Monday 28 December 2009

The Oddities of Lycidas

This post will mean nothing if you haven't read Lycidas. Your life will also mean nothing if you haven't read Lycidas. There is a text here.

This post is nothing more than an observation. It would be easy to call it a criticism, but it is impossible to criticise something wonderful. I could no more suggest that Lycidas is not a good poem than I could suggest that a sheep is not ovine or three not triple. Perhaps the following observations can uncover something about the way Milton wrote.

Here Milton* suggests how he hopes to be praised after his death:

So may some gentle Muse
With lucky words favour my destined urn,
And as he passes turn,
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.

If Milton is destined for an urn he is to be cremated. A shroud goes only with burial.

What time the grey-fly winds her sultry horn,
Battening our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose at evening bright
Toward heaven's descent had sloped his westering wheel.

That the grey-fly is female is odd but passable. An uncouth swain would probably have had trouble obtaining a microscope and sexing an insect. However, it perhaps grows to something when the evening star is male (his westering wheel). The evening star is Venus and Venus as any fule kno is a goddess. Milton was not any fule, certainly not on the subject of astronomy and classical mythology. Anyone who has read Paradise Lost knows that he was obsessively accurate on such subjects.

Here he contemplates a drowned man:

He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching winds

The corpse of Lycidas, like Milton's, changes throughout the poem. I can happily see that for poetic reason he may not be floating, now sunk and now on a laureate hearse. I may be missing something about the word parch here, but I don't understand how a drowned man can be at risk of it.

On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks

Swart means swarthy or dark. Some believe that the star was dark because of it's appearance in the Dog Days, during which you might get a tan. But I have never seen any evidence for this beyond Lycidas.

In this section Milton considers the drowned man's fate. Follow the grammar and meaning closely.

Ay me! whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where'er thy bones are hurled;
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep'st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great Vision of the guarded mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold.
Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth:
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

The first thing you ought to notice is that these are some of the greatest lines ever written. The second is that no sense is made. To what does whilst refer? The whether-whether suggests two possibilities but scattered bones can hardly look homeward. Moreover how can the dolphins be wafting an angel who's Pope-spotting on top of a mount?

The still morn walked out with sandals grey

Still and walking?

The white pink and the pansy freaked with jet

White pink?

I don't know what conclusion to draw from these observations. I'm sure that somebody will object to one or other of them, and perhaps one or all are objectionable. Perhaps I should connect it with another strange aspect of the poem: its obsessive anthropomorphism. Where mythology ends and personification begins is an awkward question. Milton starts by talking to a laurel bush, which could just be a poetic address. Then he talks to the muses: again normal. Then the dawn's eyelids are opening. Then the grey-fly is a female musician. Then river after river is humanised. The Deva spreads her streams. Mincius is confided in and crowned. Camus (the river cam) is wearing a hat.

Odd but doable. What's odd is that Camus, a strange allegorical figure, is part of a procession in which he is followed by Saint Peter. Saint Peter appears to have an equal reality to a hat-wearing river. Indeed the second he's gone Milton is back chatting to yet another stream. The still dawn walks out with sandals grey just after the angels have been singing. All of this is without mentioning the huge cast of occassional characters like Hippotades, Old Damoetas, Amaryllis, Noera etc etc.

Milton does not carry through. He invents an image, be it a funerary urn or a behatted river and then forgets a few lines later that that was his register, his style, his reality. He cannot rest with or carry through on an image. The suggested reality behind the words is unstable, ephemeral and in some cases barely extant.

As I passed the threshold of tediousness long ago, I may as well mention that Milton must have been reading Daphnis and Chloe (I'm not sure that anyone else has noticed this). That work contains, among other things, an Amaryllis in the shade, a complaint to the muses that they let a loved one drown and a loving pair driving the flocks out together every morning.

When Mrs Malaprop sat down to her Finals back at Oxford she found this question:

"But now my oat proceeds" Discuss digestion in Milton.

Surprised, she re-read the question and realised that the word was not digestion but digression.


A she, not a he.
*Or the uncouth swain


  1. The Antipodean7 June 2010 at 07:28

    Well, I can help with one of them... a 'pink' is a flower: the dianthus, commonly called a carnation in these here parts. According to this the name of the colour derives from the flower, ala the orange.

    So he's referring to a white carnation and (I think) black-striped pansy (and in context, a bunch of other flowers). I'm going with freaked=stripy, anyway, since it could be a number of things.

    All of which gives rise to the fact that there do exist pink pinks, which is probably why they're called carnations because a white sports coat and a pink pink just sounds odd.

    And I shall have to stop reading the archives until I catch up on the assigned reading: I'm getting the classical education I never had.

  2. The Antipodean14 June 2010 at 15:52

    I wish I could get a certificate that said that... *sigh*

    This showed up in my feed after loveable_homebody's comments regarding spinsterhood, which as you may recall finished with: "spinsters are to be feared. They are social deviants."

    It wasn't til I commented myself I realised you weren't just being deliberately ambiguous. Well, not on that post, anyway.

  3. Pinks are called pinks because pink means serrated like pinking shears (sierra like mountains means toothed) so the flowers were called serrated and the colour used to be called pale rose became pink