Weep no more, woful Shepherds weep no more, [ 165 ]
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, [ 170 ]
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, [ 175 ]
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, [ 180 ]
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. [ 185 ]
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, [ 190 ]
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.
As one delves into the depths of Lycidas, he or she is confronted by a barrage of literary and historical images which all accord to present a mega-narrative on Milton’s view of theodicy. Beginning in line fifty, Milton asks the mythological creatures of the sea why they were unable to save his drowned companion, Edward King, only to realize that not even Orpheus’ mother could save him from dismemberment. After a few lines of introspective questioning regarding the possible futility of “laborious” academic study, Milton again turns his focus to abductive inquiry. Finding no sufficient answer from Neptune, the poet concludes that the ship, which was built during an eclipse, must have been cursed in its construction. With no sufficient answer presented, unpredictably, Milton closes his poem with a song of joy regarding the final fate of young Lycidas. He declares to the “Shepherds” that they are to “weep no more” (line 165), for young Lycidas will rise again, by the power of the one that “walk’d the waves.” This ending not only confuses many readers, but it also illumines the NT theme of the resurrection in a very non-theodical (pardon the neologism) sense by demonstrating, much like the book of Job, that life’s occurrences, and thus God’s way, are inexplicable.
The book of Job is a story that outlines God’s control over suffering. However, unlike many in the Christian tradition through the years, I am unconvinced that the book of Job is to be understood as providing the ultimate explanation that Job and his companions were seeking. Rather, the line of questioning from God at the end of the narrative does not ever answer Job’s questions, but instead asks the resounding, “Who are you, oh man, to answer back to God?” This ending is unsettling for those of us seeking for answers for life’s problems. And even John Milton, in Lycidas, finds himself falling into the same speculative process. However, rather than present a pithy explanation of God’s sovereignty, Milton answers his questions in the most Biblical way. He leaves the questions unanswered, and thus proclaims the resurrection of Lycidas as the ultimate answer. In other words, Milton does not try to provide some sort of philosophical theodicy explaining God’s ultimate control over individual events in history, but rather is satisfied to proclaim the eschatological hope of resurrection as the ultimate concern and answer for persons in history.
The final eight lines of Lycidas change focus dramatically and serve as the practical element of the poem. Realizing that life is fragile, admitting that he could very well end up like Edward King, and trying to remain eschatologically consistent, Milton concludes that it is not the “uncouth Swain’s” responsibility to find the answer to such awe-full questions. There is a two-fold sense of resurrection that Milton hints at. First of all, the afore mentioned aspect of future resurrection, joy, and hope undercuts the entire final stanza. But there is a more profound and immanent theme that Milton emphasizes. This second theme is that of new life. In Pauline fashion, Milton’s “Swain” (which undoubtedly was himself) received new life. He attempted to tap into the mysterious counsel of divine providence, only to realize that such things were unutterable, when finally he embraced the eschatology of hope that is only found in the resurrection of “him that walk’d the waves.” And having answered his existential crisis, the Swain picks up his mantle and continues on to “fresh Woods” and “Pastures new.”
Milton of course did head to “Pastures new” shortly after this poem was written. After writing Lycidas, Milton engaged himself actively in public and political life in England, began family life, and did not pick up the shepherd poet’s pen again until old age. This poem thus signifies a major Event in Milton’s life. Never shying away from academic exercises, he nonetheless focused his life on immanent, terrestrial matters. For Milton, it was in these platforms that eschatological life is lived, and to ignore such would be to live unfaithfully in a world that is often short and unfair.