjoy an ethereal,

a bodiless, world of eternity.

And so Milton concludes "Lycidas" with this standard

vision of Christian consolation. On some level this is textbook

Protestant or Catholic Christianity.

Weep no more, woeful Shepherds 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. This image of the afterlife is

founded on the orthodox figure for eternity.

The body stays to the earth while the soul,

like the day-star, rises to the sky.

But when you look a little more closely at this conclusion,

I think you realize that Milton's heaven is almost as

invested in the human body as Milton's earth had been.

The heaven imagined here is able actually to supply us,

in fact, with a better body than the one we had down here.

When the speaker writes that the day-star "…

yet anon repairs his drooping head," we are reminded of

Orpheus. We have an image here of the

reconstituted, repaired body of Orpheus whose

gory, severed head had been sent down

the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.

It's as if Milton can't let go of this most un-Christian

attachment to the human body. I think it's fair to say that

Milton can't really imagine or fully invest himself in the

Christian heaven until he can fully corporealize it and

imagine it bodily. This is exactly,

of course, what he will do in Paradise Lost.

Everyone in Milton's heaven has a body, even God Himself.

God Himself in Paradise Lost is nothing but body.

His body is the universe itself.Listen to the

physicality of the rest of the description of Milton's heaven

in "Lycidas." This is line 172:

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 forever from his eyes.

Clearly, the other groves and the other streams are different

in heaven. They are different from the

groves and streams we have down here, but they don't seem

necessarily to differ, I submit, in their degree of

physicality. Lycidas is going to shampoo his

hair in heaven much as he shampooed his hair on earth,

except in heaven there's always a difference.

It will be a nectar pure with which he laves his oozy locks.

And even more important, Lycidas will continue to sing

in heaven just as he had sung on earth,

except now he can hear the unexpressive -- that means

"inexpressible" -- nuptial song. We remember this song.

This is the song mentioned in Revelation 14 that Milton is

continually alluding to and we saw him allude to just this

passage in "Ad Patrem." John the Divine had written in

Revelation 14 -- you know this: And they sung as it were

a new song before the throne

and no man could learn that song but the one hundred and

forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the

earth. These are they which were

not defiled with women; for they are virgins.

And it's virgins who get to sing the nuptial song at the

wedding of the lamb that John also envisions.

Milton can't allow himself to embrace the wonderful fiction,

that beautiful fiction that had been espoused by the Elder

Brother: the fantasy that virgins don't even die,

that their bodies are simply reconstituted somehow [laughs]

as angelic spirits. That went too far.

It was too pagan, way too unorthodox.

But Milton does permit himself the closest scriptural version

of that fiction, and that's John's image in

Revelation 14 of the special heavenly rewards for virgin

poets.Now you also looked at for today the Latin poem that

Milton wrote not long after "Lycidas." That's the

poem "Damon's Epitaph," the "Epitaphium Damonis,"

written on the very sad occasion of the death of

Milton's best friend, Charles Diodati,

who died the next year, 1638.

You remember this is the young fellow that Milton had confessed

his desire for immortal fame to. Look at the end of that poem.

This is page 139 in the Hughes.

This is where Milton imagines -- you have to turn to

this. He imagines Diodati just as he

had imagined Edward King, enjoying at last his heavenly

reward. This is the English translation

because the poem is in Latin: Because you loved the

blush of modesty and a stainless youth and because you did not

taste the delight of the marriage-bed,

lo! the rewards of virginity are

reserved for you. Your glorious head shall be

bound with a shining crown and with shadowing fronds of joyous

palms in your hands you shall enact your part eternally in the

immortal marriage where song and the sound of the lyre [can you

even believe what I'm about to say?]

are mingled in ecstasy with blessed dances and where the

festal orgies rage under the heavenly thyrsus.

Now we recognize the song. This is the song from

Revelation of the virgins who could learn and sing the new

song before the throne of the Lord,

but Milton has obviously taken John's image here and exploded

the implications of its erotic potential.

It's not just that virgins are entitled to sing a heavenly song

as Milton is saying Diodati is. The heavenly reward in this

poem involves all of the sensuality, all of the sensual

experience, that was denied and repressed on earth.

This [laughs] -- "Damon's Epitaph"

ends with a virtual orgasm of Christian consolation as

Milton gives his best friend the most unbelievable sendoff that

is possible to give. The heaven in this poem is so

far from being the incorporeal -- the spiritual heaven of

orthodox Christianity that you have an image of an actual orgy,

the festal orgy raging under the thyrsus (that's the phallic

wand). Who's holding this wand?

Presumably none other than the orgiastic leader,

God himself. There's no other way to

interpret these lines which, as you can imagine,

critics simply pretend don't exist,

[laughs] because who can figure out what

to say?In "Lycidas" Milton doesn't let himself,

thank God, go quite so far as he does in this amazing ending

to "Damon's Epitaph." In fact nowhere else do we see

Milton literally [laughs] bursting out at the seams as he

seems to in this poem. But the unmistakable

physicality of the heaven imagined in the poem about

Diodati gives us some idea, I think, of how to read the end

of "Lycidas." The corporeality of "Damon's

Epitaph" illuminates we can see the unorthodox direction

in which Milton's "Lycidas" is tending.So let me conclude

here. Milton has wrenched this poem

away from Christianity, and he's forced it into a

direction that we could loosely call paganism.

There has been a slippage from Christian spirituality into

something like a pagan naturalism, and it's a world in

which all things are physical. All spirits,

like the genius loci, are physical,

palpable presences in the natural world.

The human body, the world of flesh and blood

that we all inhabit, has in some way at the end of

this poem reasserted itself. In this final assertion of the

body Milton, I think, is able to recover his

theodicy, his attempt to justify the ways of God here on earth.

Milton's Lycidas' body is still in some way a physical one.

To the extent that Lycidas' body has been recovered,

that it's been redeemed, Milton is able -- perhaps

successfully, Milton is able to justify the

ways of God to men. He's able to justify the ways

of God to men here on the physical -- on this intimately

bodily earth.This is the last thing I will tell you.

As you have no doubt experienced, this is a dense and

difficult poem, so please reread it innumerable

times for Wednesday's class, and in addition to that do the

other readings assigned. Okay.

The Description of 6. Lycidas