A Formalistic Reading of John Milton's Lycidas

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John Milton is one of the greatest stars in the sky of English literature. He is mostly known because of his well-known masterpiece “Paradise Lost”. Though some critics state that Shakespeare was more powerful than him, but making comparison between a playwright whom by the use of his powerful pen became famous and rich, with a literary man who wrote the greatest English epic, is not true and justifiable. My purpose of writing this research paper is to criticize his world-famous elegy – Lycidas. Milton after two years living in Horton, in the November 1637 when his poetic exercises and studies were finished, took a trip to Italia and wrote Lycidas to elegize the death of his friend “Edward King” _ four years younger than Milton, was full of genius, and was chosen by the order of the king as an assistant professor in Cambridge.

1. The formalistic approach

Edward King, who is the occasion of the poem if not its subject, was a junior contemporary of Milton’s at Cambridge. He had written a few short Latin poems, and intended to enter the ministry. On his way to visit family in his native Ireland, he was drowned, in 1637; and Milton joined with his school colleagues the following year to produce a little “memorial volume: Justa Edouardo King (For Edward King) includes thirty-six poems, twenty in Latin, three in Greek, the rest in English; only Lycidas is of literary consequence” (Abrams 1987: 658). In this elegy, the poet is bemoaning, for Lycidas is dead before being able to show his power in poetry. Some critics believe that this poem is more about Milton himself, than Edward King. In fact, he is lamenting for the power of poesy (Abjadian 1998: 227).

1.1. The first stanza

In the opening verses of the poem, the poet says that though he has not become masterful in the art of poetics, but because of the loss of his dearest friend, it is necessary to compose an elegy for him. The opening line of the poem begins with the repetition of “once more” which not only emphasizes the reluctancy and necessity of his task, but also absorbs our notice about the hopes and longings of the poet. The hints to those plants which are the signs of poetic pride and inspiration, either provide a classical context for the elegy, or indicate the ambitions of a young poet who should pick up the fruit of the tree of his art before becoming mature. “Laurel” tree is admired for the crown of poetry given by Apollo; “myrtles” for the undying love granted by Venus; “ivy,” the plant of Bacchus, also the reward of learning. All three plants are evergreens associated with poetic inspiration (Abrams 1987: 659). First five verses of the poem implicitly mention the elements of hope and achievement. The hand which reluctantly should pick up the immature fruit, will pick up the mature fruit one day. The poet in the eighth verse of the poem uses the word “death” two times to emphasize the death of his friend; in the sixth line indicates his amazement with this event; in the ninth line claims that Lycidas has not replaced any substitution for himself; in the tenth verse asks a rhetorical question “who would not sing for Lycidas?” In the proceeding lines, he makes some images about water: the sea is the grave and the coffin of Lycidas and the drops of tear can increase the amounts of water (Abjadian 1998: 228).

1.2. The second stanza

The next stanza opens with the word “begin” which signifies the beginning of the elegy. He addresses the goddesses of poetry and art; the nine sister muses were reported to dwell (or swim) by (in) various springs or “wells”; most likely Milton had in mind that of Aganippe near Mt. Helicon (Abrams 1987: 659). In the nineteenth line of the poem, he uses the word “muse” with the meaning of the poet himself.

1.3. The third stanza

In the lines twenty-three to thirty-six, the poet wishes that the others would compose a poem for him “for we were nursed upon the selfsame hill.”...
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