Ben Jonson Speaks His Mind

By Robert Pinsky on 4.27.09

No one has ever written English verses sweeter to the ear than those of Ben Jonson: the way he stretches the last sentence of this poem, the speaking quality extended as though just naturally over the demanding meter, has an acrobatic grace, or the thrill of a long phrase by Charlie Parker that reaches over several bars. Writing four centuries ago, Jonson puts his words in an order that still feels a bit as if he is simply speaking his mind—all the while in the meter of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”! To me it seems clear that William Butler Yeats studied Jonson (as we are told he did), and learned something about making lines and sentences dance.

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Let it not your wonder move,
Less your laughter, that I love.
Though I now write fifty years,
I have had, and have, my peers;
Poets, though divine, are men:
Some have loved as old again.
And it is not always face,
Clothes, or fortune gives the grace,
Or the feature, or the youth
But the language, and the truth,
With the ardour and the passion,
Gives the lover weight and fashion.
If you will then read the story,
First prepare you to be sorry
That you never knew till now
Either whom to love, or how;
But be glad as soon with me,
When you know that this is she,
Of whose beauty it was sung,
She shall make the old man young,
Keep the middle age at stay,
And let nothing high decay,
Till she be the reason why
All the world for love may die.

This poem is the first one in a sequence called “A Celebration of Charis in Ten Lyric Pieces.” The sequence jumbles many things together—bawdy, lovelorn suffering in the manner of Petrarch, a woman’s definition of the ideal male lover. What holds it together may be technical: a demonstration of how to make rhyming lines in English.

topics: Essential Pleasures