Weep No More: Lycidas in Nestor

—Tell us a story, sir. —O, do, sir. A ghoststory.
Did you ever have a teacher in school who had a tenuous-at-best grip on their lessons? They were easily distracted or maybe a little too much of a hippie. Maybe they were a substitute who wasn’t too invested in the job. Stephen Dedalus is this teacher, a learner uneasy as a teacher. Stephen’s heart is just not in this job, and it’s clear from the first lines of ‘Nestor’ that he is going through the motions on the surface. His thoughts continually intrude upon his focus as he listlessly carries out his uninspired lesson plan.  Not only does his student Armstrong know less than nothing about Pyrrhus, the rest of the boys are totally disinterested in the lesson and ready to distract their teacher. Stephen grimly realizes,“In a moment they will laugh more loudly, aware of my lack of rule and of the fees their papas pay.”
John Milton
When the history lesson doesn’t go well, Stephen leap-frogs to his own area of expertise – poetry. The little scrap of a literature lesson is a few lines recited from the John Milton poem “Lycidas.” The significance of this poem gets glossed over in some annotations, including my favorite Gifford annotation, but it’s worth pausing a moment and considering why Joyce included this poem in particular. Afterall, “’A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” We can assume Joyce chose “Lycidas” for a reason. “Lycidas” is a pastoral elegy, that is, a poem written to commemorate and lament someone’s death, but rather than being direct, the poet uses a variety of classical and natural imagery to express their true emotions. “Lycidas” is considered one of the finest examples of this style of poetry. It was written in 1637 by John Milton, who was hugely influential on Joyce, mostly through his much more famous work Paradise Lost. Milton wrote “Lycidas” (pronounced liss-id-us) to mourn the death of his friend Edward King, a Cambridge scholar who died by drowning. Though it’s a longer poem, the lines found in ‘Nestor’ are as follows:
Weep no more, woful shepherds, weep no more For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead, Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor…
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