Lycidas by Milton

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An Elegy

Lycidas by Milton
Lycidas by Milton

Lycidas is an elegy that Milton created in 1637 to lament the death of his friend Edward King. King had been Milton’s friend at Cambridge and got drowned due to sinking of his ship. The poem has been created in a reflective mood. The rhyme scheme of the poem shows no regularity. Milton follows the ancient Greek tradition of remembering a loved one through a pastoral poem by creating this poem.

The very genre to which it belongs, i.e. ‘elegy’, is characterized by expression of sadness and feeling of loss. Despite having lyrical elements, an elegy is not a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. The ‘powerful’ feelings are expressed in a calculated and controlled manner. Lycidas seems to be even more calculated than elegies generally are.



Milton wrote Lycidas to mourn the death of his friend Edward King. As far as the structure of the poem is concerned, it could safely be divided into six identifiable sections.

The first section that serves as a prologue to the poem runs through the first twenty four lines. These lines mention the reason for which Milton has created this poem despite that he had decided to write only after having his poetical powers fully developed. He states that the sad occasion of Lycidas’ death has forced him to write the elegy.

Lines 25-84, that constitute the second part of the poem describes the time Lycidas spent at Cambridge along with Milton himself. In the manner of pastoral, Milton describes how they both would study throughout the day beginning very early in the morning and continuing till late at night. He also points towards some innocent recreation they used to enjoy. However, he mourns the fact that Lycidas’ death had changed everything significantly. Addressing the Muse, he says that the Muse did not response when Lycidas was dying but also states that her response too could not have made any difference. This section of the elegy also includes much philosophical discussion by Milton. He states that fame results from labor. However, the precariousness and irony of human life deprives human beings of the reward of his labor in the form of fame since he dies before he could enjoy the reward. However, he also states that the true reward for a human being is divine judgment and not earthly success.

The third section, i.e. lines 85-131, is even more concerned to pastoral style. He brings forth the imagery of a procession of mourners led by Triton expressing grief on Lycidas’ death. Milton uses this occasion and extends this imagery to express his own views about the clergy and the Protestant Church. He mentions how St. Peter, the last one in the above mentioned procession, denounces the clergy and the church.

The fourth section runs through lines 132-164. Milton devotes this section to his feelings on Lycidas’ death. He presents the flowerets cast on Lycidas’ heart as a symbol of the latter’s escape from ‘intolerable reality’ to a lovely world. In a way, the section expresses Milton’s good wishes for Lycidas’ journey after life.

Lines 132-164, the fifth section, presents Milton’s belief in immortality. He states that Lycidas’ death gives rise to the feeling of grief but actually he has reached heaven and there is no need to feel grief. He presents the imagery of saints entertaining Lycidas in ‘sweet societies’.

Lines 185-193 form the epilogue of the poem. This section refers to the Greek pastoral poets and expresses a determination to make greater poetic achievements while facing life hopefully.



Lycidas does justice to the fact that it is an elegy written in order to express feelings that have developed in response to the death of a friend. Milton has mentioned his feeling of sadness on Lycidas’ death, his hope for better afterlife for him and his belief that Lycidas’ life would have earned him a place in heaven. However, he also uses his feelings about Lycidas’ death to reflect on the philosophical aspects of human life. He suggests that Lycidas’ death represents the irony of fate that causes futility of human efforts. This idea has been highlighted so seriously that it becomes a major theme in the poem.

The poet leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind regarding the status he considers Lycidas to deserve. He considers the entire order of the world to be cruel for letting Lycidas die at such an early age before he could experience success he deserved.

He also includes the expression of his views about degeneration of religious institutions in this poem. This theme does not find a direct link with Lycidas’ death except that Lycidas himself belonged to the order. However, Milton has used the occasion to express his views due to the seriousness he attached to this theme.

Overall, despite qualifying very effectively as an elegy, Lycidas is inclusive of certain broader issues as well. The poem also discusses the concepts of social, religious, literary and philosophic interest like those of condition of church, degradation of poetry, futility of human efforts and more.



Multiple Choice Questions

1.When was Lycidas created?

  1. in 1637
  2. in 1645
  3. in 1630
  4. in 1635

2.When did Milton republish Lycidas?

  1. 1637
  2. 1645
  3. 1640
  4. 1650

3.Who is the character who laments for a death in Lycidas

  1. Milton himself
  2. A poet
  3. A shepherd
  4. None of the above

4.Where had Edward King’s ship sunk?

  1. Indian Ocean
  2. Arabian Sea
  3. A lake
  4. Irish Sea

5.The total number of lines in Lycidas is:

  1. 165
  2. 122
  3. 214
  4. 193

6.Which of the following critics believed that the swain mourning his friend’s death in Lycidas is experiencing a “loss of faith in a world order that allows death to strike a young man”?

  1. Samuel Johnson
  2. S. Eliot
  3. Lawrence W. Hyman
  4. None of the above

7.What ultimately pacifies the pain of the ‘swain’ in Lycidas?

  1. His friend’s arrival
  2. The idea of immortality
  3. Lycidas’ return from heaven
  4. Muse’s interaction with him

8.The collection in which Lycidas was republished by Milton was

  1. Poems of Mr. John Milton
  2. Lycidas
  3. Justa Edouardo King Naufrago
  4. None of the above

9.Who said about Lycidas that “the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing”?

  1. Samuel Johnson
  2. S. Eliot
  3. Lawrence W. Hyman
  4. Ben Jonson




Key for MCQs

  1. a
  2. b
  3. c
  4. d
  5. d
  6. c
  7. b
  8. a
  9. a

Useful Links

Lycidas by Milton in Poetry foundation

Lycidas by Milton in Wikipedia

Summery of Lycidas by Milton in Shmoop