To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare

by Ben Jonson
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Last Updated on August 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

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Ben Jonson’s poem “To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare” appears as a preface to the First Folio, a collection of thirty-six plays by William Shakespeare. Officially titled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, the First Folio was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Jonson himself was a renowned English critic, poet, and playwright; Shakespeare performed as an actor in Jonson’s play Every Man in His Humour in 1598. Today, Jonson is often remembered both for his satirical comedies, such as Volpone (1606), and for his tragedies, such as Sejanus His Fall (1603).

“To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare” consists of a single stanza of eighty lines and follows an aabb rhyme scheme. The poem is a tribute, or more specifically an elegy, to William Shakespeare. Jonson knew Shakespeare personally, and while the nature of their relationship is not completely clear, it is fair to say that they were literary rivals. Jonson’s appreciation, then, is that of a fellow artist. His poem is not, however, an attempt to render Shakespeare as an individual, or a tribute to their friendship; instead, it is meant to elevate Shakespeare to the pantheon of great poets.

Jonson begins by explaining the sort of praise Shakespeare does not need: the praise of the ignorant or the malicious. Shakespeare is “above” the need for such false praise. It is unclear, however, what Jonson’s intent in this prologue might be; this can be read as an attack on others who would praise Shakespeare with lavish claims of greatness, or it could be a dig at his own project in this poem.

The next section launches into hyperbole, famously calling Shakespeare the “Soul of the Age!” whose greatness, even in death, transcends the usual literary honor of a grave in Westminster Cathedral: he is “a Monument without a tomb,” who will remain alive as long as “thy book doth live,” or as long as his works last. This section celebrates Shakespeare’s natural genius: though Shakespeare had “small Latin, and less Greek” (unlike the classically educated Jonson), he places him among the great playwrights of antiquity—Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. Shakespeare is a “triumph” for Britain, “to whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.”

The poem then turns from praising Shakespeare’s talent to praising his craft. Jonson asserts that “a good Poet’s made, as well as borne / And such wert thou” and praises his “true filed lines: / In each of which he seems to shake a lance” which is “brandished at the eyes of ignorance.” Jonson admires (as only a fellow playwright could) the skill needed to create lines that seem natural, contain truth, and work as poetry as well.

A final section calls Shakespeare the “sweet swan of Avon” (the town of Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakespeare’s place of birth) who swam in the same River Thames that Queen Elizabeth I and King James I traveled and suggests that, since his death, the world has been plunged in darkness, save for the light of his plays.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

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, which will always be read and praised. Similarly, Jonson declares that he will not compare Shakespeare to other Elizabethan dramatists, such as John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, and Christopher Marlowe, whom he so far outshines that such a comparison would be insulting. Despite Shakespeare’s meager classical training, he is also superior to the thundering tragedians of ancient Greece and Rome.

The third section begins on line 43, with Jonson’s claim that Shakespeare transcends time through the universality of his creativity. By means of his native genius, Shakespeare was able to create natural works that will last for all time, unlike the Roman writers Plautus and Terence, who have become outdated. Shakespeare is not only an exuberant natural force, he is also a diligent craftsman. To achieve the laurel crown, the poet must revise, “must sweat,/and strike the second heat/ Upon the muses’ anvil.”

Jonson begins the final section (lines 71 through 80) by calling Shakespeare the “Sweet swan of Avon,” an exclamation that contains important allusions to Shakespeare’s life and art. First, Jonson depicts Shakespeare as a royal swan in the River Thames, revered by the two monarchs for whom he wrote, Queen Elizabeth and King James I. Second, Jonson recalls Shakespeare’s birth in Stratford, on the Avon River, and depicts him as the dying swan who has left us his beautiful plays as his legacy. Finally, he declares that Shakespeare has ascended into the sky as Cygnus, the swan constellation, a glorification befitting classical demigods and heroes who were exalted after death with a heavenly apotheosis. From this lofty position, the “Star of poets” continues to shed the light of his inspiration on the “drooping stage.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

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 use of negation to praise Shakespeare. Usually, one thinks of praise as being positive, but Jonson cleverly uses varieties of negation to increase the superlative qualities of Shakespeare’s achievement. Jonson declares “he was not of an age, but for all time!” when he compares Shakespeare to other writers, he uses the negative to diminish them and to enlarge him:

>I will not lodge thee byChaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lieA little further to make thee a room:Thou art a monument without a tomb.

Jonson uses the metaphor of lineage to indicate that Shakespeare has made us all his heirs through the universality of his genius. This metaphor is suggested in the last part of the poem’s full title, “and what he hath left us,” and is developed in the third section. Jonson first compares Shakespeare to a sweating blacksmith hammering out his lines on the anvil, and then depicts him as the father of his “lines,” which are the exact expression of their progenitor’s mind and manners. These lines represent the words he has written in his plays; the succeeding generations of writers that he has inspired to attempt to emulate his creativity; the audiences that will always enjoy his work; and, finally, the military troops of intelligence he has dispatched to “shake a lance” at ignorance.