Ben Jonson – “The Ode on Cary and Morison”

The full title of the poem is “To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of That Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Morison”. The poem is an imitation of the odes written by the ancient Greek poet PIndar both in its contents (a song of praise) and its rather complex structure: since the ancient chorus would move forward when singing one part of the ode, go back when singing another and stand still during yet another, Jonson marks the stanzas of his poem as “the turn”, “the counterturn” and “the stand”. The “turn” and “counterturn” are written in rhyming couplets, “the stands” follow a different rhyme scheme.

Young Sir Lucius Cary, one of the so-called “sons of Ben”, an informal group of younger of Jonsons young friends/fanboys lost a close friend, Sir Henry Morison, who like him was only about twenty then. (Cary also married Morison’s sister one year later.) Jonson’s poem is in a sense an answer to Cary’s own elegy, in which he laments the breviry of his friend’s life, which did not allow him to accomplish much.  Jonson starts his consolatory ode by an example from Pliny about an infant being born when his city was being besieged by Hannibal; seeing the battle raging, he returned promptly into his mother’s womb and was buried there. Jonson praises the wisdom of the child, saying that if all the babies could foresee the misery of life, undoubtedly they would all follow his example. His point is, life should not be measured by its length but what one does with it (well, the child used here as an example did not exactly accomplish much, either, unless this act of suicide counts as such a towering example of wisdom you don’t need anything more.). In contrast, you can live eighty years and do nothing useful through sixty years, but trouble “both foes and friends”. Wouldn’t it be much better for this “stirrer” to die at twenty? Another man started his life well but then “stooped… to sordid flatteries, acts of strife” and sank so deep that only “the cork of title” kept him afloat. So when you say Morison fell young – excuse, me, “fall” is a slip of the tongue. He never fell but stood until the end, the perfect friend, soldier, patron and son, and in this way he truly lived more than anybody who has just “been long”, because life is not measured by the amount of days one gets through, but by actions.

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