Sweet Swan of Avon ! what a sight it were To see thee in our waters yet appear, And make those flights upon the banks of Thames, That so did take Eliza, and our James !
Sweet Swan of Avon! Is Shmoop the only one who wishes this had become a socially acceptable phrase for expressing surprise and/or pleasure? As in, "Sweet swan of Avon, that sandwich was delicious!"
Okay but seriously. This reference to Avon is big. It's a pretty direct link between the author of the plays in the First Folio and William of Avon, a.k.a. Shakespeare. We talk a bit about the possibility that Shakespeare wasn't actually the author of these plays in the "What's Up With the Title?" section, so skip down there if you're eager to read more.
In these lines, Jonson is comparing Shakespeare to a swan. The "flights upon the banks of the Thames" refer to the frequent trips to London Shakespeare would make from his home in Avon. Jonson is talking about how wonderful it would be if Shakespeare were still alive and could still make these trips.
Eliza and "our James," mentioned in line 74, are Queen Elizabeth I, recently deceased, and King James I, who was king of England when Jonson was writing. Both were avid fans of Shakespeare and many of the "flights" Shakespeare made to London were at the request of someone in the royal house.
In fact, the king and queen never attended a play in a public theater—they watched performances at the royal Hampton Court, which was also known as Avon back in the day. Coincidence? We hardly think so.
But stay, I see thee in the hemisphere Advanced, and made a constellation there ! Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage, Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night, And despairs day, but for thy volume's light.
Hold up. It turns out we don't actually need Shakespeare to come back to life, because Jonson just spotted him in the heavens.
According to line 75, Shakespeare has been turned into a constellation in the night sky. Now there's an afterlife.
A note about turning people into stars; this was a very common sentiment to express in a eulogy or elegy. Greek and Roman mythology did a lot of turning people into stars to reward them for excellence during life on Earth, and Jonson is running with that same theme here. Never mind the fact that half the stars we see in the sky have already exploded and are actually burned out by the time their light is visible to people on Earth. In Jonson's time, stars represented immortality and the afterlife.
Jonson commands Shakespeare to shine forth as the "star of poets," which is a pun on the fact that Shakespeare was praised as the best poet ever and that, here, Jonson is talking about him being transformed into a constellation, making him both a literal and figurative star.
Rage and influence, mentioned in line 78 and 79, are really astrological terms. Back in the day, the movements of the planets in the sky were thought to have effects of the emotions and events on Earth. Rage and influence were two possible effects of planetary movements.
Presumably, Shakespeare would chide the stage with rage if people weren't doing the theater justice and cheer the stage with his influence, because who doesn't want to see a play whose author was influenced by Shakespeare, even in star-form? Rage, however, can also mean "poetic inspiration," which Shmoop thinks is pretty nifty. Ah, the wonders of a well-placed double meaning.
The stage here is described as drooping, which we think is kind of sad even though it's also pretty accurate. By 1623, the golden age of Renaissance drama was over. The Puritans were about to come to power in the English Civil War, and the theater would soon be outlawed altogether for several years. The drooping of the stage discussed here has much more to do with changing culture and politics in England than it does with the death of Shakespeare.
But that doesn't make for a very good elegy, and it seems completely plausible that, in a poem memorializing Shakespeare and everything he did for theater, you could become very sad when considering the current state of theatrical affairs. Shakespeare certainly would have been deeply saddened had he lived to see what happened to the theater in the mid-17th century. So here we have it: the stage, personified, is mourning the death of Shakespeare.
It's described as mourning "like night" because night is dark, like black, which is the color of mourning. But the blackness and emptiness of night (especially in a time before electricity) also represents the theatrical void that was left when Shakespeare died. See, for all Jonson's talk about his influence and legacy, there wasn't really anyone who picked up where old Willy left off. Plays were still written and attended, of course, but the spark that Shakespeare brought to the stage was gone.
The First Folio is the only saving grace. It's described having a "light" to it, and Jonson seems to truly believe that having Shakespeare's work in print will somehow reignite the theatrical spark that had been on the decline in recent years. Jonson himself started writing plays again right around the time the First Folio was published, but they are not his best or his most popular.
The poem ends on a decidedly depressing note, and knowing what's in store for theater in England in the years immediately ahead, Shmoop can't help but feel a little sad about it, too.