From grief to leisure: "Lycidas" in the eighteenth century
41 - 63
Modern Language Quarterly
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© 2016 by University of Washington. Milton's elegy for Edward King was widely admired and imitated in the eighteenth century. These imitations tend to celebrate the poem as an ornamental, musical work while suppressing its politics. By contrast, Samuel Johnson recognized that the poem's prosody and its generic heterogeneity were intrinsically related to its political critique. His objections to "Lycidas" also reflected his view that pastoral depicted an idealized life of rural leisure to distract and entertain city men. This ancient association between pastoral and leisure may have informed eighteenth-century readers' delight in the poem's "ease and variety," but it is also a fundamental misreading of the ethics of labor set out in the poem. In its enactment of the spiritual and writerly work of the shepherd, in Milton's revisions, and in its monodic form, "Lycidas" offers readers a choice between sensual dalliance and arduous song. Monody was both a collective song, performed during work to relieve its strains, and an individual utterance. This form reasserts the labor idealized by pastoral as a spiritual necessity. The eighteenth-century reception of "Lycidas" reveals how the revolutionary potential of lyric was converted to entertainment, a moment whose legacies may be perceived in some contemporary theories of lyric.