An Ode. To Himselfe

Slate is observing Poetry Month—but expressing some reservations about the idea of Poetry Month—by printing poems that gripe about poetry or are otherwise negative about some aspect of poets or poetry. Here is the 17th-century poet Ben Jonson, telling himself to ignore the stupid pricks and just do his work.

Despite the poop of chattering magpies, and although little songs may impress the greedy fry, those gaping baby fishes—says Jonson to himself—he should be bold and ambitious, like Japhet’s son Prometheus. He at least half-convinces himself to “sing high and aloofe.”

Listen to Robert Pinsky reading this poem.


By Ben Jonson

Where do’st thou carelesse lie
  Buried in ease and sloth?
Knowledge, that sleepes, doth die;
And this Securitie,
  It is the common Moath,
That eats on wits, and Arts, and oft destroyes them both.

Are all th’Aonian springs
  Dri’d up? lies Thespia waste?
Doth Clarius’ Harp want strings,
That not a Nymph now sings!
  Or droop they as disgrac’t,
To see their Seats and Bowers by chattring Pies defac’t?

If hence thy silence be,
  As ‘tis too just a cause;
Let this thought quicken thee,
Minds that are great and free,
  Should not on fortune pause,
’Tis crowne enough to vertue still, her owne applause.

What though the greedie Frie
  Be taken with false Bayte
Of worded Balladrie,
And thinke it Poesie?
  They die with their conceits,
And only pitious scorne, upon their folly waits.

Then take in hand thy Lyre,
  Strike in thy proper straine,
With Japhet’s line, aspire
Sol’s Chariot for new fire,
  To give the world again:
Who aided him, will thee, the issue of Jove’s brain.

And since our Daintie age
  Cannot endure reproof,
Make not thy selfe a Page
To that strumpet the Stage,
  But sing high and aloofe,
Safe from the wolf’s black jaw, and the dull ass’s hoofe.