Following yesterday’s great sonnet by Shakespeare, what better to follow up with than Ben Johnson’s tribute to the master. This is not the only poem by Johnson about Shakespeare – he also wrote about the picture of Shakespeare which is in the front of Shakespeare’s complete works. Maybe we will put that poem up on this blog a bit later, but this one is a much more expansive tribute, showing how honoured he was in his own time.
To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare
BY BEN JONSON
To draw no envy, Shakespeare, 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;
For seeliest 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;
Or crafty malice might pretend this praise,
And think to ruin, where it seem’d to raise.
These are, as some infamous bawd or whore
Should praise a matron; what could hurt her more?
But thou art proof against them, and indeed,
Above th’ ill fortune of them, or the need.
I therefore will begin. Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room:
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.
That I not mix thee so, my brain excuses,
I mean with great, but disproportion’d Muses,
For if I thought my judgment were of years,
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line.
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
Euripides and Sophocles to us;
Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
To life again, to hear thy buskin tread,
And shake a stage; or, when thy socks were on,
Leave thee alone for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.
Tri’umph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age but for all time!
And all the Muses still were in their prime,
When, like Apollo, he came forth to warm
Our ears, or like a Mercury to charm!
Nature herself was proud of his designs
And joy’d to wear the dressing of his lines,
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
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,
As they were not of Nature’s family.
Yet must I not give Nature all: thy art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet’s matter nature be,
His art doth give the fashion; and, that he
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses’ anvil; turn the same
(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame,
Or, for the laurel, he may gain a scorn;
For a good poet’s made, as well as born;
And such wert thou. 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-turned, and true-filed lines;
In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
As brandish’d at the eyes of ignorance.
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!
But stay, I see thee in the hemisphere
Advanc’d, 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 mourn’d like night,
And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.
In fact, one of the great ways in which this poem appeals is that it gives us a window into the aspects of Shakespeare and his work which were recognized and appreciated by his contemporaries. Even though Shakespeare is for all ages, did the audience of his time think of his work like we do?
The first several lines reassure the reader that there are no base motives behind Johnson’s praise of Shakespeare, it is only to beat the drum for the finest writer of the age. And then Johnson piles on rapturous praise. He focusses here on the plays rather than the poems, “wonder of the stage”, and compares Will S. favourably with the dramatists of the time, Kyd, Marlowe and Lyly, but also the ancient Greek pioneers of dramatic art, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and more. In fact, Johnson states clearly that Shakespeare is for all time, and he leaves his classical forebears in the dust, whether they be Greek or Roman, such as Terence or Plautus.
Johnson then goes on to emphasise the hard work that went in to writing these plays, the sweat, the workmanship, as if on an anvil, his use of his education and surroundings to give him material, vocabulary and character.
Just as earlier in the poem, Johnson coupled Shakespeare’s name with Chaucer and Spenser, pinnacles of English writing, he now reminds us that he was recognized by Queen Elizabeth and her successor King James, as he brought to life theatrical performance in London, on the banks of the Thames.
The poem finishes with Shakespeare, now departed from this life, becoming a star in the heavens and beaming his light and influence down on theatre for ever.
A great tribute, and a worthy exposition of the talents and impact of Shakespeare.
The Poetry Dude