This Old Poem #101:
John Miltonís On Shakespear
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/9/04
John Milton is arguably a great poet, but that argument comes basically from Paradise Lost alone. Granted, that may be like saying the Wright Bros. were great inventors, but they only had 1 truly great invention. Still, youíd be hard pressed to make an argument for greatness for any of JMís lesser poems- not in length nor stature. About the only other poem that is ever accorded anything near Ďgreat statusí is this classic sonnet:
On His Blindness
consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,-
Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?
I fondly ask:-But Patience, to prevent
That murmer, soon replies; God doth not need
Either man's work, or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:-
They also serve who only stand and wait.
John Milton, Jr. was born on December 9th, 1608 in Cheapside.
His father, John Milton, Sr., was a well-known composer who wrote a series of
then-honored madrigals in praise of Queen Elizabeth. John, Sr. was disinherited
by Catholic family when he turned Protestant during the Reformation, but managed
to become wealthy of his own accord. John, Jr. was the 2nd of the 3
children, with an older sister named Anne & a younger brother named
Christopher. JM was a good student but never seriously contemplated becoming a
poet, although he had written some teenaged poems in Latin. His eyesight, never
good, began to deteriorate in his early adulthood. He also grew very political
& led a campaign against the authority of the church in 1640. 2 years later
he married Mary Powell. He was 34 & she was 17.
They had nothing in common- she was from a Royalist family & uneducated, while JM was a Parliamentarian. After many trials they somehow remained together. Although the Parliamentarians won the Civil War JM grew increasingly disenchanted with Oliver Cromwell. But, his politics, writing, & the long hours devoted to both took their toll. By 1651 he was totally blind. A year later Mary died after giving birth to their 3rd child. JM remarried in 1656 & had another dchild in 1657, but both wife & child died in 1658. But, JM started his 1st draft of Paradise Lost during this time. In this time he also began a lifelong friendship with poet Andrew Marvell, who began working as JMís secretary. This friendship paid dividends as AMís influence with the Royalists helped spare JMís life after the Restoration. The fact that JM was a blind old man whose poetry had made him something of a national treasure did not hurt his cause either. Still, he had to serve a stint in prison for his Ďcrimesí in support of the Commonwealth. His last few years after his prison term were spent in relative solitude & fame. JM died on November 8th, 1674.
As for the rest of JMís poems, they are pretty mediocre. Granted, he was a great formalist. The poems are just propaganda-laden bits of piffle. In a sense, JM may have been a bit of a forerunner to the modern PC Elitist scum I damned in this essayís opening. Just like PC Elitist tripe the bulk of JMís poems are dull, long-winded, & had a short shelf life. However, those poems are not from where I chose the titular poem to be examined. That poem is a piece of encomium for the poet who is almost always acknowledged as JMís only superior in English verse- Billy Shakes. The poem is a fawning, ass-licking piece of crap. Yes, even the DWMs were capable of such & this poem was written just as WSís reputation was spiking a few decades after his death. Here Ďtis:
What needs my Shakespear for his honour'd Bones,
The 1st Ĺ of the poem is racked with cliches & the 2nd Ĺ is so schmaltzy that- oh, hell, just read it. I mean, was he channeling Rod McKuen 3 centuries prior, or what? & Line 6- YIKES! To call it a tongue-twisting bit of doggerel is to be be too kind to it. Letís try to fix this baby. In short, I will excise the cliches & reduce the fawning nature of the poem. Voila!:
What needs my Shakespear for his very Bones,
leavening the 1st Ĺ of the poem the fawning 2nd Ĺ is not
as egregious. Read both. The rewrite actually has a bit of introspection in it.
Itís still, at best, a mediocrity, but hereís the truth. Great poets, even
when mediocre, write mediocre poems that are better than mediocrities written by
lesser lights- i.e.- their choices of words, metaphor, & symbolism are still
more unique & more entwined in the vitae of the poem.
Ever hear the 1 about the blind man & theÖ.?
Final Score: (1-100):
John Miltonís On
TOPís On Shakespear: 70
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