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Purpose of Reference to Neptune in Lycidas

Updated on May 25, 2012
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Purpose of the Reference to Neptune in Milton's Lycidas

The reference to the Roman god of the sea, Neptune, in Milton’s poem Lycidas is deliberate and well-planned. His specific purpose in the poem is to show that even the god of the sea would not prevent the tragic death of Edward King, a classmate of Milton’s. The reference to Neptune also includes diction that contributes to the tone of the poem. Neptune’s specific location in the poem aids Milton’s transition from talking about himself and fame back to talking about Edward King’s death. The reference to Neptune also helps demonstrate the grieving process. Neptune’s effect on the overall poem, however, is to help demonstrate Milton’s personal beliefs, that ancient gods were vital to the evolution of the modern, Christian God.

Neptune, the Roman version of the Greek god Poseidon, is the god of the seas and the older brother of Zeus, the king of the gods. This means that Neptune is incredibly powerful—for example, in one myth, Neptune helps the king of Troy raise walls around his city and is dismissed unrewarded. In revenge, he sends a terrible sea monster to lay waste to the country. Furthermore, Neptune is often portrayed as “seated in a large shell drawn by whales, attended by sea-gods, sea-goddesses, and a long train of tritons and sea-nymphs” (Myths about Neptune). This long procession of gods and goddesses who accompany Neptune further demonstrates that he is indeed quite a powerful figure.

Although he was plenty powerful enough to do so, Neptune would not save Edward King. Neptune’s specific purpose in the poem is to show how the tragedy is not anyone’s fault, although the gods did not intervene to prevent it from occurring. In the poem, a “Herald of the Sea” responds to “Neptune’s plea” (Lycidas 89-90). W. Bell, a professor of philosophy and logic at Government College, notes that the herald of the sea represents a triton, who appears in Neptune’s plea to “defend him from the suspicion of having caused Lycidas’ death by a storm, and to discover the real cause of the shipwreck” (Milton’s L’Allegro 124). Similarly, Frederick Nichols, an Associate in English at the University of Chicago, notes that “Neptune was not to blame” (Milton’s Shorter Poems 147).

When Neptune asks “the Waves…and the Fellon winds/What hard mishap hath doom’d [sic] this gentle swain” he is demonstrating that he doesn’t know what caused Lycidas’ shipwreck, although he is showing sympathy for his death (Lycidas 91-2). Thus it is implied, from the fact that Neptune did not intentionally cause the shipwreck, that he is not a malicious god. It also shows that any god will not actually intervene to prevent tragedy, regardless of their sympathy with mortals. This fact underlines the importance of his presence in the poem, as it demonstrates that even the god of the sea did not prevent the tragedy from occurring.

The reference to Neptune also includes some diction that contributes to the tone of the poem. The majority of the poem is written in a gloomy, mournful, questioning mood, to show that the speaker cannot figure out why his classmate had to die, and is mourning his loss. The use of the words “hard,” “doom’d,” “gentle,” “rugged,” and “beaked,” paint an overall gloomy picture, especially in the context of a raging sea, blowing winds and beaked promontories (Lycidas 92-4). The juxtaposition of the words “hard” and “gentle” create a further contrast between Lycidas and the fate he receives in “What hard mishap hath doom’d [sic] this gentle swain?” (Lycidas 92). The cruelty of this injustice contributes to the disheartened and disillusioned tone of the poem up to this point.

Neptune’s specific location in the poem serves as Milton’s transition from speaking of Phoebus, fame and himself to speaking of Lycidas’ drowning again. During the middle of the poem, in imitation of a stream of consciousness demonstrating the grieving process, Milton wanders from the central topic of Lycidas’ premature death and muses over the importance of writing poetry when he might die young also. He asks “Were it not better don [sic] as others use/To sport with Amaryllis in the shade” to question whether it might be better to just get famous then, rather than waiting until he feels ready to write his epic poem (Lycidas 67-8). Then Phoebus touches his “trembling ears” and tells him that he will be famous, and to expect “so much fame in Heav’n [sic]” (Lycidas 77, 84). The goddess is essentially telling Milton not to worry, that he will be famous one day.

However, after going off on this tangent, Milton needed a transition back to the topic at hand. In the lines prior to Neptune’s appearance in the poem, Milton writes, “But now my Oate proceeds/And listens to the Herald of the Sea” (Lycidas 88-9). Taking “oate” to mean song or poem, Milton is literally writing that his poem will move on now from the previous topic to listen to the herald of the sea—or triton—defend Neptune. Neptune is central to the theme of Lycidas’ drowning, as he is the god of the sea, and thus he serves as an excellent transition back to the topic.

Neptune’s other purpose in the poem is to help demonstrate the grieving process. Neptune calls the triton to defend himself, to prove that it was not his fault that Lycidas died and that he did not intend for or cause the tragedy to happen. This demonstrates how individuals going through the grieving process pass through a stage of anger, and may lash out at and blame others for the death of a loved one. Furthermore, Neptune’s questioning of what mishap doomed Lycidas to die in “What hard mishap hath doom’d [sic] this gentle swain?” is representative of a sentiment felt throughout the grieving process—the need for a justification, for a reason why the death occurred (Lycidas 92). Milton also demonstrates the grieving process through the use of a stream of consciousness, with thoughts ranging from remembering the past to thinking about one’s own mortality to questioning why the death occurred. Neptune aids this structure by serving as a transition back to thoughts of Lycidas’ death and the reasons for it.

The reference to Neptune also aids the overall meaning of the poem because Neptune is one of the many mythological references made in the poem which demonstrate Milton’s belief that ancient mythology was vital to the evolution of the Christian God. The ancient god Neptune shares several key traits with the modern Christian God. The myths in the poem are asking or being asked why Lycidas had to die and why no one saved him; for example, the narrator asks the sea nymphs, who are supposed to protect sailors, where they were when Lycidas drowned in “Where were ye Nymphs when the remorseless deep/Clos’d [sic] o’re [sic] the head of your lov’d [sic] Lycidas?” (Lycidas 50-1). Neptune asks “the Waves and…the Fellon winds/What hard mishap hath doom’d [sic] this gentle swain” (Lycidas 91-2). He is mourning the loss of Lycidas and wants to know why the young man died as much as the narrator does. This representation of the ancient mythological gods as sympathetic to the fate of a single human being may have been, in Milton’s opinion, the precursor to the modern notion of a sympathetic God.

The reference to Neptune also demonstrates why the modern God does not intervene in human affairs—even the ancient mythological gods did not intervene to save lives; Neptune, the god of the sea, did not intervene to prevent Lycidas’ shipwreck or death by drowning. However, since Neptune did not cause the shipwreck, the reference also implies that he is not a malicious god. These traits—sympathetic, non-intervening, and non-malicious—are common to the modern notion of the Christian God.

The reference to Neptune in Milton’s poem “Lycidas” enhances the poem by demonstrating that even the powerful god of the sea would not prevent the death of a young man by drowning. It also serves as a transition from Milton’s thoughts of his own mortality back to the topic of Lycidas’ death as he demonstrates a stream of consciousness. Another specific purpose of the reference to Neptune is to demonstrate a part of the grieving process. Its effect on the poem overall is to help represent Milton’s belief that ancient mythology led to the evolution of the modern Christian God , by sharing key features with the modern notion of God. This is significant because it represents a revolutionary way to use metaphors of ancient concepts to represent modern ones.

Works Cited

Milton, John. Milton’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, Arcades, Lycidas, Sonnets, Etc. Ed. W. Bell. New York: MacMillan and Co., 1889.

Milton, John. Milton’s Shorter Poems and Sonnets. Ed. Frederick Nichols. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1902.

Milton, John. “Lycidas.” Milton’s Shorter Poems and Sonnets. Ed. Frederick Nichols. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1902. 114-120.

“Myths about the Roman God Neptune.” Roman-Colosseum.Info. Roman Colosseum, 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2011.

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    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 

      6 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared. Your well organized and expressed interpretation will be a big help to my understanding if I ever get around to reading the poem.

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