Story type: Essay
We were contemplating our fireplace, in which, some of the hearth-bricks are rather irregularly disposed; and we said to ourself, perhaps the brick-layer who built this noble fireplace worked like Ben Jonson, with a trowel in one hand and a copy of Horace in the other. That suggested to us that we had not read any Ben Jonson for a very long time: so we turned to “Every Man in His Humour” and “The Alchemist.” Part of Jonson’s notice “To the Reader” preceding “The Alchemist” struck us as equally valid as regards poetry to-day:
Thou wert never more fair in the way to be cozened, than in this age, in poetry; wherein … antics to run away from nature, and be afraid of her, is the only point of art that tickles the spectators … For they commend writers, as they do fencers or wrestlers; who if they come in robustuously, and put for it with a great deal of violence, are received for the braver fellows…. I deny not, but that these men, who always seek to do more than enough, may some time happen on some thing that is good, and great; but very seldom … I give thee this warning, that there is a great difference between those, that utter all they can, however unfitly; and those that use election and a mean. For it is only the disease of the unskilful, to think rude things greater than polished; or scattered more numerous than composed.
Ben Jonson’s perpetual allusions to tobacco always remind one of the odd circumstance that of two such cronies as he and Will Shakespeare, one should have mentioned tobacco continually, the other not at all. Undoubtedly Ben smoked a particularly foul old pipe and was forever talking about it, spouting his rank strangling “Cuban ebolition” across the table; and Will, probably rather nice in his personal habits, grew disgusted with the habit.
At any rate, Shakespeare’s silence on the subject has always been a grief to smokers. At a time when we were interested in that famous and innocent way of wasting time, trying to discover ciphers in Shakespeare’s sonnets, we spent long cryptogrammarian evenings seeking to prove some anagram or rebus by which the Bard could be supposed to have concealed a mention of tobacco. But the only lurking secret we ever discovered seemed to suggest that the sonnets had been written by an ex-President of the United States. Observe the 131st sonnet:
*T*hou art as tyrannous, so as thou art
*A*s those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
*F*or well thou know’st to my dear doting heart
*T*hou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
And evidently Shakespeare intended to begin the 51st sonnet with the same acrostic; but, with Elizabethan laxity, misspelled Mr. Taft’s name as TOFT.
Reading Elizabethan literature always encourages one to proceed, even though decorously, with the use of the pun. Such screams of mirth as (we doubt not) greeted one of Ben Jonson’s simpletons when he spoke of Roger Bacon as Rasher Bacon (we can hear them laughing, can’t you?) are highly fortifying.
But we began by quoting Ben Jonson on poetry. The passage sent us to the bookcase to look up the “axioms” about poetry stated by another who was also, in spirit at least, an habitue of The Mermaid. In that famous letter from Keats to his publisher and friend John Taylor, February 27, 1818, there is a fine fluent outburst on the subject. All Keats lovers know these “axioms” already, but they cannot be quoted too often; and we copy them down with additional pleasure because not long ago, by the kindness of the two librarians who watch over one of the most marvellous private collections in the world–Mr. J.P. Morgan’s–we saw the original letter itself:–
1st. I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess,
and not by singularity. It should strike the reader as
a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost
2d. Its touches of beauty should never be half-way,
thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content.
The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should,
like the sun, come natural to him, shine over him, and
set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in
the luxury of twilight. But it is easier to think what
poetry should be than to write it–and this leads me to
Another axiom–That if poetry comes not as naturally
as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.
Some people can always find things to complain about. We have seen protests because the house in Rome where Keats died is used as a steamship office. We think it is rather appropriate. No man’s mind ever set sail upon wider oceans of imagination. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson:
Night after night his purple traffic
Strews the landing with opal bales;
Merchantmen poise upon horizons,
Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.
Another pleasing fact is that while he was a medical student Keats lived in Bird-in-Hand Court, Cheapside–best known nowadays as the home of Simpson’s, that magnificent chophouse. Who else, in modern times, came so close to holding unruffled in his hand the shy wild bird of Poetry?