What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones, The labor of an age in piled stones, Or that his hallowed relics should be hid Under a star-ypointing pyramid? – Milton, “On Shakespeare” (1-4)*
In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday (traditionally celebrated on 23 April, which is also the anniversary of his death in 1616), I propose we take another look at Milton’s poem “On Shakespeare.” The 1645 Poems, always self-consciously tracing the younger Milton’s process by dating each work, tells us he wrote “On Shakespeare” in 1630, but it was published anonymously in the 1632 Second Folio. If we take the 1645 Poems date, Milton was 22 when he wrote this, a year younger than when we find him lamenting his tardy maturation in Sonnet 7:
How soon hath Time the subtle thief of youth, Stol’n on his wing my three and twentieth year! My hasting days fly on with full career, But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th. (1-4)
In his poem to Shakespeare, Milton expressed similar concerns about his slow and deliberate development toward becoming the voice of a nation (however infuriating to those of us who are well past our twenties and still hoping to make a much smaller mark on the world than Milton). After making the traditional claim that Shakespeare’s Folio is the most precious monument to Shakespeare, Milton tacitly compares himself to the Bard:
Dear son of Memory, great heir of Fame, What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name? Thou in our wonder and astonishment has built thyself a livelong monument, For whilst to th’shame of slow-endeavouring art, Thy easy numbers flow… (5-10)
Shakespeare shames “slow-endeavoring art” with the famous flow of his “easy numbers.” Young Milton measures himself against Shakespeare and finds to his consternation that he seems to have to work harder (or at least longer) to do what Shakespeare supposedly does naturally. And yet, what art Milton displays here! In what I read as a tribute to the wordplay of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, in the Second Folio printing of Milton’s poem the long-s in line nine’s “slow” playfully echoes the “flow” of line ten… Milton is not only “slow-endeavouring” as he writes, but he is “flow-endeavouring” in his attempt to honor Shakespeare. Even as Milton expresses humility before Shakespeare, he masters the previous poet’s techniques.
But it is the “wonder and astonishment” of line seven that most merits our attention. Milton, a more important if not better poet than Shakespeare, signals the key impact Shakespeare has upon readers: “astonishment.” The connotations here evoke the older forms of the word we sometimes find in early-modern poetry — “astoniement”: to be made stone. Later in Milton’s poem, this is exactly what happens as readers of Shakespeare are frozen in wonder, becoming a sort of marble sculpture garden, each reader a vivid tombstone in honor of the Bard:
… 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 sepulchered in such pomp doest lie, That kings for such a tomb would wish to die. (10-16)
Milton’s imagines Shakespeare memorialized by an array of frozen readers, a grander memorial than terracotta warriors attending a king because it is constantly refreshed with new readers made into new monuments. Milton recalls these lines in Il Penseroso as he describes the result of serious contemplation. Milton invites Melancholy:
Come, but keep thy wonted state, With even step, and musing gait, And looks commercing with the skies, Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes: There held in holy passion still, Forget thyself to marble, till With a sad leaden downward cast, Thou fix them on the earth as fast. (37-44)
Contemplation (particularly of the heavens) makes us forget ourselves and turn to “marble” as we stand and muse. It is the same effect Shakespeare has upon his readers.
The lines in “On Shakespeare,” invoking legions of readers made marble, are high compliment to Shakespeare, but they also suggest a sort of chilling effect on future poets. Perhaps these lines hint at why Milton never finished his tragedy about the Fall, outlined in his surviving manuscripts, but instead turned to epic to treat his greatest subject, safe from the shadow of all those monuments.
– 22 April 13