Ben Jonson – Poems from “The Forest” and”Underwood”

Jonson grouped some longer poems, which could not be classified as epigrams (including “To Penshurst”) under the heading “The Forest”, and he labelled the later poems for the edition which appeared after his death “Underwood”. “To Celia” is a bona fide hit song, even though it was set to music two centuries after its publication. It’s in fact a mash-up of several lines by a  Greek poet Philostratus. The first part of the poem is built around the concept of drinking as a metaphor for love. The poem begins with the silent exchange of toasts not with wine, but only with the lovers’ gaze. The thirsty soul does require a drink, but the poet would not swap the drink provided by his lover for the nectar of Olympian gods. Even drinking from a cup from which she has just drunk makes anything taste like wine. The second part is about the lover’s miraculous powers: the poet has sent her a rose wreath, not so much as a gift but because he thought the roses in her company would be preserved forever. But it was enough for the beloved to breathe on the wreath and send it back, and the roses don’t wither, but grow and smell not of roses anymore, but of the lover.

There are loads of performances of this song on You Tube, and I picked one of the most popular.



“To Heaven” is a religious poem, as the title itself indicates. The poem is about the regrets of the poet, who considers himself sinful, and he asks God for support, assuring him about his faith and love for him. But he also says he mustn’t wish for death, like St. Paul, because this could be construed as being weary of life, not eager to meet his Maker.

An excerpt from “A Celebration of Charis in Ten Lyric Pieces” is a fairly standard love poem in which the beloved is represented as Venus riding in triumph in her chariot pulled by swans and doves. The poem has an interesting, complicated metric structure with lines of different length. Last stanza is particularly interesting, because at first sight it looks like a standard Petrarchan description of the beloved’s body, with its various parts compared to various nice things. But the whiteness of her body is compared to a lily “before rude hands have touched it” and fresh snow before it is besmirched by the ground, which implies perhaps less-than-Petrarchan lust on the part of the speaker. Her softness is also quite surprisingly compared to “the wool [?] o’ the beaver”. Having never stroked a beaver (wah – wah), I cannot attest how accurate this comparison is.

“A Sonnet, to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth” is dedicated to a daughter of Sir Robert Sidney, celebrated in “To Penshurst” and a talented poet, whose texts I am going to read later. The poem is in praise of her cycle of sonnets and it is the only sonnet Jonson ever wrote, which he himself admits at the beginning of the poem. Perhaps he didn’t find the form congenial, even though this poem proves he was capable of writing a perfectly good one. The poem is an elegant form of congratulations to Lady Mary, complimenting her and saying Jonson himself can learn a lot from her poems, which are going to make him “a better lover, and much better poet”. The sonnets are not only pleasing as a literary exercise, but are also powerful as expressions of love. They are strong enough to overpower Cupid, but at the same time Mary Wroth uses the balms of Venus so skilfully that every line she writes is like Venus’ girdle, which supposedly made the wearer irresistible. I guess what Jonson says in this ornate manner is that Mary Wroth depicts both the pains and pleasures of love very movingly.

“My Picture Left in Scotland” is a charming thank-you poem to William Drummond, Jonson’s sometime host during his walking tour of that country. Jonson complains humorously that contrary to popular belief, love must be not blind but deaf, because the poems he composed to a certain Scottish lady left her unmoved, despite them being as good (or better) than those of younger poets. But alas! Jonson realizes the lady must have seen that his hair is grey, he is forty-seven and his waist is too big for her to embrace. As a result, the image of “my mountain belly and my rocky face” stopped her ears.



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