The World's Greatest Riddle:

John Milton's

Lycidas



First clue - Milton's dedication to truth

The best guide to unraveling the riddle of Lycidas:

Milton attributed his eloquence to truth, as the following quote from An Apology for Smectymnuus demonstrates:

"True eloquence I find to be none, but the serious and hearty love of truth: and that whose mind soever is fully possessed with a fervent desire to know good things, and with the dearest charity to infuse the knowledge of them into others, when such a man would speak, his words like so many nimble and airy servitors trip about him at command, and in well-ordered files, as he would wish, fall aptly into their own places."

In Second Defense of the People of England, Milton verifies his allegiance to truth:

"I again invoke the Almighty to witness, that I never, at any time, wrote any thing which I did not think agreeable to truth...."

What this indicates is that Lycidas contains no fantasy, no hyperbole, no embroidery or overstatement of truth. So for example, in the example we have already seen, the ninth verse of the poem, "Young Lycidas ... hath not left his peer," cannot possibly refer to Edward King. King was a poet, but mediocre at best. To say that King "hath not left his peer" would be the grossest hyperbole, and coming from a true poet such as Milton, an outright falsehood. No, another explanation must be found, if Milton's claim of being guided by truth is valid. And another explanation exists. When you find it, you will be well on your way to discovering the real occasion for the poem.

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Second Clue - the nature of literary symbol in the 1600s

Readers of Milton's poetry must acquaint themselves with the literary symbolism of Milton's era. The modern notion of the literary symbol holds it to be the language of the subconscious. Symbols are considered as agents resonant to and capable of focusing subliminal energies.

But this concept would have been quite foreign to Milton.

The contemporary literary symbol emerged with the “fin-de-siècle” (end of the century) French poets Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine. They were rebranded “Symbolist” by Jean Moréas in Le Symbolisme (The Symbolist Manifesto, 1886). Moréas claimed these poets used symbols for the reward and release of expression, not to convey rational content. Similarly to their Impressionist counterparts, the fin-de-siècle poets sought the truth inherent in their medium, and found it in the resonance and energy of their symbols. Arthur Symons summarizes the new era being initiated:

After the world has starved its soul long enough in the contemplation and rearrangement of natural things, comes that turn of the soul; and with it comes the literature of which I write in this volume, a literature in which the visible world is no longer a reality, and the unseen world no longer a dream.
Symons, Arthur, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (New York: Dutton, 1919), p. 4.

This is the modern view of symbol, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. In Milton’s day, the literary symbol was in its infancy. The first use of the word 'symbol' in reference to literature came in 1590, only eighteen years before Milton’s birth, in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Spenser used it to signify ‘something standing for something else.’

Of course Milton’s poems are full of literary symbols of the modern variety too. In Images and Themes in Five Poems by Milton, Rosemond Tuve provides an insightful summary of the modern variety in Milton’s early poetry. The distinction between Milton’s symbols and the modern variety is succinctly expressed by Symons:

“What distinguishes the Symbolism of our day from the Symbolism of the past is that it has now become conscious of itself.”
Symons, Arthur (1919), p. 3.

Neither Milton nor Spenser used symbols for the joy of expression. They employed symbols as single-word metaphors with specific meanings, almost like vocabulary items. To both, symbols were substitutable terms signifying concrete referents, real-world phenomena. Representative substitution was an innovative literary strategy in Milton’s day.

Lycidas is a riddle. When a reference does not make sense as a natural world depiction, for example the intimation that Edward King as a poet "hath not left his peer," consider "symbolic" possibilities, substitutive references which would make common sense within the stanza's context.

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Third Clue - the anomalies of Jove and the blind Fury explained

The anomaly of Jove involves this Roman god replacing Zeus in an apparently Greek setting. Jove’s presence is first revealed right before the poem’s narrator invokes his muse:

   Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string
Lycidas: 15-17

The “Sisters of the sacred well” are traditionally interpreted as the nine Greek muses. They reside nearby the fountain Aganippe, on Mount Helicon. And Zeus is not just their ruler, he is their father. The classical muses are his and Mnemosyne’s (memory's) progeny. Scholars have long puzzled why Jove appears in Zeus' stead.

The Fury is similarly foreign to its apparent role in the poem:

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.
Lycidas: 73-76

The mythological wielder of the shears is Atropos, the eldest of the three Fates. Her younger sisters are Clotho, spinner of the thread of life, and Lachesis, measurer of its length. Atropos is also not blind or blindfolded. Only Themis, the symbol of divine law, is in Greek mythology sometimes portrayed wearing a blindfold.

Milton's dedication to truth means that neither of these figures can be where they are in the poem by accident. Milton was one of the most learned men of his age. He intended exactly what he wrote. His references to two classical poems which he modeled Lycidas upon will explain Jove and the Fury's presence.

Milton's emulation of Theocritus' First Idyll in Lycidas' fifth stanza is recognized by all. Thyrsis, Theocritus' narrator, begins his pastoral song thus:

Where were ye, Nymphs, when Daphnis pined?
   Ye Nymphs, O where were ye?
Was it Peneius’ pretty vale, or Pindus’ glens?
   ‘Twas never Anápus’ flood nor Etna’s pike
Nor Acis’ holy river.
Theocritus, First Idyll: 66-69

Milton's narrator copies Thyrsis almost word for word, changing only the place names:

   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
Lycidas: 50-55

What is less commonly recognized is that Milton has alluded to Virgil's Tenth Eclogue earlier in the poem. Virgil cites his cause for writing thus:

A few verses I must sing for my Gallus,
Yet such as Lycoris herself may read!
Who would refuse verses to Gallus?
Virgil Tenth Eclogue: 2-3

Milton uses a similar justification in his poem:

Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
Lycidas: 10-11

The subject of Virgil's elegy, Gallus, is a poet, as is the subject of Milton's poem. Virgil's narrator is also the Latin poet himself; Gallus is the historical name of a personal friend of his. But what is most important is not Milton's allusion to Virgil's justification itself, but Virgil's later mimicry in his poem of Theocritus' First Idyll, of the very same passage which Milton chose to copy:

   What groves, what glades were your abode, ye virgin Naiads,
When Gallus was pining with a love unrequited?
For no heights of Parnassus or of Pindus,
No Aonian Aganippe made you tarry.
Virgil Tenth Eclogue: 9-12

Milton did not emulate Virgil's Eclogue, and later separately Theocritus' Idyll. He emulates a poetic structure, a structure composed of one poet mimicking and emending to another. And the two layers of this poetic structure are conveniently delineated by poets of different traditions, the Greek Theocritus and Latin Virgil.

Greek references in Lycidas are archetypal, referring to paradigmatic elements. Latin references, on the other hand, reflect the author's personal thoughts and emendations. Jove is Latin. In Milton's era, Jove was often used in secular poetry to symbolize the Christian deity. Milton is signaling, by his replacement of Jove for Zeus, that his meaning cannot be grasped unless readers also make this substitution. Replacing Jove with the Christian deity does not greatly affect interpretation of the quoted passage, but in the second place where Jove appears, understanding that Jove is the Christian deity is crucial to getting Milton's meaning.

The Furies originated in Greek myth, but in that tradition, they were called the Erinyes. They only gained the name "Furies" in their Roman incarnation. Thus the Fury's appearance is another authorial substitution, one which, when properly understood, confirms much of the poem's development up to her appearance.

This substitutive scheme also identifies the seventh stanza's Neptune as a similar authorial revision. Neptune is Roman; his Greek counterpart is Poseidon. If Milton's personal translation of the Greek sea-god is not deciphered, the reader will also not grasp his intent in this stanza.

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Fourth Clue - the meaning of "Young Lycidas ... hath not left his peer."

Milton composed a poem with two distinct "levels," two distinct contexts. The "Greek" level is archetypal, but layered on top of it (see the third week's clue) is another level, occasionally emerging in the Latin references, which concerns Milton's own interpretation of the poem he is writing. This level is modeled on Virgil's Tenth Eclogue, a pastoral elegy which Virgil inhabits himself as its narrator.

Milton's dedication to truth (see the first week's clue) would not have permitted him to write that the passing of Edward King left no poetic peer - at least not within the level portraying Milton's own truths and beliefs, the level modeled on Virgil's Tenth Eclogue. Another meaning must be found.

Milton's model for literary symbolism, Edmund Spenser (see the second week's clue) provides the answer. One of the striking symbols in Spenser's Faerie Queene is the following:

What world’s delight, or joy of living speech
Can heart, so plung’d in sea of sorrows deep,
And heaped with so huge misfortunes, reach?
Edmund Spenser.
Faerie Queene: Bk.I-Canto VIII

Una's "sea of sorrows deep" is internal, and because of its depth, she cannot escape it. If this internal "sea of sorrows" was about one of Una's peers, one could say that this sorrow "hath not left her peer" (Una).

Any deep emotion such as sorrow often pulls the mind towards certain memories or thoughts. A natural extension to Spenser's symbol would be something tangible floating on top such an internal "sea of sorrows." Scanning ahead in Lycidas' first stanza, we see just such a image: the subject, Lycidas, floating "upon his wat'ry bier."

Combining these interpretations, each reasonable in itself, Lycidas, the subject of the poem, is the focus of an internal "sea of sorrows deep" within the narrator. Within the poem, this is referred to as the "sad occasion dear" which prompts it. This internal "wat'ry bier" of sadness "hath not left his peer" - the narrator! (An internal sadness clings to Milton - it is the true occasion for and subject of his poem).

To students of Milton, such a claim must seem fantastical. But as readers of my book (and to a lesser degree, this website) will discover, this is the correct starting point for the poem, the starting point which will eventually unlock every other mystery within Milton's Lycidas.

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Fifth Clue - Who is Lycidas?

The third clue revealed that Milton's poem is based on two classical examples, Theocritus' First Idyll, and Virgil's Tenth Eclogue, in which the Latin poet also mimics Theocritus' First Idyll. In other words, Lycidas is modeled on a poetic structure of one poet mimicking and emending another (see the third week's clue under "Past Clues" for a full explanation).

With the models of Theocritus' First Idyll and Virgil's Tenth Eclogue playing such important roles in Lycidas' design, their poetry is the natural place to turn when searching for antecedents of Milton's subject. Such a search soon locates a bipartite model structured similarly to the poem in their poetry. Theocritus features a bard named Lycidas in his Seventh Idyll, and Virgil, again including multiple allusions to Theocritus' precursor, features a shepherd-poet named Lycidas in his Ninth Eclogue.

Theocritus' version is a paragon among pastoral bards. When three other shepherds encounter him on a road, Simichidas greets Theocritus' Lycidas with:

'Tis said, dear Lycidas,' answered I, 'you beat all comers, herdsman or harvester, at the pipe.'
Seventh Idyll: 27-29

This version of Lycidas aligns with Milton's public persona as a poet. By the time Milton turned twenty-six, he had written Nativity Ode, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Arcades, and his Masque, commonly known as Comus. Both Arcades and Comus had been publicly performed, Comus as the primary entertainment commemorating the Earl of Bridgewater's appointment as the Lord President of the Council of Wales, the King's highest administrator in that region, on his arrival at Ludlow Castle where he would govern. Milton was a young prodigy; most who knew him probably considered him well on his way to a successful career as a man of letters.

But Virgil's Lycidas is not so sure of himself. In the Ninth Eclogue, Virgil's version confides to Moeris, his companion, that he has doubts about his poetic powers:

Me, too, the Pierian maids have made a poet; I, too, have songs; me also the shepherds call a bard, but I trust them not. For as yet, methinks, I sing nothing worthy of a Varius or a Cinna, but cackle as a goose among melodious swans.
Ninth Eclogue: 32-36

For reasons which would take too long to explain here but are fully explored in my book, Milton likely considered Comus a failure. In spite of the public accolades he received, Comus fell short of Milton's primary purpose for it. The Greek and Latin layers of reference in Lycidas correspond to the poem's public facade and private text (again see the third week's clue for a fuller explanation). In an identical manner, Theocritus' and Virgil's models for Lycidas correspond to the public and private personas of Milton's inner poet. The subject of Milton's poem is Milton's own poetic persona. He mourns the bard whose allegiance is to the Genius loci he bade depart in Nativity Ode:

The lonely mountains o're
And the resounding shore,
     A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring and dale
Edg'd with poplar pale,
     The Parting Genius is with sighing sent,
The flower-inwov'n tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
Nativity Ode: 181-188

When the request to eulogize Edward King arrived, Milton reacted as last week's clue revealed (see the fifth week's clue): no one wept for King, someone who knew 'himself to sing,' how to sing about himself, as Edward King did. Elegizing him would be a 'bitter constraint.' But then Milton thought of a poet worthy of such commemoration: his own inner poet, who he had said farewell to, along with that poet's Genius loci, when he wrote Nativity Ode. This became his private project for Lycidas.

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Sixth Clue - The identities of the narrator and his muse revealed!

(Note: it is recommended that the clues be read in order. If you are new to this site, please see "Past Clues" for the necessary information to properly interpret this clue)

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:

Thus sang the uncouth Swain to th' Oaks and rills.
Lycidas: 186

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:

Hence loathed Melancholy
    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
L'Allegro: 1-7

The "uncouth Swain" spoken of in Lycidas' final stanza is the poet of Il Penseroso, who aspires to "prophetic" discourse:

The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell,
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:

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: 19-22

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.

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