My Mountain Belly and My Rocky Face

By Robert Pinsky on 4.01.09

Cupid is traditionally blind, but the woman Ben Jonson is courting in this poem makes him think Love sees well but is deaf, since she notices his unattractive body while ignoring the supremely attractive verses he displays here.

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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.

      Oh, but my conscious fears
           That fly my thoughts between,
           Tell me that she hath seen
           My hundreds of grey 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 stopped her ears.

I like the way this poem suggests a narrative: the poet’s portrait—a fairly expensive, rare item in those days—given to the lady who carelessly leaves it behind in Scotland—a remote place in those days. There’s a cunning misture of courtship and revenge in the way he describes his big belly and blemished face in verses that so gracefully leap, whirl, twist, and climb. Memorizing “My Picture Left in Scotland” and reciting it would not be a bad training exercise for anyone wanting to write well in English. The varying line-lengths give a syncopated freedom to the movement, and emphasize the way Jonson’s sentences sometimes propel themselves beyond the line-ending, sometimes pause at it.

topics: Essential Pleasures