The World's Greatest Riddle:

John Milton's

Lycidas



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...
    Lycidas: 1-9

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,
    Lycidas: 6

"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.
    Lycidas: 18-22

"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.
    Lycidas: 18-22

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.

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