Study Guide

To the Memory of My Beloved Quotes

By Ben Jonson

  • Admiration

    While I confess thy writings to be such
    As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much (3-4)

    In classical culture, the Muses were not only the goddesses of the arts, they were also said to inspire them. There's something uncharacteristically poetic for Jonson about the idea that the very inspiration of great literature cannot give Shakespeare enough praise.

    I therefore will begin. Soul of the Age!
    The applause! Delight! The wonder of our Stage! (17-18)

    The BIG IDEAS we credit Shakespeare's plays with containing were not the main reason he was famous or popular back in the 1600s. Instead, Shakespeare was known more for how he wrote than the stories he told. Jonson's tribute to him here, though, as the "soul of the age" implies that perhaps those universal truths were not lost on Shakespeare's early modern audience after all.

    And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek
    From thence to honor thee, not seek
    For names […] (31-33)

    It's hard to tell whether Jonson is praising Shakespeare for doing well in spite of not having a classical education or whether he is poking fun at him for being, shall we say, not the brightest crayon in the box compared to his literary contemporaries.

    Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
    To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe (41-42)

    It's hard to judge the extent to which Shakespeare's plays made it overseas, but clearly Jonson thinks that an international audience would appreciate their greatness. There's yet another testimony to the power of Shakespeare's storytelling in addition to his use of language.

    He was not of an age, but for all time (43)

    Most epic-sounding compliment of all time.

  • Immortality

    My Shakespeare, rise […] (19)

    Rise is a loaded term in lots of early modern poetry, but its normally raunchy/sexual pun isn't being used in this case. Here, the word "rise" is literally calling Shakespeare back from the dead (in the form of his printed plays) and is also a reference to his ability to rise above the reputations and legacies of his peers and leave them in the dust.

    Thou art a Monument without a tomb,
    And art alive still, while thy Book doth live,
    And we have wits to read, and praise to give (22-24)

    Jonson's idea that an author's printed work is a living monument to that author is interesting indeed. It also might help explain why Jonson was so eager to see his works into print before the end of his lifetime. Maybe he wanted a monument all for himself?

    […] Look how the father's face
    Lives in his issue, even so, the race
    Of Shakespeare's mind and manners brightly shines
    In his well toned, and true-filed lines (65-68)

    Nowadays, teachers are always cautioning you to not assume the author is the one speaking in poems or plays, but Jonson says here that Shakespeare's "mind and manners" live on in his lines. Do you think that means his personality and opinions are in there somewhere, too?

    But stay, I see thee in the Hemisphere
    Advanced, and made a Constellation there! (75-76)

    We're not sure about you, but Shmoop can think of a lot of afterlives that would be more appealing than being a star. Elysian fields anyone?

  • Literature and Writing

    To draw no envy Shakespeare on thy name
    Am I thus ample to thy Book and Fame (1-2)

    An interesting cynical beginning to what becomes a poem chock full of compliments. Why do you think Jonson singles out Shakespeare's name from his book and fame?

    My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by
    Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
    A little further, to make thee a room (19-21)

    Jonson compares Shakespeare to Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont—the first three poets to have the honor of being buried in what would come to be known as Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. So, basically, Jonson thinks Ol' Shakey is kind of a Big Deal.

    But call forth thund'ring Aeschelus,
    Euripides, and Sophocles to us
    Pacuvius, Accius, his of Cordova dead
    To life again, to hear thy Buskin tread (33-36)

    If you could bring back any famous playwright from back in the day and watch their work performed as it was originally, who would you choose? While time travel may not be a viable option (yet… here's hoping), there are tons of theater companies dedicated to doing just that—check and see if one is near you.

    Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
    To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe (41-42)

    Nationality in the way we think of it today was only just starting to emerge as a concept during Shakespeare and Jonson's time, and the arts were one of the things that helped fuel the growth of this concept in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

    Who casts a living line, must sweat,
    (Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
    Upon the Muses' anvil […] (59-61)

    A beautiful description of all the hard work that goes into making something sound effortless. If only we could all pull that off.

  • Art and Culture

    Nature herself was proud of his designs
    And joy'd to wear the dressing of his lines (47-48)

    Shmoop really likes the idea of nature wearing poetry like people wear clothes. In these terms, Shakespeare is basically Armani.

    As, since she will vouchsafe no other Wit
    The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes,
    Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please
    But antiquated and deserted lie (51-54)

    Nature, it seems, likes to play favorites. Here she is portrayed unilaterally rejecting other poets in favor of Shakespeare's descriptions.

    Yet must I not give Nature all: thy art
    My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part (55-56)

    Shakespeare's art as opposed to his natural talent gets "a part" of the credit, but Jonson seems to gush much more over nature.

    For though the Poet's matter, Nature be
    His Art doth give the fashion […] (57-58)

    The word "matter" here works two ways: one, meaning the poet's subject matter is Nature but his art gives those words structure and substance, and two, the poet's substance, or what makes a person a poet, is a natural gift, but only with hard work does that gift mature and produce great poetry.

    For a good Poet's made as well as born (64)

    Truer words never spoken. Three cheers for Jonson, amirite?