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
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.