Johnson, Samuel. "The Life of William Collins." In The Works of the English Poets from Chaucer to Cowper, including the Series Edited with Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, by Dr. Samuel Johnson: And the Most Approved Translation. Edited by Alexander Chalmers. 21 vols. London: C. Whittington, 1810. Lonsdale, Robert, ed. The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith. New York: Norton, 1972.
"ODE TO HIMSELF" Ben Jonson (1631, 1640-1641) In "Ode to Himself" Ben Jonson castigates the public for its rejection of his comedy The New Inn (1629). He expresses himself in a manner that supports some critical estimates of him as, in the words of George Parfitt, "truculent, arrogant, uncertain of temper, narrow-minded, dogmatic, ungenerous." Had this been the only Jonson poem in existence, that descrip tion would seem accurate. Fortunately, the body of Jonson's poetry mitigates against such a negative vision of the poet. The so-called ode appeared as an epilogue to the 1632 printed version. Many reacted to the epilogue, some urging him not to act upon his impulse to end his playwright career, others confirming the low popular opinion of the play. Jonson probably felt sensitive about this work as it was his first to be staged after he suffered a stroke in 1628, and he was anxious that it not be seen as inferior to his previous works.
"ode to Himself" wastes no time in advancing the poet's opinion of his audience and his plan of action, as he tells himself,
Come, leave the loathed stage, And the more loathsome age, Where pride and impudence, in faction knit,
Usurp the chair of wit, Indicting and arraigning every day Something they call a play.
Jonson's bitter tone well supports his self-righteous point of view. After chastising further, he concludes his 10-line verse with ANTITHESIS, writing, "They were not made for thee, less thou for them." Jonson repeatedly evaluates his subject, interjecting limiting terms, such as more, less, large, and criteria points, including simple, common, best, and his traditional ethical measure, good. No question exists as to whether his drama was worthy; the audience simply does not deserve his efforts.
The second stanza proves at once skillful and vituperative as Jonson adopts the figurative language of extended metaphor to compare his audience to pigs. The creatures prefer base foods, or art, to the processed product Jonson would offer:
Say that thou pour'st them wheat, And they will acorns eat; 'Twere simple fury still thyself to waste on such as have no taste!
Jonson's aggressive use of language includes the first of two puns on the term taste. The second use is discussed later.
The speaker notes that were he to offer the swines bread, they would reject it as they possess no appetite for refinement. Instead, they prefer "grains," "husks," and "swill" and "love lees," the dregs, rather than the "lusty wine" that represents Jonson's refined art. The metaphor extends into the third stanza, where readers learn that for the ingrate audience, "There, sweepings do as well / As the best-ordered meal." In the 1640 quarto version of the poem Jonson proved so out of humor that he even insulted Richard Brome, described by Parfitt as Jonson's "most faithful and successful disciple in stage comedy." The lines read, "Brome's sweeping do as well / There, as his master's meal. . . ." The pun on Brome's name is the second and more cruel within that stanza. The suggestion that Brome's efforts prove mere crumbs compared to those of Jonson proved that anyone might fall unfortunate victim of the senior poet's ire.
Throughout the remaining three stanzas, Jonson repeatedly notes his superiority to those in his audience, claiming he will depart and does not need them, the voice attempting indifference. However, certain lines counteract that attempt, including
Ere years have made thee old, Strike that disdainful heat
Throughout, to their defeat, As curioius fools, and envious of thy strain, May, blushing, swear no palsy's in thy brain.
They emit such forceful passion that they negate Jon-son's claim to remain unruffled by audience attitude toward his drama.
Jonson concludes by noting that when he writes about King Charles I, "His zeal to God and his just awe o'er men," that same audience will be "blood-shaken" and experience "a flesh-quake" that will lead them to proclaim Jonson a wonder. They would have to do so, as Jonson's words will serve to elevate the king's chariot, emblematic of his power, above his "Wain," the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major.
Jonson had claimed that only a limited circle could fully appreciate his work, while even fewer could judge it, and "ode to Himself" seems to support that claim. He did have a temper and suffered several failed
292 "ODE TO MASTER ANTHONY STAFFORD"
attempts at friendship; he had also killed a man in his youth, so his reputation was somewhat deserved. On the other hand, most of his plays proved popular and he surrounded himself with devoted friends much of the time. As did any writer dependent on the public for his livelihood, he experienced the constant tension between the desire to write to his own convictions and the desire for a positive critical reception. His high standards caused a reaction against Jonson in the 18th century when a mythology arose that included his supposed hatred of Shakespeare, which a reading of his "to the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us" should dispel, as well as charges of plagiarism and a lack of decency. His reputation recovered with the effort of critics such as J. A. Barish.
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