“On Shakespeare” is a sixteen-line epitaph written in iambic pentameter and divided into heroic couplets, an unusual meter for John Milton’s poetry. In English verse, the heroic couplet was not a smoothly honed stanza until after Milton’s poetic career had concluded. The poem was originally published under the title “An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare,” though the title Milton used in the 1645 edition of his lyric poems has been accepted ever since. The epitaph is related to the classical epigram, a brief lyric that includes pithy wit and polished verses. An epitaph, usually a brief poem, deals with a serious or philosophical subject in a witty manner. The poems were often written on the occasion of a death, as in Milton’s “An Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester.” The genre designation suggests a tombstone inscription, though few known poetic epitaphs actually served that purpose. William Shakespeare’s own four-line epitaph, inscribed on his gravestone in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, represents a notable exception. In Milton’s lengthy epitaph on the marchioness of Winchester, he describes her family background, details the circumstances surrounding her death, and proclaims her heavenly reward for suffering. However, since Shakespeare’s death occurred fourteen years before the composition date, Milton makes no allusion to death and mourning in the poem commemorating him. Instead he centers upon the immortality that art offers.
An occasional lyric (one written for a specific event), “On Shakespeare” was composed in 1630 to appear among the many poems prefatory to the second folio of Shakespeare’s Works. In all likelihood, Milton was invited to contribute to the collection, possibly by his friend Henry Lawes. Commendatory poems were designed to set a tone of celebration for the event and to...
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