Tomorrow to Fresh Woods and Pastures New – Extracts from John Milton’s Poem, Lycidas
Recently I wrote a piano piece, which I subsequently handed to James Horsfall, a friend from Jersey who is blessed with much greater musical skills than myself. James not only did a superb job arranging and orchestrating it, but took me by surprise by suggesting that I set it to Milton’s poem Lycidas.
I have always loved the promise at the end of this poem: Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new!’ I remember hearing Dad, as a lecturer in English Literature reciting similar lines from Milton’s Comus; so on his eighty sixth birthday , I asked him to record highlights of the poem to accompany the music. He did it really well in more or less one take – you’ll soon hear why he was an actor!
Although Lycidas is one of Milton’s earliest poems, it is also one of his finest. Because many of the words he uses are either archaic or pointing to allusions from the classical world, however, I have added footnotes to explain the more obscure terms.
The poem starts with Milton’s grief over the sudden loss of his friend and classmate from Cambridge University, Edward King, who drowned off the coast of Wales on a crossing from Ireland. Milton bestows the name of Lycidas on him – a common name in Greek and Latin pastoral elegies.
There is more to this elegy than a simple lament for a friend however. As a fervent Puritan Milton inveighs heavily what he regarded as the self-serving shepherds in the main line Church. At the same time he also alludes to the national threat that England had been facing from Spain.
He then moves on to celebrate that his friend is now enjoying the ’sweet society’ in Heaven, and makes an early reference to the heavenly themes that become so prominent in his epic poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.
You will be able to appreciate the music much better here in this version without words.
Lycidas 1st section – The death of his friend
…Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat’ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
For we were nurs’d upon the self-same hill,
Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill;
Together both, ere the high lawns appear’d
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove afield, and both together heard
What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt’ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose at ev’ning bright
Toward heav’n’s descent had slop’d his westering wheel.
Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
Temper’d to th’oaten flute;
Rough Satyrs danc’d, and Fauns with clov’n heel,
From the glad sound would not be absent long;
And old Damætas lov’d to hear our song.
But O the heavy change now thou art gone,
Now thou art gone, and never must return!
2nd section: Condemnation of corrupt and self-serving shepherds in the English Church
Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake;
Two massive keys he bore of metals twain
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:
“How well could I have spar’d for thee, young swain,
Enough of such as for their bellies’ sake
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck’ning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw,
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said,
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more”.
3rd section: Look away from the threat of Spain and contemplate heavenly things!
… The great vision of the guarded mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold:
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth;
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.
Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
through the dear might of Him that walk’d the waves;
And hears the inexpressible nuptial 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,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
Thus sang the uncouth swain to th’oaks 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 Doric lay;
And now the sun had stretch’d out all the hills,
And now was dropp’d into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitch’d his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
 Welter – to roll, heave (of waves); to become deeply involved or entangled
 Lawns used to mean glades as well as lawns
 Batten – usually meant to thrive or prosper (by feeding), but it had an additional nautical meaning that makes a lot of sense in the light of Edward King’s shipwreck: to cover (a hatch) so as to make watertight (hence ‘to batten down’).
 Westering – moving or shifting toward the west:
 Pan(’s) pipes
 Old Damoetas – Milton draws on a name from the Greek pastoral elegies to designate William Chapple, their joint tutor at Cambridge
 A reference to St Peter to whom were given the keys of Heaven
 Ope – opening
 Amain – (poetic and archaic) with great strength, speed, or haste
 As a devout Puritan John Milton misses no opportunity to denounce the Anglican bishops who followed the king’s lead in persecuting non conformists. They are depicted here in graphic language as being self-seeking interlopers who fail to feed the hungry sheep. The mitre is of course the bishops’ mitre.
 Scramble – means not only to ‘climb or move quickly using one’s hands and feet, as down a rough incline’ but also to compete with others for possession or gain.
 Flashy – ostentatious but superficial.
 Scrannel – squeaky, scratchy and anything but melodious.
 The grim wolf – a striking image by which Milton designates the official (persecuting) Church.
 Two-handed engine – most probably a two handed sword, or axe.
 The ‘guarded mount’ is Mount St. Michael’s, off Land’s End in Cornwall, Milton is imagining Michael, as the patron saint of England looking out to protect England from the threat of the overseas religion of Spain being imposed on it.
 Namancos is in Spain and Bayona is a fortress near Cape Finisterre.
 Whether the reference to the Angel is to St. Michael himself, or to Lycidas, in either case, the call is to look away from the threat of Spain (represented by Namancos and Bayona) and instead to look homeward – which could be either England, the Heavenly Kingdom or both!
 Ruth – pity, compassion, grief, sorrow
 Quills – the hollow reeds of the shepherd’s pipes; the stops are the holes you cover as with every other woodwind instrument to produce the different notes.
 Doric – Greek.
 Cf Virgil Eclogues 10: “Love conquers all things; yield we too to love!”