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Shakespeare and the Youth of Milton
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Milton Quarterly 33.4 (1999) 95-105

 

Figures

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.

The church is filled with monuments, including one to three members of the Stanley family, which has some memorial verses carved into the stone at each end (Figs. 2,3, and 4):



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

"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 that we should think in terms of two dates. The tomb of Sir Thomas and Lady Stanley seems to date from the opening years of the seventeenth century, perhaps 1602 or 1603; the effigy of their son Edward was slid in afterwards, presumably shortly after his death in 1632. Milton's poem was dated 1630 by Milton. If it is imitating the verse...


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