Critics have frequently regarded the publication of Poems of Mr. John Milton in 1645 as the author's introduction of himself as a poet to a reading public which knew him mainly as a political controversialist. The extent and precise character of the public to which Milton addressed Poems--and that which took notice of it--has been debated, however. Against the once-received idea that the 1645 Poems mark Milton's unambiguous and momentous striding into public consciousness, critics of the last two decades have variously stressed the silence that met the book. Explanations of the apparent lack of response from the reading public vary. Richard Helgerson has argued that changes in the structure of the literary system prevented Milton's work from appearing as novel an event as Ben Jonson's publication of his Workes in 1616, while John K. Hale has tried to reconstruct Milton's authorial intentions, suggesting that the primary audience consisted of a circle of humanist friends, though he grants that attention from "a general reading public" was probably anticipated as well.(1) More recently, Randall Ingram has explored the problem of another kind of silence in relation to Milton's book: that of the printed work as opposed to the spoken word. Ingram describes the 1645 Poems as embodying the author's reluctant fall from oral poesis into print and manifesting a distrust of "the capacity of writing and print to capture what At a Solemn Music calls `divine sounds.'"(2) This suspicion of print offers a subtle but powerful explanantion of Milton's deferral of publication of most of his early poems at a time when he did not hesitate to publish prose treatises. Despite his declaring in The Reason of Church Government (1642) that he planned to become a national poet, Milton's first four published poetical works appeared either anonymously or signed only with his initials.
One reason for this ambivalence about publication might lie in that iconoclastic strain of thought touched on in Ingram's article and often explored in Milton criticism, including a recent book by Lana Cable.(3) In Cable's analysis, iconoclasm emerges not simply as a negative force, but as a generative principle of the poetic imagination. Attention to Milton's use of what I shall call "the monument topos," the conventional boast that an author's work stands as his monument, reveals the pervasiveness of this antinomy. The vehicle of this metaphor, the funeral monument, became the object of literal Protestant iconoclasm at various times in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, yet people in Protestant countries continued to erect such structures. A similar pattern occurs in Milton's use of the monument topos, for while his writing often evinces an iconoclastic distrust of the monumental printed book, it also shows an irresistible attraction to the book's iconicity, or its capacity to serve as an index of poetic immortality and authority. Milton repeatedly attempts to subordinate the iconicity of the physical book to the reader's internally transforming experience of the texts contained within it, yet he simultaneously exploits that very iconicity to assert the timeless achievement of great poets such as Shakespeare and himself. Milton's first printed English poem, "An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare,"(4) with its variation on the monument topos, registers just such conflicting attitudes toward the printed text and its monumentality, an ambivalence which establishes a paradigm for his presentation of his own Poems in 1645. While this ambivalence remains discernible in works composed soon after the publication of Poems, particularly the verse epistle "Ad Joannem Rousium," the conflict becomes softened, and the poems show an increasing acceptance of the printed book's power both to enter Milton's name in the canon of Western literature and to accommodate the psychological and spiritual imperatives that, for Milton, define the essence of poetry. "Ad Joannem Rousium," I suggest, marks a turning point in Milton's poetic self-representation through its acknowledgment of the monumental book as a legitimate medium for the transmission of poetry.
THE MONUMENT TOPOS AND EARLY MODERN ENGLISH BOOKS
The central conceit of Milton's epitaph on Shakespeare, which first appeared among the commendatory verses in the Second Folio (1632), is that the late poet has "built [himself] a live-long Monument" and thus lies "so Sepulcher'd in such pomp" that "Kings for such a Tomb would wish to die."(5) Shakespeare's body rests in peace in his Stratford tomb, protected by an epitaph cursing anyone who might move his bones, but more important, Milton implies, is the fact that he has erected a monument to himself through the literary works contained in the Folio.(6) The plays and poems themselves do not actually constitute the monument, however; rather, Milton reworks the monument topos by claiming that the "wonder and astonishment" felt by readers of Shakespeare's works turn them into marble funeral sculptures.(7)
Critics often refer to the monumental character of a particular Renaissance book, but no systematic study of the monument topos has been performed.(8) Joshua Scodel's rich study, The English Poetic Epitaph, includes a chapter on "Monumental Poetics" but pays little attention to the topos of the literary work as the poet's monument to himself.(9) While Scodel alludes to Horace's triumphant claim that his Odes stand as a "monumentum aere perennius" ("a monument more lasting than bronze"; Odes, III.30), he does not develop a detailed discussion of the topic anywhere in his book. In his chapter on Herrick, for instance, he briefly mentions "His Poetrie his Pillar" (a poem which invokes the monument topos), but does so only as contrast for a discussion of "The Pillar of Fame," a poem which, as Scodel points out, does not claim that Herrick has made the monumental pillar for himself.(10) It is, however, to this latter variety of "monumental poetics" that I wish to attend, for, in an era in which English writers were struggling to fashion a literary identity and tradition to rival that of classical antiquity, the monument topos held great allure.(11) While Edmund Spenser hoped that his Epithalamion would be "for short time an endlesse moniment," the early modern enthusiasm for literary monuments finds ample illustration in a single sentence of Francis Meres which applies the topos to the works of Spenser and no fewer than five other English poets: Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, Drayton, Shakespeare, and Warner.(12) In the next century, the topos would be applied--either by the poets themselves or by their admirers--to the works of writers of such disparate achievement as Thomas Randolph, Ben Jonson, Abraham Cowley, James Shirley, Beaumont and Fletcher, and John Milton himself.(13)
While the monument topos was becoming truly commonplace in the seventeenth century, Milton's use of it in the epitaph on Shakespeare would be appropriate to the subject in several ways. First, the monumental character of poetry was a favorite Shakespearean theme. The speaker in the Sonnets, for example, boasts, "Not marble, nor the gilded monument[s] / Of Princes shall out-liue this powreful rime," and he promises his beloved young man, "[T]hou in this shalt finde thy monument / When tyrants crests and tombs of brasse are spent."(14) In these examples, however, the speaker has erected the poetic monument not for himself but for another person--a related but usually distinguishable topos.(15) Second, the OED cites the use of "monument" to designate a statue as characteristically Shakespearean, and statuary, of course, is what the readership becomes in Milton's epitaph on Shakespeare (OED, "monument" sb. 5.c). And third, Merritt Y. Hughes suggests that Milton may have written the poem "with the expectation that the Stratford monument rather than the Droeshout portrait would be represented as the frontispiece of the [Second] Folio."(16) Whatever the case, when Milton chose the monument topos, he entered a highly allusive discourse, for the image had a rich literary history which was further complicated by contemporary sociohistorical and literary-historical shifts in the politics and poetics of commemoration.
Part of the discursive complexity of the monument topos derives from the polysemic nature of the word "monument." The function of a monument, as defined in the Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631) of Milton's older contemporary John Weever, is to serve "for a memoriall of some remarkable action, fit to bee transferred to future posterities."(17) Since this transference can occur in various ways, Weever acknowledges the wide application of the term "monument," which denotes "all religious Foundations, all sumptuous and …