St Peter continues his speech against the corrupt priests, saying that they are well-fed and do not care; their songs are harsh and thin. Honestly, if I hired a shepherd I wouldn’t look for musical skill first and foremost, but OK, I get, these are not real shepherds, it’s supposed to be a metaphor about how their preaching is hollow etc. And their sheep are hungry, diseased and often eaten by a grim wolf (i.e. they convert to Catholicism). “But that two-handed engine at the door” is ready to strike and deliver punishment, and as the Helpful Footnote informs us, there is a whole critical industry devoted to explaining what exactly that is: St Peter’s two keys? two houses of Parliament? the two-edged sword of the Revelation? Nobody knows for sure, althogh the last option sounds, in my view, the most convincing.
After that, Milton switches back to the pastoral mode, asking the river Alpheus (running through Arcadia, another conventional pastoral topos) to return and bring with it the flowers. We get a long catalogue of those flowers, one more conventional pastoral motif. But unfortunately, while the poet imagines that these flowers are strewn on Lycidas’s hearse, he knows it’s only his dream, because his body is tossed somewhere around the British shores. Maybe it is somewhere around Mont Saint-Michel, “the guarded mount” which was supposedly the place of the revelation of Archangel Michael. “Look homeward angel”, he implores now, asking for his mercy and the dolphins to bring King’s body home, like once they did with the legendary poet Arion.
Finally, a note of solace: the shepherds should stop weeping because Lycidas is not really dead, just like the sun which, although it sinks every evening in the sea, it also comes up every day. So did Lycidas, who is now born to the new life in the next, better world, and the poet imagines him to be transformed into “the Genius of the shore” who is going now to guard it. And then somewhat abruptly we realize everything we have read so far should be in inverted commas, because we learn it was a song of the “uncouth swain” (unsophisticated shepherd), who now, when the evening is near, pulls up his blue cloak and sets out “tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new”.
The ending somewhat rehabilitates “Lycidas” in my eyes: even though I still consider the pastoral genre to be dead beyond all hope of resurrection (unlike Lycidas), these final lines are sonorous and actually rather moving. Reading “Lycidas” reminded me alot about this old joke about a man who saw Hamlet for the first time and then said he was rather disappointed because it’s mostly a collection of well-known sayings. I remembered the last line, but I didn’t realize how many other lines from “Lycidas” became popular sayings, which shows the poem’s reach, I guess.