MEET THE CONTRIBUTORS
We asked all of our contributors to tell us about their favourite lines of Milton and their experiences of reading his work.
Where were ye nymphs when the remorseless deep
Closed o'er the head of your loved Lycidas?
For neither were ye playing on the steep,
Where your old bards, the famous Druids, lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream:
Ay me, I fondly dream!
Had ye been there… for what could that have done?
Milton wrote Lycidas as an elegy for Edward King, a contemporary of his at Christ's College, who died in 1637 in a shipwreck on the Welsh coast. Milton was only twenty-nine when he wrote Lycidas, but he displays remarkable poetic self-awareness. He adapts the classical style of pastoral to his own purposes, foreshadowing his later blending of classical and scriptural devices in Paradise Lost. By writing pastoral, Milton was consciously comparing himself to Virgil, who wrote pastoral in his early career, before going on to write the greatest Latin Epic, the Aeneid. Lycidas, therefore, whilst mourning Edward King, is also a statement of Milton's objectives as a poet, and an exhibition of his talent and versatility.
When I first read Lycidas, these lines seemed to cry out, the poem suddenly questioning its own imagery, turning back on itself and gesturing to a grief existing somehow beyond or prior to the poem itself. This self-doubt grows in intensity. A question about the location of the nymphs, the spiritual powers of the pastoral mode, is replaced with a question about the power of all such imagery. The first person voice - 'Ah me! I fondly dream' - breaks through, shattering any pretence of objectivity, and revealing a conflict between the speaker and his own words (an idea strengthened by the fact that in Milton's time the word 'fond' also meant 'foolish'). Indeed, more than this, Milton seems to challenge poetry at large. What is a poet after all, but a fond dreamer? Edward King remains dead and poetry could not have saved him.
In this oscillation between the general and the specific, the imaginary and the real, the objective and the subjective, Milton demonstrates the fullest expressive advantages that poetry has over prose. The constraints of poetic form become a standard against which Milton can contrast his own feelings. I think this struggle of individual sentiment and self-imposed restriction is essential to all affective art. In poetry, this is particularly apparent, because of the very unnaturalness of rhyme and lineation. Milton erects a pattern of iambic pentameter and then repeatedly deviates from it with shorter lines and arresting rhyming couplets spaced at irregular intervals, just as he declares his pastoral form, only to then question it. This conflict between doubtful effusion and formal limitation has huge mimetic potential, and allows us to pour our own emotion into the experience of reading the poem.
Gabriel is a third year English undergraduate at Christ's College. His principal academic interest is the interaction between literature and philosophy, with particular regard to the German enlightenment. Related interests include Renaissance Italian art, and classical music. He is originally from Hertfordshire and intends to teach English and philosophy once he has left Cambridge.
Milton and politics
Plot Summary: Book VII