Contrasts and Unity in Lycidas

Lycidas is a poem of contrasts. Milton switches themes constantly, disrupting the flow and making it a poem of parts, disconcerting the reader who expects a unified entity. However, if we consider Lycidas to be a work in which Milton himself is the central persona, then the disparate parts can be brought together in a multi faceted unity.


The opening section is replete with the imagery of unripeness ‘harsh and crude’ and ‘bitter’, which, although applied to evergreens and to the occasion, suggest the unpreparedness of the poet to undertake the task in hand. The first line, with its non-rhyming ending, warns the reader not to anticipate an accomplished poem. Indeed as we progress through the work, we find several unrhymed lines in an erratic rhyme scheme together with an irregular stanza pattern and eccentricities of meter. The intrusive six syllable lines amongst a majority of iambic pentameter have their origins in the Italian canzone but the occasional extra syllable must be regarded as a sign of the poet’s immaturity.


However the small eccentricities (they are too insignificant to be called errors) may well be deliberate. Take, for example, the case of the first line. The sentiment expressed is as out of place as the bachelor rhyme. Milton had at that time written verses on certain insignificant individuals but no one deserving ‘Laurels’ and therefore the ‘once more’ is inexplicable. This particular eccentricity can easily be rectified. Firstly the first line could be deleted. Then in the second line delete the words ’brown with’ and replace with ‘Laurels’. The first stanza is now balanced in rhyme and metre. Bearing this in mind, Milton’s eccentricities seem premeditated. 


The death imagery of the second stanza seems to pertain more to the poet himself than the subject matter as the funerary appurtenances ‘urn’ and ‘sable shroud’ are his own. Milton identifies himself with King in the words ‘nurs’t upon the self same hill …Fed the same flock’. Milton grossly exaggerates his relationship with King in order to insinuate himself into his own poem. The death imagery continues into the fourth stanza with ‘killing as the canker to the rose’ and ‘never must return’. Here we see the poet’s fear of his own death. ‘The willows and the hazel copses green/ Shall now no more be seen’ express the viewpoint, or the non viewing point, of the deceased and the imagery of corruption in ‘canker, taint-worm, frost’ show the poet’s fear and loathing of death. The anticipation of death is made the more poignant when Milton considers its inevitability and the fact that even a poet cannot escape it as even Orpheus could not be saved by his divine mother Calliope.

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The inevitability of death and the fragility of life expressed in ‘th’abhorred shears’ leads the poet to doubt the value of his mission. Milton fears that his voluntary celibacy which he has endured that he might perfect the poetic craft has been futile:--‘Alas what boots it with uncessant care/ scorn delights’. His limited time on earth might have been better spent in ‘To sport with Amaryllis in the shade’ rather than seeking ‘fame’ which ‘is no plant that grows on mortal soil’. It is Milton’s lost opportunities that are lamented here and not his late acquaintance as can ...

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