Well, it’s here: the day you doubtless marked on your calendar the moment you bought it. I expect you’ve been striking out the days each night before bedtime. It’s Ben’s birthday.
I didn’t get him anything. I’m even having difficulties trying to find a way to make as much of a fuss over him as I did Thos. Middleton. Well, with Thom it was easy, as I’d never written about him before, I had lots of new (and exciting) territory to cover. Ben though, being an important member of the dramatis personae here on The Blotted Line, has gotten a fair bit of stage time. You are by now familiar with his achievements and his foibles; I am even running out of interesting Ben-related images to attach to my Ben-centric articles.
I considered re-telling a tale out of his Conversations with William Drummond [i], or printing some of the commendatory “Odes to Ben” written by the Cavaliers (or “Sons of Ben”)[ii], but I think here I would be covering old ground. Also, it seems that the best way to appreciate Ben’s works is to have a look at the works themselves (rather than what other poets — even with their obvious good taste — have said about them).
So then, now seems as good a time as any to start reading the Epigrams. Here is the first:
Pray thee, take care, that tak’st my book in hand,
To read it well: that is, to understand.
Only two lines. This may be more of a challenge than I first thought. I suppose the best way to begin interpretation, then, is to contrast this poem with a somewhat “official” definition of the epigram. A Handbook to Literature writes:
Originally (in ancient Greece) an epigram meant an inscription, especially an EPITAPH. Then it came to mean “a very short poem summing up as though in a memorial inscription what is desired to make permanently memorable in a single action or situation (Mackail). Hence the epigram was characterized by compression, pointedness, clarity, BALANCE, and polish. Examples of the ancient epigram may be found […] in the work of the Roman poet Martial (A.D. 40-104) [!], whose work supplied the models for Ben Jonson, the greatest writer of epigrams in the English RENAISSANCE [!!]. Martial had used the epigram for various themes and purposes: EULOGY, friendship, compliments, EPITAPHS, philosophic reflection, jeux d’esprit, and (especially) SATIRE, particularly agaisnt sham and hypocrisy. […] With the realistic revolt against Elizabethan ROMANTICISM just before 1600, the classical epigram was cultivated, chiefly as a vehicle for SATIRE. […] Jonson undertook to restore the wider classical use of the word, and he wrote not only satirical epigrams but EPISTLES, verses of compliment, EPITAPHS, reflective verses, etc. An epigram of this period was typically a short poem consisting of two parts, an introduction stating the occasion or setting the tone, and a conclusion which sharply and tersely, often with the effect of surprise, gives the main point. (176-177)
Reading this definition suggests that my earlier approach to reading Jonson’s epigrams in the manner of a densely-packed English sonnet was an approach that was bound to miss the “point”[iii] of the epigrammatic form. The epigram’s meaning is meant to be clear: not something that is teased out of layers of metaphor and wordplay. Though the epigram is also “condensed,” which could be another way of emphasising the brevity of the form, but probably also invokes the high level of irony [iv], and the speed at which the poem moves from its initial idea or theme to its converse solution.
“To the Reader,” at two lines, fulfills the “very short” criterion of the epigram. It is too, almost perfect iambic pentameter, which means it reads evenly (with “polish,” I suppose) aloud: especially as the punctuation falls only after complete iambs, thus not interrupting that fall-and-rise-and-fall that is (apparently) closest to natural speech.[v]
Too, I note that with the exception of the final word, “understand,” this first epigram uses all monosyllabic words [vi]: a tactic which allows for verbal clarity (the verbal forms are simple, and the vocabulary is not too abstruse). Restricting himself to monosyllabic words also allows for rhythmic/emphatic flexibility: Jonson simply has to take care to place the most important words in the latter (stressed) position of the iamb: verbs and nouns (the more important parts of the sentence) thus stand out in the poem, while conjunctions and prepositions fade in the background: all tactics which will aid in the reader’s comprehension, or “understanding” that is precisely the theme of the poem. This theme is further emphasised by the word “understand” being the only polysyllabic word in the entire poem.
The theme of understanding is obvious then. Perhaps this is part of the irony of the poem which, on the one hand, implores the reader to “read [the book of poems] well: yet that Jonson feels the need to emphasise this theme, formally, rhythmically, and through repetition (“read it well” is already fairly obviously synonymous with “understand”), suggests that perhaps Jonson doesn’t think much of his audience’s ability to understand on their own. That the reader needs a poem instructing him (or her) to actually read the poems carefully, perhaps suggests a fear that while his poetry may be often memorised and cited (as was the fashion for courtiers to do), though the book itself may be well thumbed (that is, well read/”read […] well”), it will not be read as Jonson intends it.
So then, the colon which divides the phrases “read it well” and “that is, to understand” marks the dividing line between the two parts (introductory and terse ‘pulling up’ of tone). The clauses, however, are not exactly balanced: indeed, most of the gravity falls into those last three syllables that, because they are run together in a single word, also speed up the ending, making it ever-so-slightly more urgent.
All of this is a very technical (and perhaps somewhat dull) way of describing the image I ultimately have of this poem: that of an older teacher who, while lecturing his student, notices the attention of the young pupil is wandering and so insists on repeating the finer points of his lecture more sharply. It is rather neat to see, though, how the particulars of the form create this effect. My understanding of the poem hasn’t changed much with this close inspection, however, perhaps I can begin to see the poetic effort and awareness that are necessary to so particular and controlled a response in such an abbreviated space.
[i] William Drummond. I probably should have explained last article the context of this work: it was not actually written by Jonson, but by his “friend,” the Scottish poet, William Drummond of Hawthornden. In 1618, the 46-year-old Jonson, wishing to lose some of his “mountain belly” (“IX. My Picture Left in Scotland,” Underwoods, 17), walked to Scotland and stayed with Drummond where the two purportedly stayed up many nights, Jonson telling stories of his life, while recorded them (not always in a flattering tone).
[ii] Sons of Ben. For example, Robert Herrick’s little epitaph:
Here lies Jonson with the rest
Of the poets; but the best.
Reader, would’st thou more have known?
Ask his story, not this stone.
That will speak what this can’t tell
Of his glory. So farewell.
[iii] the “point”. Because epigrams are “pointed”; get it? Hee hee.
[iv] level of irony. Though it must be “clear” irony, which I suppose allows for puns and double entendres, though not complex “Donne-ian” conceites. I hope this qualification will clarify itself through example as I read further.
[v] natural speech. I should probably look at the original text of the poem in an EEBO facsimile (which I will do for future poems): working with the Penguin edition of the texts means the punctuation has probably been modernised, and perhaps inserted where it did not exist before. As the poem does employ only monosyllabic words, however, the absence of commas would not much alter the natural inclination to pause only at the end of an iamb.
[vi] monosyllabic words. I assume this is deliberate given also that elision* of the word “takest” to “tak’st”.
Herrick, Robert. “Upon Ben Jonson” in Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets. Ed. Hugh MacLean. New York: Norton, 1974. 146.
Jonson, Ben. “To the Reader” in The Complete Poems. Ed. George Parfitt. London: Penguin, 2006. 35.
Thrall, William Flint, Hibbard, Addison, and Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature. New York: The Odyssey Press. 1960.
11 June 2008
Glossary of Terms:
Elision. v. (lit.) To “slide” two separate words or syllables into a single one, using contraction.