Spontaneous Poetics – (Ben Jonson)

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) – portrait by Abraham Bleyenberch (c.1617), oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

AG: I want to move on to Ben Jonson, who’s not so read as a poet among lowbrows like ourselves. On a little elegy on his first son, who died. A few little poems of Jonson. What I’m following now are, like, those rests or caesuras or the time. I’m reading poets for their good time, or for the lyric poets that I am reading, (all) have a very sweet sense of rest in-between words, or little gaps in-between words which are in the page-text a by-product, when spoken, of music. The breath necessary for singing that can be done as breath for drama or breath for speaking. [Allen begins reading Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son” – “Farewell, thou child of my right-hand..”..”Seven years thou wert lent to me..” – The kid’s birthday, seventh birthday – “O could I lose all father now! for why/ Will man lament the state he should envy,/ To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage.. “.. “Rest in soft peace, and asked, say, “Here doth lie/ Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry”/ For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such/As what he loves may never like too much.”] – That’s real sweet for a father – “Here doth lie/ Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry”. There’s a(nother) great line in there too – ” To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage”.

Student: What’s the last couplet?

AG: “For whose..” “Here doth lie/ Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry” – his son, his best making. “For whose sake” (the kid’s sake), “all his (Jonson’s) vows be such/As what he loves may never like too much” (as what he loves, he may never get too attached to).

Student: Yes

AG: (And) also there’s a little pun in there – “may never like too much” – there’s a “likeness” of the son, I imagine, built into that.

Student: A likeness?

AG: Well, like-to-like, father-to-son. There’s just some little sub-echo of the word “like” – being a mirror of Jonson’s son being a mirror of him.”Likeness”, I guess. Maybe. I don’t know. That’s what I flashed on when I was reading it the first time – “As what he loves may never like too much”.

There’s other Jonson I like. He’s good on little epitaphs for children – “Epitaph on Saloman Pavy, a Child of Queen Elizabeth’s Chapel”. This was a company of boy actors and little Salomon Pavy had acted in his plays at the age of ten. [Allen reads, in its entirety, Jonson’s poem“Weep with me all you that read/ this little storie”… “And have sought (to give new birth)/ In bathes to steep him/ But, (he) being so much too good for earth,/Heaven vows to keep him”] – “(B)athes to steepe him”? – (There’s a) note here – “Aeson, the father of Jason, was made young again by a magic bath prepared by Jason‘s wife, Medea“.

Another little tiny, “Epitaph on Elizabeth L.H. – [Allen reads, in entirety, the poem – “Wouldst thou hear what man can say/ In a little? Reader, stay./ Undernea,/th this stone doth lie/ As much beauty as could die/Which in life did harbour give/ To more virtue than doth live. If at all she had a fault,/ Leave it buried in this vault./ One name was Elizabeth,/ Th’other let it sleep with death;/ Fitter where it died to tell,/ Than that it liv’d at all. Farewell.”

He has some songs from his plays, Jonson (being, primarily a playwright). I don’t know the tune, but, just spoken, the timing of the songs is so exquisite that it’s worth vocalizing. “Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount” – it’s a song (as footnoted) from “Cynthia’s Revels”, a play, sung by Echo for Narcissus. Narcissus fell in love with his own simulacra in the water. The “daffodil” in line 11 (“Since nature’s pride is now a withered daffodil”) is a species of narcissus. [Allen begins reading, and pauses after that line] – It’s just real pretty – [he continues, re-reading the poem“Droop herbs and flowers;/ Fall grief in showers;/Our beauties are not like ours. O, I could still,/ Like melting snow upon some craggy hill, Drop, drop, drop, drop,/ Since nature’s pride is now a withered daffodil” – That takes a great ear – just the pleasure of that – solid – silence – solid – silence – solid – silence..

Student: Who’s that by?

AG: That’s Ben Jonson. The last few poems..

Student: Still Ben Jonson?

AG: Still Ben Jonson. His most famous piece of music, or song, to Cynthia, or Diana, goddess of the moon and of the hunt – “Queen and huntress, chaste and fair” – Queen and Huntress comma chaste and fair. [Allen recites all three stanzas of this poem – reads the poem in its entirety] “Queen and huntress, chaste and fair..”..”Thou that mak’st a day of night,/Goddess, excellently bright.” – It’s like a good cello piece that ” – “Queen and huntress, chaste and fair..”.. dah-duh-duh-dah dah-duh-duh-duh. You can hear cellos in it.

He’s got a funny sound, like [ he reads from Ben Jonson’s “Simplex Munditis” “Still to be neat, still to be dressed,/As you were going to a feast..” – So, it’s all those divisions. Probably for singing. Duh-duh-duh-dah, dah-duh-duh-dah. “As you were going to a feast” – “Still to be neat, still to be dressed,/As you were going to a feast..” – “Give me a look, give me a face/ That makes simplicity a grace” – It’s (a) perfect ear. Much of it composed of listening to the vowels, and most of it composed listening to the rests, the divisions in between the middle of the line, or the caesuras. So you’ve just got to listen.
Like..for..these are all songs. John Fletcher, (a) song published 1639, which has, if you’re interested in that, (that line) “Still to be neat, still to be dressed”, or (Jonson’s) “Drop, drop, drop, drop”, or (Thomas Nashe’s) “Queens have died, young and fair”, or (Shakespeare’s), “Take, oh, take those lips away”Dah.. dah.. dah-duh-duh-duh-duh. “Take, oh, take those lips away/ That so sweetly were forsworn” – he’s got it. He had that first solid take, then, “Oh”, then, take those lips away/ That so sweetly were forsworn”. It’s a run-on line. And not only that he has “and those eyes”. So it goes [Allen reads the poem] – “Take, oh take those lips away/ That so sweetly were forsworn/ And those eyes like break of day,/ Lights that do mislead the morn/ But my kisses bring again,/ Seals of love, though sealed in vain./ Hide, oh, hide those hills of snow,/ Which thy frozen bosom bears,/ On whose tops the pinks that grow/Are of those that April wears;/ But first set my poor heart free,/ Bound in those icy chains by thee.” – It’s just good sound there. I’ll read one more time that first verse, just to get that long, long little sequence – Take, oh take those lips away/ That so sweetly were forsworn” – all one breath – “take those lips away/ That so sweetly were forsworn/ And those eyes”, after the bah-bah-bah, buh-buh-buh-bah.

Student: Allen, where exactly is that?

AG: That’s John Fletcher. England, 16-something. Well, that’s a very famous one. “Take, oh, take those lips away” as a song (is) in any anthology of English poetry. These are all standard items if you open up the Oxford Book of English Verse, or any anthology of traditional English poetry, you’ll find these. “Queen and huntress, chaste and fair”, “Take, oh, take those lips away, or Robert Herrick, various poems.

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