Milton’s multi-layered poem “Lycidas” is a literary work with a variety of interpretations and meanings. One of the many angles from which we can attempt to understand the poem is the meta-poetic level. Meta-poetics is quite a wide range of ideas, which generally can be described as dealing with authorship and the poet’s relations with the audience and the poem itself, as well the exploration of the process of writing a poem.
The meta-poetic, or ars-poetic, tone will concentrate on identifying Milton’s emotional and psychological experiences in the process of creation-his intentions, hesitations and hopes-all in the light of the fascinating triangle of poet-poem-audience. The focus will be on the formation and reformation of Milton’s psyche in the poem, as a reflection of himself and as a work of art.
When reading a work of literature, and a poem in particular, the reader must always bear in mind the poet’s position and involvement in the text, but we usually use it to reach a deeper insight about the meaning of the poem. On the other hand, the ars-poetic imagination, which will be used in this paper, will try to look at the meaning as created equally by the poet and by the poem itself. In this vision, a poem is the documentation of life, as a reflection of the psyche, a portrait of the author as an artist and a philosopher, and eventually as a human being.Order now
This would be a good place to mention that Watterson quotes in his notes Harold Bloom, saying that “a poetic text, as I interpret it, is not a gathering of signs on a page, but is a psychic battlefield upon which authentic forces struggle for the only victory worth winning, the divinating triumph over oblivion”. The scope of this realm of interpretation is probably too wide, and therefore I will only provide a glimpse at the man behind the poem, touching this rich world of content, mainly through the post-modern psychological theories regarding the poem.
The complexity of the poem demands from us a familiarity with some of the more basic, though not less intriguing layers of “Lycidas”, before we move to the deep levels of interpretations. The poem was written as an elegy lamenting Edward King-a schoolmate of John Milton whose short life ended with a unfortunate drowning. The poet declares in the head-note that besides lamenting his friend, he will also engage in foretelling the fall of the “corrupted clergy”, which implies a political and ideological critique.
This initial statement develops certain expectations in the readers’ minds-expectations regarding the tone and the themes discussed in the poem. After this head-note, the poem begins with a mourning tone, warning the natural world of his grief and sorrow-“I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude/ and with forced fingers rude” 3-4. Only then, with a slight delay over his melancholic mood, the poet invokes the muses to assist him in his mission of creating a poem-“begin then, Sisters of the sacred well” 15.
After securing the support of inspiration, the poet turns to speak of young Lycidas, a symbolic character of nature, poetry and music, and the happy times of delight he shared with the speaker of the poem. The poem then seems to get complicated by involving different speakers, among them the voice of Pheobus and the Pilot of the Galilean lake , who represent two of the thematic realms of the poem-the mythological and the Christian.
After a series of accusations and condemnation- “anow of such as for their bellies sake/ creep and intrude, and climb into the fold” 113, the poem returns to its pastoral mood of peace and quiet, with a note of acceptance and reconciliation with reality-“now Lycidas the Shepherds weep no more” 181. The poem concludes with a sense of vitality and reinforcement: And now the Sun had stretched 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. 90-193 the optimistic lines above conclude an elaborate poem, which combines the natural, the mythical and the human to convey its messages, and shows the notion of the psycho-dynamic movement “from denial to anger to depression to resolution” Creaser 144. This conclusion could probably represent the fact that author managed to overcome “ego’s recognition of unattainable or illicit desire”-the desire of everlasting honor and fame.
According to my reading and understanding of the poem, the content appears to be a reflection of Milton’s itself, rather than a detached artifact, thus creating a voice which contains complex dynamics and interaction. A dialogue exists between the poet and his poem, each one reinventing the other in an everlasting cycle of birth and re-birth. The poem is a part of the poet, just as much as the poet is a part of the poem. They are one but also separate, both harmonious and conflicted; a notion somewhat similar to Turner’s “dialectic of presence and absence” 34. A poem is subsequently a journey-an awareness of constant movement and dynamics.
The first major place to look for such a complicated relationship might be the issue of fame in the poem. The poet, as an individual, is concerned with the death and mortality; like others before him, he uses the eternalizing power of poetry to make his name last forever: 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’ abhorred shears, And slits the thin spun life.
But not the praiseÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ 69-75 These lines create a sense that the poem’s focus, or at least its underlying attention is on the poet and his psyche, making it harder to distinguish between the poet and the different speakers in the poem. Poetry can be interpreted in this light as the mortal revenge over death-it is a need to pass something on, to create continuity and to create a monument of oneself. Fame thus becomes not merely a desire for honor and prestige but also the striving to overcome nature.
In James Grantham Turner’s words, this is the instance of “authorship emerging from catastrophe”. The poem itself remains as a constant reminder that a part of Milton will live forever, or as Douglas Brooks describes it, the poem is “offering the power of memory as a definitive gesture against time and death”. This possible identification of the immortalizing power of poetry leads us to a somewhat broader and wider concept of authorship. Milton as an author sees himself in a complex light-as a prophet and an artist.
As early as in the head-note, the author declares that he “by occasion fortels the ruine of our corrupted clergy”, making himself not only a poetic master of the aesthetic but also an accomplished political analyst. Throughout the poem, the poet undergoes a mental journey, which is both difficult and fascinating-from the “bitter constraint and sad occasion dear” 6, via the fact that Lycidas “sunk low but mounted high” 171 to the Saints that “wipe the tears forever from his eyes” 181. The poem is a quest to find comfort and a renewal of faith in the power of poetry and in the poet’s own ability to transcend far above “the uncouth Swain” 186.
When this notion is recognized, it is probable to assume that what we actually find here is that “the guilt of an ambitious survivor is both revealed and repressed” Watterson 54. The poet turns determined and motivated to achieve his earthly fame, and thus duplicating something of the sublime and heavenly: 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 perfect witnes of all judging Jove; As he pronounces lastly on each deed, Of so much fame in Heav’n expect thy meed. 7-83 Therefore, we can detect the poet’s ambition to experience life and death to the fullest through the occupation with the deepest aspects of human existence and the most basic surfaces of individual reality. One can argue that John Creaser was right in his assertion that “the events of ‘Lycidas’ are all in the mind’s eye”; but contrary to Creaser’s view, I would suppose that this is not “a lonely poem of fellowship lost”, but an individualistic protest of self-esteem regained.
My suggestion is that one shouldn’t dismiss Milton’s “egotism and self pity”, that Creaser explains as misunderstood commemoration of friendship, but I would rather interpret as the fuel that energizes Milton to strive for literary excellence. Creaser’s essay ” ‘Lycidas’: The Power of Art” includes several other notions that might be interesting in this context. Creaser states decisively that “there must be some self-concern in mourning-it is the blight man was born for” 126 but he doesn’t go all the way to saying that this projection of self and selfishness are central to milton’s experience as a human being in an emotional storm.
This reading is closely connected to what Creaser states as the contemporary interpretation of ‘Lycidas’ as a dramatic monologue, in which we learn about the speaker who is here inevitably the poet himself even more than he knows about himself on the conscious level. Creaser continues by adding that the poem is even a sort of a soliloquy-“a groping after truth”, though in light of my argument, the truth might be revealed to us more than to the poet itself, which makes the poem indeed “a gradual ebb and flow of discovery” for the postmodern analytic reader who’s equipped with the advantage of theoretical retrospect 140.
Further examination will lead to the conclusion that stating that “rather than being ‘strangled by art’ the poem is liberated by it” reflects quite notably on the poet itself, who found in poetry an escape from mortality; a path for ontological mobility. Creaser concludes by stating that the ending of the poem clarifies that “the sense of gain and loss alike lives in the memory of the now resolved soul” which is now filled with hyperactive “symbolic hints of hope and truth” symbolizing the denial of nihilistic and melancholic bleakness for the revived sense of a promising future of endless possibilities.
Such a topic as the poet’s position in the poem could be found, in one way or another, in almost every literary criticism essay and a close examination can reveal trails of meta-poetic and psychoanalytical insights. Roy Flannagan in “Milton Criticism, Present and Future” states that the psychoanalytic theory, using Freudian terms, shows Milton as an ” ‘anal personality, both expulsive and retentive’ ” 400.
And this complex personality which created” the textual artifact which is ‘Lycidas’ “, and in Lloyd Edward Kermode’s words, constantly continues “metamorphosing, adding and subtracting substances” 12 . Armed with the “sense of sustaining power” Milton undergoes “a process of psychological introspection” Louis L. Martz 178-79. The poet is now focused on his major project of commemorating himself and “resolutely and skillfully maintaining his place in the poetic succession” Martz 180.
Typically human, Milton is drawn into an emotional zigzag, eventually freeing himself of “the great meditation on the possible futility of striving to achieve great poetry” in order to get to the peak of “poetic and redemptive power”, reaching the much expected “purifying, strengthening effect” Martz 181-183. Barbara Currier Bell’s essay “‘Lycidas’ and the stages of grief” deals with Milton’s emotional processes, through the perspectives of psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis, in a quest after the poem’s movement “from struggle to calm” 167.
The general outlook on grief and mourning there regards them as universal human phenomena, with a well ordered structure of “denial, anger, depression and resolution” in this sequence. There are also various sub-stages as “shock and refusal to accept the loss” , and “acceptance and relinquishment” 167. Bell makes it clear that “the poem begins with a sense of shock” and “underlying protest”, which could be viewed as expressions of denial.
At this stage Milton is so overwhelmed by the fear if death that he is still blind to any possibility of making peace with this fact, instead showing even a sense of panic and hysteric response to an event that caught him unprepared and unequipped to deal with its consequences and implications. After it comes the inevitable acknowledgment of death, after the author understands that “denial fuels his reluctance to write” 168. The emphasis is always on the author’s constant and understandable preoccupation with his own life and death.
Understanding that death awaits him too, Milton enters into the stage of rage, finding himself “at the highest pitch of emotion” 169. Milton is now in the stage of complaining about the cruel fate, about the unfair human destiny “angrily questioning what a person’s work in life is worth if it is to be arbitrarily cut off by death, and threatening to give up all effort” 169. Gaining further awareness of what will is now called the absurdity of human life, and again revealing so clearly his humanity, he searches for someone or something to blame, in order to make some sense of what is so vague.
Bell quotes Parkes who claims that this notion of underlying hostility reflects the mourner’s ” ‘bitter, resentful, irritable’ ” state, since Milton now sees no use in his high aspirations to be famous and respected forever. This intense distress is now accompanied by the “feeling of overwhelming emptiness”, a feeling that is considered one of the most horrible from the human emotions-a sense of the worthlessness of life; the melancholically dark sense of why bother-“no reward is forthcoming for greatness, life is terribly thin” 169.
According to my analysis, Bell’s remark that “rage usually burns with a final explosion” should relate to the ending of the poem, where the author gets to explode all anxiety by his unswerving self contempt. Before this personal catharsis there are still to come the feelings of restlessness, where “awareness of loss is most acute” 170. This point of spiritual weakness and passivity causes people in depress “feel bound by forces beyond their control” 170.
The depression reveals the symptoms of a personality suffering from the disorganized pain of disillusionment and realization, both a punishment and a reward. Only after getting to this acknowledgment and acceptance, the author can recover and find his way to the hall of fame, relying on nothing and no-one but himself. Only now Milton can reach the stage of resolution which is “both convincing and rewarding” since this is the ultimate phase where the author can “reconcile himself to death and live meaningfully because he has known grief” 170-71.
It has to be said once again that in this perspective the basis is maybe individualistic and intimate, looking at Milton as a particular human character, but eventually the implications and conclusions are global, illustrating “the fundamental commonality of the grief process” and of the human psyche in general 171. It is even possible that, unlike Bell’s claim, Milton doesn’t turn to his own concerns just now, but he has preoccupied with them all along, now only finding a solution and gaining the purifying effect of his commitment “to fashioning a new life” 171.
The author realizes it is up to him to create success and hold on to it, and the grief has therefore been a positive process of at least partial self-examination. This projects again on the psychological assumption mourning for others is always also “to some extent mourning for oneself” which in turn shows Milton’s complete “faithfulness to human nature” 172. From this moment on Milton begins a healing process, in which he is both the doctor and the patient. This broad set of ideas might be summed in the suggestion that, for Milton the death in the poem is “an important contributory event in his feeling himself to be a poet”.
The author is not only an artist but also a human being, who is never fully detached from a given situation. Thus, “Lycidas” may reflect Milton’s emotional and intellectual states during its creation. The poem is then seen as an attempt to condense a moment in one’s own life to an object. This is an object that the author can control and maneuver according to his own will. This sense of empowerment, and vision of the poet as an almighty creator, is what makes Milton eventually decide not to give up.
In a way, Milton replies to the question “who would not sing for Lycidas? ” 10 with the decision that he wouldn’t-he would not spend the time immortalizing and praising others while he can do this great service for his own self. This insight of Milton’s objectives resembles William Collins Watterson’s suggestion that the poem is “simultaneously both a repression of envy and an expression of it”, which consequently creates “an ego both relieved and guilty at the death of a poetic competitor”.
So could it be said that in the process of writing the poem Milton confirms, or at least reassures his belief in poetry’s mightiness, and therefore also his capabilities as an author-a creator of poetry. One can generalize by saying that a poem is an autobiography uncovering the mystery of the poet behind the poem and allowing access into some of the deep corners of his mind and soul, sometimes even corners that he didn’t want to take us to. Stephen Booth mentions that great works of art can be seen as “saying what they can not want to say”.
Moreover “it gives the reader the paradoxical capacity to comprehend the incomprehensible”. The poem is created in a manner where inside and outside collide to create a whole, which we later try to disintegrate and analyze. The outside here is the occasion, while the inside is the individual spirit with all of its complexities. In this meta-poetic perspective I have tried to apply here, meaning is created less through an objective interpretation of ideas and images, and rather through psychological and psychoanalytical observations of the poet as an artist and as a human being.
They pose as definitions to each another, and thus create meaning through a mixture of a battle and mutual understanding. When identifying what poetry means for him, Milton’s remark “Ay me, I fondly dream! ” 55 can be translated into action in the form of poetic achievements. The poet now attempts to materialize his desire to say everything and nothing at the same time and “so to interpose a little ease” 150.
Mark Womack states clearly that the poet achieved at least partial success since it “dared push the limits set by the poetic values and attained dynamism, otherwise known as originality”. This success, however, seems to be the result of Milton’s stubborn and intentional struggle “to outdo even himself” Watterson 51. The reading I have tried to apply here, since it is necessarily extra-literary, looks at the human being behind the artifact. This post-modern social sciences perspective is much more interested with undercurrent human forces and less with mere aesthetic and formal criticism.
In a certain way it is also the need to bring to life a text which became opaque by the multitude of meanings, in the way of looking for the creator rather than the creation itself . It is both an attempt to find something new to say about a poem so loaded with critical commentary, as much as an attempt to reveal the consistency of the human spirit throughout ages and locations; a certain need to show that human beings are so similar yet so individualistically unique.
It is eventually an attempt to create a formula of the predictability of human nature; a formula that determines that nothing is predictable but a lot is possible. On the process of writing in such a mode, one might realize that the poem itself becomes almost irrelevant on the expanse of the poet, yet once again, those two are genuinely and authentically inseparable. This is also the making of Milton a human being with fears and conflicts; no longer the distant genius but a simple man who made himself become great.
Moreover, that sort of reflexivity found in the text, definitely might affect the researcher itself, so as to get to an identification with Milton, not as the superior writer who aspires to be the very essence of literary brilliance, but as a fellow human being, motivated by primal urges, universal desires and globally human traits. It even seems fair to say that Milton did not even anticipate such identification with him, just as much as he could not predict other features and characterizations of his mind, part of which can be seen in this text .
From our postmodern perspective one can see more of Milton than it seems at first glance. The notion that silence speaks louder than words also has some room here-Milton does not have to say what he thinks loud and clear , since he communicates to the reader through a much deeper level than words and utterances-the language of the human spirit.
Moreover, it seems as if literature becomes more and more a tool to apply the theories of psychology and other social science; the implication is broad-not only the fact that now literature is no more the exclusive interest of literary critics, but also the fact that literature might be even more full of meaning than the authors/poets probably knew. This phase of literary history in which it seems that everything was said about a poem as a work of art, brings the vibrant interest in widening the boarders of the critical scope to meta-literary and interdisciplinary interpretations of literature.
The implication is that literature at least to some extant, becomes more accessible to the average reader who doesn’t have to look for philosophical and transcendent insights in the literary work, but a search for the roots of humanity; the clearest common denominators of people in all times and places. In my opinion, this kind of an evolution brings renewed interest and fascination with texts that otherwise could have been considered archaic and old-fashioned, but now receive again scholarly legitimacy and thus gain further depth and breadth.
It could even be said that this kind of renewed fascination rules out the vision of art for art’s sake, and help it acquire the status of an aesthetic embodiment of the everlasting attempt to decipher humanity. In accordance with my vision, it is essential to emphasize how deep Milton’s unawareness was, regarding what will be made of his creation-he is now analyzed from within and without; the critic serving as his perceptive therapist. A dead man is resurrected-yet another achievement of poetry that Milton wasn’t even aware of.
If we get back to the terms of the meta-poetics, than it is possible to argue that Milton opened a realm of interaction he might didn’t even imagine to exist, between his audience, his text and himself. I would even argue that in through the kaleidoscope of the human psyche, the critic receives a bit firmer authorization to be judgmental, since the way to understanding human complexity is through constant questioning and skepticism; building and rebuilding one’s impression of a given situation in a given moment.
This is the power the post-modern critic and reader have over Milton-the great awareness of the unawareness. I suggest that it is thus significant to mention that a reading similar to the one I have tried to develop here, is not only meta-poetic, but also meta-critical-following both the process of writing the poem and the process of writing this very essay, and the essence of criticism as a whole.
Such a criticism is almost inevitably reflexive and self examining, since it deals with the issue of human psycho-dynamics. The critic is obliged to put himself into the text, to get emotionally and mentally involved in this process of learning and discovery. Through his writing, he unknowingly allowed us to penetrate into the innermost parts of his mind, in the name of science, in the name of art, or of mere curiosity; especially regarding the fact that those three are often intertwined and generate each other.
Ultimately, there is no one proper way of reading “Lycidas”, and poetry in general, and by understanding it, we can begin trying to attach some meaning of our own, according to our terms of reference. At this point we might also develop a similar relationship of dependence and disparity with our texts, and therefore learn a lot about ourselves as writers and readers. Just as “Lycidas” is a poem that documents a journey-a private Odyssey for Milton, this text also serves as an embodiment of its composer in numerous ways-some premeditated, others unconscious.