Rhythmically, this poem is pretty close to flawless. Just look at how PERFECT these feet are:
To whom all Scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age, but for all time !
Normally rhyming couplets can come off as a little too upbeat, but Jonson's use of multi-syllable words throughout the poem negates the occasionally sing-songy effect that heroic couplets can have on the tone of a piece. These lines are a good example:
The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes,
Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please ;
The lines are iambic pentameter and they do rhyme, but they almost don't sound that way. It's impressive. The complexity of his diction keeps the poem grounded, as is appropriate for an elegy, but doesn't totally deplete the springiness of rhyming couplets.
In short, the way Jonson just powers through all those lines in relentless iambic pentameter is nothing short of mechanical, and we at Shmoop think that's a-okay. This poem, after all, is about one author's respect and admiration for another author's work, and it's hard to think of something that commands more respect than the sound of an army marching by you in perfect, synchronous step.
The title seems pretty straightforward, right? "To the Memory of my Beloved, the Author, Master William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us." Sounds like it's just there to make sure readers know that this poem is dedicated to Shakespeare and talks about some of the awesome plays he left his posterity. The end.
Wrong, Shmoopers. That is not the end. Or, it might be, but who are we to deprive you of a good literary conspiracy? That's right. This poem—in spite of its straightforward-seeming title—is actually right in the middle of one of the most famous unresolved literary mysteries.
That, friends, would be the Shakespeare authorship debate.
And while we at Shmoop prefer to steer clear of trying to unilaterally resolve massive, century-spanning literary controversies, we feel we owe it to you to point out a couple things that make this poem so relevant to the pseudo-Shakespeare question:
(1) The title of the poem appears in the First Folio as it does here, with Shakespeare's name intact. It appears in other publications, however, with the name dropped. To be fair, titles were incredibly… shall we say optional? Flexible? Malleable? Whatever word you pick, you get the general idea: they changed a lot. But still, removing Shakespeare's name from the title potentially turns this poem and everything it stands for into a whole different ball game, so it's definitely something to keep in mind.
(2) You might think that some of the lines in the poem are pretty clear that Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare. We mean, how many "sweet swans of Avon" can there be? Current scholarship on the topic, however, argues that some of these giveaways are actually misinformation intentionally planted by Jonson and his comrades in an attempt to protect the true author's identity.
The plot thickens.
"To the Memory of My Beloved" is pretty inextricably intertwined with the historical time period in which it was written. In case you're curious, that would be England in the early 1620s. But there's another time period Shmoop wants to draw your attention to before we write this off as a memorial poem and move on. And that is the age of Renaissance drama.
In historical terms, the author (Jonson) and the subject (Shakespeare) lived at essentially the same time, but in the literary world, the two men fell on very different sides of a literary movement: the rise and decline of Renaissance drama. Shakespeare, "the wonder of our stage," wrote many of the works that revitalized and electrified the theater in early modern England. He changed everything. The dude was a defining and invigorating theatrical force, and for many—then as now—his works epitomize everything theater was about in the early 1600s.
Jonson, born a few years after Shakespeare, embraces theater while it's at its apex, or peak, and the only place to go from there is down. Especially when compared to Shakespeare's plays, Jonson's work is dry, hypercritical, and lacks the universal insight and whimsy that make Shakespeare's work enjoyable for a wide range of audience members. This is not to say that Jonson's plays didn't enjoy a certain degree of popularity—they totally did—but they lack the depth, soul, and scope of Shakespeare's work. Jonson's plays, perhaps, were not for all time, but of an age and "To the Memory of My Beloved" very likely has more to memorialize than just the man behind the magic.
This, Shmoopers, is one of the few occasions where we feel comfortable saying that the speaker of this poem is Ben Jonson, the author. Your English teachers have cautioned you against making this assumption, we're sure, but Shmoop has got some seriously convincing supporting evidence for our case.
Consider the following:
(1) This poem was first published in 1623 at the beginning of Shakespeare's First Folio. The practice of including elegies and other commendatory poems written by friends at the beginning of a deceased author's work was very common, but this front section was sacred for just that reason; it provided a unique space for other authors to share their personal thoughts, feelings, and reflections on the life and work of a peer. Jonson's poem, if not written from a first person perspective, would have been an odd thing for the editors to include.
(2) Enough of Jonson's personal writings have survived that we know a little bit about how the man's mind worked, and this poem screams Jonson. Obviously the style and rhetoric are his, but the sentiments expressed by the speaker are so quintessentially Jonsonian it practically smacks you in the face. The little dig about "small Latin and less Greek"—totally in line with Jonson, the hypercritical classicist. And the comments about Shakespeare's "natural" gift (as opposed to the very intentional labor that Jonson put into his poetry) are perfectly in line with opinions of Shakespeare's work Jonson had expressed before he died.
(3) The poem shows off the intelligence of the author in a very Jonsonian way. It spends a lot of time talking about how Shakespeare is better than the greats of Greece, Rome, and England, but veiled in that praise is Jonson showing off his own knowledge. His learning was one of the things that set him apart from Shakespeare, and no way would Jonson strut his stuff without taking the credit.
(4) Shmoop would never lie to you. Ever. And we say the speaker is Jonson.
Folks, picking where this poem falls on the tough-o-meter was, well, tough. Jonson's diction can be extremely tricky, and really getting the most out of this poem requires a decent bit of background knowledge, which we think makes it pretty demanding.
On the other hand, there's not much in the way of complicated symbolism or complex metrical patterns, which makes the poetics of the piece relatively straightforward. Unable to give the poem both a 1 and a 10, Shmoop decided to compromise with a 5. We're all about meeting halfway.
Ooooh, Shmoop used a fancy word. Given the context, however, it seems appropriate. We just couldn't resist.
Erudition is a word a lot of people probably don't know, which is a wee bit ironic because it means "having or showing great knowledge or learning." Jonson, folks, had a big old brain and he loved showing off just how smart he was in his writing.
Let's look at line 31, the famous backhanded compliment: "And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek." Now, the sentiment expressed in this passage is that Shakespeare didn't need a bunch of classical training to write good plays. The tricky thing about the following lines, though, is that Jonson is simultaneously showing off his own impressive knowledge of the classics while serving Shakespeare a backhanded compliment on how well he did without it. That list of names Jonson rattles off in lines 33-35 includes some well-known names but hey, even Shmoop had to look up a couple of those people. And "him of Cordova dead?" Not providing a name is even more of a show-off move. You'd have to have some major Google-fu to figure out he's talking about Seneca.
We mean, in a poem memorializing someone with "small Latin and less Greek", isn't it a little show-offish to prattle on about famous Greek and Roman tragedians whom Shakespeare likely never read? Isn't it super braggy and a little patronizing, like trying to explain long division to a third grader by starting with advanced calculus and theories of numerology?
The answer is yes, it is, but it is also so typical of something Jonson would do. He loved the classics and while he might condescend to admit that Shakespeare did okay without them, it is very, very clear that Jonson considers himself the more fortunate of the two.
One of major differences between Jonson and Shakespeare was in what we might call their method and style. Shakespeare was incredibly creative, playful, and poetic. It's rumored that he never crossed out a line when he was writing. Jonson, on the other hand, was structured, rigid, and a super-revisionist, sort of like a well-honed poetry machine. Each created impressive pieces of literature, but they appear to have gone about it in very different ways and reached relatively opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum.
The form and meter of this poem are actually beautiful representations of both the contrast and the congruencies of Jonson and Shakespeare's respective works. Both, for instance, wrote their poetry primarily in iambic pentameter like Jonson uses here. Form-wise, however, Shakespeare opted to write in sonnet form. That's an older, inherently romantic style and one that, while still technically requiring a rhyme scheme and format, offers authors a lot of flexibility in terms of shaking up the meter and rhyming patterns.
Jonson's method of choice, however, was the heroic couplet, technically defined as rhyming pairs of verse in iambic pentameter. Take a look at these lines for an example:
To draw no envy, SHAKSPEARE, on thy name,
Am I thus ample to thy book and fame ;
While I confess thy writings to be such,
As neither Man nor Muse can praise too much.
See how perfect these first lines are? The whole poem is exactly the same way. Such style was in many ways pioneered by Jonson and required a painstakingly technical hand to work. (If you've ever encountered a slant rhyme in a poem of heroic couplets, you'll know what we mean; they are incredibly jarring.)
Heroic couplets become the poetry of the neoclassicists, and, largely thanks to Jonson, are associated with the kind of satirical, cynical, incredibly structured poetry that Jonson loves to write. The fact that here they are used in a more lyrical, poetic way (in tone much more similar to something Shakespeare wrote than most things in the Jonson canon) is beautiful testimony to Jonson's respect for the difference between himself and Shakespeare and also to his talent as a poet.
For a poem about a dead guy, Jonson doesn't spend a ton of time talking about, well, death. What he does instead, however, is talk about stuff that's related to death like tombs, monuments, and other forms of memorialization. According to Jonson, all these earthly forms of commemoration pale in comparison to the monument Shakespeare left to himself, his plays and sonnets.
Jonson was an avowed classicist, so it's no surprise that this poem, much like his others, contains lots of references to our pals up on Mount Olympus. But casting Shakespeare in this classical light is a great compliment coming from Jonson, and it sets up Shakespeare's works to be as enduring a force in literature as the works contributed by the greats of the classical era.
There are several instances in "To William Shakespeare" where Jonson describes the deceased poet as somehow being raised, above, or higher than other people and things. This is fairly common in elegies, as heaven is generally thought of as being "up," but Jonson isn't talking about Shakespeare's afterlife in the religious sense. Here, the elevation imagery is used to symbolize Shakespeare's elevated status as compared to his literary peers and also the way in which he elevated the quality of the theater during his lifetime.
There's a lot going on in this poem to be sure, but sex doesn't really take a leading role. In fact, it doesn't have a role at all. We mean, it is an elegy after all.