Study Guide

To the Memory of My Beloved Lines 1-10

By Ben Jonson

Lines 1-10

Lines 1-6

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.
'Tis true, and all men's suffrage. But these ways
Were not the paths I meant unto thy praise ;

  • Not to judge, but the opening of this poem is a little weird. Only Jonson would start off an elegy with a reference to envy.
  • What does it even mean to "draw envy" on someone's name? To spell it out, Jonson is essentially saying that he's not trying to stir up any ill will towards Shakespeare by writing on and on in this poem about his works and reputation. Okay, cool, but shouldn't that be a given in a poem meant to honor someone's memory?
  • Coming from Jonson, maybe not. After all, this guy made a couple of notoriously critical comments about Shakespeare earlier in his life and was famous for making both subtle and not-so-subtle digs at people in his poetry and plays.
  • But if Jonson claims he isn't trying to stir up ill will towards Shakespeare, why is he writing this poem? What's the deal?
  • In lines 3 and 4, Jonson admits that Shakespeare's works are so amazing that neither Man nor muse (the Greek goddesses of the arts) can praise them too much.
  • Jonson, however, isn't one to be redundant. According to line 5, Jonson isn't writing this poem to argue that Shakespeare's works are awesome because all men's suffrage, or admission, already acknowledges that this is true. 
  • So now we've ruled out stirring up envy and redundant praise as two reasons why Jonson is not writing this poem. So what gives, then?
  • An interesting question that's raised here is whether Jonson would have wanted his own work to be praised in a similar way.
  • When he mentions that all men agree that Shakespeare's work is the greatest, it seems like he's paying a major compliment, but we're not so sure Jonson necessarily thought this was an admirable thing. At the very least, he didn't write his own plays and poems in such a way that makes them particularly accessible to "all men".

Lines 7-10

For silliest ignorance on these may light,
Which, when it sounds at best, but echoes right ;
Or blind affection, which doth ne'er advance
The truth, but gropes, and urgeth all by chance ;

  • Line 7 continues to explore Jonson's motivations. Even the most ignorant of people, it reads, can see the value of Shakespeare's works. The words of the ignorant "echo right" (8) the praise of more intelligent thinkers because even though the dumber people don't understand what's being said, they still somehow recognize that it is impressive because Shakespeare really is that good.
  • But the reader is not to be misled by all this "all men love Shakespeare" talk. Jonson is not writing this poem out of "blind affection" for the Bard, either. 
  • Jonson, a champion of critical thinking, wants to steer clear of this label, because he believes Shakespeare's blind admirers are so starstruck that can't be objective. Their praise doesn't matter because it lacks a critical or logical foundation. It would just be meaningless fawning.
  • Another problem with blind affection is that it often slips into attributing someone's talents to Fortune. As in, "Shakespeare is so amazing, he must be a gift from God" as opposed to "Shakespeare is so amazing, he's one smart, hard-working, poetically gifted dude." See the difference? 
  • Here's as good a place as any to investigate the meter of "To the Memory of My Beloved." Really though, you could pick any spot at random because this poem just Does. Not. Deviate. from good, old, reliable iambic pentameter. Hear that rhythm there? That's five daDUMS per line and there is no changing it. Get ready to get repetitive.
  • There's a little something extra going on with this particular instance of iambic pentameter, though, and that is Jonson's use of a little something we like to call heroic couplets. It's a fancy poetry term for rhyming pairs of lines written in iambic pentameter and Jonson played a huge role in making them super trendy in the decades to come.

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