Milton wrote “Lycidas” a few months after his friend, Edward King, died in a shipwreck in 1637. The poem is a pastoral elegy—a form of poetry used to memorialize the dead—and has become one of the most famous reflections on loss in the English language.
In the poem, Milton uses the death of the imaginary Lycidas as an occasion to mourn the death of his friend. His elegy weaves together classical and Christian images, moving from the pastoral tradition to the poem’s final consolation: the promise of a harmonious song in Heaven, where Lycidas has been resurrected and lives again.
Milton and Edward King met at Cambridge, where they were classmates and literary rivals. Though King had published just 12 poems at the time of his death, his friends and teachers wrote a collection of poetry praising his talent and mourning the loss of what he might have accomplished. Milton published “Lycidas” in 1638 as part of that collection.
Though Milton wrote “Lycidas” to memorialize his dead friend, the poem is also doing much more. It is not so much an obituary for King as a poem written on the occasion of King’s death. By reimagining himself and King as two shepherds, Milton distances himself from King’s actual death and puts his poem in dialogue with the conventions of pastoral poetry. More than King, "Lycidas" is about the relationship between grief and the traditions available to a poet who wants to express grief.
By writing a pastoral elegy, Milton positions himself at the end of a tradition of great poets and suggests that he deserves a place among them. Pastoral poetry began with Theocritus, a classical Greek poet who wrote about shepherds having singing competitions in the fields. Theocritus’s shepherds often sing about the dead, and seem to lose themselves in emotion, but their elegies are also highly structured. Though they appear to speak from their hearts, they are always competing with others for the honor of composing the best poem. Milton never mentions a competition between shepherds in “Lycidas,” but Milton’s readers would have had these singing battles at the back of their mind as they read his elegy.
Pastoral poetry has a long history, and anyone who uses the form is putting themselves in conversation with all the poets famous for their pastoral poems. By writing a pastoral elegy, Milton is announcing to the world that he wants to compete with writers like Theocritus and Virgil. Even as he mourns his dead friend, he is establishing his own claim to literary fame through a poem that puts him in a singing competition with some of the greatest poets in history.