American Culture

VerseDay: Slow, slow fresh fount – how to control your words and your emotions…

benjonson.jpg A couple of weeks ago I spoke with you about poetry of ideas. Today’s entry will look at poetry that controls emotion.

The poet pictured above is Ben Jonson – “O rare Ben Jonson” an admirer said of him. Jonson is like most great poets – a person of contradictions. Known as perhaps the greatest poet of controlled language (and subsequently of emotion) in the English language, he could be irascible to the point of misanthropy – and once killed a fellow actor in a duel – and almost went to the gallows for it (he did bear the brand of felon on his thumb the rest of his days). He was understated and subtle in his verse – yet his chief vehicle in his plays was satire. He feuded with the literary establishment often and yet became the first English Poet Laureate. Like most of us, Jonson was complicated.

At the time of Jonson’s greatest work he led a school of poetry known to us now as the Neo-Classicists, though some are better known as the Cavalier poets for their association with the ill-fated Charles I. Those followers, known as the Tribe of Ben, include such luminaries as Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Thomas Carew, and Sir John Suckling. Though his followers often displayed the gracefulness and (seeming) simplicity of expression that Jonson so emphasized in his talk about poetry and embodied in his verse, none (save, arguably Herrick in certain moments) display the level of linguistic and emotional control of their mentor.

Consider this gem from his masque Cynthia’s Revels:

Slow, slow, fresh fount, keep time with my salt tears ;
Yet slower, yet ; O faintly gentle springs :
List to the heavy part the music bears,
Woe weeps out her division, when she sings.
Droop herbs and flowers ;
Fall grief in showers ;
Our beauties are not 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.

Jonson deliberately makes the reader struggle with pronunciations (even in silent reading), thus retarding one’s speed in digesting the poem. “Slow, slow, fresh fount….” Read the words aloud. Between the work one must do to say the “sl” and “fr” sounds and the natural pausing any reader does because of the commas, Jonson effectively dictates the poem’s pace. This is in perfect keeping with the poem’s (actually a song) subject, heartbreak. And there’s this brilliant use of alliteration:

Woe weeps out her division, when she sings. ”

The pain the speaker feels as she contemplates the mutability of beauty is captured in the simple but pained line, “Our beauties are not ours….” Love may not be time’s fool, as Shakespeare tell us – but beauty is.

It is in his poems on the deaths of his children where Jonson’s control of both language and emotion seem most impressive – even wondrous. First, there is his poem for his first daughter, who died at 6 months:

Here lies, to each her parents’ ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth;
Yet all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months’ end, she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven’s queen, whose name she bears,
In comfort of her mother’s tears,
Hath placed amongst her virgin-train:
Where, while that severed doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshly birth;
Which cover lightly, gentle earth!

The rationality of Jonson’s faith (“Yet all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due”) and his hopefulness and attempt to comfort his grieving wife (Whose soul heaven’s queen, whose name she bears/In comfort of her mother’s tears/Hath placed among her virgin train) are remarkable. Throughout the poem Jonson comforts himself with reminders of standard religious dogma soundly reasoned. But in that last line – an exclamation, no less – the more complicated man, the grieving father, reveals himself. When Jonson cries out, “…cover lightly, gentle earth!” his farewell is both tender (note the use of “lightly” and “gentle” to describe the earth covering his child’s coffin) and anguished (the use of a single punctuation mark – the exclamation point) reveals the suffering man behind the skilled poet.

In a companion poem on the death of his first son, lost to smallpox at the age of seven (one begins to feel truly sorry for Jonson the man and parent), the discipline and control are perhaps more masterful – and the breakdown of that discipline and control is even more moving, possibly:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy ;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, 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,
And if no other misery, yet age !
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.

Through the first four lines we have the great Neo-Classicist at work: simple, honest lines revealing Jonson’s doubt of his religious fidelity (he accuses himself of too much pride in his young son) and a banker’s calculation of how long his son was “lent” to him. But then the suffering man breaks through the poet’s controlled facade:

“Oh could I lose all father now!”

Another exclamation point – and a pained cry from a man who has lost his beloved son – and for the next four lines Jonson struggles, arguing rationally and vigorously against his emotional reaction by pointing out all the blessings of his son’s early death.

And the the poem pivots again. And Jonson’s great skill and understated control emerge again:

Rest in soft peace” – the softness of the “s” and “f” sounds in that line end the teeth gnashing of the middle section of the poem – and we then read one of the most graceful, heartfelt, heart wrenching lines in all of English poetry:

“Here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry” – the poet and the man merge again. And from that reunion Jonson is able to make his life and his art of a piece that (and here I verge dangerously on what Dr. Johnson would call the metaphysical poets’ tendency to “torture the language”) brings him, one hopes, peace.

(One last note on the poem – to understand that last line, one must realize that in Jonson’s time “to like” meant “to have a foolish fondness for” – so he is gently remonstrating with himself to, in future, love more wisely but no less well.)

To write of the death of one’s child with such rationality, seeming simplicity, and grace would be impossible for almost all of us. Yet Jonson does so not once, but twice. Is it any wonder that we think of him as the most graceful, controlled poet in the English language?

His compliment to Shakespeare is no less well deserved when applied to Jonson himself:

He was not of an age, but for all time!

7 replies »

  1. You know, Brian, when I taught these poems to Sam, I was a young man with no children – and I treated the poems with all due respect for their technical brilliance and the poet’s genius.

    When I teach them now, it’s with awe at the man who could hold himself together and write such magnificent verse with his heart broken so badly. As well as all that stuff mentioned above.

    Wisdom is potent stuff, isn’t it?

  2. Well, Jim, let’s not forget Johnson’ other “compliment” to Shakespeare: “He had little Latin and less Greek.” So much for the upstart crow ;-).

    Thank you for this. Ben Johnson had the misfortune to be a very, very good playwright and poet in the Age of Shakespeare and, to a lesser degree, Marlowe. As a playwright, the poor man was hidebound by the four unities and his somewhat minor education in Latin playwrights such as (shudder) Seneca. All too often, we remember him only as Shakespeare’s inferior, a man who wrote for the King’s Men on occasion when there was no new Shakespeare play at hand.

    And let’s not forget that he was among the foremost classical scholars of his day, despite having limited educational opportunities. He must have been brilliant.

  3. Great art fills other artists at once with wonder and despair – wonder at the magnificence of the achievement and despair at the hopelessness of ever matching it. I can’t imagine what Jonson must have been laboring through here since I don’t have children and have thus never had to even contemplate losing one.

    But I remember a guy I used to know describing once when his son, then a toddler, got deathly ill. They called the ambulance and he carried the kid outside to wait – he walked all the way to the corner, I guess thinking that a few feet closer to the paramedics could be the difference. He told me that as he stood there, holding his son and waiting for the ambulance, he literally didn’t know if the boy was dead or alive.

    I’ll never forget that story as long as I live, nor will I forget the look on his face as he told it. But I recognize the same profundity in Jonson’s words.

    Thanks for a great essay.

  4. Dr. S – I’ve got a short story that I’m rewriting into the first person where one of the main characters is fairy sent to steal an infant from his parents. I’ve struggled a great deal with that, and with other stories where dealing with children, ever since becoming a parent myself. On the other hand, I now have a much greater ability to make such scenes, at least from the parental side, more believable. It’s just that it hurts to write them.

  5. Jim – It’s hard enough for me to imagine how I’d feel losing one or both of my children now, but I also know in my gut that it’s a very, very rare person who can imagine such a thing without having children at all.

    Wisdom comes, but through pain. And sometimes the pain is enough that we may wish with all our being to be less wise than we are about to become.

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