Sunday 18 September 2016


2016-38  Noble Nature:  Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson [1572-1637]
Benjamin ["Ben"] Johnson (1572–1637) was an English playwright, poet, actor, and literary critic of the 17th century, whose artistry exerted a lasting impact upon English poetry and stage comedy.  He is generally regarded as the second most important English dramatist, after William Shakespeare. Johnson’s first widely acclaimed play, Every Man in His Humour, included William Shakespeare in its cast. Jonson was a classically educated, well-read and cultured man of the English Renaissance whose cultural influence was of unparalleled breadth upon the playwrights and the poets of his time. 

The Noble Nature
Ben Johnson [1572-1637]    

A tree 300-year old

It is not growing like a tree 
     In bulk, doth make man better be; 
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year, 
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere: 
A lily of a day
          A lily of a day           Is fairer far in May,      Although it fall and die that night—      It was the plant and flower of Light.
In small proportions we just beauties see; And in short measures life may perfect be.

Analysis of the poem "The Noble Nature" by Ben Johnson
What makes us better as people? What makes us happier or gives our transient moments of wakefulness a lasting significance? Johnson's poem, extracted from a longer Ode, offers a pithy reply one rooted in commonsense rather than irony, punning or stylistic innovation, but no less profound for that. He compares an old tree with a lily that blooms and fades in a day.
Johnson says that we're not made better by mere "bulk" or "standing long." In other words, earthly power is irrelevant and so is mere endurance. Even the "three hundred year" oak, so strong in its prime, becomes "dry, bald and sere." 
The image of the tree chopped into firewood may symbolize being sacrificed to doing; beauty sacrificed to utilitarian purpose. Certainly, the next image brings to mind the Biblical injunction against needless work: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin." The lily or Eastern lotus is a flame of quiet joy in a world of duty, distraction, and war.
As we read through the poem, we are drawn into a range of speculations. Do we prize use or beauty, quantity of time or quality? Could the tree represent the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden? By preferring the "lily" that "falls and dies" in one night, bringing to mind the fall of man and our entry into history, is Jonson suggesting that we are better off as outcasts from paradise? 
Although we so often long for utopia, once we got there we might well die of boredom. What reconciles time and eternity? Put together, the image of the "flower of light" and the notion that in "short measures life may perfect be" and we have a very good definition of an epiphany. This is a shining forth of reality. As Stephen Daedalus puts it in James Joyce's novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "The three things requisite for beauty are integrity, a wholeness, symmetry and radiance. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance."
What shines forth for us, even in "small proportions," is the sight of "just beauties." Here "just" means correctly proportioned. It gestures toward the idea of there being some kind of unchanging and unchangeable mathematical law made manifest in the frailest thing, whether a tulip or a blade of grass, as well as the vast spiraling patterns of planets and galaxies.
Johnson's poem is, itself, justly proportioned. Woven together by rhyming couplets, it expands and contracts organically, sound and sense in one breath. The meter is iambic, with the beat falling on every second syllable, carrying us forward. The opening lines contain four beats, but as the poem describes the growing "three hundred year" tree, another beat is added. As our attention is brought to the fleeting "lily," the lines shorten to three beats. The poem then lengthens, until we end with an emphatic iambic pentameter. Through this varying meter, what might have seemed trite is given a more surprising, and thus more persuasive, lilt.
What do we conclude? Our four score years and ten are indeed a short measure in the music of time. Most of our time is wasted in doubt and pointless activity punctuated by tragedy: The crushed ambition, the silly squabble that turns into a family feud, and the agony of bereavement. Yet when we least expect it, there is a sudden moment of grace a moment that bathes the mystery of life in the light of perfection. It could be a look, a lightning flash, this poem. 

YouTubeAudio: Ben Johnson's "Noble Nature":

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