US" Ben Jonson (1623) Ben Jonson wrote his famous poem celebrating William Shakespeare to be prefaced to the first folio of Shakespeare's plays. Although many readers may recall Jonson's well-publicized remark that "Shakespeare wanted art," his elegy puts to rest any suspicion that he did not admire William Shakespeare. As George Parfitt notes, that particular remark has been incorrectly assumed to represent Jonson's definitive opinion. However, because of Jon-son's penchant for epigrams and sometimes terse remarks, as well as the fact that this quotation was recorded by William Drummond of Hawthornden after a conversation he had with the poet, too much has been made of the statement. While Jonson never pretended complete agreement with Shakespeare's "literary views," he did not believe that Shakespeare did not produce art. He more likely felt that Shakespeare was not artistic enough in terms of Jonson's ideals. Although it may be too reductive an evaluation, for the purposes of discussion it is reasonable to consider that Jonson was considered a writer in the classical vein with an intellectual bent to arouse thought, while Shakespeare wrote to entertain the public and arouse emotion. Parfitt asserts that giving Jonson's offhand three-word comment more weight than his brilliant elegy is unwarranted.
Jonson spends the first 15 lines of the elegy reviewing all the possible ways he might praise a writer who "neither man nor Muse can praise too much" (5). only in line 17 does he at last begin an attempt to do so with the resounding "Soul of the age! / The applause! Delight! The wonder of our stage!" making clear his honest feelings of admiration. While writers such as Francis Beaumont had alluded to Shakespeare as one who achieved "by the dim light of nature alone," noting by contrast that Jonson was guided by art, Jonson clearly does not agree. He bids "My Shakespeare, rise," writing, "I will not lodge thee by / Chaucer or Spenser" nor "bid Beaumont lie / A little further to make thee a room." Those three poets had been buried in Westminster Abbey, while Shakespeare lay in Stratford. Jonson makes the point that Shakespeare should be apart from that crowded group, adding, "Thou art a monument without a tomb."
Jonson feels strongly positive toward his subject, even if he does allude a few lines later to the fact that his own training in Latin is superior to that of Shakespeare. In typical fashion he elects to overlook Shakespeare's grasp of French and Italian, privileging the classical languages. But he clearly notes that Shakespeare does not remain time-bound, as do certain Greek and Roman poets, and that Britain triumphs in producing a poet "To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe. / He was not of an age, but for all time!" In lines 55-58 Jonson even counters his famous quotation, writing,
Yet must I not give Nature all; the Art, My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part. For though the poet's matter Nature be, His Art doth give the fashion.
Jonson concludes his remarkable elegy by literally lifting Shakespeare to the heights:
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. (75-80)
Jonson adds to the final line a reference to the volume that was the first collection of Shakespeare's plays. He must be counted among those who performed an invaluable service to later generations by realizing the importance of committing Shakespeare's words to the page for the sake of preservation.
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