John Milton’s Lycidas: A Critical Appreciation


John Milton (1608-1674) is considered as the greatest poet of his age. Like Shakespeare, he too represented an age alone. It is rightly said of him that, he churned out masterpieces in each and every genre of literature he tried his hand at. Master of the Grand Style, his mastery over English language and poetic forms goes almost unsurpassed even to this age.

Lycidas is an ideal specimen which illustrates his sheer genius. His poetic works are characterized by "deep faith, profound learning, sincerity as well as concern for human dignity and freedom". Lycidas was written following the death of a friend Edward King, who got drowned in the Irish Sea. Although the poem makes its venture as a Monody, where the poet bewails the death of a learned friend, the poem is also a host to a number of themes as well. Following the progress of the poem, we find that Milton made deliberate digressions which seemed to follow a natural course. In fact, the poem inspite of hosting several themes did not seem like a derailed track.

The foremost theme that we see is of course, 'Lycidas' or rather, Edward King. It was an elegy dedicated to Edward King who held promises for success as well as hope for the Church, and the society. But the life of this worthy man was cut short by the cruel hands of death. His 'gory visage' lost in a watery grave. The poet assumes the form of a shepherd and summons the objects of nature to join him in his mourning for the death of another fellow shepherd who represented Edward King. He clearly states that a bond existed between him and 'Lycidas'.

" For we were nurst upon the self-same hill,
Fed the same flock by fountains, shade and rill".


Another theme of Lycidas was that of Milton's poetic career which stood on unstable at that time. The death of Edward King gave him the opportunity to vent his apprehensions about his choice of writing poems as a career. Some critics are of the opinion that, 'Lycidas' is more of an autobiography of the poet rather than an elegy on the deceased 'Lycidas'. At the time of writing this poem, the poet had scheduled a long voyage halfway across the globe, and he was uncertain of any outcome that might crop up. As at that time sea voyage was perilous and did not give any guarantee of safety against natural calamities. The poet in this case makes it clear that, somebody may remember him and dedicate an elegy to him if fate turns the table on him.

"So may some gentle muse with lucky words, favour my destined urn."

Milton did not try to camouflage the themes. He made it clear and plain that, he had in his hands more than what he bargained for. He also criticized the rampant corruption which existed in the Church. The Church leaders were regarded as shepherds and the congregation as the sheeps. Milton being a staunch Puritan could not keep away from firing a volley of criticisms at the irresponsible 'shepherds' who did not pay any heed to the 'wolves' ever ready to devour the innocent 'sheeps'. He adds that. "the hungry sheeps looks up and are not fed" . However, Milton has the conviction that justice will be administered by "that two-handed engine" which "stands at the door" , meaning a weapon of execution of God that will "smite once, and smite no more".

Thus, we see that, Lycidas does not host only a single them, but a masterpiece which engulfs varied themes. The poet laid a neat track for the natural course changes in the themes. Inspite of so many limitations, the sheer genius of Milton manages to compress so many ideas in a compact package – Lycidas. Even Samuel Johnson, a renowned critic, who criticized the poem on various grounds was met with criticisms from various corners in support of Milton.

The poem was written in a pastoral setting and exhibits the qualities of Romanticism. the use of imageries was abundant and the employment of mythological figures were done on a plentiful scale (The mentioning of Neptune and Triton etc). Besides these Biblical references like the 'Peter digression', Matthew Chapter 24 and the idea of Resurrection, along with pagan elements made the poem an exquisitely woven and a unique blending of Christianity with Paganism. The poem, 'Lycidas' is truly a masterpiece in poetic styles.

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