On Lucy Countess Of Bedford

Ben Jonson (1616) Ben Jonson wrote "On Lucy, Countess of Bedford" in honor of one of the great patronesses of her era. Jonson probably fashioned the part of a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth I in his Cynthia's Revels, or the Fountain of Self Love, performed in 1600, on the countess who had been a lady in waiting. He also probably owed his commission in 1604 as masque writer for Queen Anne to the patronage of the countess. The poem is included in the Epigrammes division of Jonson's works, with the number title LXXVI. He also wrote "To Lucy, Countess of Bedford, with Mr. Donne's Satires," celebrating her within a manuscript collection of John Donne's poetry that he asked Jonson to present to the countess. Manuscripts often circulated among reading groups, as aristocrats considered publication vulgar. John Donne had also praised the countess and profited from her generosity.

Jonson's 18-line poem adopts traditional iambic pentameter, with every other line rhyming. Its formal format fits the subject, as the poet praises the countess as a muse. He opens by adopting figurative language (figure of speech) to describe the morning's dawn as "holy fire," noting that in the early hours,

I thought to form unto my zealous muse, What kind of creature I could most desire, To honour, serve, and love;


Jonson forces hesitation by inserting a semicolon mid-line, forcing the reader, for a brief moment, to wonder about the nature of the speaker's desire. However, as he continues, he makes clear he seeks an inspiration for the art he demonstrates as he muses "as poets use. / I meant to make her fair, and free, and wise, / of greatest blood, and yet more good than great." As scholars point out, Jonson often employed the terms good and great as part of his moral vocabulary. Here he emphasizes through all of his descriptors the high state of the countess's ethical nature and causes the reader to recognize great as simply a higher state of goodness. One of his consistently stressed beliefs held that moral goodness proved far more important than great birth. Fortunately the countess enjoyed both. He continues that emphasis when he writes,

I meant the day-star should not brighter rise, Nor lend like influence from his lucent seat I meant she should be courteous, facile, sweet, Hating that solemn vice of greatness, pride.

The 10th line, borrowed from a Latin source, Clau-dian, expresses a favorite belief for Jonson, that empty pride proves worthless. The speaker continues to wish various virtues on his muse, including "a manly soul," indicating she must possess strong convictions. So talented is this muse that should, with even powers,

The rock, the spindle, and the shears control

Of destiny, and spin her own free hours.

Jonson praises the countess's strength and power over varied situations, using an image that calls to mind the child's game of "rock, paper, scissors." The spindle most probably refers to a part of a loom, an image carried into the next line's reference to spinning, a traditional artistic activity for women and a metaphor for telling a story. The countess is no ordinary woman, as her power allows her "free hours" in which she may do as she pleases. While she did not write, she remained free to support those who did, controlling the destiny of others. The poet concludes by noting that just as he desired to see this perfect creature, "My muse bad,

Bedford write, and that was she." In this final line, the poet's muse bade, or commanded, him to write the word Bedford, and he suddenly realized that the countess embodied his dream.

A conventional praise poem, "On Lucy, Countess of Bedford" allows Jonson to display his skill in applying the ethical thought of classicism, in which he adopts commonplace ideas of many predecessors. He does not merely express a moment of individual experience but rather universalizes his thought by adopting a classical foundation. He borrows freely, unafraid that he might be accused of a lack of originality. Rather he adopts a public truth and applies it to considerations of his own culture. He complied with the aesthetic principle of 17th-century England that honored the value of models and conventions but did not encourage a slavish imitation.

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