Lycidas: Poetry And Death Essay

3787 words - 15 pages

Lycidas: Poetry and Death        

 
    Living in a period of important religious and cultural flux, John Milton's poetry reflects the many influences he found both in history and in the contemporary world. With a vast knowledge of literature from the classical world of Greek and Roman culture, Milton often looked back to more ancient times as a means of enriching his works. At other times, however, he relies on his strong Christian beliefs for creating spiritually compelling themes and deeply religious imagery. Despite the seemingly conflicting nature of these two polarized sources of inspiration, Milton somehow found a way of bridging the gap between a pagan and a Christian world, often weaving them together into one overpowering story. The pastoral elegy Lycidas, written after the death of a fellow student at Cambridge, exemplifies this mastery over ancient and contemporary traditions in its transition from a pagan to a Christian context. Opening the poem in a setting rich with mythological figures and scenery, then deliberately moving into a distinctly Christian setting, Milton touches upon two personally relevant issues: poetry and Christian redemption. In this way, Lycidas both addresses the subject of being a poet in a life doomed by death and at the same time shows the triumphant glory of a Christian life, one in which even the demise of the poet himself holds brighter promises of eternal heavenly joy.

Confronted with the drowning of contemporary Cambridge student and fellow poet Edward King in 1637, John Milton faced the daunting subject of making sense of an existence that inevitably culminates in the ultimate destruction of human life. As M. H. Abrams states in his prefatory notes to Lycidas, Milton took part in the production of a volume of poems entitled Justa Eduardo King in memory of the dead man (645). This was the occasion that brought about the creation of Lycidas, a poem that both mourns the loss of a fellow human being and also makes a larger statement about the world in general. To do this, Milton turned to the pastoral elegy, a classically rich style of poetry found throughout literary history and most often associated with just such a topic. This was presumably a natural choice for Milton, as James H. Hanford says, since Milton's familiarity "with poetry of this kind in English, Latin, Italian, and Greek" made him recognize "the pastoral as one of the natural modes of literary expression, sanctioned by classic practice" (32). Going back to such masters as the Greek "superior genius" Theocritus and Virgil, the famous Latin poet, Milton clearly found himself employing a literary form with its roots in a world of almost exclusively pagan beliefs (32;35). Even with later Christian forms, pastorals relied on the ancients for their conventional characteristics. "From Virgil's time forth, conventionality in setting…is a marked characteristic of the pastoral" that employed archetypal shepherds as its essential trait, and...

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