Jonson's elegy (a poem written to memorialize the dead), "To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Master William Shakespeare, and What he Hath Left Us," was first published in 1623 as part of the preface to Shakespeare's First Folio, a space traditionally reserved for commemorative verses from the author's greatest friends and admirers, and amounts to the only extended commentary on Shakespeare issued by one of his contemporaries.
Jonson's 80-line elegy to Shakespeare begins with a justification of his motives for praising the author. As in, "I know you think I can't stand this dude, but here's how it really is." And hey, that's an apt start to a poem written by a rival, right?
Jonson moves through the different reasons he might have for praising Shakespeare, but ultimately dismisses all of them except for the old classic: genuine admiration. He talks about how Shakespeare is a thousand times more awesome than Chaucer, Spenser, and all the other famous British authors of the past. He throws in a pretty famous jab that Shakespeare had "small Latin and less Greek", but then goes on to say that he doesn't even need those fancy classical languages because Shakespeare leaves Euripides, Sophocles, and all their cronies in the dust, anyway.
Then there's a shift and Jonson starts talking to the nation of Britain. He discusses the importance of bragging rights, and how the English should never let the world forget that Shakespeare came from Britain and that it was a Big Stinkin' Deal. This train of thought melts into a discussion of "nature." Not in the birds-and-trees sense, but in the natural, human, universal sense, a.k.a. the element of Shakespeare's writing that we're sure your English teachers have beaten in you since 9th grade.
The quintessential counterpart to nature, nurture, or "art" as it was often called in Jonson's time, then comes into play; according to Jonson, Shakespeare was both born with and worked for his poetic prowess. The poem concludes as all good memorials should, with Shakespeare being transformed into a star, watching over the stage as it mourns for the death of the dramatist.
Jonson’s eighty-line tribute to Shakespeare, “To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us,” was written to accompany that dramatist’s plays in the famous 1623 edition prepared by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell. The poem is generous in its praise and argues that, despite whatever private reservations he might have had, Jonson wanted to go on public record as one of Shakespeare’s greatest admirers.
The eulogy starts by addressing Shakespeare directly, in an apostrophe, but midway through the poem it shifts to address the English nation. The country, personified as Britain, should “triumph” in Shakespeare, a genius “not of an age, but for all time!” In this middle section, Shakespeare is spoken of in the third person, but Jonson subtly shifts once more to address his deceased friend before the poem’s conclusion.
In the first half, Jonson surveys possible motives for his lavish praise and rejects “silliest ignorance,” “blind affection,” and “crafty malice,” with the implication that his motives are pure, based on sound critical judgment. He does make the rather infamous statement that Shakespeare had “small Latin, and less Greek.” Out of context, that observation may seem condemnatory, but Jonson’s implication is that Shakespeare’s genius is of such an order that he exceeds the greatest writers of “insolent Greece” and “haughty Rome” without being beholden to them for his art—a remarkable admission from an avowed classicist.
A central theme of the poem, one repeatedly used in Shakespeare’s own sonnets, is that art offers its creator immortality. Shakespeare, claims Jonson, will live as long as “we have wits to read, and praise to give.” The idea of art’s transcendent capability leads to the finale of the poem, an apotheosis or poetic immortalizing, which, in the elegiac tradition, transfixes the subject in the heavens as a constellation, the “star of poets.” That is high public praise from a writer whose natural bias lay against poetic excess. Jonson’s great skill gives it and other lavish statements of praise a sincere ring, and the result is one of the finest poetic eulogies in the English language.