Thomas Carew – “To Ben Jonson”, “A Song”

“To Ben Jonson” was written in response to Jonson’s “Ode to Himself”, in which Jonson berated the ungrateful audience for failing to appreciate his latest play. Carew tries to tell Jonson affectionately that there is no point in feeling offended by the critics. It is true, Carew says, we live in a debased age which cannot appreciate a real genius like you, and yet, it is possible that your latest play is a bit weaker than The Alchemist which was written at the top of your creative powers, about twenty years earlier. But even if The New Inn is your twilight work, your twilight is still brighter than the night with all its stars which is going to come later. All your plays are like eaglets, but it is fair to say that one eaglet has fairer plums or the other is stronger, but they are all your children. You may divide your love among your children “by city-customs or by gavelkind”, writes Carew, remembering perhaps bits and pieces of his legal training, because he’s referring to some local laws which allowed the inheritance to be divided equally among all the descendants, in contrast to the law of primogeniture (the eldest son takes all, or at least the most) predominating in England at that time. But we, the audience, are going to distinguish between your plays, just like the law usually distinguishes one’s children according to their sex and birth order. Carew advises Jonson to be indifferent to the accusations levelled at him at this time that he takes ages to compose anything and that he cribs from other writers. Being a fast writer is not a praise but an excuse for sloppy writing, and borrowing from other writers is not theft but like carrying proudly the spoils of war. Anyway, it is really beneath Jonson’s dignity to go to war with his critics, because you can duel only with people of your own rank and everyone is below Jonson, the genius. In a masterful ending combining praise with teasing, Carew writes: all the smart people value Jonson’s work more highly than anybody else’s and only slightly less than Jonson himself does.

“A Song”, also referred sometimes to by its incipit line “Ask me no more where Jove bestows”, is an extravagant praise of a woman’s beauty. All five stanzas are based on teh same pattern: “ask me no more” what happens to some transient or rare thing, because they all end up in this woman. So ask me no more where Jove bestows the beuaty of the fading rose when June is over, because it’s in your beauty, as in the Aristotelian first cause (Aristotle claimed things often lay latent in their causes.) Don’t ask me where the golden atoms of the day go, they powder your hair. Don’t ask me where the nightingale goes after May is over, she winters in your sweet throat. Don’t ask me where the rays of stars go, they are in your eyes and make them their spheres (as in the Ptolemaic model of the universe, where the stars were stuck to the fixed spheres.) don’t ask me where the phoenix builds her nest, she flies to you and dies in your bosom, says Carew in possibly the shakiest metaphor of the whole poem. All this admiration may be double-edged, because Carew claims all these transient things live forever in the woman he adores, but since they are all by definition temporary, does not that imply she is going to fade as well? Although on the other hand the phoenix was believed to go through the cycle of death and rebirth, so maybe her beauty may be eternal, after all.

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