Lycidas and Milton’s 5 stages of Death

In the poem Lycidas, the reader watches and psychologically follows Milton through a personal crisis as he moves through the five stages, though perhaps not in the requisite order, of grief in suffering the loss of a fellow poet.

In 1637, Milton composed a pastoral elegy called “Lycidas,” commemorating the death of his friend, poet, and fellow Cambridge student Edward King who died while crossing the Irish Sea (Evans). Milton’s poem is richly allegorical; the memory of King is transformed into the persona of Lycidas which is “a shepard’s name that recurs in classical Greek and Latin elegies” (Evans). This imitation of classical tradition was done specifically by Milton. The very choice of the name and title Lycidas signals Milton’s participation within a tradition of remembering a loved one through pastoral poetry (Evans). According to Evans, “in poems written within this tradition the poet typically represents himself as a Shepard mourning the death of a beloved companion whose departure has afflicted the entire natural world with grief” (Evans).

However, in analyzing Lycidas, the question is often invoked as to whether the dominant function of the elegy is to truly memorialize King’s loss or to illustrate Milton’s coming to terms with his own mortality. Perhaps, the answer lies in the very nature of poem itself. Elegies are known to serve therapeutic functions, focusing not only on subject who has died along with the feelings of the poet (Evans).  The poem is divided into versed paragraphs rather than stanzas which aid in demonstrating the chaotic, sorrowful state of mind often associated with grief. The action and tone of the poem echoes the five stages of grief as defined and outlined by the Kubler Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance (Kubler –Ross). The poem’s speaker, arguably, represents Milton. Indeed, during the course of the poem, the speaker not only mourns the loss of his friend, but establishes the rage against ministers of the church and alludes to his own mortality through the usage of the metaphor of Orpheus, the classical musician – both of which are characteristic of Milton, himself.      

The theory which defines and outlines the five stages of grief also known as the The Kubler-Ross model, was first introduced by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying ( Kubler Ross).  Included in her book was the Model of Coping with Dying, which she based on research and interviews with more than five hundred dying patients (Kubler Ross). It describes, in five discrete stages, a process by which people cope and deal with grief and tragedy, especially when diagnosed with a terminal illness or experience a catastrophic loss (Kubler Ross)  The Stages are described within her book as follows: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

            “1) Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual; this feeling is generally    replaced with heightened awareness of possessions and individuals that will be left     behind after death.

             2) Anger: Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue     and is characterized with misplaced feelings of rage.

            3) Bargaining: The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow  postpone or delay death.

            4) Depression: During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death, allowing the dying person to disconnect from things of love and affection.

            5) Acceptance : In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality or that of a loved one, or other tragic event”

            (Kubler Ross pg 231).

Kubler-Ross also added that these stages are not meant to be complete or chronological (Kubler Ross). Her theory suggest that not everyone who experiences a life-threatening or life-altering event feels all five of the responses nor will everyone who does experience them do so in any particular order (Kubler Ross) The theory is that the reactions to illness, death, and loss are as unique as the person experiencing them; thus, some people may become lodged within one stage- incapable of moving beyond (Kubler Ross).

Consistent with Kubler- Ross’s hypothesis which states that the stages of grief may not occur within chronological order, the poem opens with speaker enraged (Kubler Ross).  The “I” in the beginning of the poem speaks to both Milton and the fellow shepard mourning the loss of his friend. “Yet once more, O ye laurels and once more/ Ye Myrtles brown, with never sere, I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude” (lines 1-3). The usage of the phrase once more suggests a routine; grief often manifests upon the bereaved a cycle of continuing to visit, either physically or psychologically the site that invokes memories of the lost loved one while also repeatedly provoking the source of that pain (Kubler Ross).

This often-maddening process of course is not rational, but neither is the nature of grief. The opening passage continues with usage of destructive, forceful verbs such as forc’d, shatter and, bitter; these are all rough words which as Kubler-Ross would claims speaks toward feelings of misplaced rage (Kubler Ross). Line 8, “For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,” invokes the stage of denial with the repetition on the word dead which emphasizes the speaker’s attempt to grasp the loss of his friend.

Yet, it is not only Lycidas’s death which the speaker struggles with, but also the speaker’s own mortality. “So may some gentle Muse/ With lucky words favor my destin’d Urn, And as he passes turn, And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud” (lines 18-21). Lycidas’s death has sparked the speaker’s wonder about his own death, realizing the similarities between himself and Lycidas as they were “nurst upon the self-same hill” (line 22) and “fed the same flock” (line 23). Connecting these similarities reminds the speaker of better times spent with the deceased (lines 24- 35), and while this optimistic change in the tone of the poem does deviate from Kubler- Ross’s model, it offers insight into the biographical nature of the poem. “The pastoral allegory of the poem conveys that King and Milton were colleagues whose studious interest and academic activities were similar” (Womack pg 119; Evans). Both Milton and King, presumably around the same age, were students at Cambridge, demonstrated by the phrase self same hill, and were both skilled in the art of poetry. King’s death mirrors his own.

Suddenly, an abrupt switch happens in the poem, reiterating that Lycidas is dead – “now thou art gone” (line 36). The imagery transforms for the peace of the pastoral country side toward images of death. Nature is no longer nurturing but cruel, “the canker to the rose” (line 45) and the frost to the flowers” (line 47). The speaker’s rage returns accompanied by depression which is illustrated by the alteration from the warmth of nature to its cruel indifference as it was a form of nature, the sea, which claimed the life of the friend.

Setting the tone of the poem within classical tradition allows for the poet to utilize Greek mythology, calling upon the “thankless Muse” (line 66) for their disregard for Lycidas’s life. Such description of the Muse demonstrates, though vaguely, the third stage of grief, bargaining (Kubler Ross). The speaker’s anger and depression which are present throughout most of the poem is pitied against the Gods as he questions why they did nothing for Lycidas when as a fellow shepard he was a faithful servant. Within Greek mythology, the gods were used as methods of explanation for the natural world; thus destructive force of natural is described as the will of the Gods and deities; thus the conjuration of the Gods, the speaker challenges the divine justice or lack thereof in Lycidas’s death.

 Challenging a divine power is, according to Kubler- Ross, typical of the third stage of grief which often causes the individual to engage in some form of negotiation; this negotiation is not overt within Milton’s poem but rather very subtle as he accuses the thankless Muse for disregarding her son Lycidas and questions why bad things happen to good people (lines 150-164). Yet, the divine grace is not the only thing that speaker challenges as round the lien 110, the speaker condemns the church, of which it is said that King had chosen for his true vocation.       

This is decidedly Milton speaking through the verse and offers the most obvious biographical reference within the poem as Milton’s hatred of the corrupted organization of the church was well documented in his life and work. “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” (lines 125-127).The speaker accuses God of unjustly punishing the young selfless king “whose premature death ended a career that would have unfolded in stark contrast to the majority of the bishops of the Church of England (Womack). Milton depicts the bishops as vermin infesting sheep and consuming their innards, weighing the unfair worldly success of the ministers against King’s death by drowning.

Perhaps the most predominant image is the water imagery invoked by Orpheus; the classical musician is a recurring figure within Milton’s poetry and prose. “Whom universal nature did lament, When by the rout that made the hideous roar. His gory visage down the stream sent, Down swift  Hebrus to the Lesbian shore” (lines 61-64).  Yet, the allusion to Orpheus depicts not only the cruel indifference of nature but also the manner in which Lycidas and in turn, King, died. Orpheus was known as a great musician who songs “charmed the rocks and rivers as well as all humans and animals” (Womack).

Orpheus’s music, indeed, rivaled the harmonic melodies of the mythical Sirens and allowed him entrance across the river Styx in Hades where he ventured to plead for his wife after her untimely death (Womack). Inconsolable by her loss, Orpheus spurned the company of woman including a group of Maenads devoted to Dionysus who attacked him; he was ripped to pieces and his dead floated down the river, while still singing, to rest on the isle of Lesbos (Womack). This reference illustrates the loss suffered by Lyciads’s death and outlines the speaker’s own fear of death as the poet realizes that no matter how famed his verse may become; death will still one day take him. The image of Orpheus provides further evidence that the poem Lycidas is more about Milton than memory of the shepard. Milton, himself, was gifted in music and recalling the image of Orpheus asserts that Milton considers himself is one of his contemporaries.

Again, the tone of the poem changes and moves away from hatred and destruction into peace. Lycidas described as being resurrected from the waters and ascends toward heaven to his eternal reward of salvation. This reference to Orpheus which ultimately provides the speaker with some form of comfort. “Weep no more, woeful shepards weep no more” (line 165) as the speaker comes the realization that Lycidas, like Orpheus will become immortalized in verse. Through the very narrative of Orpheus, the speaker comes to realize that as he remembers Lycidas, other shepards will also and Lycidas and, by virtue Milton, will live through their work and memorizes of others; Lycidas will become a sort of local god amongst the shepards, and this realization is final step in Kubler Ross’s model. The speaker and poet has finally reached the stage of acceptance; he can now understand that though he has lost a friend, his friend is now in a better, perhaps more suited place. This realization soothes his own fear of death and reminds that when the poet’s time comes, heaven will also be waiting for him. The speaker has worked through his grief and can now move with his life, “Tomorrow to fresh woods, and Pastures new” (line 193).

Works Cited

Kubler- Ross, Elizabeth. On Death and Dying.  1st ed. Rockerfeller Center, New York: 1969.

Milton, John. Lycidas. John Milton: Complete Poems and Prose. Ed. Merritt Hughes. Hacket Publishing Company, 2003.

Womack, Mark. On the value of Lycidas Studies in English Literature, 1500 – 190037. 1 (Winter 1997): 119-136.

Womack, Mark. Orpheus in Lycidas Studies in English Literature, 1500 – 190038. 1: 129-146.

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