It’s known that Milton’s “Lycidas” is a mosaic of quotations. One piece of its puzzle fell into place for me this morning. Toward the beginning of the poem, the speaker is winding himself up to deliver a full-bore elegy that will bear comparison to the great examples of antiquity, simultaneously elevating his subject (Edward King, a Cambridge graduate drowned at sea) and himself (an obscure Cambridge undergraduate known for his delicate manners, here taking the role of a sheep-herding “uncouth swain”). He says:
He must not lie upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
Begin then, sisters of the sacred well
That from beneath the feet of Jove doth spring;
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
Hence with denial vain and coy excuse,
So may some gentle Muse
With lucky words favor my destined urn…
The word “unwept” flashes back to Horace, Odes 4.9:
Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona
multi; sed omnes inlacrimabiles
urgentur ignotique longa
nocte, carent quia uate sacro.
(Many strong men lived before Agamemnon; but all such go unknown into the long night, bereft of mourning, because they lack a holy bard.) The heroes of remote antiquity are “ungrievable,” as Judith Butler might say, not because there’s anything wrong with their birth or character but for the technical reason that no specialist in commemoration through language had yet arisen. The one word “unwept” carries the allusion to Horace and assigns the speaker of Lycidas a task that, if correctly carried out, will put him on a level with Homer– if we know how to hear it, and I didn’t until about an hour ago.