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L'ALLEGRO owes amends to the memory of Ben Jonson for popularizing the legend that learning was his chief distinction. Like inferior contemporaries who referred to Jonson's learning, Milton limited the qualification to the drama.1 By that he intended panegyric rather than blame. Later ages have construed the criticism as general, and read into it a charge of pedantry. Far from repelling any such insinuation, Jonson himself, it must be admitted, seems in his plays to confirm it. Yet I do not know that, applicable as it may be to him, it is not equally appropriate to others. For the most part dramatists of the period were scholars, and not shy of displaying their classical attainments. To Jonson's lyrics, at all events, it is not much more relevant than to Fletcher's, certainly not more than to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, or the Rape of Lucrece.
Consider them on their intrinsic merits ; and it may be argued that they have equals ; I think it would be hard to find their superiors. Simplicity is among their primary charms, as in the ideal woman :
Give me a look, give me a face,
The same quality rises to perfection in the Song to Celia :
Drink to me, only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine ;
And I'll not look for wine.
Doth ask a drink divine ;
I would not change for thine.
I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honouring thee,
It could not wither'd be.
And sent'st it back to me;
Not of itself, but thee.3 Nothing here is elaborate; there is scarcely a show of ingenuity. The idea is the merest thistledown. The words might be set to an infant school for a spelling exercise. They have fallen each into its own natural, necessary place, as easily as the stones into the walls of Thebes at the bidding of Amphion's lute. So with the eulogy of Truth :
Truth is the trial of itself,
And needs no other touch ;
Refine it ne'er so much.
It is the life and light of love,
The sun that ever shineth,
That faith and love defineth.
It is the warrant of the word,
That yields a scent so sweet,
All falsehood under feet.4
It runs as limpidly as a popular hymn; only, with depths in it. The Epitaph on 'Elizabeth' would equally befit a village tombstone and a monument in Westminster Abbey :
Underneath this stone doth lie
To more virtue than doth live,5 Doubtless art informed the fabric ; but the scaffolding is gone. It is seldom indeed that, as towards the conclusion of the otherwise spontaneous lament for the Child of Queen Elizabeth's Chapel :
Weep with me, all ye that read
This little story ;
Death's self is sorry, he cares in his lyrics to parade his knowledge, astronomical or mythological—'three-filled Zodiacs', and repentant * Parcae'. Such display is exceptional. Commonly, even when he chooses to be gracefully, almost coldly, Hellenic, as in a Hymn to Diana, there is no affectation of classical tropes and phraseology :
Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Hesperus entreats thy light,
Lay thy bow of pearl apart,
And thy crystal shining quiver ;
Thou that mak'st a day of night,
The same virtue distinguishes the famous epitaph on Lady Pembroke :
Underneath this sable herse
Time shall throw a dart at thee ! 8 Jonson's authorship has been disputed on the ground, partly, of its appearance, with an added stanza, in manuscripts of William Browne's poems; partly, of Browne's reference in his elegy on Lady Pembroke's grandson, Lord Herbert, to verses by him mourning the young lord's grand-dame. Possibly the copyist intentionally prefixed Jonson's six lines to Browne's ; and Browne's own allusion in his epitaph on Lord Herbert, still more probably, was to his undoubted elegy on the grandmother. To me the stanza, terse and masterful, breathes all over of Jonson. But he is rich enough to dispense even with it, or with any other controverted attributions in Underwoods.
I have dwelt first on the beauty of his simplicity, in answer to the popular fable of his pedantry. The feature which, more than his learning, and equally with the simple sweetness, impresses me in his verse, is the gift of thinking high thoughts while he sings. The melody flows on meanwhile ; the diction, which suited the lament for a dead child, remains as unaffected, though on a different plane, when he discourses profundities. The meaning is recondite, the language continues to be beautifully natural. View the Picture he dreams of a noble mind lodged in as fair a body :
A mind so pure, so perfect fine,
And so disdaining any trier,
Whose notions when it will express
Of grace, and music to the ear,
As what it spoke it planted there.
And though the sound were parted thence,
Still left an echo in the sense.
Itself to us, and come so nigh
Earth's grossness ; there 's the how and why.
In all the bounds of Beauty, fit
For her t inhabit? There is it.
So polish'd, perfect, round, and even,
As it slid moulded off from heaven.
And where it stays, it there becomes
A nest of odorous spice and gums.
Upon a bank, or field of flowers,
Begotten by the wind and showers. It is the same in the imaging of true love :
A golden chain let down from heaven,
Whose links are bright and even,
That falls like sleep on lovers ; in his promise of Heaven's blessing to the honest soldier :
Go seek thy peace in war ;