Theme of Death in Lycidas and Paradise Lost

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Words: 4079 |

Pages: 9|

21 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 4079|Pages: 9|21 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018


Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Milton's Encounter with Death in "Lycidas"
  3. Pagan Deities and Matters of Faith
  4. Death as a Character in "Paradise Lost"
  5. Adam and Eve's Encounter with Death
    Milton's Four Dimensions of Death
  6. Conclusion


John Milton's initial encounter with death left a profound impact, inducing a sense of disorientation and introspection that found expression in his renowned poem, Lycidas. This poignant work reflects the young Milton's stark realization of his own mortality and prompts contemplation regarding his life's purpose and vocation. In Lycidas, Milton candidly explores his quest for answers, turning to both Christian and pagan deities while documenting his journey through their responses. However, as Milton's life journey unfolds, especially through his involvement in a protracted rebellion and the witnessing of numerous deaths, his perspective on death undergoes a transformation. This transformation is evident in Paradise Lost, where the characters, upon tasting the forbidden fruit, confront death for the first time but leave the garden with newfound resilience, prepared to embrace a fulfilling life unlike any they had known before. A careful examination of Lycidas and Paradise Lost reveals Milton's evolving belief that death serves as a divine instrument, shaping individuals and influencing their life trajectories.

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Milton's Encounter with Death in "Lycidas"

John Milton's limited acquaintance with Edward King did not diminish the palpable grief and shock evident in the early verses of Lycidas. He mourns, "Now thou art gone, and never must return!" Milton's struggle to grapple with King's demise is intriguing, particularly given their superficial connection. This lamentation implies that Milton's turmoil stemmed not solely from King's passing but from his initial confrontation with the inexorable reality of death. This tension in the poem's tragic dynamics, as articulated by Brown, underscores the interplay between serenity and reconciliation on one hand and lamentation and existential questioning on the other, culminating in the eventual exhaustion of all passions (Brown 7). Milton's struggle to contend with this tragic event imbues Lycidas with a raw and multifaceted quality, encapsulating the manifold thoughts and inquiries of the young Milton.

Of particular note is Milton's emphasis on King's untimely death:

"Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime."

At the time of King's passing, Milton himself was in his youth, and this line hints at an element of introspection. It implies that Milton was compelled to ponder whether he, too, might fail to fulfill his divine mission in this world. King's demise forced Milton to confront the unsettling notion that he might never have the opportunity to realize his purpose. This apprehension of unfulfilled destiny served as a driving force behind Milton's decision to compose this poem. Lycidas commences with Milton expressing his apprehensions about composing poetry at a tender age:

"Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere, / I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude, / And with forced fingers rude / Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year."

Fearing that he is venturing into the realm of poetry prematurely, Milton employs the metaphor of harvesting unripe berries to signal his reader to these concerns. Nevertheless, Milton recognizes that composing prematurely is preferable to forfeiting his creative potential due to an untimely demise. King's death proved to be a catalyst in shaping Milton's perception of the role of death in shaping the lives of the living, both in terms of preparing individuals for their own mortality and eliciting responses to the passing of others.

Initially, Milton regards death as a tragic conclusion that prematurely severs the potential contributions individuals could make to the world. Throughout Lycidas, he idealizes King as if they had shared an extensive history together. He writes,

"For we were nursed upon the selfsame hill, / Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill."

This assertion is demonstrably untrue, but it sheds light on Milton's propensity to extol the deceased. This pattern continues throughout the poem as Milton portrays King as a shepherd. In both Christian and pagan traditions, shepherds are often depicted as virtuous figures, sometimes even as heroes or divine beings in disguise. Notable figures such as David, who would become the future king of Israel, emerged from humble shepherd origins before achieving legendary feats, such as his battle with Goliath. Shepherds like Orpheus, Pan, and Paris, as well as heroes like Romulus, Remus, and Oedipus, all received care and protection from shepherds in their infancy. Furthermore, Christ himself invoked the metaphor of the good shepherd. By casting Lycidas as a shepherd, Milton seemingly places him in a position of lowly insignificance, yet simultaneously elevates him to the status of a concealed hero.

Pagan Deities and Matters of Faith

Milton's elegiac lament over Lycidas' untimely death hints at the potential heroism that could have sprung from the deceased, akin to renowned figures like David, Orpheus, or Paris, who transcended their initial roles as shepherds to fulfill their destinies and make profound contributions to the world. Milton's romanticization and exaltation of an acquaintance he scarcely knew inadvertently disclose his struggle with coming to terms with death. In crafting an image of King as an unrealized hero denied the opportunity to bestow his gifts upon the world, Milton indirectly reflects upon his own apprehensions. Beyond Edward King, Milton seems to grapple with his own insecurities. Faced with the fragility of life and the looming possibility of his own death, Milton grew increasingly concerned that he might never escape the metaphorical shepherd's life and fulfill his divine calling as a great poet on a mission from God. This realization underscored the significance of seizing immediate opportunities despite apprehensions of unpreparedness, for such opportunities might never present themselves again. Milton's personal journey taught him that death profoundly shapes human existence, often serving as the catalyst for individuals to embark on their true life's work. In his quest for answers, Milton unexpectedly turns to pagan gods to seek understanding of the inexplicable. He demands,

"Where were ye, nymphs, when the remorseless deep / Closed over the head of your loved Lycidas?"

In a curious departure from his Christian faith, Milton directs his questions not to God but to the nymphs.

During this phase, Milton's faith appears less absolute compared to his later work in Paradise Lost, where references to pagan deities and figures are fleeting and derogatory when juxtaposed with Christian counterparts. At this juncture, Milton turns to pagan gods before invoking Christian ones, yet finds no satisfying resolutions. He grapples with "the meaning of that loss in the unfolding providential plan," firmly believing in a divine plan and purpose for human life, while questioning why Edward King met such an early demise and why such a fate was necessary (Brown 6). Notably, Milton does not question whether there exists a benevolent divine power that loves humanity; rather, his crisis of faith centers on why individuals like King are allowed to perish in their youth. This lingering question remains unresolved until Paradise Lost, when death gains entrance to the world, and God reveals His perspective on death's role in the grand scheme of existence. Consequently, existential queries arise concerning the purpose of life if mortality is an inevitable outcome. Reflecting on King's premature passing, Milton bemoans,

"Alas! What boots it with unceasing care / To tend the homely slighted shepherd's trade, / And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?"

King, having dedicated his life to shepherding without breaking free of his metaphorical disguise, failed to realize his potential heroism. Milton fears that if he were to lead a shepherd's life, his existence would be devoid of purpose, as he would not be remembered for tending to sheep, and the world would remain unchanged by his presence.

It is at this juncture that Phoebus, a pagan deity, intervenes in Milton's spiritual journey and imparts wisdom on how to attain immortality:

"Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil. Of so much fame in heaven expect thy meed."

The crux of life's purpose, according to Phoebus, lies in engaging in endeavors of enduring significance, ensuring one's remembrance on Earth or in heaven. It is no coincidence that the plants mentioned at the poem's outset symbolize immortality (Adams 184). Consequently, the act of composing Lycidas, and subsequent literary creations, became Milton's pathway to securing a form of immortality. This quest to be remembered materialized in the form of Paradise Lost, the summation of Milton's life experiences and deeply held beliefs.

Death as a Character in "Paradise Lost"

Milton's early encounters with death provide a compelling backdrop for his portrayal of death as a character in Paradise Lost. In the epic, Milton makes the intriguing choice to personify death, granting it lines, actions, and its own agenda throughout the narrative. Remarkably, Death exists without a corporeal form; it possesses the faculties of smelling and tasting and is referred to as "he," yet it "has no body and feeds on life" (Goldsmith 69). Death's defining trait is its insatiable hunger; no matter the extent of mortality in the world, Death remains perpetually voracious. As such, Death emerges as a character, albeit an unconventional one, lacking a fixed form but possessing senses and urges. Furthermore, its morphology is mutable, as it transforms into a more formidable and grotesque figure when consumed by anger, enhancing its eerie and otherworldly persona (Goldsmith 54). At no point does Milton render Death as a sympathetic character; its insatiable appetite is repulsive and terrifying. It is characterized as "black as night, fierce as ten furies, terrible as Hell."

To Milton, death represents an unstoppable force that can only be thwarted by the other potent figure to whom he attributes form and identity: God. By endowing Death with personification, Milton affords it an identity, thus allowing for the possibility of divine triumph over it. In Paradise Lost, God does not and cannot vanquish abstract concepts such as justice, mercy, or emotions; nevertheless, He retains the capacity to conquer any corporeal entity, even if He chooses not to. While Death's characterization remains abstract and foreboding, it elevates it from a mere concept or inevitability to a discernible entity. Just as God can potentially defeat Satan, the same applies to Death.

Milton also opts to incorporate Death into a tainted lineage, depicting it as the offspring of Sin. Importantly, Death and Sin do not merely manifest in the world following the Fall; rather, Death emanates from Sin herself. Milton posits that death is a consequence of living in a fallen world but also underscores that death ensues as a result of sin.

However, when Death is born, it nearly extinguishes Sin, violently emerging from her womb. Death wields such might that it can obliterate everything in its path, including Sin. Strikingly, Death adorns itself with "the likeness of a kingly crown," emblematic of its sovereign dominion. It becomes evident that Death is unstoppable, rendering human resistance, lamentation, or evasion futile. During its birth, Death accomplishes what is beyond human capability: overcoming sin. The underlying message is clear: death possesses supremacy beyond human reach, surmountable solely by the select few exempt from its grasp—God, the Son, and the angels—owing to their immunity from sin. In Milton's perspective, one transcends the other. Those immune to death are also immune to sin. Although Death makes infrequent appearances in the poem, its presence looms large as a formidable and fearsome force, mirroring its impact on all mortals. Its authority over humanity and its capacity to subdue Sin establish it as an almost insurmountable entity, conquerable only by celestial beings of the highest order. When Death assumes a tangible reality, God views it as an adversary, albeit an unpleasant yet indispensable component of His plan for His children. God perceives Death as a debt to be paid by humanity, reinforcing the notion of Death's peculiar formlessness as depicted throughout Paradise Lost. Death does not figure prominently as a character in the celestial realm of the poem; God refrains from direct interaction with Death and discusses it solely as an obligatory toll to be exacted from humanity.

Adam and Eve's Encounter with Death

In Paradise Lost, death serves as a surrogate for divine justice in God's plan. God regards death as "the final remedy" for humanity (IV 197). Towards the poem's conclusion, Adam is granted a vision that reveals God's boundless mercy for humanity, even as they repeatedly falter and commit wicked deeds. Adam is moved to tears when he witnesses the future horrors his descendants will inflict upon one another. However, Michael reassures him by emphasizing that God will dispatch a Messiah to atone for humanity's sins and save His children. In Milton's perspective, the one inescapable debt humans must discharge is death. Just as Christ himself must undergo death, so must all individuals, for death constitutes an essential component of God's plan. It is a necessity that every person must confront, including God's own Son, who sacrifices Himself to fulfill the redemption of all humankind. Implicit in Milton's depiction is the acknowledgment of the immense power inherent in death, an influence surpassing common perception. Christ's victory over death signifies that He saved humanity through death but returned to conquer it, triumphing over the supposedly unconquerable adversary of mortals.

As a celestial messenger, Michael provides solace to Adam on the subject of death and imparts guidance on how to lead a righteous life. When Eve contemplates suicide as a means of avoiding their impending punishment, Michael advises,

"Nor love they life nor hate but what thou liv'st / Live well, how long or short permit to Heav'n" (VI 553-554).

Michael's perspective on death sharply diverges from that of mortals. He resides in heaven and comprehends that there is more to existence beyond earthly life, with heaven being infinitely superior to the fallen Earth. Despite this awareness, Michael does not recommend that Adam and Eve merely endure life until they can return to heaven; rather, he instructs them to lead virtuous lives. To Michael, death signifies a mere change of scenery; upon their demise, Adam and Eve will return to heaven, where all will be well (McElroy 17). The paramount directive is to live virtuously, interpreted as adhering to God's commandments and instilling this obedience in their progeny (Erskine 580). Through Michael, Milton articulates one of his life philosophies: life should neither be ardently cherished nor vehemently reviled. Excessive attachment to life can evolve into a form of idolatry, diverting focus away from God Himself and onto the earthly blessings He bestows.

Milton contends that everything originates from God and is inherently good. Nonetheless, he underscores that everything is also good because it serves as a reminder of God's benevolence and what He has bestowed upon humanity. Concentrating excessively on the gifts from God, rather than God Himself, is considered sinful. Michael's counsel to Adam and Eve underscores the importance of leading righteous lives. By obeying God's commandments and teaching their descendants to do likewise, they secure their reward in heaven. Milton's portrayal of Death in the mouths of devilish characters diverges from popular heroic notions of death. When Satan encounters Death, their familial connection notwithstanding, they harbor mutual enmity, clashing like "two black clouds / With heav'n's artill'ry fraught" (II 714-715). This confrontation mirrors the mock-heroic duels between knights characteristic of Arthurian legends (Rovang 4).

Milton further satirizes conventional heroic epics when the serpent disputes Eve's assertion that consuming the fruit will result in death. The serpent frames the temptation as a heroic test akin to those found in classical Greek epics, positing that Eve's willingness to risk death by partaking of the fruit manifests courage and commitment. According to the serpent, by daring to confront death, Eve demonstrates the qualities of a classic hero. The serpent argues that God will be impressed by her "dauntless virtue" and would never follow through on His threat (XI 694). Both of these arguments are presented by the devil himself, rendering them invalid without the need for counterarguments. Death undeniably exists, and it is the consequence of succumbing to temptation and sin. As previously established, death emanates from sin, and by partaking of the fruit and sinning, Eve exposes herself to the inevitability of death, a fate that all her descendants will share. Milton dismisses the argument that death is heroic, admirable, or worthy of adulation, particularly as it originates from Satan. To Milton, death is not a subject to be defied with valor; rather, it is to be acknowledged and respected. Satan's flippant attitude towards death is both hypocritical and inappropriate.

Subsequent to consuming the fruit, Adam and Eve undergo an experience akin to Milton's own in Lycidas—an awakening to the nature of death that dispels their innocence. While in the Garden of Eden, they remain oblivious to the concept of death, but their enlightenment brings forth added fear and the loss of innocence. Lycidas essentially revolves around Milton's inaugural encounter with death, an experience that ushers in the end of his innocence. He is compelled to mature and recognize his role in the world, commencing his writing to fulfill his destiny, even when he feels unprepared. Similarly, Adam and Eve, though still retaining childish attributes, must confront the necessity of maturing and perceiving the world's reality. The garden will no longer provide for their every need, and they will no longer inhabit a paradise devoid of sin and adversity.

Milton intertwines an understanding of death with the acknowledgment of the imperative to mature and view the world as it truly exists. By the epic's conclusion, Adam and Eve no longer regard death as "a curse but a comforter, not the gift of Satan but the gift of God" (Erskine 573). While partaking of the fruit deprives them of their innocence, Eve experiences a dream from God and informs Adam that she has received a favorable omen, a hopeful perspective previously absent from their outlook (XII 612-613). Although Eve briefly entertained the idea of suicide as an escape from their impending punishment, Adam and Eve ultimately conclude that it is preferable to live and obey God, thereby seeking to improve their relationship with Him (Waddington 15). In this passage, Milton reveals his transformed viewpoint on death: he no longer resents death or seeks to immortalize himself. Instead, he, like Adam and Eve, aspires to live fully and execute God's commands. While they now confront the prospect of death, all is not lost, and it is better to adhere to Michael's counsel to "live well." Ultimately, Adam and Eve depart from the garden with optimism, prepared to lead long and meaningful lives together.

Milton's Four Dimensions of Death

Milton's transformation in his understanding of death is mirrored in his work, as his beliefs on death grew more intricate than those of his contemporaries. Within "Christian Doctrine," Milton categorizes death into four distinct degrees: the preliminary punishments leading to death, spiritual death, temporal death, and eternal death (Woelfel 33). The first three forms of death are common to all individuals, and Milton assures his audience that they can be surmounted. The initial two degrees of death result from human failings and ignorance, and to transcend them, one must live purposefully and diligently. The third degree of death plays a pivotal role in shaping human existence, propelling individuals toward either obedience to or defiance of God, ultimately determining whether they experience the fourth kind of death.

In "Paradise Lost," the first degree of death depicts the transformation of human happiness into misery, the second portrays human helplessness arising from obscured reason, the third offers a remedy for what seems like perpetual punishment, and the fourth degree establishes the penalty for continuous disobedience—eternal punishment (Woelfel 34). Through the experiences of Adam and Eve, readers encounter the first three degrees of death, while Satan embodies the fourth. Milton's conviction that death is an indispensable and divine instrument is persuasive only when one refrains from embracing the fourth degree of death and acknowledges the existence of the other three. Comprehending all four forms of death serves as a means to better understand and accept death as an inevitable reality, one not inherently negative. When Adam and Eve depart from the Garden of Eden, they possess the ability to experience all three kinds of death. They also leave prepared to heed Michael's counsel to live virtuously, armed with improved reasoning skills and a deeper comprehension of life, rather than the initial untroubled and innocent optimism they possessed at the poem's outset.

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Milton's journey of coming to terms with death is artfully depicted throughout "Paradise Lost." In his youth, he grappled with the sudden death of a classmate and wrestled with profound questions about the inevitability of death and the purpose of life in the face of mortality. He feared death and sought ways to elude or immortalize himself through various means. Through the characters of Adam and Eve in "Paradise Lost," Milton communicates his ultimate conclusions to his audience. These two figures, who undergo the loss of innocence as Milton did, initially dread death and contemplate strategies to evade it, even considering suicide to protect their offspring from its clutches. However, sage guidance from the archangel Michael persuades them that life should be embraced to the fullest extent before returning to heaven. Adam and Eve arrive at the realization that life holds greater significance than death, and that while death is an unavoidable aspect of existence, how they live their lives, obedient to God's commandments, takes precedence. They opt to become "heroes of faith" who emphasize the potential for redemption and the emergence of good from evil (Waddington 11). The behavior of Adam and Eve mirrors Milton's ultimate message: that death shapes our capacity to lead fulfilling lives, but it is crucial to concentrate on life itself rather than becoming fixated on death.


  1. Adams, Richard P. “The Archetypal Pattern of Death in Milton’s Lycidas.” PMLA, vol. 64, no. 1, 1949, pp. 183-188.
  2. Brown, Cedric C. “The Death of Righteous Men: Prophetic Gesture in Vaughan’s ‘Daphnis’ and Milton’s ‘Lycidas.’” George Herbert Journal, vol. 7, no. 1, 1983, pp. 1-24.
  3. Erskine, John. “The Theme of Death in Paradise Lost.” PMLA, vol. 32, no. 4, 1917, pp. 573-582.
  4. Goldsmith, Ann Hamlen. To Be or Not to Be: “Sin” and “Death” and Questions of Allegory in “Paradise Lost.” Dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1999.
  5. McElroy, Jennifer C. “Interpreting Death in Paradise Lost.” (2010). English Master’s Theses. Paper 17.
  6. Rovang, Paul R. “A Malorian Source for Satan’s Encounter with Death in Paradise Lost, Book 2.” ANQ, vol. 16, no. 3, 2003, pp. 3-6.
  7. Waddington, Raymond B. “The Death of Adam: Vision and Voice in Books XI and XII of ‘Paradise Lost.’” Modern Philology, vol. 70, no. 1, 1972, pp. 9-21.
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