Kinsley, James, ed. Burns: Poems and Songs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
"TO HEAVEN" Ben Jonson (1616) In his 1616 poetry collection Works Ben Jonson included a grouping of 15 poems, known as The Forest. More serious-minded than his collection of Epigrams, they reflect a stiffness that critics agree prevents most from reaching excellence, with the exception of "To Penshurst." Still some contain a fine individual line or two, and all exhibit skill, if not brilliance. In "To Heaven" Jonson displays his ability to imitate other writers in a manner that reflects intimacy with their works, rather than a desire to appropriate ideas improperly. As the Jonson biographer Rosalind Miles notes, he includes flashes of the metaphysical inspired by John Donne, as his speaker addresses God.
Jonson opens adopting the moral abstract terms he often used, the words good and great:
Good and great God, can I not think of thee But it must straight my melancholy be? Is it interpreted in me disease That, laden with my sins, I seek for ease?
The speaker wonders whether his "disease," a tendency toward depression, might simply represent avoidance of taking responsibility for his transgression. In the next lines he acknowledges that God will know the truth and will understand whether he remains simply self-indulgent, putting on a show, and that God will later judge him. He actually invites the judgment, suggesting that if he "pretend / to aught but grace" God will know his true inclination. Beginning in line 9 he develops a conceit that clearly echoes Donne:
As thou art all, so be thou all to me, First, midst, and last, converted one and three, My faith, my hope, my love; and in this state, My judge, my witness, and my advocate.
While other poems in The Forest deal with concerns of friendship and community, as the final poem in the sequence, "To Heaven," focuses squarely on the poet's relationship with God.
Lines 13-16 contain the stilted style noted by critics. It lacks the tone of unmitigated awe that frames the preceding lines, and the terminology labors to make its point:
Where have I been this while exiled from thee, And whither rapt, now thou but stoop'st to me? Dwell, dwell here still: Oh, being everywhere, How can I doubt to find thee ever here?
The internal rhyme, as seen in the terms while and exiled and now and thou, is so contrived it almost introduces unintended humor, and the eye rhyme of here and everywhere, followed by a second here, proves distracting.
Despite these challenges, Jonson later regains his rhetorical poise in three smooth lines, graced with skillful alliteration. They reflect a tone as melodic as that of the previous lines was harsh:
I know my state, both full of shame and scorn, Conceived in sin and unto labor born, Standing with fear, and must with horror fall, And destined unto judgment after all.
The first 21 lines lack for the most part the melancholy edge that should support the speaker's claim to that emotion in the opening lines. However, Jonson achieves a respectful wistfulness in the four closing lines that evokes reader sympathy and respect:
Yet dare I not complain or wish for death With holy Paul, lest if be thought the breath of discontent; or that these prayers be For weariness of life, not love of thee.
The enjambment that drives one line into the next only to be interrupted by a caesura imitates the speaker's hesitancy to proclaim his emotions. Rather he concludes with the very weariness he denies, in a whimper of restrained discontent.
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