The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The poem is written in heroic couplets, both closed and open. The closed couplet comes to a full stop at the end of two lines, while the flow of the open couplet continues into succeeding lines. Jonson alternates these types of couplets throughout the poem to create a distinctive rhythm of two-line and larger units.
Ironically, Jonson begins the poem with an ambiguous couplet that can be read as closed, but that also can be linked with the next two lines to create a four-line unit. In the first couplet, Jonson declares that he does not intend to make Shakespeare the object of envy through excessive praise, although, as he states in the next couplet, it is impossible to praise Shakespeare too highly. After this masterful use of ambiguity and hyperbole, Jonson continues with six closed couplets that epigrammatically dismiss the false types of praise he will avoid.
In the second part of the poem (lines 31 through 40), in which Jonson compares Shakespeare to his classical predecessors, he employs five open couplets to depict the superior power of Shakespeare’s creativity. Sometimes Jonson varies the alternation between open and closed couplets with an intervening, short, unrhymed line that adds a succinct decisiveness to his pronouncements. For example, after using four open couplets to describe how a “good poet’s made as well as born,” Jonson inserts the terse “And such wert thou!”
Jonson’s major rhetorical device is the...
(The entire section is 461 words.)