Jonson’s eighty-line tribute to Shakespeare, “To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us,” was written to accompany that dramatist’s plays in the famous 1623 edition prepared by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell. The poem is generous in its praise and argues that, despite whatever private reservations he might have had, Jonson wanted to go on public record as one of Shakespeare’s greatest admirers.
The eulogy starts by addressing Shakespeare directly, in an apostrophe, but midway through the poem it shifts to address the English nation. The country, personified as Britain, should “triumph” in Shakespeare, a genius “not of an age, but for all time!” In this middle section, Shakespeare is spoken of in the third person, but Jonson subtly shifts once more to address his deceased friend before the poem’s conclusion.
In the first half, Jonson surveys possible motives for his lavish praise and rejects “silliest ignorance,” “blind affection,” and “crafty malice,” with the implication that his motives are pure, based on sound critical judgment. He does make the rather infamous statement that Shakespeare had “small Latin, and less Greek.” Out of context, that observation may seem condemnatory, but Jonson’s implication is that Shakespeare’s genius is of such an order that he exceeds the greatest writers of “insolent Greece” and “haughty Rome” without being beholden to them for his art—a remarkable admission from an avowed classicist.
A central theme of the poem, one repeatedly used in Shakespeare’s own sonnets, is that art offers its creator immortality. Shakespeare, claims Jonson, will live as long as “we have wits to read, and praise to give.” The idea of art’s transcendent capability leads to the finale of the poem, an apotheosis or poetic immortalizing, which, in the elegiac tradition, transfixes the subject in the heavens as a constellation, the “star of poets.” That is high public praise from a writer whose natural bias lay against poetic excess. Jonson’s great skill gives it and other lavish statements of praise a sincere ring, and the result is one of the finest poetic eulogies in the English language.