Celebrating John Milton's 400th Birthday

William Wordsworth had a habit of comparing himself to—and even being in competition with—John Milton. Once Wordsworth asked a friend what he thought was the greatest elegy of the English language. The friend said that Milton's "Lycidas" was the greatest, to which Wordsworth replied, "It may, I think, be affirmed that Milton's 'Lycidas' and my 'Laodamia' are twin immortals." His fixation also turns up at one point in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "English Traits." Wordsworth met a man in London who showed him a watch that had belonged to Milton. Taking the watch and holding it out in front of him, Wordsworth then held out his own watch to compare the two side-by-side.

Dec. 9 is Milton's 400th birthday, which is as good a time as any to note that John Milton has been, more than anyone but Shakespeare, an inspiration and a rival to later poets. Although he's best known for his epic, "Paradise Lost" and its dramatic vision of Satan, his great elegy "Lycidas" has also been among the most persistently influential works in the language. The poem, which gave subsequent generations a framework for dramatizing themselves and their times, remains unmatched for the sheer force and music of its rhetoric, and for the provocation it has presented to his literary heirs.

Nearly every major poet since the 19th century has felt the poem's hold. John Keats acknowledged it in the lines, "For I am brimfull of the friendliness/That in a little cottage I have found;/Of fair-hair'd Milton's eloquent distress,/And all his love for gentle Lycid drown'd." When Keats died at 26, Percy Bysshe Shelley modeled his elegy for the poet on Milton's masterpiece. Walt Whitman's magnificent lament on the death of Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," refashioned "Lycidas" in Whitman's distinctly American idiom, and the poem's influence continued throughout the 20th century. Under its authority were Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot (though he never admitted it, having once famously proclaimed that Milton's poetry "could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatsoever") and Robert Lowell, who was writing nearly 350 years after "Lycidas" appeared. Allen Ginsberg was so in thrall to the poem that he could recite all 193 lines by heart.

Milton wrote "Lycidas" shortly after the death of his Christ's College classmate, Edward King. In the poem's epigraph, he called the work a monody—a lyrical elegy sung by one voice—in which "the Author bewails a learned Friend, unfortunately drown'd in his Passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637. And by occasion fortels the ruine of our corrupted Clergy then in their height." It is not certain why Milton chose to represent King as Lycidas, an obscure character from the pastoral poems of Virgil and Theocritus. In fact, there is no evidence that King and Milton were particularly close. Had the poem been a conventional elegy for a dead acquaintance, however, it would probably not be of much interest. Part of what has allowed the poem to endure for so long is that it's not really about King.

In a letter to a friend written the year of King's drowning, Milton said, "What am I pondering, you ask? So help me God, immortality." Immortality seems to have long been of interest to Milton. The first poem he ever published was a sonnet on the death of Shakespeare, describing his poetry as a "live-long monument," which served better as his tomb than any that could be built for him. It was that kind of success that Milton obsesses over in "Lycidas." "Comes the blind Fury with the abhorred shears," he writes, "And slits the thin-spun life. 'But not the praise,'/Phoebus replied, and touched my trembling ears." It becomes clear shortly after the poem begins that Milton is the principle character, that King's drowning was, if anything, a reminder of his own mortality and that it gave Milton a pretense for writing about it. Milton's elegy, as Harold Bloom noted, "sets the pattern in which all those that come after are elegies for the self."

Milton's desire for fame isn't the only focus of the poem. He also included an angry invective against the English clergy, which was all the more clever for its imagery. In the pastoral elegies that inspired "Lycidas," shepherds and sheep are common tropes. But in a Christian context, these tropes have a different meaning, with a shepherd being a religious leader and the flock being his congregation. Milton kept the pastoral conventions, but used them in his criticism of the Church of England: the bishops are shepherds that leave their flocks to starve, and the church becomes a wolf. In "Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot," Anna Beer notes that the passage reveals Milton's belief that the church had become too authoritarian, and that its emphasis on ritual came at the expense of preaching. "The dark pastoral of Lycidas," she writes, "was not only an exploration of John's own sense of the precariousness of life and art but one of the first clear expressions of his engagement with the political and religious crisis in his country."

Readers for centuries have recognized that all this makes Milton's grief over King seem insincere, if not self-absorbed. The charge is true to a degree, yet Milton's exquisite language can display a profound pathos. Of Lycidas he writes: "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." Milton's diction, which remains among the greatest in English, is largely what holds the poem together. Its iambic rhythm moves the reader easily from one subject to another, keeping the flow in tact. Even when the poem's different parts feel unrelated to one another, they never feel unnecessary. Rather, they broaden the scope of the poem, saving it from solipsism, and they're so precisely balanced within the poem that it feels if one were removed the rest would topple.

The fragmented modernism of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" couldn't seem further from Milton's pastoral imagery, but Eliot's elegizing of himself and the modern world repeated the same pattern. Robert Lowell did much the same in "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," published in 1946 and ostensibly lamenting the drowning of his cousin, as Milton mourned Edward King. Undoubtedly poets in the future will find in "Lycidas" a model for their own grand elegies.