Epigram on Milton
Three Poets, in three distant Ages born,
Greece, Italy', and England did adorn.
The First in loftiness of thought surpassed;
The Next in Majesty; in both the Last.
The force of Nature could no farther go:
To make a third she joined the former two.
John Dryden's "Epigram on Milton" follows the established epigram form that originated in concise Greek inscriptions (e.g., oracle inscriptions, funeral inscriptions, etc.). These by nature needed to be short and to the point. The English epigram form is derived from the epigrams of Latin poet Martial, who refined the Greek model and in so doing redefined the epigram genre ("Epigram." eNotes).
English epigrams are short, concise groups of couplets that have a point consisting of a "punchline" or a ridiculing twist of satire. "Epigram on Milton" is three couplets (i.e., two lines of verse that rhyme) in five feet of repeating iambs (i.e., unstressed, stressed) creating a meter of iambic pentameter ( ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ).
Three^ Po' / -ets^, in' / three^ dis' / -tant^ A' / -ges^ born',
Greece^, I' / -ta^ -ly', / and^ Eng' / -land^ did' / a ^ -dorn'.
The rhyme scheme of the three couplets is aa bb cc. Dryden's epigram does not end with a ridiculing satirical twist but rather with a "punchline" that equates Milton's greatness with the combined greatness of the poet of Greece (Homer) and the poet of Italy (Virgil). This constitutes a punchline because it was a bold step for Dryden to suggest that Milton was both a Homer and a Virgil rolled into one.
A prose style paraphrase of the epigram might read: Three poets, who were born in three ages of long ago, brought honor to the lands of Greece, Italy and England. The first, the poet of Greece, had the loftiest thought; the poet from Italy had the most majesty; the third, the poet from England, had both loftiness and majesty. Mother Nature could produce none better than the first two poets, so to make a third poet, she combined the powers of the first two.
The two most prominent figures of speech are word schemes, which create impressions and meaning through syntax, word order, spelling, letters and sounds. The first is ellipsis in which words are omitted from a clause because they are implied by the previous clause, for example, as in "The Next in Majesty; in both the Last." Here the ellipsed Verb surpassed from the preceeding clause is implied, as in "The Next [surpassed] in Majesty." Then ellipsed "Majesty" and "loftiness" are implied through "both" along with "surpassed" being implied a second time, as in "in [loftiness and Majesty] [is surpassed] in the last." The ellipsed "poet" is also implied, as in "the last [poet]." So surpassed, loftiness, majesty and poet are ellipsed from the clauses since they can be implied by the reader from the previous clause.
The second word scheme figure of speech is a form of hyperbaton in which the verb is moved to the end of the sentence, as in "in three distant Ages born," which grammatically should be "born in three distant ages." Other instances are:
1. England did adorn [did adorn England]
2. in loftiness of thought surpassed [did surpass in loftiness]
3. Nature could no farther go [Nature could go no farther]
Dryden writes this epigram in the spirit of a praising elegy to the poet Milton. Indeed, the elegy and the epigram share the formulaic feature of being composed of couplets. Dryden's message is to clearly rate Milton as a poet of equal rank with the two most recognized ancient greats, Homer of Greece and Virgil of Rome (Italy).