The Poem

“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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Forms and Devices

In a poem concerned with fame and immortality, Milton appropriately employs an impressive number of images relating to death and monuments: “bones,” “relics,” “pyramids,” “monument,” “stones,” and “marble.” Thus the images create a sense of tangible durability associated with lasting parts of the person (“relics” and “bones”), with the materials that form monuments (“stones” and “marble”), and with the monuments themselves. They fittingly remove the tone from the immediacy of death to focus on posthumous fame. The concrete images, however, subtly shift to metaphor when the poem attributes everlasting qualities to Shakespeare’s works and their effects, denying the view that fame rests upon tangible objects. The enduring “monument” created by Shakespeare consists of his works. Thus the imagery reinforces Milton’s early denial of the need for conventional aids to fame. By contrasting the concrete images of fame to the metaphors that suggest a greater fame, the poem asserts that the more important kind of monument assures memory through successive generations.

The achievement is reinforced through an allusion to Greek “Delphic lines” (line 12), intimating that Shakespeare’s artistry rivals that of the Greek classics. The allusion may well hark back to Milton’s earlier epithet “great heir of fame,” suggesting that the bard either writes in the immortal tradition of the classics or that he merits the respect accorded classical poets. At the very least, Milton recognizes that Shakespeare, like the ancients, has staying power. For any contemporary poet, this was high praise indeed. Furthermore, references to “pomp” and “kings” in the final lines accord Shakespeare a magisterial place among poets.

The subdued point of view moves from first person singular to the plurals “our” and “us” as the poem shifts to the effects of reading the poetry. By identifying himself with others, the poem’s persona effectively becomes a spokesman for numerous readers. By the same token, through limiting and subordinating the role of the speaker, Milton achieves a tone of assurance and majesty appropriate to the power he celebrates in the subject.