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Poems of the Week--Ben Jonson

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By:Thomas Fleming | April 13, 2012

 

Here is a somewhat conversational masterpiece by the great Ben.  It's a bit long but very vivid, funny, and, while self-serving, not hypocritical.  What a man he must have been!  Small wonder younger poets loved him, and not simply because he helped them.  His poem on Shakespeare, so often misunderstood as carping or envious, is actually a magnificent tribute to a poet Jonson the classicist must have  regarded as highly flawed in some respects, even as he was so great in others.

AN ELEGY.

Let me be what I am : as Virgil cold,
As Horace fat, or as Anacreon old ;
No poet's verses yet did ever move,
Whose readers did not think he was in love.
Who shall forbid me then in rhyme to be
As light, and active as the youngest he
That from the Muses fountains doth endorse
His lines, and hourly sits the poet's horse ?
Put on my ivy garland, let me see
Who frowns, who jealous is, who taxeth me.
Fathers and husbands, I do claim a right
In all that is call'd lovely ; take my sight,
Sooner than my affection from the fair.
No face, no hand, proportion, line or air
Of beauty, but the muse hath interest in :
There is not worn that lace, purl, knot, or pin,
But is the poet's matter ; and he must,
When he is furious, love, although not lust.
Be then content, your daughters and your wives,
If they be fair and worth it, have their lives
Made longer by our praises ; or, if not,
Wish you had foul ones, and deformed got,
Curst in their cradles, or there chang'd by elves,
So to be sure you do enjoy, yourselves.
Yet keep those up in sackcloth too, or leather,
For silk will draw some sneaking songster thither.
It is a rhyming age, and verses swarm
At every stall ;  the city cap's a charm.
But I who live, and have lived twenty year,
Where I may handle silk as free, and near,
As any mercer, or the whale-bone man,
That quilts those bodies I have leave to span ;
Have eaten with the beauties, and the wits,
And braveries of court, and felt their fits
Of love and hate ;  and came so nigh to know
Whether their faces were their own or no :
It is not likely I should now look down
Upon a velvet petticoat, or a gown,
Whose like I have known the tailor's wife put on,
To do her husband's rites in, ere 'twere gone
Home to the customer :  his letchery
Being the best clothes still to pre-occupy.
Put a coach-mare in tissue, must I horse
Her presently ?  or leap thy wife, of force,
When by thy sordid bounty she hath on
A gown of what was the comparison ?
So I might doat upon thy chairs and stools,
That are like cloth'd :  must I be of those fools
Of race accounted, that no passion have,
But when thy wife, as thou conceiv'st, is brave ?
Then ope thy wardrobe, think me that poor groom
That, from the footman, when he was become
An officer there, did make most solemn love
To every petticoat he brush'd, and glove
He did lay up ;  and would adore the shoe
Or slipper was left off, and kiss it too ;
Court every hanging gown, and after that
Lift up some one, and do — I'll tell not what.
Thou didst tell me, and wert o'erjoyed to peep
In at a hole, and see these actions creep
From the poor wretch, which though he plaid in prose,
He would have done in verse, with any of those
Wrung on the withers by Lord Love's despite,
Had he the faculty to read and write !
Such songsters there are store of ;  witness he
That chanc'd the lace, laid on a smock, to see,
And straightway spent a sonnet ;  with that other
That, in pure madrigal, unto his mother
Commended the French hood and scarlet gown
The lady may'ress pass'd in through the town,
Unto the Spittle sermon.   O what strange
Variety of silks were on the Exchange !
Or in Moor-fields, this other night, sings one !
Another answers, 'las !  those silks are none,
In smiling l' envoy, as he would deride
Any comparison had with his Cheapside ;
And vouches both the pageant and the day,
When not the shops, but windows do display
The stuffs, the velvets, plushes, fringes, lace,
And all the original riots of the place.
Let the poor fools enjoy their follies, love
A goat in velvet ;  or some block could move
Under that cover, an old midwife's hat !
Or a close-stool so cased ;  or any fat
Bawd, in a velvet scabbard !   I envý
None of their pleasures ;  nor will I ask thee why
Thou art jealous of thy wife's or daughter's case ;
More than of either's manners, wit, or face !

 

Here is Jonson's most famous lyric, actually a song

Song to Celia

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee
As giving it a hope that there
It could not wither'd be;
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent'st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself but thee!

Jonson is at his conversational best and most brilliant in his plays, especially in Volpone, a wicked satire on wealth.   Volpone pretends to be dying in order to squeeze as much money and favors out of his presumed heirs as he can.  Corvino (the carrion-crow) has a beautiful wife--the Celia of the poem above--and Volpone decides he must have her.  Corvino agrees.  Here he drags her in, under suspicion and pronounces his materialist creed to the poor honorable wife who thinks her husband is only pretending to act as pimp in order to test her virtue.  There is nothing in Shakespeare of this earthy sagacity, all done by cutting against the grain:

VOLPONE'S CHAMBER.--VOLPONE ON HIS COUCH.
     MOSCA SITTING BY HIM.

     ENTER CORVINO, FORCING IN CELIA.

     CORV: Nay, now, there is no starting back, and therefore,
     Resolve upon it: I have so decreed.
     It must be done. Nor would I move't, afore,
     Because I would avoid all shifts and tricks,
     That might deny me.

     CEL: Sir, let me beseech you,
     Affect not these strange trials; if you doubt
     My chastity, why, lock me up for ever:
     Make me the heir of darkness. Let me live,
     Where I may please your fears, if not your trust.

     CORV: Believe it, I have no such humour, I.
     All that I speak I mean; yet I'm not mad;
     Nor horn-mad, see you? Go to, shew yourself
     Obedient, and a wife.

     CEL: O heaven!

     CORV: I say it,
     Do so.

     CEL: Was this the train?

     CORV: I've told you reasons;
     What the physicians have set down; how much
     It may concern me; what my engagements are;
     My means; and the necessity of those means,
     For my recovery: wherefore, if you be
     Loyal, and mine, be won, respect my venture.

     CEL: Before your honour?

     CORV: Honour! tut, a breath:
     There's no such thing, in nature: a mere term
     Invented to awe fools. What is my gold
     The worse, for touching, clothes for being look'd on?
     Why, this is no more. An old decrepit wretch,
     That has no sense, no sinew; takes his meat
     With others' fingers; only knows to gape,
     When you do scald his gums; a voice; a shadow;
     And, what can this man hurt you?

     CEL [ASIDE.]: Lord! what spirit
     Is this hath enter'd him?

     CORV: And for your fame,
     That's such a jig; as if I would go tell it,
     Cry it on the Piazza! who shall know it,
     But he that cannot speak it, and this fellow,
     Whose lips are in my pocket? save yourself,
     (If you'll proclaim't, you may,) I know no other,
     Shall come to know it.

     CEL: Are heaven and saints then nothing?
     Will they be blind or stupid?

     CORV: How!

     CEL: Good sir,
     Be jealous still, emulate them; and think
     What hate they burn with toward every sin.

     CORV: I grant you: if I thought it were a sin,
     I would not urge you. Should I offer this
     To some young Frenchman, or hot Tuscan blood
     That had read Aretine, conn'd all his prints,
     Knew every quirk within lust's labyrinth,
     And were professed critic in lechery;
     And I would look upon him, and applaud him,
     This were a sin: but here, 'tis contrary,
     A pious work, mere charity for physic,
     And honest polity, to assure mine own.

     CEL: O heaven! canst thou suffer such a change?

 

 

 

 

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