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Great Poems

"My Picture Left in Scotland" (by Ben Jonson, born June 11) [commentary by David Lehman]

Ben Jonson
I now think Love is rather deaf than blind,

      For else it could not be
           That she,
     Whom I adore so much, should so slight me
And cast my love behind.
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,
     And every close did meet
     In sentence of as subtle feet,
     As hath the youngest He
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.

O, but my conscious fears,
          That fly my thoughts between,
          Tell me that she hath seen
     My hundred of gray hairs,
     Told seven and forty years
   Read so much waste, as she cannot embrace
   My mountain belly and my rocky face;
And all these through her eyes have stopp’d her ears.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) wrote, to bend one of his own formulations, not for a time but for the ages. England’s first poet laureate, the acknowledged leader of the “tribe of Ben,” the most melodious of the musically rich poets of the seventeenth century, Jonson enjoyed an academic reputation that was, I had thought, beyond dispute. William Pritchard praised Ian Donaldson’s biography (Oxford UP) in the Hudson Review (“superb”) but not without raising a worrisome question. Is it because Jonson’s verse is accessible that critics and scholars have neglected him in favor of the major metaphysicals, John Donne, Andrew Marvell and George Herbert?

It came as news to me that Jonson’s stock has slumped, but I trust Pritchard’s judgment on this score. Pritchard valiantly defends the poet, quoting liberally from his plays and closing with a beautiful stanza from the Cary and Morison ode. But nothing in the piece is quite equal to its opening, a quotation from T. S. Eliot’s essay on the poet: “To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read the book; to be afflicted by the imputation of the virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries — this is the most perfect conspiracy of approval.”

I want to advocate Jonson’s cause not merely because I share his birthday (June 11) but more pertinently because he balances plain speech with metaphorical invention as beautifully as Donne if less flamboyantly. I aim for precisely the same balance in many of the poems I write.

Donne was a poet of paradox and passion, Jonson, a poet of wisdom and restraint. But the distinctions between them, though useful, fade against their common accomplishment — the ability to develop a conceit to the far ends of ingenuity and to do so in living language.

In Jonson’s poetry the language lives, the language sings. “My Picture Left in Scotland” makes its case with irresistible music and no small amount of wit. The conceit of the poem is an inversion of the customary notion that love is blind. The poem’s music, managed with exquisite triple rhymes, should indeed be evident to all but the deaf. No, it is not the poet’s sentences, as subtle as they are sweet, that doom him in the eyes of a certain “she,” who lives far away. The blame goes rather to the image in the cameo he has left her. It is the picture of a gray-haired man, forty-seven years of age, while she is presumably in the bloom of youth.

In the picture she has “Read so much waste, as she cannot embrace / My mountain belly and my rocky face; / And all these through her eyes have stopp’d her ears.” The pun on “waste” (i.e., waist), nearly rhyming with “embrace” and “face”; the use of “Read” as the verb of choice, as if it were understood that this poem, like all others, is a kind of speaking picture; the landscape of the body rendered so vividly, “mountain belly” and “rocky face” — all these together explain why you see the hapless fellow here, alone and palely loitering, a victim of unrequited love. The poem’s case-clinching last line is a perfect row of monosyllables: “And all these through her eyes have stopped her ears.” So truth defeats fancy. But at the same time wit defeats self-pity: the poem’s bravado, the celebration of its own logic, is a triumph over adverse circumstance. -- DL

Commentary copyright © 2020 by David Lehman

David Lehman’s new books are One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir (Cornell University Press) and Playlist: A Poem (Pittsburgh).  

For other readings of great poems click on these links:

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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