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On Shakespeare by John Milton (with commentary)

Today, I will be discussing "On Shakespeare" by John Milton, written in 1630. It was Milton's ode to Shakespeare. John Milton, an influential writer and thinker from 1608 to 1674, had his first published poem included in Shakespeare's Second Folio. This folio was a compilation of Shakespeare's works, assembled after his death, preserving his literary legacy.

In his poem, Milton pays homage to Shakespeare, not merely out of convention but because he believes Shakespeare to be the greatest of all poets and poetic dramatists. This act of reverence from England's most esteemed non-dramatic poet to the world's greatest poetic dramatist is profoundly romantic and touching.

Let's delve into the poem "On Shakespeare." As you read, don't worry if everything doesn't make sense immediately. Take a moment to immerse yourself in the words, savor the sounds, and we'll explore it in detail later.

Now, let's break down the poem section by section and uncover its deeper meaning.

After reading a poem aloud, I recommend underlining or noting a few words that might be unfamiliar. Don't fret if you don't understand every single word; poetry invites exploration of various meanings and nuances. Poets are wordsmiths, crafting language in exquisite ways.

On Shakespeare. 1630


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.

The opening lines pose a thought-provoking question: "What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones?" Milton contemplates whether Shakespeare requires grand monuments and memorials or if his sacred relics should be concealed under a starry pyramid. This sets the stage for the poem's exploration of the concept of immortality through art.

Milton addresses Shakespeare as the "Dear son of memory," hinting at the idea that Shakespeare is akin to a muse, a son of Mnemosyne—the mother of muses in Greek mythology. By calling him an "heir of fame," Milton acknowledges Shakespeare's renowned status. He questions whether grand monuments and relics are enough to honor such greatness.

The heart of the poem lies in Milton's recognition of Shakespeare's true monument—a "live long monument." Instead of lifeless stones, Shakespeare's enduring legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of each generation. This monument of art, crafted with effortless grace, far surpasses any physical representation.

The poem delves deeper into the profound impact of Shakespeare's work. The "Delphic lines" refer to his prophetic verses that leave a lasting impression on readers. Milton suggests that these lines are so potent that they breathe life into our imagination. Yet, our inability to fully comprehend Shakespeare's genius leaves us feeling bereaved.

The conclusion beautifully encapsulates the essence of the poem. Shakespeare's true monument is not a sepulcher or statue, but a legacy etched in the hearts of humanity. Kings would gladly die to attain such a tomb, testament to the power of Shakespeare's art to transcend time and inspire greatness.

Milton's tribute to Shakespeare offers valuable lessons. It reminds us to honor those who came before us, recognizing their greatness and finding inspiration in their works. Immortality can be achieved through art that touches the hearts of generations, and Milton's poem serves as a timeless guide to achieving greatness through admiration and creative expression.

In a world often focused on novelty, "On Shakespeare" encourages us to appreciate the past, draw inspiration from it, and create enduring works of our own.


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