Edwards, David L. John Donne: Man of Flesh and Spirit.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2002. Gardner, Helen, ed. John Donne: The Divine Poems. Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1969.
"TO JOHN DONNE" Ben Jonson (1616) Ben
Jonson proved one of the most accomplished writers of his age, producing work in several genres. His poetry fell into recognizable categories, one of which is the elegy. While his writing could prove bawdy, for elegies he took care to preserve the appropriately respectful tone, producing clean, clear language simply of celebration. Jonson especially aspired to clarity, adopting deceptively simple language to express complex sentiments. In writing of John Donne, he adopted a humility unusual in Jonson the man, but completely applicable to the situation, as Donne represented the epitome of the poet for most writers who followed.
The speaker opens the 10-line single stanza in rhyming couplets by labeling Donne "the delight of Phoebus and each Muse, / Who, to thy one, all other brains refuse," meaning that the muses, or inspiration, preferred Donne to all other poets. In the next two lines Jonson notes that each of Donne's works, thanks to his "most early wit, / Came forth example and remains so yet." In other words Donne remains a model for all poets and has since his first word graced a page. He possessed a self-knowledge that outreached most wits, "And which no affection praise enough can give." Jon-son notes he cannot do justice to an artist of Donne's stature, even as he attempts to do so. If one then adds "thy language, letters, arts, best life, / Which might with half mankind maintain a strife," Donne represents an overwhelming subject, with a body of work to rival that of many other men. After all of this fashioning of acute praise, the poet concludes by saying he cannot do well enough to honor Donne: "All which I meant to praise, and yet I would, / But leave because I cannot as I should." The speaker notes it is one thing to praise a man as a poet, but when the praise also must include the other aspects of a career identified by Jonson, language does not have the necessary power to laud such a life accurately. Ironically Jonson could be writing of himself in the way critics would see him centuries later. Also a man of wide accomplishments that had an enormous part in the development of drama and poetry, Jonson would challenge others later as Donne had challenged him. In addition he remained persistent in employing speech as what he termed "the Instrument of Society," concerning himself with decorum in speech. Thus he may suggest that verbal praise of a man who was expert at his own expression would simply prove in poor taste.
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