Ovid's Rivers and the Naming of Milton's Lycidas
Eric C. Brown
Harvard University

Brown, Eric C. "Ovid's Rivers and the Naming of Milton's Lycidas." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (September, 2001): 5.1-3 <URL:

  1. In choosing "Lycidas" as the pseudonym for Edward King, Milton was clearly influenced by various pastoral eclogues, especially those of Theocritus, Virgil, and the Italian Sannazaro, in which the figure of Lycidas plays a prominent role. [1] Comparatively little study has been made, however, of the etymological complexity of the name. Most read the derivation from the Greek "lukos," or wolf, with a patronymic "idas" suffix indicating "son of." [2] The difficulties of this derivation are substantial: Milton's only reference to a wolf in Lycidas comes during his critique of the clergy: "The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, / . . . / Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw / Daily devours apace." [3] To baptize Lycidas the "son of wolf," then, would seem to deconstruct the figure and the poem as inconsistent at best, hypocritical at worst. [4] One alternate possibility is that Milton does not hope to evoke the common "wolf" so much as the proper name "Lycus," or "Lukos," an appellation that appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses and fits well with other motifs in Milton's poem.

  2. In Book Fifteen, Ovid's Pythagoras discourses on the mutability of all entities, and begins to list the vicissitudes of rivers: "Here Nature, in her changes manifold, / Sends forth new fountaines; there shuts up the old. / Streames, with impetuous earth-quakes, heretofore / Have broken forth; or sunk, and run no more. / So Lycus, swallowed by the yawning Earth, / Takes in an other world his second birth." [5] Milton's Lycidas, similarly, "sunk low, but mounted high" (172), a resurrection despite his being "Sunk . . . beneath the watery floor" (167), for "So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed, / And yet anon repairs his drooping head" (168-9). This "second birth" of Lycidas into another world--"the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love" (177)--parallels that of the river Lycus, submerging and resurfacing. Moreover, it recalls two earlier Ovidian figures in Milton's poem, the river deity Alpheus and the nymph/fountain Arethusa. In Milton's apostrophe to the latter, "O fountain Arethuse, and thou honoured flood" (85), he recalls the nymph's tortuous flight from Alpheus, whom he invokes with "Return Alpheus, the dread voice is past, / That shrunk thy streams" (132-3). In the Metamorphoses, Arethusa tells her story in terms that anticipate the river Lycus and Lycidas himself: "Why I affect this place, t' Ortygia came / Through such vast Seas; I shall impart the same / To you desire; . . . / . . . / Earth gives me way: through whose darke cavernes roll'd, / I here ascend" (5.498-503). Transformed by Diana into a current of water, Arethusa flees her pursuer below ground, only to resurface as a fountain--still intermingled with the river Alpheus. The resurrection motif is anticipated by this descent and ascent of Arethusa, and Lycidas's etymological links to another river that journeys the same path resonates with his final apotheosis.

  3. George Sandys's commentary on the tale of Arethusa also provides some insight into Lycidas. He notes that "Alpheus runs unmixt through the sea: because illustrious truth, although invironed with vices, can never be disseasoned with their bitternesse, but unpolluted falls into the bosome of Arethusa, or noble integrity." [6] Milton creates an analogue in the drowning death of Lycidas, who passes through a poem inveighing against ecclesiastical abuses and appears untouched by them, even as he sinks into the sea only to rise again and wash "With nectar pure his oozy locks" (175). The pollutions of the poem are not absolved by Lycidas, but his potential relation to the river Lycus, and by extension Alpheus and Arethusa, suggests a noble integrity around which the diverse work coheres.


1. For an extensive list of analogues, see Kirkconnell, 79-245. The Milton Variorum (2: 637) suggests there is little significance in the choice of name beyond its pastoral associations--including Strathmann's observation that a contemporary Latin translation of Spenser's Shepheardes Calender called the Protestant pastor "Lycidas." Revard details abundant instances of "Lycidas" in earlier Renaissance poems.

2. See for instance Forster and Evans, 76 n.1. Riley proposes rather that Lycidas derives from the Greek lusis "and means generally 'a loosing, setting free, releasing . . . deliverance from death."

3. Lines 125-29. References to Lycidas are from the Oxford edition, hereafter cited parenthetically.

4. The wolf is probably an allusion to the Catholic church; Flannagan notes the Jesuits' "coat of arms includes two wolves" (105 n. 54). The inconsistencies of this association have been recently addressed by Horton, who argues that Milton meant "for a salutary connection with wolves to be made between Edward King and Apollo long before the ecclesiastical satire section of the poem would offer another context," and traces Apollo's heritage as himself born of a wolf--the metamorphosed Leto.

5. From George Sandys's translation, 15.269-74. Subsequent references will be parenthetical.

6. Sandys, 262. On the "anagogical implications" of this commentary, see Allen. Revard assembles a constellation of mythical figures around the resurrection motif, including "Lycidas, Orpheus, Apollo, Peter, Alpheus, even Arion," all of whom "lead us ultimately to Christ." Cf. her discussion of Alpheus and Arethusa, 176-9.


Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).