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ENGL 220 - Lecture 7 - Lycidas (cont.)
Chapter 1. Introduction: Analyzing the Beginning of Lycidas [00:00:00]
Professor John Rogers: Lycidas is probably the most difficult poem that we’ll be reading all semester. But, as I mentioned briefly in the last class, the notorious difficulties attending this poem seem to have very little to do with Milton’s grief over the death of Edward King, which may well not have been all that troubled or complicated. We have no evidence, and I mentioned this before, that there was a particularly close relation between these two young men.
The difficulty of the poem lies to a great degree, I think, in something that Dr. Johnson had noted in his attack or in his criticism on Lycidas that I mentioned on Monday. Its difficulty lies in Milton’s tendency in this poem to seek out what Dr. Johnson wonderfully calls remote allusions. This is by far the most learned and the most demanding lyric poem that Milton writes. It’s a poem deeply invested in the tradition of pastoral poetry, pastoral poetry from Theocritus and Virgil onward. It’s a poem deeply invested, in fact, in the entire Western tradition of poetry in general. Finally, I think it can be said that it’s a poem whose deepest investment is actually in Milton’s mastery over the entire Western tradition of literature. Milton – this will be the working assumption that I bring to my reading of this poem – Milton sets out to prove something in Lycidas, and the most important thing that he proves is his control over the learning that he has accumulated.
Now I spoke last time about the familiar sense of hesitation, that apology with which Milton had opened the elegy. We hear in the 1637 Lycidas those same cries of unripeness and under-preparation that we had heard in the 1631 sonnet, “How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth.” When Milton opens Lycidas with that phrase, “Yet once more,” one of the things that he’s telling the reader is that yet once more he’ll be making the same argument for unreadiness; the same argument for nervous anticipation that he’d made a number of times before. And so as a way of understanding what at this point is really the sheer repetitiveness of this disclaimer, I want to propose a metaphor. I propose that we think of Milton at the opening of Lycidas as being stuck, stuck at a particular point in the imagined, the projected or fantasized, trajectory of his career. I’m using the word “stuck,” of course, because the Lady had been stuck so famously and so prominently in Comus.
Chapter 2. The Pastoral Framework of Lycidas [00:03:11]
You may remember that I had suggested in the lecture on the Nativity Ode that Milton may have thought of his career as if it were something like a race. I think here that the particular image of a career as a race still holds but with a little bit of a difference. What seems so obvious, at least to me here in reading Lycidas, is that at this point in 1637 there’s a stumbling block or a hurdle that Milton in his race simply can’t get over. Now the surest sign of a hurdle is one of those pointed literary allusions that Milton makes in Lycidas, one of those remote allusions that Johnson had complained about. It’s an allusion that has everything to do with Milton’s own sense of his unreadiness, and I’m thinking of that. Oh, it’s just – it’s wonderful, that strange moment that happens fairly early on in the poem. This is line seventy-six. In the Hughes edition, it’s page 122. It’s that moment in which Phoebus Apollo makes a sudden and unexpected appearance. Now not only does Phoebus Apollo make a sudden appearance, but he seems actually to interrupt the speaker of the poem in order to correct him.
Let’s remind ourselves what’s been happening. Milton has just been lamenting the fact that the laborious days of the poet might not result in a sudden blaze of fame. What good is it – you’ll remember – what good is it, Milton asks, “to tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade”; that’s, of course, the vocation of poetry if that shepherd-poet is just going to be struck down in his prime as Edward King had been? You’ll remember that Milton had complained that “the thin-spun life” could be so easily slit – but look at line seventy-six: “ ‘But not the praise,’ / Phoebus repli’d, and touch’d my trembling ears.” Okay. [laughs] What’s happened? Phoebus Apollo, the god of the sun and, not unimportant, also the god of poetry – Phoebus Apollo bursts in to the text and corrects the poet, corrects the poet’s youthful interest in earthly fame: “ ‘Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.’” True fame exists only in heaven. The only reputation that matters is the praise you ultimately receive from God or ” all-judging Jove; / as he pronounces lastly on each deed.” And as in all of these early lyrics, Jove conventionally throughout the Renaissance is used as a name within these classical fictions to signify the Christian God.
Now this moment is striking in part because we had no idea – how could we possibly have had an idea? – that Phoebus Apollo was actually eavesdropping on the poet’s discourse. I think we’re taken aback here. We’re taken aback by the rude interruption in the otherwise seamless flow of the poet’s lament. This moment is also striking because Milton has lifted this entire scene of this interruption from somewhere else. He has taken it from one of the pastoral poems of Virgil. The image of a poet interrupted and chided by the god of poetry comes straight out of the opening of Virgil’s Sixth Eclogue. Virgil had written a poem in the Sixth Eclogue that had touched Milton, and it had touched Milton, I think, because it begins with Virgil’s own brooding meditation on the course of his poetic career. Now we all know what Virgil’s poetic career would go on to look like. Virgil would go on to be a great epic poet but not until after he had written these pastoral eclogues and then after that, after he had written the georgic poems, only then does he write finally the great epic poem The Aeneid.
Now in Virgil’s early poem, the Sixth Eclogue, the speaker explains that the writing of pastoral poetry is the stuff that young poets do. Poets begin their careers with easy pastoral poems, but Virgil’s speaker says that he is more ambitious now. He’s starting to champ at the bit. He’s ready to write an epic poem on much more important subjects than shepherds and shepherdesses. He wants to write about kings and wars. As soon as he has expressed this epic ambition – Virgil explains that as soon as he’s expressed this Phoebus Apollo, the god of poetry, stepped in and chided him. So this is Virgil: “When I was fain to sing of kings and battles, the Cynthian god” – that’s Phoebus Apollo – “plucked my ear and warned me.” Apollo warns Virgil that a pastoral poet simply shouldn’t overstep his bounds. This is Virgil: “He should sing thin [little, fine]- spun lays and he should be content feeding his fat sheep.” The god told Virgil that he wasn’t ready yet for the manly, the adult, and the public world, the important world, of epic poetry.
All of this anxiety, and when you think of it, all of this shame as well as the shame of ambition – all of this gets packed into this allusion to Virgil that Milton brings to this very disturbing moment in Lycidas. It’s important, I think, that this Virgilian scene with Apollo appears so early in Milton’s Lycidas. Milton’s Lycidas doesn’t end up all soaked in this unhealthy brew of – neurotic brew of anxiety and shame and naked ambition. I think it’s one of our jobs here to figure out why that’s the case. Why doesn’t – this is one way of putting the question – why doesn’t Apollo harass or bother Milton at the end of Lycidas in the same way that he harasses Milton at the poem’s beginning?
Now I think you may be rather happy to hear that this is the last time – I’m pretty sure that this is the last time – that we will have to discuss, at least at any length, Milton’s worries about his unreadiness and his un-preparation. It’s safe to say that Lycidas is one of the last poetic works of Milton’s that’s really consumed with his problem, the problem of fruitless anticipation. In some ways I think that that’s because the poem Lycidas seems in some ways to solve the problem of Milton’s waiting, this problem that he has of needing to wait. And so one of the things that needs to be explored here is why this poem is the last poem that Milton is not prepared to write. What does Milton do – this is what I see as our project, our interpretive project, as we approach this poem – what does Milton do to get himself unstuck from this seat of anxious anticipation? That’s the project.
So we looked last time at the oddity, the peculiarity, of Milton’s choice of genre here, the pastoral genre. Milton was the only Cambridge poet to honor Edward King in that memorial anthology by writing a poem in the pastoral mode. A pastoral, of course, features shepherds and shepherdesses as its most distinguishing characteristic. The word pastoral comes from the Latin pastor, which literally means “shepherd,” and Milton knew perfectly well how artificial his use of the pastoral mode of poetry would seem as well as how out of fashion, how completely outdated, it would seem. One of the motives for his selection of this genre, the pastoral genre, is the tradition – and it’s a tradition that goes all the way back to Theocritus and Virgil – that associates shepherds with poets. This has always been a part of the pastoral genre. To speak of shepherds and shepherding in a pastoral poem seems almost invariably to be a strategy or a way to speak of poets and their craft of poetry. This is a kind of literary self-consciousness that we’re all familiar with.
But there’s another meaning given to shepherds as well. After the long sway of Theocritus’ and Virgil’s pastorals, of course Christianity entered the scene, a new dispensation; and Christianity began to load this pastoral literary tradition with its own set of associations. Shepherds came to represent not only poets. They came to stand for ministers, they came to signify allegorically ministers as well. So priests, ministers or pastors – we still call them pastors – had long been referred to as shepherds. They are leaders of their flocks. And so it seemed a natural move for early Christian writers to use this existing pastoral form when they wanted to speak on subject of priests or ministers or affairs of the church.
Milton is essentially inheriting both of these traditions, both of these sets of associations with pastoral poetry. When we consider the particular circumstances that occasioned the poem Lycidas, we can see why Milton, I think, chose this pastoral form. Edward King, the young man, the elegized deceased, was a minor poet on his way to begin his career as a minister, and the figure of the shepherd, the pastor, fuses into one person or into one figurative entity both of these callings: the vocation of the poet and the vocation of the minister. We’ve looked before at Milton’s Reason of Church Government. That’s the political treatise written in 1642. We’ve seen Milton’s account there of how he had attempted to reconcile, on the one hand, his obligation to become a minister and his desire, on the other hand, to become a poet.
Chapter 3. Milton: The Reason of Church Government [00:14:00]
I want to back up now because I think it’s important to fill in a little bit of the historical context behind that long but important prose treatise. It’s not irrelevant to our understanding of Lycidas. The subject of The Reason of Church Government is Milton’s feelings about the hierarchical structure of the Church of the England. In the early years of the English Revolution, one of the hottest flash points of political contention was the degree of appropriate state involvement in the church. As with almost all of the issues of contemporary and political struggle in the seventeenth century, Milton’s own views really pull decidedly to the left, to the progressive end of the political spectrum. Beginning in the late 1630s at the moment in which Lycidas is being written, Milton is becoming increasingly radical. We can think of it – this is an anachronistic term – but increasingly leftist, and he’s becoming one of those figures that we can now identify with this label of “Puritan.”
Puritans at this moment in English history were placing, when thinking about how things should work at church, more and more emphasis on the sermon, the institution of the sermon. The act of preaching sermons for Puritans was becoming more important, actually, than following the ceremonial rituals of the Church of England. So in the years just before 1637, the English court under James I and then later under Charles I – the English crown had been cracking down on the delivery of Puritan sermons in the church. In 1633, William Laud had been appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he had been granted an extraordinary set of arbitrary powers of suppression, actually, by the monarch.
Laud took his mission as the head of the Church of England to be the squelching of this Puritan opposition. The most outrageous action in Laud’s crackdown was his move to ban – his attempt to ban preaching in churches. So under Archbishop Laud, only the official liturgy could be recited in church. As you can imagine, this was controversial. A struggle breaks out in the church, and Milton naturally takes the Puritan position in favor of preaching. The church shouldn’t be under the control of the bishops – this is Milton’s argument – or prelates, a common seventeenth-century word for bishops, but the church should be led by preachers: men who were chosen by their congregations to preach. Eventually this is where we get the notion of congregationalism.
So given all of the controversies raging around the question of the proper government of the church, and Milton is deeply invested in these matters, Milton feels obliged to do something. This is one of the reasons that he writes The Reason of Church Government, this intense sense of obligation that he feels. He feels duty-bound to participate materially in this political controversy rather than merely remaining in his studious retirement, however pleasant that is, at his father’s house. Were Milton not to fight in some way to defend what he takes to be the true church, he would simply not be investing those talents that God had given him. This is the Miltonic logic that we’re familiar with.
So this is the situation that Milton finds himself in as he’s writing Lycidas. He’s under the greatest pressure of his life to do something with his talent. He wants of course – at least we assume that he still wants to be a poet. At the same time, he fears that being a poet means – and this is a fear that literate young men and women have to this very day – to be a poet means in some way not to be acting responsibly or politically. So Milton explains in The Reason of Church Government – he tries to mend this breach and so he argues in this treatise that “Poetry has” – and I’m quoting him here – “Poetry has a power beside the office of the pulpit.” Milton even claims that poetry is equal to preaching in its ability to move people, to get them to do something, to make things happen in the world.
Of course, this is a lot of pressure to put on poetry and especially a lot of pressure to put on a pastoral elegy that’s ostensibly about shepherds and sheep; but it is the duty of this poem Lycidas to show that poetry can exert a power beside the office of the pulpit, that it can do the same kind of work that a preacher is able to accomplish behind the pulpit. Milton has to develop a poetic voice that can actually combine those two vocations, the two offices, the office of poetry and the office of ministry. If we want to think of it in the more familiar domestic context, Milton has to begin a career that could please both himself and his father.
Chapter 4. The Dramatic Structure of Lycidas: A Succession of Four Mourners [00:19:36]
Now last time I mentioned the dramatic structure of this poem. You’ll remember it features a succession of four mourners, and we could think of each of these mourners providing Milton with an opportunity to try out a different voice. One of the voices utterly mops the floor [laughs] with all of the others. Certainly, it stands far outside the generally pastoral framework of the poem. The most striking, the most powerful, of all of the mourning voices here is that of Saint Peter. This is the figure that Milton refers to in line 109 as the Pilot of the Galilean Lake.
Now what’s Saint Peter doing in this poem? The very mention of Saint Peter naturally violates the classical, pastoral fiction of the poem. Up to this point, the Christian God has been referred to as Jove. That’s how the poem works since it’s within the pagan world, the pagan fictional world of the classical pastoral that this Christian poem is set. To speak both of Jove and of Christ is obviously in some ways to mix your metaphors and the effect can only be disorienting. The character of Peter brought directly out of the New Testament is really slicing through the poem’s fictive veneer. Peter cuts a figure so daunting and so terrifying that we’re almost led to forget that the poem we’re reading is a pastoral elegy at all, so unbelievable is Peter’s discourse. Okay, line 109:
Now this is important to Milton. This is decidedly the last of all the funeral mourners, and Peter provides Milton’s poem with an important element of finality, of closure. Peter wields the keys of the kingdom of heaven and can open and shut the doors of personal salvation, just as he can open and shut the doors of the church. That’s his function. It’s the sentiments that Peter utters that, I think, most powerfully grab us, and they grab us because they are so angry – they’re so violent in their anger. As the head of the true church, Peter’s voicing here his disgust that the virtuous Edward King, soon to become a minister, had been lost at sea. Think of the logic of what Peter’s saying here. He would gladly have traded dozens – he would have traded dozens of corrupt Anglican ministers for the simple and honest King. Look at line 113. This is where Peter is addressing Edward King himself:
The corrupt clergy of today, under the malign influence of the horrible Archbishop Laud, are interested only in satisfying their own greed. In order to fill their own bellies, so greedy are they, they intruded into the church’s fold and devour for themselves – this is how the allegory works – devour for themselves the nourishment that of course they should be sharing with their flock.
But this wish that [laughs] other shepherds had died and not Edward King is so strange. You can’t deny it. There is something here of a kind of indecorous tone of malice, that the priests and the prelates of the church are so corrupt according to Saint Peter that we’re led to assume almost – not that this is a direct charge but implicitly, I think, this is what Peter is conveying – it’s almost as if they’re responsible for Edward King’s death; as if by creeping into the church’s fold, somehow they’ve managed to push poor Edward King out of the fold. It’s a hint at the malevolent agency of these priests, and it should point us to the true outrageousness of this speech, maybe its irrationality. We already know that Edward King – of course he wasn’t killed by the prelates of the Church of England! He was drowned and the drowning was an accident. The poem never questions that, and it’s ridiculous to lay his death at the church’s door. The poem nonetheless harbors this wonderfully primitive and irrational accusation. There’s a lapse in logic here, and this lapse should focus our interest all the more on the urgency that we feel in Saint Peter’s speech. This isn’t just a speech. This is a vitriolic tirade, and it gets ugly. Milton needs to get ugly here. He needs to voice this tirade, and he needs to write this politically motivated harangue.
As you’ll see it starts to pick up more and more enemies as it moves along. Look at line 119:
The faithful herdman’s art in Lycidas is a double one. It’s the Christian art of ministering to a religious flock, it’s that of the pastor, and it’s the more classical art of poetry. The men against whom Saint Peter is really spitting his venom are bad pastors in every sense of the word. They’re corrupt not only as ministers but they are also corrupt as poets. They’re bad poets. Look at line 123. These are such great lines: “And when they list, their lean and flashy songs / grate on their scrannel Pipes of wretched straw.” I have to read these lines again: “And when they list, their lean and flashy songs / grate on their scrannel Pipes of wretched straw.” It seems to be the case that Milton’s made this word up, this wonderful word scrannel. It seems to mean something like “scrawny.” At least that’s what the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] tells us; the only example that they can find of the word scrannel is in Milton’s Lycidas.
This last line that I’ve read seems itself to have been grated on a scrannel pipe. It’s such an unpleasant line. It’s always worth asking yourself what a line of poetry that is as aggressively unpleasant as this one is doing in a poem. The sheer cacophony of the clustered consonants in this line sets off – or has the potential to set off – a powerful cluster of feelings. The anger here is directed against the superficial, the flashy, liturgies read by the Laudian priests, but I think it’s also being directed at the lean and flashy songs that are being written by Milton’s poetic contemporaries, his rival poets. Saint Peter has arrived from heaven into this poem to express perhaps for the first time the envy and the anger that Milton seems successfully to have suppressed up to this point: envy and anger not only at the state of the Church of England in the late 1630s but also the state of poetry in England at this time.
So Saint Peter concludes with – it goes on, and he concludes with a couplet that is as terrifying in its threat of finality as it is for me utterly baffling in its significance. Look at the last two lines: “But that two-handed engine at the door / stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.” Now we will never know, and don’t let anyone ever suggest to you that you will ever know, what Milton could possibly mean by this deliberately perplexing image of the two-handed engine at the door. If you ever want to take a look at – and I urge you to – The Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton in the CCL [Yale high-circulation] collection, you should peruse it. It’s a massive, wonderful multi-volume work that catalogs all of the critical commentary on Milton’s shorter poems up until some point in the ‘70s. There are no less than twenty pages devoted to the critical debate on these two lines: what the hell Saint Peter’s two-handed engine is, what it looks like, what it [laughs] does, what – and everything about it. We have no idea what this menacing contraption actually is supposed to look like or what it’s actually intended to signify, but we can know, I think, with some certainty that it’s not scrannel. Size matters here; and this – the two-handed engine – is big, and it works, and it’s able to put an apocalyptic end to all corruption and in fact it’s able to put something like an apocalyptic end to all life. It stands ready to smite once and smite no more.
Now we began this poem with the sense of the dreary repetitiveness in that opening phrase, “Yet once more,” but here very close to the poem’s end we have a vision of an end to all those fruitless exercises of repetition. Milton corrects – it’s as if he’s correcting the sense of monotony with which he had begun the poem, and he corrects that sense of monotony by rewriting that initial phrase. Whatever the two-handed engine is, it will smite once and smite no more. It’s incapable of repeating itself.
Now, I think there’s a deliberate confusion here about these lines because their precise historical significance isn’t what’s most significant. What may be most important here is the mere fact that Milton is expressing these political convictions at all. The speech of Saint Peter seems, I think, in a lot of ways to be a lot more like a fire and brimstone sermon than it is a passage in a pastoral poem. The strangely sermonic tone that this speech assumes is, I think, exactly the point. Milton is able in this speech to combine, I think, for the first time the two associations borne by that Latin word pastor. So in this guise with the mask of Saint Peter on he’s – Milton’s – able to be both poet and minister. He’s investing his rhetorical talent in an art that’s actually doing something. It’s capable of moving people to action, or so Milton may have believed. It’s as if Milton is saying, “Look at me. I may be a poet. I may actually – I’m simply writing a pastoral poem, but I’m actually doing something in the world. I’m ministering to a flock. I’m preaching just as my father and just as all of my Cambridge classmates had advised me to do.” This outburst allows Milton to solve what may have seemed up to this point an insoluble conflict: the insoluble conflict between the two meanings of the word vocation that we’ve been exploring. So this passage is extreme and Milton’s poem, wonderfully, is perfectly able to identify it as such.
Look what happens next. After the passage is over, Milton addresses Alpheus, a river god – the god who was noted for plunging the course of his river underground in order to chase the nymph Arethuse who had been turned into a fountain. Alpheus is also the god of erotic pastoral poetry, it turns out, and this god is literally gone underground during the terrifying appearance of Saint Peter. It’s here although we didn’t know the god was there. [laughs] This is another familiar and strange feature of this poem. We didn’t know the god was there, and we didn’t know he was underground until Milton tells us that he’s coming up now. It’s here, once that speech is over, that Milton can bid Alpheus return, line 132: “Return, Alpheus, the dread voice is past / that shrunk thy streams…”
The dread voice of the angry sermonic Milton, the ministerial Milton, has passed. It has passed and it is past. It’s part of the past. And it’s at this point, and I think it’s, importantly, not before this point, that Milton’s able to throw himself fully into that eroticized conjecture, that catalog of all the flowers that was to be thrown onto the hearse bearing Lycidas’ body that we looked at last time. I mentioned in the last lecture that the famous flower passage here of course is – this is pure fantasy. Lycidas’ body is nowhere to be found, and there’s nothing, of course, to throw the flowers on; but I think we can see now a way in which Milton has permitted himself the fantasy of this – of a recovered body or, as he says, this is line 153, he has allowed his “frail thoughts to dally with false surmise.”
Milton can allow himself a literary indulgence in the rich sensuality of this passage because he has mastered the dread voice, he has mastered the fatherly sternness of Saint Peter. It’s as if Milton – we can think of Milton as having paid his dues. He’s accomplished his ministerial duty as a zealous and a politically oriented poet, and now he’s earned the right to dally with false surmise. He’s earned the right to treat himself to this absolutely lovely – what must have been an extraordinary amount of fun to write – lovely catalog of flowers. It’s almost as if the flower passage is Milton’s reward for having written the Saint Peter passage. And I’m trying to suggest that Milton’s composition of this poem is actually doing something for him, that it gets him somewhere, and that it’s functional in a genuine sense.
It’s our obligation now to look at the poem’s conclusion. Where does Lycidas lead Milton? Look at line 183. Milton imagines Lycidas in heaven now. It’s a Christian poem. Then it imagines Lycidas a little differently as the genius loci, the natural classical spirit of the place, the genius loci of the Irish Sea. This is line 183:
I want to draw your attention to line 186. This is the line that begins the poem’s final verse paragraph and it has to be one of the most amazing moments in all of English literature. “Thus sang” – these five words: “Thus sang the uncouth swain.” Okay. What are we being told here? This poem, this entire poem before this point hasn’t been sung by John Milton at all. We naturally thought that it was the poet John Milton who was speaking the first 185 lines of the poem. We naturally assumed that it was Milton himself who was describing his college friendship with Lycidas’ Edward King. We naturally assumed that the poet was speaking, even behind the pastoral mask, because we’d been given no idea whatsoever of any alternative to the poet’s responsibility for all of these words being uttered over the course of this admittedly very long poem; but with little ado [laughs] this just happens. Milton suddenly and unexpectedly shatters all of our assumptions. He tells us that everything that we’ve read up to this point that has been spoken by a third-person narrator. We didn’t know this. It has been spoken by the uncouth swain, a rustic shepherd. Everything that we had thought that Milton was telling us in the lyric present – telling us directly, now – suddenly gets shoved back into the narrative past: “thus sang the uncouth swain.” The past tense is important there. This is the first moment, right now, “thus sang the uncouth swain.” This is the first moment that the poet John Milton is actually speaking in his own voice, and he’s speaking directly to us. We don’t actually hear John Milton until we hear this line: “Thus sang the uncouth swain.”
Well, we should be shocked, and I think beyond that we have every right to feel a little bit betrayed, because Milton quite simply has – and he’s doing this deliberately – he has just violated an important law. We could think of it as the contractual relation that a writer makes with his reader. When there’s a speaker of a poem who is not to be confused with the poet himself, there is typically a framing device. You can easily imagine Milton employing a framing device here. He could have begun Lycidas with this, with something like a description of the uncouth swain: “Oh, let me tell you about this uncouth swain.” Then he could tell us the mournful lay that the uncouth swain sang, and then he could say, “Thus sang the uncouth swain.” There would be an opening framing device and then, of course, an end frame device. But Milton’s framing device [laughs] in Lycidas only frames the end of the poem. It’s asymmetrical.
I think we’re fully entitled to ask why: why Milton waits for the last eight lines of his poem to tell us that there’s a difference, that there’s a difference between the poet and the speaker. Why hadn’t Milton pressed on this possible distinction earlier? The answer to the question, I think, gets at the very heart of the meaning of this elegy. I think the answer may involve the possibility that at the beginning of the poem, there simply wasn’t a clear distinction between the poet and the speaker. It’s as if the distinction between John Milton and the speaker of Lycidas wasn’t really operative. There wasn’t an uncouth swain at the beginning.
You’ll remember that I mentioned several minutes ago that Milton appears – literary historians, I think, have rightly seen the Milton who had written Lycidas as a different figure than the poet before having written Lycidas. Milton seems to have accomplished something in writing Lycidas, almost as if he accomplishes it over the course of this very poem; and one of the things that he’s accomplished is his ability to see himself as someone who has accomplished something. He’s just written this poem. And instead of this continual anticipation of writing something great, Milton’s able to look back and find closure in something already written. At the very end of the poem, the uncouth swain “rose, and twitch’t his Mantle blue: / tomorrow to fresh Woods and Pastures new.” You get an image of Milton here twitching his blue mantle, his cape over his shoulder, and dusting his hands and letting us know that that’s over. He’s finished. He has completed this lyric poem. He’s finished with his pastoral. Perhaps, even, he has completed the youthful phase of his literary career.
Now we began Lycidas with an image of a poet who could only write this poem – this is what we were told – with forced fingers rude. This was an act of compulsion, and the poet had to be forced to press this lyric out of himself. By the end of the poem we have progressed from the image of “forc’d fingers rude” – this is an argument that’s been made brilliantly by the critic Peter Sacks, the author of a book called The English Elegy – we’ve progressed from the image of “forc’d fingers rude” to an image of the poet who “touch’t the tender stops of various Quills.” The poet’s fingers by the end of Lycidas aren’t forced or rude. They’re capable of these extraordinarily delicate feats of dexterity, and that’s because the poet has mastered his touch. This tactile mastery attests to something remarkable that’s happened over the course of the poem, somewhere below the surface of the poem, somewhere between the lines. Milton has mastered his poetic touch, perhaps because Milton himself has been touched.
Let me remind you of that other intrusive moment in the poem, the moment when a figure whose presence we hadn’t been aware of suddenly made – suddenly asserted himself. That was, of course, Phoebus Apollo, the great god of the sun and the god of poetry, who touched the trembling ears of the ambitious young Milton much as he had a couple of centuries before touched the ears of the ambitious young Virgil. Apollo had touched Milton in a way that I think we can actually measure by the end of this poem because Milton at the conclusion of Lycidas seems to have assumed the authority of Apollo. It’s as if he’s become Apollo as he himself takes over the action of touching. The speaker has internalized the authority of the god of poetry. First he was touched and now he touches. He touches the stops of various quills. Look at the final lines:
I’m interested in the temporal clause “and now.” Milton shows us he’s fully escaped from the repetitiveness of the “yet once more”-beginning. This coda suggests something like a victory over all of those worries of unpreparedness as the worried rhetoric of “not yet there” gives way to a much more confident language of present completion, the “now.”
[Laughs] “At last he rose”: at last who rose? Who rose? The sun that was just dropped into the west or the uncouth swain? This is my question to you.
Now we learn, of course, by the second half of this line that it has to be the uncouth swain who rose and twitched his mantle blue; but for a moment the “he” in line 192 seems to be able to refer to either the poet or the sun. Maybe it could refer to either the poet or the sun throughout the entire line, if you think of the mantle blue as being the actual sky that the sun is able to twitch over his shoulder. I don’t know. It’s at this point of a possible confusion, at least a momentary, provisional confusion, that we know that the poet has identified with the sun. He’s absorbed the touching authority of Phoebus Apollo, the god of the sun. Milton – why is that important? Milton can no longer be chided or be criticized by Phoebus because he’s become Phoebus.
This momentary switch-off between the sun and the poet is just one of this poem’s many substitutions. You saw earlier Saint Peter making a related set of substitutions, and it was crazy. Peter was lamenting Edward King’s death, and he claimed that he would gladly have spared an entire slew of corrupt Anglican priests. He would gladly have sacrificed them in order to keep the much more virtuous and pure Lycidas – a gruesome proposal, but it’s a gruesome proposal that suggests a primitive desire for a quid pro quo. It’s the same desire for some kind of sacrificial substitution that, I think, is fueling the poem’s ending. The dynamic of the entire poem is one of sacrifice and recompense. Edward King gave his life, and he’s recompensed by his new status as the genius of the shore. But John Milton is also recompensed and, by the weird sacrificial logic that Saint Peter has already sketched out for us, you can see a really [laughs] disturbing way in which Milton has benefited as well. It’s as if Lycidas has died so that Milton could live to become a great poet. Lycidas’ untimely death seems to enable Milton to master his own fears of untimeliness. Lycidas’ death – remember this is the poem that Milton didn’t want to write, he was “forc’d” to write it – Lycidas’ death allows the uncouth swain to grow up and to move on. The last eight lines announce the course of this new poet’s life – announce the fact that this poet’s course in life is about to undergo a drastic change.
In fact, biographically this is what happens to Milton. Finally, John Milton leaves his father’s house. He moves out and he goes on – and of course, he’s still being supported quite generously by his father – nonetheless, he goes on an extended tour through France and Italy. He manages to discard that youthful, that uncouth, affection for chastity that had been such a part of his imagination, and he marries a young woman named Mary Powell. Now it’s still going to be another twenty-five years before Milton writes the great epic, but Milton will no longer express the same degree of anxiety about under-preparation to write the great epic. In fact, this is an argument that’s been made a number of times, and I think there’s a lot of sense to it – the last eight lines of Lycidas are written in a very specific line form: the Italian scheme of the ottava rima. It’s the ottava rima in which all of the great Italian romance epics by poets – favorite poets of Milton’s like Ariosto and Tasso – had been written. The appearance of this semi-epic rhyme scheme here at the end of Milton’s poem suggests his readiness, and he’s ready only here at the end of Lycidas to embark on the epic project.
Chapter 5. Milton: The Prophetic Poet? [00:48:50]
Okay, quickly I’m going to ask you to turn to the very beginning of Lycidas, page 120 in the Hughes. So Lycidas was published along, as you know, with the other poems about Edward King in 1637, but Milton himself publishes the poem a second time in his own volume of poems that he publishes in 1645. It’s for this second printing that Milton adds the headnote that you see here that now begins the poem: “In this Monody the Author bewails a learned Friend, unfortunately drown’d in his Passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637.” It’s interesting that Milton certainly begins this headnote with suggesting directly to us that it’s Milton speaking and not a fictional uncouth swain. That aside, let me continue: “… on the Irish Seas, 1637. And by occasion foretells the ruin of our corrupted Clergy, then in their height.”
Eight years after its initial composition, Milton looks back at this elegy, rereads it, and picks out the Saint Peter passage on the corrupted clergy as that specific feature of the poem worth singling out and introducing. Of course, in a lot of ways this is just good marketing. Since the poem’s initial appearance, the institution of episcopacy, or church hierarchy, has been seriously eroded. The first English civil war has already broken out, setting Puritans like Milton against the royalists and the supporters of the state control of the church, like the king and like the king’s dread Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. When Milton writes this little headnote in 1645, Archbishop Laud has been executed. He’s been sacrificed to the Puritan cause. And Milton reasonably alerts his reader to the timeliness of a lot of the material that would be covered in this poem.
But this headnote goes a lot further simply than that: “And by occasion foretells the ruin of our corrupted Clergy.” Milton is – this is outrageous! He’s actually claiming that this poem had been prophetic, that Lycidas foretold the ruin of the clergy. It’s possible that Milton’s actually suggesting, I think, that this poem helped bring that ruin about. You know that Milton had been entertaining this fantasy of becoming a great biblical prophet like Isaiah as early as the Nativity Ode. He’d seen himself as a Jeremiah or as an Isaiah, and there were all those early gestures of prophecy. But now he’s able to tell us that he has already become prophetic. He throws his high prophetic talents into the construction of the Saint Peter speech; and in 1645, historical circumstances being what they were, he was able to look back at this passage and actually claim that it had been a genuinely prophetic utterance. He’s made good on all of his promises.
Of course, it’s a sleazy move for Milton to have made, to claim [laughs] that he had actually prophesied, let’s say, the execution of Archbishop Laud – but Milton will capitalize and exploit any evidence he can possibly find to assure himself that he is on the appropriate path to become the great prophetic poet that he knows he is entitled to become and that he has been chosen to become. Finally, Milton has revised and undone the anticipatory logic of the great career narrative.
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