Edward King, "a learned friend, unfortunately drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637." "Who would not sing for Lycidas?" And who would sing for Milton, were he to drop dead at 28, author of a handful of minor poems? "So may some gentle muse / With lucky words favor my destined urn..." And who would sing for the 30-year-old Emerson, all his works yet to be written?
Ruskin, in Sesame and Lilies, seizes upon Lycidas – "a book perfectly known to you all" – & gives it an early & still unsurpassed "close reading":
Now go on: –In both instances, an immediate laying hands on a text familiar from childhood. (A nineteenth-century phenomenon, this easy assuming of familiarity with Milton's minor poems?) I didn't read Lycidas, I suspect, until I was in my mid-twenties. My students are encountering it, for the most part, for the first time – unless they've read it in another college course. What's lost in the university teaching of canonical poems when students (& for that matter their instructors) don't have that from-childhood familarity with the text? (More importantly, since there's no turning back the cultural clock, what's gained?)
'Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast.
Blind mouths –'
I pause again, for this is a strange expression; a broken metaphor, one might think, careless and unscholarly.
Not so: its very audacity and pithiness are intended to make us look close at the phrase and remember it. Those two monosyllables express the precisely accurate contraries of right character, int he two great offices of the Church – those of bishop and pastor.
A 'Bishop' means 'a person who sees.'
A 'Pastor' means 'a person who feeds.'
The most unbishoply character a man can have is therefore to be Blind.
The most unpastoral is, instead of feeding, to want to be fed, – to be a Mouth.
Samuel Johnson hated Lycidas. One of the best "bad review" lines ever: "Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known its author."
For Johnson, the poem suffered in the first place from being a pastoral, "easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting." (Keeping in mind that "vulgar" and "disgusting" meant something rather different in 1779 than they do now.) Its pastoral frame, its allegory, its "inherent improbability" – its lack of shall we say realism – mean that the poem "will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour." And Lycidas's "grosser fault" lies precisely in Milton's Renaissance humanism: its mingling of the "awful and sacred truths" of Christian religion with the "trifling fictions" of the classical pastoral. If Lycidas is praised, Johnson concludes, it is because the "blaze" of "reputation justly acquired" "drives the eye away from nice examination."
We could say, I think, that Lycidas just isn't the sort of poem Johnson likes; (and – moreover?) that it violates his criteria of aesthetic valuation, criteria which include a certain "smoothness" of texture, a certain realism, and above all an ironclad decorum: one simply oughtn't higglety-pigglety mix together classical nymphs & singing shepherds with Christian pastors, regardless of the etymology of "pastor" itself.
(Discuss, perhaps, in relation to Michael Thurston's "review" of Black Life?)