Choose a word from either Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” or Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”– one that seems interesting or unusual, important or mysterious. Look that word up in the Oxford English Dictionary, paying attention to its etymology, its various possible meanings and its history of usage. Write a page (around 250 words) in which you explain how the word’s definition(s) or history affects the way you understand the poem.
In â€œLycidas,â€ Miltonâ€™s poetic speaker declares of his dead friend:
â€œHe must not float upon his wat’ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines â€œmeedâ€ as â€œsomething given in return for labour or service; wages, hire; recompense, reward, deserts; a gift.â€ Although the OED also suggests that the word later came to mean â€œa reward or prize given for excellence or achievement,â€ reading the earlier definition allows me to hear an interesting note of ambivalence or uncertainty in the poem.
Is Milton suggesting that his poem itself is the â€œrewardâ€ for Lycidasâ€™s â€œexcellenceâ€ or achievement in life? This high opinion of poetry (and of himself) would seem to be consistent with Miltonâ€™s ambition to be a great poet. Or does â€œmeedâ€ here mean something more likeâ€œjust desertsâ€â€”which could as easily be a punishment, or at least suggests that the poem is all that Lycidas deserves, no less but no more. Since Lycidas died young, â€œere his prime,â€ he had not achieved significant things in his life: perhaps being preserved in an acquaintanceâ€™s poem is the best he can hope for.
This multiple sense of â€œmeedâ€ (Wage? Gift? Prize?) comes into play again when Milton uses the word late in the poem to describe his own fame as a poet: â€œOf so much fame in Heav’n expect thy meed.” Does this mean that our poet is confident he will be rewarded for his poetry in heaven (his poetry is important service to God, meed is his just reward)? Or does Miltonâ€™s uncertainty about the importance of poetry in the face of death mean that he is uncertain that his achievements as a poet could matter very much to God (Iâ€™ll get what I deserve in heavenâ€”whatever that is.)?