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Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford


              1You are a friend then, as I make it out,
              2Of our man Shakespeare, who alone of us
              3Will put an ass's head in Fairyland
              4As he would add a shilling to more shillings,
              5All most harmonious, -- and out of his
              6Miraculous inviolable increase
              7Fills Ilion, Rome, or any town you like
              8Of olden time with timeless Englishmen;
              9And I must wonder what you think of him --
            10All you down there where your small Avon flows
            11By Stratford, and where you're an Alderman.
            12Some, for a guess, would have him riding back
            13To be a farrier there, or say a dyer;
            14Or maybe one of your adept surveyors;
            15Or like enough the wizard of all tanners.
            16Not you -- no fear of that; for I discern
            17In you a kindling of the flame that saves--
            18The nimble element, the true caloric;
            19I see it, and was told of it, moreover,
            20By our discriminate friend himself, no other.
            21Had you been one of the sad average,
            22As he would have it, -- meaning, as I take it,
            23The sinew and the solvent of our Island,
            24You'd not be buying beer for this Terpander's
            25Approved and estimated friend Ben Jonson;
            26He'd never foist it as a part of his
            27Contingent entertainment of a townsman
            28While he goes off rehearsing, as he must,
            29If he shall ever be the Duke of Stratford.
            30And my words are no shadow on your town --
            31Far from it; for one town's as like another
            32As all are unlike London. Oh, he knows it, --
            33And there's the Stratford in him; he denies it,
            34And there's the Shakespeare in him. So, God help him!
            35I tell him he needs Greek; but neither God
            36Nor Greek will help him. Nothing will help that man.
            37You see the fates have given him so much,
            38He must have all or perish, -- or look out
            39Of London, where he sees too many lords.
            40They're part of half what ails him: I suppose
            41There's nothing fouler down among the demons
            42Than what it is he feels when he remembers
            43The dust and sweat and ointment of his calling
            44With his lords looking on and laughing at him.
            45King as he is, he can't be king de facto,
            46And that's as well, because he wouldn't like it;
            47He'd frame a lower rating of men then
            48Than he has now; and after that would come
            49An abdication or an apoplexy.
            50He can't be king, not even king of Stratford, --
            51Though half the world, if not the whole of it,
            52May crown him with a crown that fits no king
            53Save Lord Apollo's homesick emissary:
            54Not there on Avon, or on any stream
            55Where Naiads and their white arms are no more,
            56Shall he find home again. It's all too bad.
            57But there's a comfort, for he'll have that House --
            58The best you ever saw; and he'll be there
            59Anon, as you're an Alderman. Good God!
            60He makes me lie awake o'nights and laugh.

            61And you have known him from his origin,
            62You tell me; and a most uncommon urchin
            63He must have been to the few seeing ones --
            64A trifle terrifying, I dare say,
            65Discovering a world with his man's eyes,
            66Quite as another lad might see some finches,
            67If he looked hard and had an eye for nature.
            68But this one had his eyes and their foretelling,
            69And he had you to fare with, and what else?
            70He must have had a father and a mother --
            71In fact I've heard him say so -- and a dog,
            72As a boy should, I venture; and the dog,
            73Most likely, was the only man who knew him.
            74A dog, for all I know, is what he needs
            75As much as anything right here to-day,
            76To counsel him about his disillusions,
            77Old aches, and parturitions of what's coming, --
            78A dog of orders, an emeritus,
            79To wag his tail at him when he comes home,
            80And then to put his paws up on his knees
            81And say, "For God's sake, what's it all about?"

            82I don't know whether he needs a dog or not --
            83Or what he needs. I tell him he needs Greek;
            84I'll talk of rules and Aristotle with him,
            85And if his tongue's at home he'll say to that,
            86I have your word that Aristotle knows,
            87And you mine that I don't know Aristotle."
            88He's all at odds with all the unities,
            89And what's yet worse, it doesn't seem to matter;
            90He treads along through Time's old wilderness
            91As if the tramp of all the centuries
            92Had left no roads -- and there are none, for him;
            93He doesn't see them, even with those eyes, --
            94And that's a pity, or I say it is.
            95Accordingly we have him as we have him --
            96Going his way, the way that he goes best,
            97A pleasant animal with no great noise
            98Or nonsense anywhere to set him off --
            99Save only divers and inclement devils
          100Have made of late his heart their dwelling place.
          101A flame half ready to fly out sometimes
          102At some annoyance may be fanned up in him,
          103But soon it falls, and when it falls goes out;
          104He knows how little room there is in there
          105For crude and futile animosities,
          106And how much for the joy of being whole,
          107And how much for long sorrow and old pain.
          108On our side there are some who may be given
          109To grow old wondering what he thinks of us
          110And some above us, who are, in his eyes,
          111Above himself, -- and that's quite right and English.
          112Yet here we smile, or disappoint the gods
          113Who made it so: the gods have always eyes
          114To see men scratch; and they see one down here
          115Who itches, manor-bitten to the bone,
          116Albeit he knows himself -- yes, yes, he knows--
          117The lord of more than England and of more
          118Than all the seas of England in all time
          119Shall ever wash. D'ye wonder that I laugh?
          120He sees me, and he doesn't seem to care;
          121And why the devil should he? I can't tell you.

          122I'll meet him out alone of a bright Sunday,
          123Trim, rather spruce, and quite the gentleman.
          124"What ho, my lord!" say I. He doesn't hear me;
          125Wherefore I have to pause and look at him.
          126He's not enormous, but one looks at him.
          127A little on the round if you insist,
          128For now, God save the mark, he's growing old;
          129He's five and forty, and to hear him talk
          130These days you'd call him eighty; then you'd add
          131More years to that. He's old enough to be
          132The father of a world, and so he is.
          133"Ben, you're a scholar, what's the time of day?"
          134Says he; and there shines out of him again
          135An aged light that has no age or station --
          136The mystery that's his -- a mischievous
          137Half-mad serenity that laughs at fame
          138For being won so easy, and at friends
          139Who laugh at him for what he wants the most,
          140And for his dukedom down in Warwickshire; --
          141By which you see we're all a little jealous ....
          142Poor Greene! I fear the color of his name
          143Was even as that of his ascending soul;
          144And he was one where there are many others, --
          145Some scrivening to the end against their fate,
          146Their puppets all in ink and all to die there;
          147And some with hands that once would shade an eye
          148That scanned Euripides and Æschylus
          149Will reach by this time for a pot-house mop
          150To slush their first and last of royalties.
          151Poor devils! and they all play to his hand;
          152For so it was in Athens and old Rome.
          153But that's not here or there; I've wandered off.
          154Greene does it, or I'm careful. Where's that boy?

          155Yes, he'll go back to Stratford. And we'll miss him?
          156Dear sir, there'll be no London here without him.
          157We'll all be riding, one of these fine days,
          158Down there to see him -- and his wife won't like us;
          159And then we'll think of what he never said
          160Of women -- which, if taken all in all
          161With what he did say, would buy many horses.
          162Though nowadays he's not so much for women:
          163"So few of them," he says, "are worth the guessing."
          164But there's a worm at work when he says that,
          165And while he says it one feels in the air
          166A deal of circumambient hocus-pocus.
          167They've had him dancing till his toes were tender,
          168And he can feel 'em now, come chilly rains.
          169There's no long cry for going into it,
          170However, and we don't know much about it.
          171But you in Stratford, like most here in London,
          172Have more now in the Sonnets than you paid for;
          173He's put one there with all her poison on,
          174To make a singing fiction of a shadow
          175That's in his life a fact, and always will be.
          176But she's no care of ours, though Time, I fear,
          177Will have a more reverberant ado
          178About her than about another one
          179Who seems to have decoyed him, married him,
          180And sent him scuttling on his way to London, --
          181With much already learned, and more to learn,
          182And more to follow. Lord! how I see him now,
          183Pretending, maybe trying, to be like us.
          184Whatever he may have meant, we never had him;
          185He failed us, or escaped, or what you will, --
          186And there was that about him (God knows what, --
          187We'd flayed another had he tried it on us)
          188That made as many of us as had wits
          189More fond of all his easy distances
          190Than one another's noise and clap-your-shoulder.
          191But think you not, my friend, he'd never talk!
          192Talk? He was eldritch at it; and we listened --
          193Thereby acquiring much we knew before
          194About ourselves, and hitherto had held
          195Irrelevant, or not prime to the purpose.
          196And there were some, of course, and there be now,
          197Disordered and reduced amazedly
          198To resignation by the mystic seal
          199Of young finality the gods had laid
          200On everything that made him a young demon;
          201And one or two shot looks at him already
          202As he had been their executioner;
          203And once or twice he was, not knowing it, --
          204Or knowing, being sorry for poor clay
          205And saying nothing .... Yet, for all his engines,
          206You'll meet a thousand of an afternoon
          207Who strut and sun themselves and see around 'em
          208A world made out of more that has a reason
          209Than his, I swear, that he sees here to-day;
          210Though he may scarcely give a Fool an exit
          211But we mark how he sees in everything
          212A law that, given we flout it once too often,
          213Brings fire and iron down on our naked heads.
          214To me it looks as if the power that made him,
          215For fear of giving all things to one creature,
          216Left out the first, -- faith, innocence, illusion,
          217Whatever 'tis that keeps us out o' Bedlam, --
          218And thereby, for his too consuming vision,
          219Empowered him out of nature; though to see him,
          220You'd never guess what's going on inside him.
          221He'll break out some day like a keg of ale
          222With too much independent frenzy in it;
          223And all for collaring what he knows won't keep,
          224And what he'd best forget -- but that he can't.
          225You'll have it, and have more than I'm foretelling;
          226And there'll be such a roaring at the Globe
          227As never stunned the bleeding gladiators.
          228He'll have to change the color of its hair
          229A bit, for now he calls it Cleopatra.
          230Black hair would never do for Cleopatra.
          231But you and I are not yet two old women,
          232And you're a man of office. What he does
          233Is more to you than how it is he does it, --
          234And that's what the Lord God has never told him.
          235They work together, and the Devil helps 'em;
          236They do it of a morning, or if not,
          237They do it of a night; in which event
          238He's peevish of a morning. He seems old;
          239He's not the proper stomach or the sleep --
          240And they're two sovran agents to conserve him
          241Against the fiery art that has no mercy
          242But what's in that prodigious grand new House.
          243I gather something happening in his boyhood
          244Fulfilled him with a boy's determination
          245To make all Stratford 'ware of him. Well, well,
          246I hope at last he'll have his joy of it,
          247And all his pigs and sheep and bellowing beeves,
          248And frogs and owls and unicorns, moreover,
          249Be less than hell to his attendant ears.
          250Oh, past a doubt we'll all go down to see him.

          251He may be wise. With London two days off,
          252Down there some wind of heaven may yet revive him;
          253But there's no quickening breath from anywhere
          254Small make of him again the poised young faun
          255From Warwickshire, who'd made, it seems, already
          256A legend of himself before I came
          257To blink before the last of his first lightning.
          258Whatever there be, there'll be no more of that;
          259The coming on of his old monster Time
          260Has made him a still man; and he has dreams
          261Were fair to think on once, and all found hollow.
          262He knows how much of what men paint themselves
          263Would blister in the light of what they are;
          264He sees how much of what was great now shares
          265An eminence transformed and ordinary;
          266He knows too much of what the world has hushed
          267In others, to be loud now for himself;
          268He knows now at what height low enemies
          269May reach his heart, and high friends let him fall;
          270But what not even such as he may know
          271Bedevils him the worst: his lark may sing
          272At heaven's gate how he will, and for as long
          273As joy may listen, but he sees no gate,
          274Save one whereat the spent clay waits a little
          275Before the churchyard has it, and the worm.
          276Not long ago, late in an afternoon,
          277I came on him unseen down Lambeth way,
          278And on my life I was afear'd of him:
          279He gloomed and mumbled like a soul from Tophet,
          280His hands behind him and his head bent solemn.
          281"What is it now," said I, -- "another woman?"
          282That made him sorry for me, and he smiled.
          283"No, Ben," he mused; "it's Nothing. It's all Nothing.
          284We come, we go; and when we're done, we're done."
          285Spiders and flies -- we're mostly one or t'other --
          286We come, we go; and when we're done, we're done;
          287"By God, you sing that song as if you knew it!"
          288Said I, by way of cheering him; "what ails ye?"
          289"I think I must have come down here to think,"
          290Says he to that, and pulls his little beard;
          291"Your fly will serve as well as anybody,
          292And what's his hour? He flies, and flies, and flies,
          293And in his fly's mind has a brave appearance;
          294And then your spider gets him in her net,
          295And eats him out, and hangs him up to dry.
          296That's Nature, the kind mother of us all.
          297And then your slattern housemaid swings her broom,
          298And where's your spider? And that's Nature, also.
          299It's Nature, and it's Nothing. It's all Nothing.
          300It's all a world where bugs and emperors
          301Go singularly back to the same dust,
          302Each in his time; and the old, ordered stars
          303That sang together, Ben, will sing the same
          304Old stave to-morrow."

          304                                     When he talks like that,
          305There's nothing for a human man to do
          306But lead him to some grateful nook like this
          307Where we be now, and there to make him drink.
          308He'll drink, for love of me, and then be sick;
          309A sad sign always in a man of parts,
          310And always very ominous. The great
          311Should be as large in liquor as in love, --
          312And our great friend is not so large in either:
          313One disaffects him, and the other fails him;
          314Whatso he drinks that has an antic in it,
          315He's wondering what's to pay in his insides;
          316And while his eyes are on the Cyprian
          317He's fribbling all the time with that damned House.
          318We laugh here at his thrift, but after all
          319It may be thrift that saves him from the devil;
          320God gave it, anyhow, -- and we'll suppose
          321He knew the compound of his handiwork.
          322To-day the clouds are with him, but anon
          323He'll out of 'em enough to shake the tree
          324Of life itself and bring down fruit unheard-of, --
          325And, throwing in the bruised and whole together,
          326Prepare a wine to make us drunk with wonder;
          327And if he live, there'll be a sunset spell
          328Thrown over him as over a glassed lake
          329That yesterday was all a black wild water.

          330God send he live to give us, if no more,
          331What now's a-rampage in him, and exhibit,
          332With a decent half-allegiance to the ages
          333An earnest of at least a casual eye
          334Turned once on what he owes to Gutenberg,
          335And to the fealty of more centuries
          336Than are as yet a picture in our vision.
          337"There's time enough, -- I'll do it when I'm old,
          338And we're immortal men," he says to that;
          339And then he says to me, "Ben, what's 'immortal'?
          340Think you by any force of ordination
          341It may be nothing of a sort more noisy
          342Than a small oblivion of component ashes
          343That of a dream-addicted world was once
          344A moving atomy much like your friend here?"
          345Nothing will help that man. To make him laugh,
          346I said then he was a mad mountebank, --
          347And by the Lord I nearer made him cry.
          348I could have eat an eft then, on my knees,
          349Tail, claws, and all of him; for I had stung
          350The king of men, who had no sting for me,
          351And I had hurt him in his memories;
          352And I say now, as I shall say again,
          353I love the man this side idolatry.

          354He'll do it when he's old, he says. I wonder.
          355He may not be so ancient as all that.
          356For such as he, the thing that is to do
          357Will do itself, -- but there's a reckoning;
          358The sessions that are now too much his own,
          359The roiling inward of a stilled outside,
          360The churning out of all those blood-fed lines,
          361The nights of many schemes and little sleep,
          362The full brain hammered hot with too much thinking,
          363The vexed heart over-worn with too much aching, --
          364This weary jangling of conjoined affairs
          365Made out of elements that have no end,
          366And all confused at once, I understand,
          367Is not what makes a man to live forever.
          368O no, not now! He'll not be going now:
          369There'll be time yet for God knows what explosions
          370Before he goes. He'll stay awhile. Just wait:
          371Just wait a year or two for Cleopatra,
          372For she's to be a balsam and a comfort;
          373And that's not all a jape of mine now, either.
          374For granted once the old way of Apollo
          375Sings in a man, he may then, if he's able,
          376Strike unafraid whatever strings he will
          377Upon the last and wildest of new lyres;
          378Nor out of his new magic, though it hymn
          379The shrieks of dungeoned hell, shall he create
          380A madness or a gloom to shut quite out
          381A cleaving daylight, and a last great calm
          382Triumphant over shipwreck and all storms.
          383He might have given Aristotle creeps,
          384But surely would have given him his katharsis.

          385He'll not be going yet. There's too much yet
          386Unsung within the man. But when he goes,
          387I'd stake ye coin o' the realm his only care
          388For a phantom world he sounded and found wanting
          389Will be a portion here, a portion there,
          390Of this or that thing or some other thing
          391That has a patent and intrinsical
          392Equivalence in those egregious shillings.
          393And yet he knows, God help him! Tell me, now,
          394If ever there was anything let loose
          395On earth by gods or devils heretofore
          396Like this mad, careful, proud, indifferent Shakespeare!
          397Where was it, if it ever was? By heaven,
          398'Twas never yet in Rhodes or Pergamon --
          399In Thebes or Nineveh, a thing like this!
          400No thing like this was ever out of England;
          401And that he knows. I wonder if he cares.
          402Perhaps he does.... O Lord, that House in Stratford!

Notes

2] William Shakespeare, born 1564, died 1616. See his selected poems.

3] an ass's head in Fairyland: the fairy queen Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, under the influence of Puck's love potion, became enamoured of the rustic Bottom, who wore such a head.

7] Ilion: Troy, the setting of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.
Rome: the setting of several of Shakespeare's plays, including Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar.

10] Avon: river flowing westward through Stratford-upon-Avon and entering the Severn river at Tewkesbury.

13] farrier: one who shoes horses.

15] tanners: those who turn hide into leather.

18] caloric: type of matter supposed to cause fire.

24] Terpander: father of Greek music, from Sparta.

25] Ben Jonson (1573?-1637), dramatist whose plays were often acted by Shakespeare's acting company, the King's Men. See his selected poems.

35] Jonson's "To the Memory of my Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, and what he hath left us," published with other complimentary verses at the beginning of the 1623 folio, complained that Shakespeare had "small Latin and less Greek."

49] apoplexy: stroke, seizure.

53] Lord Apollo: Greek sun god, Roman god of poetry.

55] Naiads: water nymphs.

77] parturitions: birth-givings.

84] Aristotle: Greek philosopher (384-322 B.C.).

88] the unities: Shakespeare's plays did not keep to the unities of action, place, and time but intermixed various plots taking place in different locations, sometimes over a span of many years.

129] Shakespeare was 45 in 1609, the year in which Thomas Thorpe published his sonnets.

142] Greene: Robert Greene, poet and dramatist (1558-92), who attacked young Shakespeare in Groats-worth of Witte (1592), sig. A3v: "... there is an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Player shyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey" (quoted from S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 115).

148] Euripides: Greek dramatist (480?-406? B.C.).
Æschylus: Greek dramatist (525-456 B.C.).

166] circumambient: encompassing.

172-73] Shake-speares Sonnets (1609) described his love for both a young man and a dark lady. See the Renaissance Electronic Texts edition (1998), edited by Hardy Cook and Ian Lancashire.

179] Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, the mother of their three children, Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet.

192] eldritch: eerie, weird (like an elf).

217] Bedlam: the madhouse, "Bethlehem Hospital" in Elizabethan London.

226] the Globe, the principal public theatre of Shakespeare's company, was built in 1599 in Southwark from the timber of the Curtain theatre. The Globe burnt down on June 29, 1613, during a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII. See E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), II, 414-34, for a history of the playhouse. Recently the theatre's archaeological remains have been located and a replica playhouse built nearby.

229] Cleopatra: the heroine of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, and a queen who both ruined and ennobled heroic men.

230] Black hair: an allusion to the dark lady of the sonnets.

247] beeves: oxen, cattle (archaic plural of "beef").

277] Lambeth: on the south south of the Thames across from London and west of Southwark where the Globe stood.

279] Tophet: hell, gehenna.

316] the Cyprian: presumably Cleopatra, the dark lady.

334] Gutenberg: inventor of the printing press using movable type, Johann Gutenberg (1400?-68).

346] mountebank: quack, one who pretends to sell true medicines.

384] katharsis: the purging of pity and fear, one of the characteristics of tragedy, according to Aristotle.

398] Rhodes: Greek island in the Aegean.
Pergamon: a Greek city in Turkey, now Bergama.

399] Thebes: Greek city of the Nile.
Nineveh: Assyrian city on the Tigris opposite Mosul.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Collected Poems, with an introduction by John Drinkwater (London: Cecil Palmer, 1922): 20-32. PS 3535 O25A17 1922 Robarts Library.
First publication date: November 1915
Publication date note: The Drama (Nov. 1915): 543-44.
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1998.
Recent editing: 2:2002/4/3

Form: blank verse


Other poems by Edwin Arlington Robinson