In 1616, “rare Ben Jonson,” the unofficial poet laureate under James I, published his collected works, the first time an English author had done so. In 1623, William Shakespeare’s plays were collected in the first folio, which contained this prefatory tribute to Shakespeare by Jonson, who was determined to give his contemporary his due as a universal literary genius.
The title conveys Jonson’s high estimation of Shakespeare as his beloved master, his superior whom he admires and loves to the point of idolatry. Shakespeare died in 1616; seven years later, Jonson is evaluating what Shakespeare has bequeathed to him and to his audiences, then and in the future.
The poem consists of eighty lines, divided into four parts and written in heroic couplets—rhymed five-beat lines containing ten syllables each. Jonson spends the first fifteen lines describing the wrong kinds of tributes usually paid to famous authors. By contrast, he will not praise Shakespeare out of envy, ignorance, blind affection, or hidden malice.
The second section starts with line 17, in which Jonson begins his eulogy of Shakespeare as the “Soul of the age!”—the spirit of the time, the delightful essence of creative expression. There is no need to make a place for Shakespeare in the conventional burial place of England’s great poets, Westminster Abbey, because he transcends place, being a “monument without a tomb” who still lives in his plays,...
(The entire section is 509 words.)