Poetry: Milton – 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 star-ypointing 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.

I came across this piece looking for the perfect poem to close out National Poetry Month. I considered Donne and Coleridge and then found this lovely piece by Milton. While the Bard himself is one of the greatest English authors, his young contemporary is a close second. And here, Milton shows his respect and appreciation of Shakespeare by penning this little epigram. These 16 lines of rhyming couplets are all written in iambic pentameter, a hallmark of Shakespeare’s work. This poem was one of Milton’s earliest poems, fittingly included in the Second Folio of Shakespeare’s plays.

Here, Milton perfectly encapsulates the legacy that Shakespeare left for himself. What monument could people build that would honor Shakespeare properly? Not a pyramid, for even though those lasted long in history, we barely know or remember those who built them. Not a statue or temple like the Greeks built, for those have mostly crumbled, and we have forgotten their creators as well. What tomb could we build, what monument design? Not even the greatest praise could be written in thanks for what he did for our language and literature.

And so, we find the heart of Milton’s poem, for Shakespeare left a monument himself. Not only has he left such a wonderful collection of works for generations to read, but he has also made a lasting mark on his readers. Thus, his “long monument” has been built in “each heart” of every reader, making each person “marble.” We readers are the monument to Shakespeare as we continue to read him. And why is this a tomb in which kings would long to die? Because legacies last only in the minds of men. And long after kings have died and been forgotten, and monuments have tumbled, Shakespeare lays in the pomp of the reader’s mind.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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