Remor∫le∫s deep, histories lost and Poetic Verse: A Linguistic Approach to Milton’s “Lycidas”

Paraphrase of Lycidas
With a summoning of the muse, John Milton begins to close his pastoral elegy “Lycidas.” The narrator calls for Alpheus’s return, assuring him that the “dread voice,” something which had been prominent within the previous section (including a rant about Saint Peters), had now subsided. Instead one finds that the return of artistic expression and beauty is once again normalized with the muse’s return, despite the somberness of Lycidas’s passing. In fact the occasion serves as an opportunity to gather the most gorgeous and eclectic floral arrangement possible. For what cause? To adorn the “Laureat Herse where Lycidas lies” of course. The act itself is almost ritualistic as the reader soon discovers the “speaker of the poem indulges in a fantasy that is given considerable scope before it is crushed” (Oxford 73). This is brought about by the realization that Lycidas’s body was possibly pulled under the ocean by the “whelming tide.” This epiphany is marked by the “tonal change” of that couplet, lines 157-158, which bring forth a profound realization and sad truth, there is an uncertainty of the location of Lycidas’s body (Draper 48). Ultimately the narrator is left with no other choice than to call upon the archangel “Michael” and the “Dolphins” to have pity and convoy the “hapless youth.”

Discussion on Lycidas

The poem “Lycidas” is a lament which marks the passing of John Milton’s classmate Edward King. Within the text Milton utilizes a pastoral elegiac form to express his sorrow for the death of his colleague, and in doing so he transforms the deceased Edward King providing him “the pastoral name of Lycidas, which is equivalent to Adonis, and is associated with the cyclical rhythms of nature” (Frye 119). It is this sort of cryptic subtextual meaning that is utilized by Milton throughout the poem and unless one is well versed in Greek and Roman mythology, the bible, and seventeenth century vernacular one may overlook or misinterpret many of the pertinent details necessary for a full comprehension of the poem. In many ways the poem “Lycidas” can be read as Milton’s attempt to demonstrate his understanding of literary form and familiarity with various texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis or Virgil’s Eclogues.
In examining Milton’s poem one finds that he does not stray far from the pastoral elegiac form. Northrop Frye takes note of this and states that “the daily cycle of water, flowing from wells and fountains through rivers to the sea” are of particular importance to the form (Frye 119-120). The elements that Frye mentions become apparent as “Alpheus” is invoked. The theme is then continued as the reader is carried down “gushing brooks” and is finally presented with “Dolphins.” As this passage and movement relates to the whole poem one finds that it serves as a bridge, reminding the reader of the solemn nature of the poem; in a sense balancing issues such as Milton’s social critiques of the church that are also present within the text. The poem achieves this balance by returning the reader to the natural world, specifically with its use of flowers and animals. Ultimately the pastoral elegy “provides a traditional context in which personal grief may be expressed and transcended (Draper 35). Understanding this aspect of the poem is crucial in that it clarifies the purpose of some of the mythological references, several of which are associated with death and loss; as with the mention of the hyacinth. In doing so Milton makes death universal; possible in any culture, anywhere.

A Closer Look
Between the third and fifth stanzas of John Milton’s elegiac poem “Lycidas” a usage of various conventions are used to communicate the sentiment of loss. More specifically, through the evocation of “flocks[s]” “Nymphs,” and “Shepherds” Milton constructs a poem that is more than a lament; it is a poem that reveals a history of Greco-Roman, French and German influence. The poem weaves English, Latin and French narratives together— the social, textual and linguistic. Within some areas of the poem the histories interest and are reflected in the content of a single stanza, sentence, or word. Thus, in reading the opening line of the third stanza, one notes that Milton’s lexicon reflects the same pastoral words that are used in poems such as “Spenser’s Astrophel’, Moschus’s ‘Lament for Bion’, Virgil’s ‘Eclogue X’ and Theocritu’s ‘Idyl I’” (Danielson, 35). The effect is that Milton’s lament is epically poetic, but more so, his lament is reflective of a learned form that was a result of the spread of English literacy that occurred during fourteenth through seventeenth century England [1].

As Milton’s poem progresses, he parallels Roman mythology with English geography, revealing that like his departed Lycidas, the Roman influences of the language have sunk into “remor∫le∫s deep” (Milton, line 50) of the English Language. In short, the mythological references appear foreign to the modern reader and the usage of the [∫] as opposed to a modern [S] seems unfamiliar, yet it appears familiar.
Between the third and the fifth stanzas are a total of 36 lines; the fourth stanza contains the most lines, with a total of thirteen lines. Whereas the fifth stanza contains a mere seven lines, in addition the fifth stanza is comprised of two sentences, one of which is an exclamatory statement. The visual layout [see appendix A] of the stanzas highlights that stanza number four possesses the highest number of lines (however it is not the densest stanza of the poem), and also contains the greatest amount of sentences—a total of four sentences. Similar to the fifth stanza, the fourth stanza begins with an exclamatory statement. Milton cites “But O the heavy change, now thou art gon/ Now thou art gon, and never mu∫t return!” [2]. With a total of 15 commas, one semi colon and an exclamation point, one can suggest that the stanza itself is dramatic and assists in emphasizing the sentiment of loss. In this context the commas serve as pauses that assist in establishing the mournful tone.

Within Milton’s poem “Lycidas” the elegiac tone is conveyed through an evocation of muses, words of sorrow and pastoral imagery. In terms of graphology, various nouns and not only personified but also converted to proper nouns, and thus capitalized, Words that relate to nature and the natural world are the most common—although Milton also capitalizes the first letter of every new line, regardless of the word. The opening lines to Milton’s poem begin, “Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more/ Ye Myrtles brown with Ivy never-∫ear” (1-2). In these opening lines the “Laurels,” Myrtles,” and “Ivy” are all capitalized; Milton continues a system of capitalization throughout his poem—quite common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Within the thirds stanza “Lawns” (25), “Stars” (30), “Heav’ns” (31) and even “Rural” (32) are capitalized. The pattern that becomes apparent is that Milton capitalizes elements of nature (including the astronomical, i.e. scientific), but also makes sure to capitalize the biblical as well—essentially addressing both religious, and scientific words as proper nouns. In doing so he is able to address the mythological characters that are present within the text while not trumping the bible. From an academic perspective he is also demonstrating awareness of botanical and astronomical words. The Third Stanza begins with a collective noun, the word “together,” which is then followed by the word “both,” and Milton then inverts his phrasing after his coordinating conjunction “and.” What starts at morning is then shifted to night; Milton highlights that just like day and night, words are also mobile:


Together both, ere the high Lawns appear’d

Under the opening eye-lids of the morn,

We drove a field, and both together heard

What time the Gray-fly winds her ∫ultery horn,

Batt’ning our flocks with the fre∫h dews of night” (25-29).

In a sense the stanza marks a shift within the poem, not simply of time, but also setting and emotional tone. It is first geographical, then a recollection of memory. The speaker first identifies the region, the “high Lawns,” and then begins to reflect on his shared experience with Lycidas while on the fields. On a linguistic level, one notes the presence of hyphenated compounds (“eye-lids,” “Gray-fly”). More so one notes a standardization of affixes that Milton uses throughout his poem.

The affixes that Milton uses within the Poem “Lycidas” are used to signify tone, identify verbs, and to contract words. The word “appear’d” (25), along with “slop’d,” (31), “danc’d,” “lov’d” (36, 51) all utilize the same ending—a “-‘d.” As part of the elegiac form, the words serve to establish contemplative memories, moments that have passed, and the many ways that the speaker and Lycidas connected with one another. In short, they loved and danced, in this instance the “-d” indicates that the verbs occurred within the past tense.

In addition to the past tense “-d” affix, Milton also contracts the word “the” and provides it with a new function. The word “the”, within Milton’s poem, is contracted to “th’-.“ Milton then uses the suffix to blend words such as “th’Oaten Flute” (33), but also “th’world (80) and th’eclipse” (101). Milton’s repetition of contracted words, which are represented as various affixes (“-‘d”, “th’-“, “-‘ning”, “o’-“, and “-‘st”), demonstrate his attempts to standardize his own grammar. While some of Milton’s poem, reflect poetic license one cannot discount his own education.

History reveals that Milton was an educated man, and his poem “Lycidas” first appeared in a Cambridge anthology. The anthology was a collection of poems that memorialized the deceased Edward King, a colleague of Milton; the work was titled (in Latin), Justa Edouardo King naufrago(Evans 35). Milton’s choice of contractions, the verb “batt’ning” (29), or the past tense verb “danc’d” (34) for example, reflect his poetic license but simultaneously highlight a seventeenth century Cambridge education. In short, Milton’s education reflects the effects of the spread of literacy within England.

Within his text Inventing English: A Portable History of the English Language,Seth Lerer cites that during the Great Vowel Shift, “urban merchants [and/] or provincial gentry learned to read and write for economic and social advancement “ (104). In regards to Milton’s poem, the various references to mythological creatures, such as the “Satyrs” (30); historical cultures such as the “Druids” (53); varied usages of a standard spelling system, (represented through the capitalization of specific nouns), and multiple conjugation forms indicate that Milton has learned to read and write—more so Milton has learned to write well. In addition to his English lexicon, he also incorporates historical and geographical terms within his poem, suggesting that his audience is also aware of his references. Milton’s language represents, according to Samuel Johnson, an “Englishness of idiom,” but more so, Milton demonstrates an “ideal [use] of figurative language.” Samuel Johnson published a prescriptive dictionary in 1755 and cited Milton throughout his text (167, 176). Johnson’s commentary is reflective of Early Modern ideology that surrounded the usage of English grammar. In addition, Johnson’s references to Milton reveal the impact that Milton on the English language itself.

During Milton’s life, the English language was in the midst of a “raising of vowels,” a several hundred year event that is referred to as the Great Vowel Shift. In contrasting Milton’s words with the earlier, but equally recognizable, Geoffrey Chaucer, one notes that between the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries a “systematic change occurred.” Lerer cites that the changes affected the entire sound system (102-103, 106). Both Chaucer and Milton represent different historical points within the Great Vowel Shift. The differences between the poems of the respective authors are graphological, but also phonological. For example, the word “dead,” appears in the opening stanza, on the eighth line of Milton’s Lycidas; juxtaposed with Chaucer’s spelling of the same word (Chaucer spells it as “deed”), one cites that the words are different in spelling and in sound. According to Lerer, Chaucer is able to rhyme the word “deed” with the word “heed” (Lerer 93). The contrast between the two words reveals that over the course of some two hundred years (roughly the amount of years that separate Milton and Chaucer’s lifetimes) the vowels shifted. The example provided demonstrates the shift from [e] to [i]. (In modern American English the vowel sound in “dead” is [ε]. Although Chaucer and Milton possess some lexical differences both share a similarity in regards to pronoun usage.

Between Chaucer’s era and Milton’s the T and V (also referred to as the Y) pronoun forms remain in use—today the forms appear archaic. Within Lycidas, Milton makes use of both the formal Y and informal T forms. The usage of both formal and informal pronouns is particularly apparent in Milton’s transition from stanza three to stanza four. The “Satyrs,” “Fauns” and “Old Damætas” are all italicized and capitalized, demonstrating that they are non-English words and proper nouns; Milton, however, does not address any of them directly. Instead the trio is collectively addressed with a first person, plural possessive, the word “our” (36). In contrast, when Milton speaks about Lycidas, he uses the T form—even repeating it. The opening lines to the fourth stanza begin with a preposition, the word “but” and continues with Milton exclaiming, “now thou art gone” (37), which he then repeats. (38). The effect is that Milton demonstrates what is closest to him, the loss of a fellow academic.

In closing, Milton’s poem contains, within its lines, a history of shifts that have occurred within the English Language. Furthermore, the poem “Lycidas” reveals that by Milton’s era there were standardizations in writing that were not present within previous centuries. Thus, his elegiac poem not only preserves a history of Roman influence but also one that was demonstrates an academic background—a by-product of the spread of literacy. Reflecting on the poem in the modern era, one notes that to proclaim “thee Sheppard,” or thy lo∫s” or even “ye Nymphs (50) is to sound archaic. Yet in 1638, the year the “Lycidas” was first published, the people would have comprehended the subtle nuances of each pronoun form. However, to the modern individual the meanings of such forms have been lost to remorseless deep.

Terms and Concepts
Alpheus: “Alludes to the myth of Arethusa and Alpheus, the Arcadian water-spirits who plunged underground and reappeared in Sicily” (Frye 121).

Sicilian Muse: This reference is twofold; on one end it falls in line with the conventions of the pastoral elegy in which has the author invokes the power of the muse. On the other it echoes the previous line in which Alpheus’s return is called for.

Bels, Flourets, Primrose, Crow-tow, Gessamine, Pink, Pansie freakt with jeat, etc: The vast amount of flowers are what the speaker would like to see piled upon the “Laureat Herse” of Lycidas. At the same time the flowers help to reestablish a connection to nature and the passage of time, a common element within pastoral elegiac form. While each flower has a distinct attribute (the primrose has associations with the month of February, whereas the crow-tow-also known as wild hyacinth is tied mythological to Hyacinthus) the abundance of flowers within such a small space creates a “vertical garden;” Milton demonstrates a similar floral arrangement in his epic poem “Paradise Lost.” (Gillium)

The swart Star: Sirius, the dogstar

Amaranthus: “A [mythical] fadeless flower” (Lockwood)
the stormy Hebrides: A group of Islands off the west coast of Scotland

Bellerus: Refers to the Roman name for Land’s end, which is Cornwall. It may be a real or fictionalized name of a giant or giants

The guarded Mount: This refers to St Michael’s Mount which position the “archangel looking towards Spain” (Draper 49).

Namancos and Bayona: Namancos is in Spain and Bayona a fortress near Cape Finisterre.

Melt with ruth: to be overcome with “pity” (Lockwood)

Works Cited

Brett, R.L. Reason and Imagination: A Stud of Form and Meaning in Four Poems.  21-50. Oxford U of P, 1960. Print

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Peter Tuttle. New York: Barnes and Noble Books. 2007 Print.

Danielson, Denis, Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Milton. 35-50. Great Britain: U P Cambridge. 1989. Print.

Lerer, Seth. Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. New York: U of P Columbia, 2007. Print.

“O, N.1.”: Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Patrides, C.A. Ed. Milton’s Lycidas: The Tradition and the Poem. United States: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1961. Print

Tuve, Rosmund. Images and Themes in Five Poems by Milton. 73-11. Cambridge: Harvard UP. 1962. Print.

William O’ Grady et al. Ed. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. 15-55, 59-91. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 2010. Print

Additional Works Cited

Draper, Ronald P. “Milton: Lycidas and the Christianised Pastoral Elegy.” Lyric Tragedy. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985. Print.
The text focuses on elements of tragedy; the pastoral elegy being one such element. Draper utilizes the poem “Lycidas” to highlight several key themes found within the literary style of the pastoral elegy. In doing so he guides the reader through the poem, from start to finish, with specific care and attention to moments in which Milton demonstrates his comprehension of the pastoral elegiac literary form. This resource was acquired from the Humboldt State University Library.

Frye, Northrop. “Literature as Context: Milton’s Lycidas.” Fables of Identity; Studies invPoetic Mythology. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963. Print. The structure of Northrop Frye’s text allowed for a development of understanding of pastoral images and context based on the subject of John Milton’s poem “Lycidas” He addresses provides a greater depth of understanding by extending his dialogues to include clarification on the mythic and literary aspects of each section of the poem that he reviews. I found Frye in the Humboldt State University library database.

Gillum, Michael. “Milton’s Roses And Amaranth.” Anq 20.1 (2007): 28-33. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 16 Feb. 2012.
In reading the “A Concordance to the Poetical Works of John Milton” one finds that many of the structures and literary devices which he uses in the poem “Lycidas,” such as the use of flowers are also exclusive to the epic poem “Paradise Lost.” This essay clarifies Milton’s use of the floral arrangement.
Lockwood, Laura Emma. Lexicon to the English Poetical Works of John Milton. New York: B. Franklin, 1968. Print.
In understanding Milton’s vernacular this reference book provides a great deal of insight, clarifying various word connotations, and allusions that are found within poems such as “Paradise Lost,” “Lycidas” and various other within the poet’s repertoire. After consulting the reference desk at the Humboldt State Library this reference book was brought to my awareness

McDowell, Nicholas, and Nigel Smith. The Oxford Handbook of Milton. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
This resource has an extensive amount of information on the poet John Milton, including a chronological biography, background on many of his works and in some cases in-depth analysis of specific texts. It covers the extent of Milton’s life and contains a plethora of essays. This book was located while searching through the section on Milton within the Humboldt State University library.
Milton, John. “Lycidas.” John Milton Reading Room. Dartmouth College. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.             <;.
This served as a starting point. It helped to establish some base understanding of the poem before any in-depth analysis of the poem began.


  1. Brett discusses Milton’s education in relation to his form within
    his text, listed on the works cited page.

2.The letter “O” is both the fifteenth letter of the modern English
alphabet and the fourteenth letter of the Roman alphabet. Cited within the Oxford English Dictionary.

Appendix A: Visual Layout

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Michael Ray
Bachelors of English Literature
Humboldt State University.
P:  1.323.592.7649


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