When I was studying literature many many years ago, I loved poetry. It was the sixties so William Blake was very popular (along with J. R. R. Tolkein) but my favorites were Alexander Pope, John Keats, and John Milton. You might wonder how a devout Atheist with tendencies toward anarchism and a penchant for bizarre fiction can even read John Milton, let alone declare that Milton is a favorite poet. To keep it simple: Milton is a great poet.
Even if I don’t exactly agree with his religious or political practices or even find that he was a nice guy: his poetry is great!
I was looking up something earlier and ran across a copy of Milton’s Lycidas. I read through it three times and each time became more and more aware of my life-long love of literature and a certain regret for all the aspirations I had in my early twenties that are now just a fading memory. You might have your Prufrock or your Howl, but for me it’s Lycidas. Remember how it goes …
A Lament for a friend drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637
YET once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not flote upon his watry bear
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of som melodious tear.
Begin, then, Sisters of the sacred well,
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring,
Begin, and somwhat loudly sweep the string.
Hence with denial vain, and coy excuse,
So may som gentle Muse
With lucky words favour my destin’d Urn,
And as he passes turn,
And bid fair peace be to my sable shrowd.
For we were nurst upon the self-same hill,
Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill.
Together both, ere the high Lawns appear’d
Under the opening eye-lids of the morn,
We drove a field, and both together heard
What time the Gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt’ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the Star that rose, at Ev’ning, bright
Toward Heav’ns descent had slop’d his westering wheel.
Mean while the Rural ditties were not mute,
Temper’d to th’Oaten Flute;
Rough Satyrs danc’d, and Fauns with clov’n heel,
From the glad sound would not be absent long,
And old Damætas lov’d to hear our song.
But O the heavy change, now thou art gon,
Now thou art gon, and never must return!
Thee Shepherd, thee the Woods, and desert Caves,
With wilde Thyme and the gadding Vine o’regrown,
And all their echoes mourn.
The Willows, and the Hazle Copses green,
Shall now no more be seen,
Fanning their joyous Leaves to thy soft layes.
As killing as the Canker to the Rose,
Or Taint-worm to the weanling Herds that graze,
Or Frost to Flowers, that their gay wardrop wear,
When first the White thorn blows;
Such, Lycidas, thy loss to Shepherds ear.
Where were ye Nymphs when the remorseless deep
Clos’d o’re the head of your lov’d Lycidas?
For neither were ye playing on the steep,
Where your old Bards, the famous Druids ly,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wisard stream:
Ay me, I fondly dream!
Had ye bin there—for what could that have don?
What could the Muse her self that Orpheus bore,
The Muse her self, for her inchanting son
Whom Universal nature did lament,
When by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His goary visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.
Alas! what boots it with uncessant care
To tend the homely slighted Shepherds trade,
And strictly meditate the thankles Muse,
Were it not better don as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neæra’s hair?
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of Noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious dayes;
But the fair Guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th’abhorrèd shears,
And slits the thin spun life. But not the praise,
Phoebus repli’d, and touch’d my trembling ears;
Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glistering foil
Set off to th’world, nor in broad rumour lies,
But lives and spreds aloft by those pure eyes,
And perfet witnes of all judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in Heav’n expect thy meed.
O fountain Arethuse, and thou honour’d floud,
Smooth-sliding Mincius, crown’d with vocall reeds,
That strain I heard was of a higher mood:
But now my Oate proceeds,
And listens to the Herald of the Sea
That came in Neptune’s plea,
He ask’d the Waves, and ask’d the Fellon winds,
What hard mishap hath doom’d this gentle swain?
And question’d every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beakèd Promontory,
They knew not of his story,
And sage Hippotades their answer brings,
That not a blast was from his dungeon stray’d,
The Ayr was calm, and on the level brine,
Sleek Panope with all her sisters play’d.
It was that fatall and perfidious Bark
Built in th’eclipse, and rigg’d with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.
Next Camus, reverend Sire, went footing slow,
His Mantle hairy, and his Bonnet sedge,
Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge
Like to that sanguine flower inscrib’d with woe.
Ah; Who hath reft (quoth he) my dearest pledge?
Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake,
Two massy Keyes he bore of metals twain,
(The Golden opes, the Iron shuts amain)
He shook his Miter’d locks, and stern bespake,
How well could I have spar’d for thee, young swain,
Anow of such as for their bellies sake,
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck’ning make,
Then how to scramble at the shearers feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouthes! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A Sheep-hook, or have learn’d ought els the least
That to the faithfull Herdmans art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list, their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel Pipes of wretched straw,
The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,
But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.
Return Alpheus, the dread voice is past,
That shrunk thy streams; Return Sicilian Muse,
And call the Vales, and bid them hither cast
Their Bels, and Flourets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low where the milde whispers use,
Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart Star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enameld eyes,
That on the green terf suck the honied showres,
And purple all the ground with vernal flowres.
Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies.
The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Gessamine,
The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jeat,
The glowing Violet.
The Musk-rose, and the well attir’d Woodbine.
With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive hed,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears:
Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the Laureat Herse where Lycid lies.
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
Ay me! Whilst thee the shores, and sounding Seas
Wash far away, where ere thy bones are hurld,
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 deny’d,
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 haples youth.
Weep no more, woful Shepherds weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watry floar,
So sinks the day-star in the Ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled Ore,
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
Through the dear might of him that walk’d the waves
Where other groves, and other streams along,
With Nectar pure his oozy Lock’s he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptiall Song,
In the blest Kingdoms meek of joy and love.
There entertain him all the Saints above,
In solemn troops, and sweet Societies
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
Now Lycidas the Shepherds weep no more;
Hence forth thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood.
Thus sang the uncouth Swain to th’Okes and rills,
While the still morn went out with Sandals gray,
He touch’d the tender stops of various Quills,
With eager thought warbling his Dorick lay:
And now the Sun had stretch’d out all the hills,
And now was dropt into the Western bay;
At last he rose, and twitch’d his Mantle blew:
To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.