Shakespeare Saturdays: On Shakespeare by John Milton

Shakespeare saturdays

Welcome back to another Shakespeare Saturday! Today I’ve put together a short post about John Milton’s poem On Shakespeare.

What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid   
Under a stary-pointing pyramid? 
Dear son of Memory, great heir of fame,
What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment 
Hast built thyself a live-long monument. 
For whilst to th’ shame of slow-endeavouring art,   
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart   
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book 
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took,   
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,   
Dost make us marble with too much conceiving; 
And so sepúlchred in such pomp dost lie,
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

John Milton honoured Shakespeare in this poem from 1630. It was written as a prefatory poem for the second folio of Shakespeare’s Works (published in 1632) and so it is categorised as an ‘occasional lyric’ because it was a poem written for a specific occasion.

The poem focuses on Shakespeare’s immortality and his creative influence. Milton elevates Shakespeare above the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt by claiming that a tomb a grand pyramid would be a ‘weak witness’ of his legacy. Instead, Shakespeare built his own monument through his work and that monument will last forever (and it has currently lasted over 400 years).

I love the line about ‘Delphic lines’ because Milton is comparing Shakespeare’s work to the prophecies of the Oracle of Delphi. It’s a beautiful image which sets Shakespeare amongst the ancient Greek gods and elevates him above mere mortals.

Another aspect of the poem that I love is the possessive ‘my’ that Milton uses when referring to Shakespeare: What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones? Milton clearly felt some affinity to Shakespeare and the poem is an emotional tribute to a poet that Milton wanted to emulate.

That’s it for this week’s post! I’m really looking forward to writing more posts about Shakespeare’s contemporaries and successors in the future.

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