Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Milton > Lycidas
  L’Allegro; Il Penseroso; Arcades; Comus Sonnets  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 13. Lycidas.

In Lycidas, the delight reaches an even higher pitch. For once, there is no need to quarrel even with such an apparent hyperbole as Pattison’s “high-water mark of English poetry”—especially as high-water mark is not a thing that can only once be reached. The circumstances, form and character of this exquisite poem have been the subject of a great deal of writing. It formed part of a collection of epicedes on Edward King, a slightly younger contemporary of Milton at Christ’s who had become fellow and tutor, and had intended to take orders, but was drowned on a voyage to Ireland in the summer of 1637. Milton’s contribution is signed “J. M.” only. The general scheme is that of a classical pastoral elegy; the verse form is a very peculiar, in fact, up to its date, unique, arrangement of stanzas and lines of unequal length, for the most part irregularly, and not entirely, rimed, but terminating in a regular octave. To what extent the poem expresses personal sorrow has been largely, but very unnecessarily, questioned; as an elegy, it has, poetically speaking, no superior even in a language which contains the various laments on Sidney before, and Adonais and Thyrsis after. The whole poem is a tissue of splendid passages, not unconnected, but sewn cunningly together rather than woven in one piece as regards subject. One, however, of these passages contains, for the first time, a note “prophesying war.” Up to this date, Milton’s verse, though abstaining alike from the passionately amorist tone of contemporary profane lyric, and from the almost erotically mystical tone of contemporary sacred poetry, had contained nothing polemical; and, even in the frequent eulogies of chastity in Comus, nothing positively austere. Here, St. Peter, coming among other symbolical figures to bewail the dead, is made to deliver a tremendous denunciation of what Milton later directly entitled “the corrupt clergy” of the time, and a prophecy of their ruin. The strict propriety of this has been questioned, even by some who agree with Milton’s views on the subject: the force and fire of the expression (not injured by a little obscurity, which, perhaps, was a necessary precaution) may be admitted by the most thorough admirer of Laud. And all the rest (except from the point of view of an objection to pedantry which is itself ultra-pedantic) is absolutely proof against criticism. There cannot be better verse than Lycidas.   39

  L’Allegro; Il Penseroso; Arcades; Comus Sonnets  
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