Ben Jonson – “Epigrams”

The NAEL contains a selection of Jonson’s Epigrams. As the first poem in the selection “To My Book” makes clear, the title combined with Jonson’s name may lead some readers to expect harsh satire or bawdy humour. But, Jonson says, he’s not after the kind of fame that is brought by hurting other people or talking dirty just to provoke easy laughter. Honesty for “vulgar praise” is too high a price. In keeping with that, all of the verses I’ve read today are short verses, written in very easy to read couplets and mostly in praise of somebody. One satirical poem, “On Something, That Walks Somewhere”, is extremely cautious, as can be judged from the title. But paradoxically, the fact that Jonson refers to the courtier he describes as “it” makes his poem even more contemptuous. “It” wears fine clothes and when the poet asks about its name, “it” introduces itself as a lord, from whom one should expect neither good, because he won’t do it, nor bad, because he won’t dare it. The poem ends with a punchline “Good lord, walk dead still”. “To William Camden” is a poem in praise of his former headteacher (would that all headteachers had such grateful pupils!) The poem praises Camden’s learning and modesty, ending with an equally modest admission that many of Jonson’s schoolfellows could probably write a better poem. “On My First Daughter” is a sad and sweet epitaph for Jonson’s six-month-old daughter Mary. The poem was written when Jonson was still Catholic and so he uses Marian imagery: the Virgin, whose name the dead girl bore, made her soul one of her train, while her body for the time being rests in the earth. “To John Donne” praises Donne’s learning and wit, depicting him as a particular favourite of the Muses. Similarly to “To William Camden”, the poem ends with the admission that Jonson’s talent as a poet is inadequate when it comes to giving such a man as Donne his due.

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