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"This piece, unmatched in the whole range of English poetry, and never again equalled by Milton himself, leaves all criticism behind. Indeed, so high is the poetic note here reached, that the common ear fails to catch it. Lycidas is the touchstone of taste; the 18th century criticism could not make anything out of it. . . . It marks the point of transition from the early Milton of mask, pastoral, and idyl, to the quite other Milton, who, after twenty years of hot party struggle, returned to poetry in another vein, - never to the 'woods and pastures' of which he took a final leave in Lycidas." — Mark Pattison.
LYCIDAS is the name of a shepherd in the second Idyl of Bion, and in the third Eclogue of Virgil. Milton probably selected it on account of its original signification of whiteness or purity.
1. Yet once more. "Milton's conceptions of a poet's work and of the preparation needed for it were of the highest. He was ever striving after 'inward ripeness,' and conscious how far he was from attaining it. This sense of his unfitness to perform as yet a poet's high duties had determined him to write no more till he was sensible of being maturer; till 'the mellowing year' had dawned. But the death of his dear friend forced him to intermit this high resolve. Therefore 'yet once more' would he write; he would yet again play the poet, though he knew well his proper hour had not yet come."- Hales. -laurels. See note on bay tree, page 72:
"The laurel, meed of mightie conquerours
myrtles. The myrtle was symbolic of love and peace. Pliny relates that the Romans and Sabines made friendship under a myrtle tree, and purified themselves with its branches. — ivy. This plant was also a symbol of friendship; it was sacred to Bacchus, and like laurel the meed of poets. See Virgil's Eclogues, vii. 27: "Ye Arcadian shepherds, deck with ivy your rising poet." And viii. 13: "Accept my songs and permit this ivy to creep around thy temples among thy victorious laurels."
2. forc'd. Forceful, violent.
Scatter. Compare with Paradise Lost, x. 1065:
4. bitter constraint. Eglogue, 41. sad occasion. (see note 52, page 71). — dear. derian, to hurt :
Compare with hard constraint, Pastorall
"Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven,
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio." - Shakespeare, Hamlet. The word dear as most commonly used, meaning beloved or costly, is from A.-S. deare, greatly esteemed, rare.
5. who would not sing. See note 7, page 31.
6. melodious tear.
7. Begin, then. Compare with Theocritus, Song of Thyrsis: "Begin, ye Muses dear," etc. (see page 9); also with Moschus, Lament for Bion : "Begin, ye Sicilian Muses," etc. See note I, page 14. The "Sisters of
the sacred well" are the nine Muses. The sacred well is the Pierian Spring at the foot of Mount Olympus, “the seat of Jove." Here, according to Hesiod, was the birthplace of the Muses. Other fountains, as that of Helicon in Boeotia, and the Castalian Spring near Mount Parnassus, were identified with their worship. Compare with:
"Rehearse to me, ye sacred Sisters nine,
"With the Muses of Helicon let us begin to sing, with them who haunt the mountain, vast and divine, of Helicon, and with tender feet dance round the dark-colored fountain and altar of mighty Jove."- Hesiod, Theogony, 1.
8. sweep the string. Compare with Pope:
'Descend, ye Nine,...
And sweep the sounding lyre."- Ode on St. Cecilia's Day.
9. Muse. Poet; as in Shakespeare's Sonnet, 21: —
"So is it not with me as with that Muse,
- destin'd urn.
See note 56, below.
10. sable shroud. Black coffin, that is, the "destin'd urn tioned above.
11. They had both been educated at the same college -- Christ's College, Cambridge.
12. high lawns. Compare with Gray's Elegy, vii.
13. eyelids of the Morn. Compare with Romeo and Juliet, ii. 3, 1:—
"The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night."
And with Job iii. 9, marg.:·
"Neither let it see the eyelids of the morning."
14. drove afield. See Gray's Elegy, stanza vii. 15. her sultry horn. Compare with Collins:
"Or where the beetle winds
His small but sullen horn,
As oft he rises 'midst the twilight path,
Against the pilgrim borne in heedless hum.”
Ode to Evening.
The gray-fly, or trumpet-fly, hums during the hottest part of the day. Compare with Gray's Elegy, ii. 3.
16. Battening. Feeding, taking care of.
17. westering. Westward going. Compare with Chaucer, Troilus and Creseide, ii. 906:
"The daies honour and the Heavens eye
Gan westren fast, and downward for to wrie."
18. oaten flute. See note 1, page 66.
19. Satyrs and Fauns. The University men at Cambridge. But compare the expression with Virgil, Eclogue vi. 27: "Then you might have seen the Fauns and savages frisking in measured dance, then the stiff oaks waving their tops." The passage is imitated by Pope in Pastorals, ii:
"Rough Satyrs dance, and Pan applauds the song."
20. old Damætas. "Probably W. Chappell, the tutor of Christ's College in Milton and King's time."- Hales. Both Theocritus and Virgil use the name in their pastorals. Damotas is also a prominent character in Sidney's Arcadia.
21. woods and desert caves. Compare with the Lament for Bion, line 15, page 40.
22. echoes. See Lament for Bion, line 13, page 40; also Adonais, stanza 15, page 122. Compare with Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality:
"I hear the echoes through the mountain throng."
23. canker. A disease incident to trees, causing the bark to fall off. The word was also formerly used to indicate a worm or insect injurious to
roses, and such is probably its meaning here. See Shakespeare, Midsummer Night's Dream, ii. 2, 3:—
"Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds."
24. taint-worm. A parasitic insect, or larva, destructive to animals, especially sheep.
25. Where were ye, Nymphs? See Sorrow of Daphnis, line 2, page 9; also note on the same. Compare this and the passage following it with Virgil's Eclogues, x.: "What groves, ye virgin Naiads, detained you? . . . For neither any of the tops of Parnassus, nor those of Pindus nor Aonian Aganippe, did retard you.”
26. the steep. Probably Kerig-y-Druidion among the heights of South Denbighshire, where were the burial places of the Druids. Another supposition is that Penmaenmawr in Wales is meant. See Gray's
27. shaggy top of Mona. The island of Anglesey, "called by the bards the shady island,' because it formerly abounded with groves of trees; but there is now little wood, except along the bank of the Menai." 28. Deva. The river Dee: —
"Dee, which Britons long ygone
Did call divine, that doth by Chester turn."
Spenser, The Faerie Queene, iv. 11.
29. fondly. 30. Muse.
Used here in its original meaning of foolishly. Calliope was the mother of Orpheus. The latter was torn in pieces by the Thracian women while under the influence of their Bacchanalian orgies. His head was thrown into the Hebrus river, down which it floated to the sea, and was finally carried to Lesbos, where it was recovered and buried. See Pope's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day: "See, wild as the winds, o'er the desert he flies; Hark! Hæmus resounds with the Bacchanals' cries Ah see, he dies!
See also Virgil's Georgics, iv. 520: "The Ciconian matrons, amid the sacred service by the gods and nocturnal orgies of Bacchus, having torn the youth in pieces, scattered his limbs over the wide fields. And then Eagrian Hebrus rolled down the middle of its tide his head torn from the alabaster neck." See also Paradise Lost, vii. 34:
"That wild rout that tore the Thracian bard
In Rhodope, where woods and rocks had ears
31. boots. Avails. From A.-S. bōt, advantage. — to tend, etc. "Of what avail is it to devote so much attention to poetry, or the poet's trade?" Amaryllis. A pastoral sweetheart mentioned by Virgil. See Eclogues, i. 4: "You, Tityrus, stretched at ease in the shade, teach the wood to re-echo beauteous Amaryllis." A name applied to the Countess of Derby in Spenser's Colin Clouts come Home Again, 435. Milton wrote his Arcades as part of an entertainment to be presented in the presence of this same lady by some noble persons of her family (1633).- Neæra's hair. Compare with the following lines from Lovelace :
"When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fetter'd to her eye,
The birds that wanton in the air
32. the spur. Hales compares this passage with the following from Dryden: "Reward is the spur of virtue in all good acts, all laudable attempts; and emulation, which is the other spur, will never be wanting when particular rewards are proposed."
"For what is glory but the blaze of fame?”
Paradise Regained, iii.
34. blind Fury. Milton evidently means the Fate, Atropos, whose office it is to cut the thread of life after it has been spun by her two sisters, Clotho and Lachesis:
"Sad Clotho held the rocke, the whiles the thrid
That cruell Atropos eftsoones undid,
With cursed knife cutting the twist in twaine:
Most wretched men, whose days depend on thrids so vaine."
"The fatall sisters, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, daughters of Herebus and the Night, whome the poets faine to spin the life of man, as it were a long thred, which they draw out in length, till his fatall houre and timely death be come; but if by other casualtie his daies be abridged, then one of them, that is, Atropos, is said to have cut the threed in twaine." - Shepheards Calender, Glosse.
35. trembling ears. See Virgil's Eclogues, vi. 3: "When I offered to sing of kings and battles, Apollo twitched my ear." Touching the ears was probably significant of refreshing the memory. The tingling (trembling?) of the ears was formerly believed to indicate that some one was talking about the person to whom they belonged: