Study Guide

To the Memory of My Beloved Analysis

By Ben Jonson

  • Sound Check

    Military March

    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 !

    Jonson's a pretty faithful dude. He never strays from his rhyme scheme or meter, and that reminds Shmoop of the steady march of military feet, on and on and on in perfect rhythm.

    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.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    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.

  • Setting

    The Beginning of the End (of Renaissance Drama)

    "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.

  • Speaker

    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.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    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.

  • Calling Card

    Erudition

    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.

  • Form and Meter

    Heroic couplets

    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.

  • Memorials

    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.

    • Line 19: Jonson compares Shakespeare to other great poets from Britain's past, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and Francis Beaumont, all of whom were buried in a special corner of Westminster Abbey known as Poet's Corner. By saying he wouldn't bid them move over to make room for Shakespeare, Jonson simultaneously creates an image of Shakespeare as being on a different level than these other authors and makes a jab at the fact that Shakespeare was currently not memorialized in Westminster.
    • Line 22: Referring to Shakespeare as a monument without a tomb speaks to his importance in British literary history and also references the book in which Jonson's poem appeared, Shakespeare's First Folio. The book, Jonson is saying, is all the monument that Shakespeare needs.
    • Line 65: Children, in their own way, are another kind of memorial to their parents. Shakespeare had two actual children of his own, but here Jonson is referring to Shakespeare's poems as his children; the personality and legacy of the author lives on in his "issue," or his work.
    • Line 75: A common convention in memorial poems from Jonson's time period is the idea of turning dead people into constellations. It's something people picked up from the ancient Greeks and Romans and comes from the belief that the stars were eternal (never mind that most of the stars we see in the sky have actually already burned up and exploded).
  • Classical Allusions

    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.

    • Line 4: The line "as neither man nor muse can praise too much" is an indication of what is to come: namely, lots of praise from men and muses. Because clearly if it's impossible to praise Shakespeare's work too much, Jonson is in no danger of overextending himself.
    • Line 26: Muses again, except this time Jonson isn't making a direct reference to the classical goddesses. Instead, he's speaking figuratively of other authors. Much like the muses in Greek and Roman mythology, the past authors Jonson speaks of have inspired those writing in the present. Shakespeare, it seems, has outshone his inspiration. Yep. Dude's awesome.
    • Line 33: Aeschylus, a dude famous for writing really sad Greek plays like Prometheus Bound, is the first of several Greek and Roman writers that Jonson mentions in this poem, and the company he's in is important, so pay attention. 
    • Line 34: Enter Euripides (author of things you've never heard of) and Sophocles (author of really uplifting pieces like Antigone and Oedipus the King). Notice how Jonson makes an effort to match up his allusions with the types of Shakespearean plays he's discussing? "When thy socks are on" is a reference to comedies, so he mentions famous comic writers, and "buskin tread" is a reference to tragedies, so Jonson focuses on tragedians. 
    • Line 35: More tragedians. But this time they are Roman poets (Accius and Pacuvius, author of Aesop's Fables). This line also drops a knowledge-bomb on its readers: "him of Cordova dead." Jonson is talking about Seneca the Younger, but the effect of leaving him officially unnamed (and dropping all these other names which you'd have to be really well read to recognize) is to brag a little bit about his own intelligence. Jonson would never be mistaken as someone with "small Latin and less Greek."
    • Line 51: Now we move on to famous ancient comedians like Aristophanes, a.k.a. the Father of Comedy. And here you were, thinking it was Dave Chappelle.
    • Line 52: We've got two more somewhat obscure names from the ancient Roman theater, Terence and Plautus, both of whom were philosophers as well as playwrights. These are some pretty famous people Nature is casting aside in favor of Shakespeare. 
    • Line 44: Speaking of the muses being in their prime is a little weird, because the popular conception was that the Muses, a classical creation, were obviously in their prime during the classical era. Jonson says no, though, because how could Shakespeare have existed if the Muses were not still alive and active in early modern Britain?
    • Line 45: Jonson uses a simile comparing Shakespeare's emergence onto the theater scene in London to the music of Apollo and the eloquence of Mercury (each known for that particular skill). Jonson is making Shakespeare's work supernaturally awesome. Is this also an implication, though, that Shakespeare's talent comes from God and not from himself?
    • Line 61: Here we see the Muses for the last time, and in this instance it's a reference to their anvil, a tool used in tempering and forging metal. This isn't something taken from mythology, but it's a  gesture toward the idea that Shakespeare did have to work (a little) to get to where he got… although having an anvil made by the Muses sure doesn't hurt. In a figurative sense, Jonson is talking about the behind-the-scenes effort that goes into perfecting and fine-tuning what sounds like effortless, beautiful prose in its final form.
  • Elevation

    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.

    • Line 12: We're first introduced to the concept of elevation in line 12, when Jonson clarifies that he is not writing a tongue-in-cheek kind of poem that sounds flattering but actually isn't. His goal is to "raise" Shakespeare, but there's a pun here, too. The word raze, which sounds the same even though it's spelled differently, means to destroy or flatten.
    • Line 15: Shakespeare is described as being "above" the criticism and ill fortune that occasionally befalls writers. This establishes a theme that will be continued through the rest of the poem, so keep your eyes and ears peeled for more.
    • Line 19: Jonson commands Shakespeare to "rise" in a drama-ridden tone appropriate for commanding someone to come back from the dead. Here, "rise" refers not only to Shakespeare's resurrection in the form of the First Folio but also his superiority to the other British authors named in the stanza.
    • Line 71: Jonson directly compares Shakespeare to a swan, flying gracefully along the banks of the Thames. Swans are a pretty loaded image, symbolically speaking, but we're going to unpack a couple of the potential angles Jonson might have been getting at here: (1) The Mute Swan of Europe is, as you might have guessed, a swan that is native to Europe that does not make any noise. Popular culture, however, theorized that the Mute Swan, upon dying, would sing beautifully for the first and only time in its life. This is where the phrase "swan song" comes from, but also a cool potential parallel for the now-dead Shakespeare and his swan song, the First Folio. (2) In classical mythology, which we know Jonson loves, the most famous swan comes from the story of Leda and the Swan (warning: this story ends with Zeus, disguised as a bird, raping the Queen of Sparta). Here, though, we think the swan's association with Apollo (a Greek god with whom Jonson has already compared Shakespeare) is more appropriate. Swans were basically the bird mascot of Apollo and are often depicted as pulling his chariot. (3) Swan was considered a luxury food item back in the days of Queen Elizabeth. You can find a recipe for baked swan here. Note: Shmoop doesn't actually think this is relative to the poem, but it's good information to have on hand in case you ever find yourself needing to make an early modern English feast.
    • Lines 75-76: Jonson gives Shakespeare the ultimate elevation boost and turns him into a star. This is a gesture that was often used by the classical poets, who thought that the stars were immortal. 
    • Line 88: What goes up must come down, and Jonson seems to know this was the fate of the theater as well. His description of the stage as "drooping" after Shakespeare's death may just be a symbolic one, but Jonson was spot on: the next few years would see a rapid decline in the quality and output of the theater, ultimately culminating in it being temporarily outlawed by some rather entertainment-unfriendly Puritans.
  • Steaminess Rating

    G

    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.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • William Shakespeare
    • Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales and famous British writer (20)
    • Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queen and famous British writer (20)
    • Beaumont, famous British dramatist and poet (20)
    • John Lyly, famous British dramatist, poet, and playwright; author of Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit and Euphues and His England (29)
    • Thomas Kyd, famous British playwright; author of The Spanish Tragedy (30)
    • Christopher Marlowe, famous British poet and playwright; author of Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta (30)
    • Aeschylus, ancient Greek tragedian and author of Prometheus Bound (33)
    • Euripides, ancient Greek tragedian (34)
    • Sophocles, ancient Greek tragedian and author of Antigone and Oedipus the King (34)
    • Pacuvius, tragic poet from ancient Rome (35)
    • Accius, Latin poet to whom Aesop's Fables are attributed (35)
    • Seneca the Young ("him of Cordova dead"), Roman philosopher and playwright (35)
    • Aristophanes, comic playwright from ancient Athens commonly known as "The Father of Comedy" (51)
    • Terence, ancient Roman playwright (52)
    • Plautus, ancient Roman playwright (52)

    Historical References

    • Poet's Corner, a famous area of Westminster Abbey where great authors are traditionally buried or memorialized (19-22)
    • Eliza, reference to Queen Elizabeth I, Queen of England and fan of Shakespeare's plays (74)
    • James, reference to King James of England, the present King of England when Jonson was writing (74)