In 1630, according to the date that is affixed to the title of the poem, Milton wrote “On Shakespeare,” which I cite from the text of the Second Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in which it was first published:
An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. SHAKESPEARE
What neede my Shakespeare for his honour’d bones,
The labour of an Age, in piled stones Or that his hallow’d Reliques should be hid Vnder a starre-ypointing Pyramid? Deare Sonne of Memory, great Heire of Fame, What needst thou such dull witnesse of thy Name? Thou in our wonder and astonishment Hast built thy selfe a lasting Monument: For whil’st to th’ shame of slow-endevouring Art Thy easie numbers flow, and that each part, Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued Booke, Those Delphicke Lines with deepe Impression tooke Then thou our fancy of her selfe bereaving, Dost make us Marble with too much conceiving, And so Sepulcher’d in such pompe dost lie That Kings for such a Tombe would wish to die.
The ultimate origins of the poem lie in the Collegiate Church of St Bartholomew, in the village of Tong, in Shropshire (above). The church is known to the older generation of literary pilgrims as the burial place of Sir Richard Vernon, the “King of the Peak” in Scott’s Peveril of the Peak. Perhaps more famously, it is the church beside which Little Nell dies in The Old Curiosity Shop. In the Dickens version of the story Nell is buried inside the church, but some time in the nineteenth century a verger discovered that showing Little Nell’s grave to literary pilgrims was a good source of income, and so erected a gravestone and forged an entry in the burial register. [End Page 95]
ASK WHO LYES HEARE, BUT DO NOT WEEP, HE IS NOT DEAD, HE DOOTH BVT SLEEP THIS STONY REGISTER, IS FOR HIS BONES HIS FAME IS MORE PERPETVALL THÊ
THEISE STONES AND HIS OWNE GOODNES, W’HIM SELF BEING GON SHALL LYVE WHEN EARTHLIE MONAMENT IS NONE NOT MONV[M]ENTALL STONE PRESERVES OVR FAME NOR SKY ASPYRING PIRAMIDS OVR NAME THE MEMORY OF HIM FOR WHOM THIS STANDS SHALL OVTLYVE MARBL AND DEFACERS HANDS WHEN ALL TO TYMES CONSVMPTION
SHALL BE GEAVEN STANDLY FOR WHOM THIS STANDS SHALL STAND IN HEAVEN [End Page 96]
“Ask who lies here” is on the east end of the tomb, at the head of the effigies, and “Not monumental stones” is on the west end, at their feet. It is accordingly not absolutely clear whether they constitute one poem or two, and if one, which stanza comes first.
Milton’s poem would seem to be modeled on this text. Both rhyme “bones” and “stones” and “fame” and “name,” and perhaps most strikingly, the original of Milton’s “star-ypointing pyramid” is recognizable in this poem’s “sky-aspiring pyramids,” which conveys the same idea in the same rhythm.
The tomb is surmounted by four obelisks that would seem to be the “pyramids” of the memorial poem; in early modern English the word “pyramid” could be used of any structure of pyramidical forms, including spires, pinnacles and obelisks. The main structure commemorates Sir Thomas Stanley, second son of the third Earl of Derby, and his wife Margaret. The figure beneath is their son Sir Edward Stanley. Sir Thomas died in 1576, Sir Edward in 1632, the year in which the Second Folio was published. The date of the tomb cannot be precisely fixed, but various inscriptions on it, together with stylistic considerations, incline me to think...