Do you like puzzles?
And not just simple everyday riddles which don't take more than a minute or two to solve, but a befuddling, brain-draining, maniacally abstruse enigma which can and will defeat all but the most perceptive and intuitive?
Do you like those kind of puzzles?
Then what would you think of a mystery so diabolically clever that even its existence has eluded the most brilliant minds of the best institutions in which such brilliant minds gather - Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and so on ...- eluded them all for almost four centuries, in spite of this mystery residing within the words of one of the most studied poems in all of English literature?
The first verses of John Milton's pastoral elegy Lycidas:
Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I come to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc'd fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer...
Ostensibly, the subject of Lycidas is Edward King, a fellow poet and classmate who drowned while crossing the Irish Sea. Like John Milton, Edward King also favored "noble subjects": of the ten poems of his which survive, seven praised the birth of royal children, one celebrated King Charles I’s recovery from smallpox, and another honored his coronation in Scotland and safe return. But that is where the similarity between Milton and Edward King's poetry ends: Clara Whitmore reports, in her collection of Milton's early poetry, “the Latin verses written by King which have come down to us are no better than the average poems written by college students.”
Edward King's poetry had one satisfied reader however, which became clear to all at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where Milton and Edward King schooled, when a Fellowship became available in 1630. King Charles interceded personally, demanding the Fellowship be awarded to Edward King despite more senior and qualified candidates. In his decree, the king declared himself “well ascertained both of the present sufficiency and future hope” of young Edward, who was at the time only eighteen.
About this talent-challenged sycophant, Milton wrote "he hath not left his peer"?
Adding to the mystery, the poet later claimed: "I never, at any time, wrote anything which I did not think agreeable to truth, to justice, and to piety" (An Apology for Smectymnuus, 1642). While it seems impossible that both statements, Edward King being poetically without peer, and Milton never writing anything "not agreeable to truth," are true, it seems entirely plausible that both statements are false. Are these really words of "the Greatest Poet in the English language"? What gives?
As it happens, when Milton received the request to eulogize Edward King, along with thirty some other classmates and tutors from Christ's College, he was contemplating another poetic project. And while he apparently detested Edward King, as we will soon see, 1637, when the poem was written, was not a particularly safe time in merry old England to criticize those close to the king.
No one will ever know how long Milton debated what to do. But what he decided was to write about the private subject he had been considering, while making the poem masquerade as an elegy for Edward King. The poem's appearance of eulogizing Edward King is a sham, a facade. And Milton places his two projects in plain sight, in the form of a series of comma-divided lines, masked only by his readers' supposition that both phrases in the comma-divided line pertain to the same subject. They do not. One example is a verse already seen, where Milton announces the occasion for his poem:
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
"Bitter constraint," the bitter constraint of having to say nice things about Edward King, is one occasion for Lycidas. And the other is a "sad occasion dear," his real reason for writing.
A similar reference to his dual purposes comes just before his narrator invokes the poem's muse:
Hence with denial vain, and coy excuse,
So may some gentle Muse
With lucky words favour my destin'd Urn,
And as he passes turn,
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.
"Denial vain" is the state he is leaving Edward King's relatives in. They cannot deny he has produced his offering to their scion. But it is a "coy excuse" for his real reason for writing.
The rest of the first stanza reveals two more such dual references:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat'ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
Now that Milton's code is revealed, he can be seen portraying King as the arrogant, self-absorbed elitist one would expect from his history with "he knew Himself to sing." It is Milton's private subject who knew how to "build the lofty rhyme."
Milton's most damning epithet comes in the stanza's penultimate line: Edward King is "unwept." Nothing more, really, needs to be said.
Two separate and complete readings constructed out of the same set of words, creating two separate poems, poems which describe quite different subjects, and the poem that was hidden inside the other, the poem Milton was most concerned with, which explores his private occasion for writing, has escaped the notice of scholars who have been studying the poet's work for almost four centuries. Now that is a puzzle for the ages!
By the way, have you figured out the identity of Milton's muse yet? Here's a clue: there are no male muses in all of Greek and Roman poetry and mythology. Yet Milton's muse is undeniably male. With this clue, and the four verses following "Hence with denial vain...," you really have everything you need to figure out his identity.
For those of you who want to try to figure out some of Milton's secret reading in Lycidas, I have included some clues on this website. Not enough to figure out Milton's secret reading in its entirety though, I hope! At least not before January 2019, when my book John Milton Deciphered will be coming out.
Enjoy! This truly is the greatest riddle ever posed by one human being for another.
In this Monody the Author bewails a learned Friend,
unfortunately drown'd in his Passage from Chester on
the Irish Seas, 1637. And by occasion foretells the
ruin of our corrupted Clergy then in their height.
|Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more|
|Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never sere,|
|I come to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,|
|And with forc'd fingers rude,|
|Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.|||
|Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,|
|Compels me to disturb your season due:|
|For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,|
|Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:|
|Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew|||
|Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.|
|He must not float upon his wat’ry bier|
|Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,|
|Without the meed of some melodious tear.|
|Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well,|||
|That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,|
|Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.|
|Hence with denial vain, and coy excuse,|
|So may some gentle Muse|
|With lucky words favour my destin'd Urn,|||
|And as he passes turn,|
|And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.|
|For we were nurs'd upon the self-same hill,|
|Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill.|
|Together both, ere the high Lawns appear'd|||
|Under the opening eyelids of the morn,|
|We drove afield, and both together heard|
|What time the Gray-fly winds her sultry horn,|
|Batt’ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,|
|Oft till the Star that rose, at Ev'ning, bright|||
|Toward Heav’n’s descent had slop'd his westering wheel.|
|Meanwhile the Rural ditties were not mute,|
|Temper'd to th’ Oaten Flute,|
|Rough Satyrs danc'd, and Fauns with clov'n heel,|
|From the glad sound would not be absent long,|||
|And old Damaetas lov'd to hear our song.|
|But O the heavy change, now thou art gone,|
|Now thou art gone, and never must return!|
|Thee Shepherd, thee the Woods, and desert Caves,|
|With wild Thyme and the gadding Vine o’ergrown,|||
|And all their echoes mourn.|
|The Willows, and the Hazel Copses green,|
|Shall now no more be seen,|
|Fanning their joyous Leaves to thy soft lays.|
|As killing as the Canker to the Rose,|||
|Or Taint-worm to the weanling Herds that graze,|
|Or Frost to Flowers, that their gay wardrobe wear,|
|When first the White thorn blows;|
|Such, Lycidas, thy loss to Shepherd’s ear.|
|Where were ye Nymphs when the remorseless deep|||
|Clos'd o’er the head of your lov'd Lycidas?|
|For neither were ye playing on the steep,|
|Where your old Bards, the famous Druids lie,|
|Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,|
|Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream:|||
|Ay me, I fondly dream!|
|Had ye been there – for what could that have done?|
|What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,|
|The Muse herself, for her enchanting son|
|Whom Universal nature did lament,|||
|When by the rout that made the hideous roar,|
|His gory visage down the stream was sent,|
|Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.|
|Alas! What boots it with uncessant care|
|To tend the homely slighted Shepherd’s trade,|||
|And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?|
|Were it not better done as others use,|
|To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,|
|Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair?|
|Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise|||
|(That last infirmity of Noble mind)|
|To scorn delights, and live laborious days;|
|But the fair Guerdon when we hope to find,|
|And think to burst out into sudden blaze,|
|Comes the blind Fury with th’ abhorred shears,|||
|And slits the thin spun life. “But not the praise,”|
|Phoebus replied, and touch'd my trembling ears;|
|“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,|
|Nor in the glistering foil|
|Set off to th’ world, nor in broad rumor lies,|||
|But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes,|
|And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;|
|As he pronounces lastly on each deed,|
|Of so much fame in Heav’n expect thy meed.”|
|O Fountain Arethuse, and thou honour'd flood,|||
|Smooth-sliding Mincius, crowned with vocal reeds,|
|That strain I heard was of a higher mood:|
|But now my Oat proceeds,|
|And listens to the Herald of the Sea|
|That came in Neptune’s plea.|||
|He ask'd the Waves, and ask'd the Felon winds,|
|What hard mishap hath doom'd this gentle swain?|
|And question'd every gust of rugged wings|
|That blows from off each beaked Promontory:|
|They knew not of his story.|||
|And sage Hippotades their answer brings,|
|That not a blast was from his dungeon stray'd,|
|The Air was calm, and on the level brine,|
|Sleek Panope with all her sisters play'd.|
|It was that fatal and perfidious Bark|||
|Built in th’ eclipse, and rigg'd with curses dark,|
|That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.|
|Next Camus, reverend Sire, went footing slow,|
|His Mantle hairy, and his Bonnet sedge,|
|Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge|||
|Like to that sanguine flower inscrib'd with woe.|
|“Ah! Who hath reft” (quoth he) “my dearest pledge?”|
|Last came, and last did go,|
|The Pilot of the Galilean lake;|
|Two massy Keys he bore of metals twain|||
|(The Golden opes, the Iron shuts amain).|
|He shook his Miter'd locks, and stern bespake:|
|“How well could I have spar'd for thee young swain,|
|Enow of such as for their bellies’ sake,|
|Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?|||
|Of other care they little reck’ning make,|
|Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast,|
|And shove away the worthy bidden guest.|
|Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold|
|A Sheep-hook, or have learn'd aught else the least|||
|That to the faithful Herdman’s art belongs!|
|What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;|
|And when they list, their lean and flashy songs|
|Grate on their scrannel Pipes of wretched straw,|
|The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,|||
|But swoll'n with wind, and the rank mist they draw,|
|Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:|
|Besides what the grim Wolf with privy paw|
|Daily devours apace, and nothing said;|
|But that two-handed engine at the door,|||
|Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.”|
|Return Alpheus, the dread voice is past|
|That shrunk thy streams; return Sicilian Muse,|
|And call the Vales, and bid them hither cast|
|Their Bells, and Flow'rets of a thousand hues.|||
|Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use|
|Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,|
|On whose fresh lap the swart Star sparely looks,|
|Throw hither all your quaint enamel'd eyes,|
|That on the green turf suck the honey'd showers,|||
|And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.|
|Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies,|
|The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Jessamine,|
|The white Pink, and the Pansy freakt with jet,|
|The glowing Violet,|||
|The Musk-rose, and the well-attir'd Woodbine,|
|With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,|
|And every flower that sad embroidery wears:|
|Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed,|
|And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears,|||
|To strew the Laureate Hearse where Lycid lies.|
|For so to interpose a little ease,|
|Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.|
|Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding Seas|
|Wash far away, where’er thy bones are hurl'd,|||
|Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,|
|Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide|
|Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world;|
|Or whether thou to our moist vows deny'd,|
|Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,|||
|Where the great vision of the guarded Mount|
|Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold;|
|Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth.|
|And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth.|
|Weep no more, woeful Shepherds weep no more,|||
|For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,|
|Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor,|
|So sinks the day-star in the Ocean bed,|
|And yet anon repairs his drooping head,|
|And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled Ore,|||
|Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:|
|So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,|
|Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves,|
|Where other groves, and other streams along,|
|With Nectar pure his oozy Locks he laves,|||
|And hears the unexpressive nuptial Song,|
|In the blest Kingdoms meek of joy and love.|
|There entertain him all the Saints above,|
|In solemn troops, and sweet Societies|
|That sing, and singing in their glory move,|||
|And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.|
|Now Lycidas the shepherds weep no more;|
|Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore,|
|In thy large recompense, and shalt be good|
|To all that wander in that perilous flood.|||
|Thus sang the uncouth Swain to th’ Oaks and rills,|
|While the still morn went out with Sandals gray;|
|He touch'd the tender stops of various Quills,|
|With eager thought warbling his Doric lay:|
|And now the Sun had stretch'd out all the hills,|||
|And now was drop'd into the Western bay;|
|At last he rose, and twitch'd his Mantle blue:|
|Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.|
The sixth clue revealed that Lycidas, the subject of Milton's poem, is his own inner poet (see the sixth week's clue under "Past Clues" for a full explanation). This raises an obvious question: who is the narrator? This is the question this week's clue will explore.
The clearest indication of the narrator's identity comes in the first verse of the final stanza:
The "uncouth Swain" is the poet of Il Penseroso. In L'Allegro's preamble, where the poet of that poem describes his counterpart, he locates Il Penseroso's poet in an uncouth cell:
Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born,
In Stygian cave forlorn
'Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy,
Find out some uncouth cell,
Where brooding darkness spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-Raven sings
The "uncouth Swain" spoken of in Lycidas' final stanza is the poet of Il Penseroso, who aspires to "prophetic" discourse:
Where I may sit and rightly spell,
Of every Star that Heav'n doth show,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To something like Prophetic strain.
Il Penseroso: 169-174
The narrator of Lycidas, the "uncouth Swain," is Milton's "prophetic" narrator. The reference to the "uncouth Swain" in the final verse is the poet's most direct clue, but not his most definitive. The most definitive indication of the narrator's identity is the muse he invokes:
With lucky words favour my destin'd Urn,
And as he passes turn,
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.
The most remarkable aspect of this invocation is the gender of the muse. No male muses exist in either Greek or Roman mythology or literature! Who is this muse then? His description is emblematic - a moment's reflection reveals who he must be.
"And as he passes turn, and bid fair peace be" is probably the most frequent scene depicting Jesus in the New Testament. He is forever turning, as some follower grabs his robe, to bid them peace or dispel their demons. The narrator of Lycidas has invoked the protagonist of the Millennium as his muse! And the only narrator who would turn to this muse is Milton's "prophetic" narrator, the "poet" of Il Penseroso.
Lycidas is ostensibly an elegy for a Cambridge classmate of Milton's, Edward King, who drowned while crossing the Irish Sea. But it is unlikely that Milton felt much sympathy for King. In 1630 King Charles I himself interceded with Milton's College at Cambridge, Christ's College, to demand that a Fellowship for which Milton was more qualified be given to King. E.M.W. Tillyard, the great scholar and critic of English Literature, was right in saying that Lycidas is primarily about Milton. Although the poet does have some choice comments to make about Edward King in the first several stanzas!
When properly understood, Lycidas portrays John Milton at a crossroad in his life, wrestling with his next steps. In 1637, when the poem was written, he was twenty-nine years old and still living at home. Three years before, Milton had seemed well on his way to becoming a professional man of letters. Both Arcades and Comus had been publicly performed, Comus at Ludlow Castle as part of the celebration for the Earl of Bridgewater assuming the post of Lord President of Wales. But just when patronage from the Earl of Bridgewater's family seemed to assure his success, Milton the poet fell silent.
Eight years before, in 1629, King Charles I had dissolved Parliament, turning to Archbishop William Laud and the Anglican Church to fulfill government functions normally under Parliament's purvue. In 1633 the King authorized Laud to being censoring Puritans, who had gravitated toward Parliament's side of the struggle. King Charles I was associated with Roman Catholicism in popular opinion because he had sought marriage with the Infanta, the Spanish (Catholic) princess.
Ever since Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to Wittenberg’s Castle Church door in 1517, select historians began characterizing Protestantism’s fight against Roman Catholicism as the final battle against the “Antichrist.” Many Puritans, supporting Parliament against King Charles' corrupt reign and Catholic-leaning sympathies, considered themselves part of the army fighting the biblically-prophesized Armageddon. Some historians doubt that the English Revolution could have succeeded without this ideological backbone.
When Lycidas was first published, in 1638, it did not include the second sentence of its preamble, "And by occasion foretells the ruin of our corrupted Clergy, then in their height." Such overt criticism of Laud and his followers could have put Milton in physical danger. In one notorious case, William Prynne, the author of a book perceived to be critical of the King, was pilloried, whipped, his ears cut off, “SL” branded on his on his forehead (signifying “Seditious Libeler”), and then incarcerated. His book, Histriomastix, was simply a Puritan critique of a form of English Renaissance Theater which the King favored.
Milton lived in troubled times, especially for someone as morally motivated as he. Analysis of the poem will reveal that the ongoing conflict between the forces of Parliament and King Charles I was very much on Milton's mind as he wrote. In addition to some more personal matters with which the poet was wrestling....
This poem can legitimately claim to be the "world's greatest riddle" because Milton's hidden text remained undetected, amidst the words which containing both it and the poem's facade of honoring Edward King, for over 375 years. Only by happenstance, and some kind assistance from one of my mentors at Stanford, the late Professor Martin Evans, author of the chapter about Lycidas in the Cambridge Guide to Milton and considered the world expert on this poem while he lived, did I become aware of hints of Milton's inner text within the poem. Milton wrote his hidden text for himself alone, crafting it with references to his life and earlier poems he thought no one would notice. Only his absolute allegiance to honesty, which he later sited as the source of his eloquence, which produced absolute consistency among his imagery, allows enough references among his early poems to be compared, much as is the cryptic text of an encoded message, eventually revealing repetitions which can be identified as references to details of Milton's personal life. The inner text of this poem is an intimate account of troubles greatly disturbing the poet in 1637, troubles which are close to consuming him, after his mother's death earlier in the year and three years of poetic silence following production of his Masque (commonly called Comus) in 1634.
If there's a greater riddle than a poem in which John Milton has hidden a secret text composed with the same words as a facade he simultaneously constructs, a secret text which emerges only when private references to Milton's life and some of his most intimate struggles and desires are detected, and operates just as all riddles do, the correct context unlocking it and revealing the straightforward, commonsense meanings for all of its ingredients, everyone would like to hear about it! But until then, until some greater riddle is discovered, John Milton's Lycidas lays claim this title, until later this year when JOHN MILTON DECIPHERED will reveal this riddle's solution in its entirety.