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I find two amphibolous segments in Milton's poem "On Shakespeare" when translating into Chinese, and thus need some help.

  1. In first stanza

What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones,
The labor of an Age, in piled stones
Or that his hallow'd Reliques should be hid
Under a star-ypointing Pyramid?

I found two possible interpretations of these lines:
"What does my Shakespeare need for his bones? | Is it the labor ..."
Or
"Why does my Shakespeare need | the labor..."
In line 6, the same structure occurs again:

What needst thou such weak witness of thy Name

Which seems to support the second interpretation. Yet I am not sure about this.

  1. In Stanza 4, line 13-14

Then thou our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us Marble with too much conceiving,

In these two lines, Milton took inspiration from the famous story of Niobe who grieved for her children and turned into stone. But the exact meaning of "with too much conceiving" is uncertain:
Is it "Shakespeare bereaved our fancy, and used the conceiving(his fancy or imagination robbed from us) to turn us into Marble for his monument/tomb"
Or
"Shakespeare bereaved our fancy, and turned us into Marble which has too much conceiving (memories and admiration)"

5

First question: the meaning of "what".

"What" used in the sense of "why" or "for what" was not unusual in Early Modern English. E. A. Abbott gives several examples in A Shakespearean Grammar (third edition, 1871), including the following:

"What shall I don this robe and trouble you?" (Cymbeline, Act 3, scene 4)
"What need we any spur but our own cause?" (Julius Caesar, Act 2, scene 1)
"What shall I need to draw my sword?" (Timon of Athens, Act 1, scene 1)

Another example can be found in Venus and Adonis:

These lovely caves, these round enchanting pits,
Open’d their mouths to swallow Venus’ liking.
Being mad before, how doth she now for wits?
Struck dead at first, what needs a second striking?

In the cited passage from Milton's "On Shakespeare" (written fourteen years after Shakespeare's death and therefore also in Early Modern English), "why" is the correct interpretation of "what".

Second question: meaning of "with too much conceiving".

The verb "conceive" had more than one meaning in Early Modern English. It was often used in the sense of "understand", but here it seems to mean "have an opinion or estimate of". Example from Henry VIII, Act 1, scene 2:

The grieved commons
Hardly conceive of me

In these lines, Cardinal Wolsey appears to be saying that the common people judge him harshly. Milton's phrase "too much conceiving" seems to mean the opposite: people are so much in awe of Shakespeare that they have become like lifeless stone (and this lifelessness is expressed in the creation of a monument for Shakespeare). This lifelessness contrasts with "live-long" in line 8.

Note also that "bereave" does not necessarily mean "to take away"; it could also mean "rob of strength or beauty; (hence) impair, spoil" (C. T. Onions).


References:

  • E. A. Abbott: A Shakespearian Grammar Third edition. London: Macmillan, 1871. (Old, but still cited in modern scholarly editions of Shakespeare's plays.)
  • C. T. Onions: A Shakespeare Glossary. Enlarged and Revised Throughout by Robert D. Eagleson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986

P.S.: The "marble" in these lines is possibly not only an allusion to the story of Niobe but also to Shakespeare's sonnet 55, which begins with the line "Not marble nor the gilded monuments". The words "live-long monument" in line 8 are somehow reminiscent of "This grave shall have a living monument" at the end of Hamlet, Act 5, scene 1.

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  • Thank you for your interpretation and references! I have finished my translation and acknowledged you in the article.
    – J. Wu
    Sep 20 at 4:37
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Tsundoku in the other answer suggests that “bereaving” might be used in the sense “spoiling, impairing”, based on this entry in Onions:

bereave (the commonest use is ‘to deprive’ a person of a thing, chiefly in pa. pple. bereft)

  1. to take away (a thing) from a person 2H6 III.i.85, Oth. I.iii.259, Lucr. 835; always passive.

  2. to rob of its strength or beauty, (hence) to impair, spoil Err. II.i.40 to see like right bereft, Lr. IV.iv.9 his bereaved sense, Ven. 797.

Charles T. Onions (1911). A Shakespeare Glossary, p. 16. Oxford: Clarendon.

The citations Onions gives for sense (2) are:

Adriana. But if thou live to see like right bereft,
This fool-begg’d patience in thee will be left.

A Comedy of Errors II.1.

Cordelia. What can man’s wisdom
In the restoring his bereaved sense,
He that helps him take all my outward worth.

King Lear IV.4.

Which the hot tyrant stains and soon bereaves,
As caterpillars do the tender leaves.

Venus and Adonis, line 797.

None of these are in the form “bereave X of Y” whereas in Milton we have the “of” and so we must be in sense (1).

Accordingly I think that “our fancy of itself bereaving” means “taking itself [that is, our fancy] away from our fancy”. This is absurd as written, so I think that we have to understand “our fancy” as synecdoche for “us”, and read it as “taking our fancy away from us”. This is how a fluent reader of English poetry would understand the phrase, I think, not troubling to figure out exactly how it works grammatically.

There is a similar phrase in Comus:

Yet they in pleasing slumber lull’d the sense,
And in sweet madness robb’d it of itself.

John Milton (1634). Comus, lines 260–261.

Again, this is absurd as written, so we have to read it as “robbed the sleeper of their sense”.

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