Allusions to Characters in Mythology in John Milton’s “Lycidas”

I think that the most difficult part of this week’s reading were the heavy allusions to mythology, specifically all the names in Lycidas by John Milton. I am not extremely familiar with the Gods, mythological creatures, or the stories, so I had a hard time understanding what was really happening and I felt like I was missing some of the references that were being made.

One particular example of a name that I came across was “Phoebus.” After googling “Phoebus,” I realized that Phoebus is the Roman name for Apollo, “god of music, truth and prophecy,” etc. (Wikipedia). I felt like knowing this information helped me understand why he was telling the speaker that fame on earth is not comparable to life in Heaven, where true fame is possible. If Phoebus is the God of prophecy, he would probably know a lot about everyone’s lives and what could potentially happen in the future.

Another example is found in lines 58-63, “What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore…down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?” In these lines, the speaker is alluding to the story of Orpheus, which packs so much information into just a few lines. After looking up Orpheus, I learned that his mother was the Muse Calliope who wasn’t able to save him from the “rout that made the hideous roar”.

I think the best way to approach this passage is to try to gain context from the lines above and below, and use the internet to look up names to get a general sense of who the characters are. I think it’s still possible to understand what the poem is saying even if the reader doesn’t know all of the mythology behind it. For example, in lines 58-63 (as mentioned above), I was still able to understand that the Muse couldn’t even save her own son, so maybe he shouldn’t blame the Muses for not saving Lycidas. However, I do think it’s possible to understand the poem more deeply when the reader is familiar with the mythology behind it.

One comment

  • Great post, Preeyal! It seems as though you are not alone in picking up on all these tricky references, but I’m glad you took the time to look them up and make sense of what Milton is on about. I wonder: why do you think Milton uses all these references? What is achieved by invoking all these classical (i.e., ancient Greek and Roman) themes?

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