“Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe.”

Nat Whilk

Week 4 · 12 days ago · Edited

Ros Barber’s strange reading of Ben Jonson has sent me back to his sources for his Shakespeare eulogy, to Horace. If for nothing else, I thank her for provoking me: my annoyance has been richly rewarded.

Jonson honored Horace above all poets as “the best master both of virtue and wisdom.” Two at least of his master’s odes inform Jonson’s eulogy. It is from Horace that Jonson draws the distinction between “monument” and “tomb”: between poetic immortality and mere earthly pomp.

“Thou art a Moniment...”

Ode 3.30

I’ve raised a monument, more durable than bronze,
one higher than the Pyramids’ royal towers,
that no devouring rain, or fierce northerly gale,
has power to destroy: nor the immeasurable
succession of years, and the swift passage of time.
I’ll not utterly die, but a rich part of me,
will escape Persephone: and fresh with the praise
of posterity, I’ll rise, beyond.

And Jonson echoes that: “My Shakespeare, rise.” It's a summoning.

Horace's great poem is evoked in just four words: “Thou art a Moniment...” Like the great Roman poet, Shakespeare has raised a monument in his imperishable works. It will outlast mere bronze and marble.

Unspoken in the eulogy, but present nonetheless is the line “I’ll be famous, I, born of humble origin.” Horace, the son of a freed slave (a social climber and a wheeler-dealer, eager for his son’s advancement) became a companion to an emperor.

“...without a tombe.”

What happens when the poet rises? Where does he go after death?

Ode 2.20

A poet of dual form, I won’t be carried
through the flowing air on weak or mundane wings,
nor will I linger down here on earth,
for any length of time: beyond envy,
I’ll leave the cities behind.

Jonson imagines “thy flight from hence,” first to the green banks of the Avon: "I’ll leave the cities behind." And note that “beyond envy” on which Jonson has been brooding, which the poet escapes. But how will the poet fly this world?

Even now the rough skin is settling around
my ankles, and now above them I’ve become
a snow-white swan, and soft feathers are
emerging over my arms and shoulders.


Perhaps Jonson’s musing on Horace led to his apostrophe “Sweet Swan of Avon!” Certainly both poets might take Apollo’s emblem as a form for metamorphosis, but the collocation of ideas—swan, flight from envy, tomb—is in both poems. Shakespeare, says Jonson, is transfigured, set among the stars. Horace chooses to fly on forever:

Soon, a melodious bird, and more famous
than Icarus, Daedalus’ son, I’ll visit
Bosphorus’ loud shores, Gaetulian
Syrtes, and the Hyperborean plains...


And he wants no earthly fuss:


No dirges at my insubstantial funeral,
no elegies, and no unseemly grieving:
suppress all the clamour, not for me
the superfluous honour of a tomb.

What’s all this palaver about Westminster Abbey? asks Ben. Why would the immortal Shakespeare need a chunk of marble with some Latin verses? That honour is superfluous: the poet is a monument without a tomb.

My quotes are from A. S. Kline’s excellent online translation.

Doubters love to distintegrate a text. They pull “without a tombe” out of Jonson’s close-knit text, and discard the rest. But it’s part of an argument. It follows a colon, which Jonson defines in his Grammar as “a distinction of a sentence, though perfect in itself, yet joined to another.” The colon here means “why? because.” The second clause explains the first. Put the line back into context, and it’s not even a riddle.

I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lye
A little further, to make thee a roome :
Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe,
And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

I will not (unlike Basse) have you interred in the Abbey : (why? because) you are already an immortal without that superfluous honor, and will live as long as humankind can read you. It’s as if someone had said, “I wouldn't give Hawking a posthumous Nobel Prize: his work stands without one.” Note that Jonson writes “Moniment” with a capital, and “tombe” without: the one is Shakespeare’s immortality, and other merely stones. In the manuscript of Basse I’ve seen, “Tombe” is capitalized.

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