- An Exploration into the Etymology of Lycidas
It has been known for twenty years that the etymology for the title of Milton’s poem “Lycidas” derives from the Greek for wolf cub, transliterated as “lykideus” (Forester). 1 This fact has not made it into any edition of that poem that I am aware of. It is only slightly surprising, then, that there has been no critical discussion of the relevance of wolves to Milton’s poem.
The first direct mention of wolves in the poem appears, of course, in the ecclesiastical satire section and might cause a reader, cognizant of the derivation of Lycidas, a moment’s anguish as if Milton were attempting to link Edward King with the subject of the satire in these lines: “Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw / Daily devours apace, and nothing said” (128–29). But there is a referential possibility for the title’s implications that occurs much earlier in the poem. The pagan god Apollo is also linked with wolves and is something of a wolf cub himself since Leto gave birth to him after she had changed herself into the form of a wolf (Aristotle 6: xxxv).
It is quite possible 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. Milton’s sudden introduction of Christianity into what had been a mostly pagan poem should not overshadow the earlier association with Apollo.
The ambiguity of the association between Edward King and wolves is similar to the inherently ambiguous association of Apollo with wolves. Apollo has a number of epithets that link him with wolves. Lykegenes, or “born of a wolf,” appears in Book 4 of The Iliad (Rouse 50). 2 Lykeios, or the alternate spel ling Lykios, can mean, variously, the Lycian god as wolf slayer or simply the god of light. 3 And the stories about Apollo and his relationship with wolves are equally various. He is associated with wolves when they are beneficial animals as well as when they are a threat to society. The Delphians recognize Apollo in the wolf that killed the robber of his temple and led them up Mt. Parnassus to their stolen gold (Pausanias 10.14.443). But Apollo is also a killer of wolves. He is a protector of flocks, just as Edward King the shepherd would be. When Milton adds to his header for this poem in his 1645 collection, he appears to be making a straightforward statement: “And by association foretells the ruin of our corrupted clergy then in their height.” A reader unaware of the Greek would assume that Milton was referring to the ecclesiastical satire section and that Edward King’s relevance to the poem was simply as a vehicle. Edward King’s untimely death was an occasion for Milton the poet to display his abilities in 1638 when the poem originally appeared in the volume of Cambridge elegies dedicated to Edward King. This is the current commonly understood reading of the poem. A reader aware of the Greek but unaware of Apollo’s many different associations with wolves might simply jump to the conclusion that Edward King was really a bad shepherd, a wolf in sheep’s, or rather shepherd’s, clothing, and that Milton’s addition to the header in 1645 was an attempt to point out the real significance of the satire which, given this misreading, would be Edward King. But the real significance of the satire would be lost on these readers, since the addition to the header highlights not Edward King’s shoddy theology, but the beneficial aspect of Apollo the wolf god and his association with wolves. Edward King, like the shepherd Apollo, protects the church or its flock; and Milton’s poem, dedicated to King’s memory, exposes a robber, the false clergy.
1. All of the Greek words (except “lykegenes”) will be found in Liddell and Scott. Please keep in mind that spelling throughout the classical period, as in the early modern period, is not regularized, so that phonetic...