Monday, November 22, 2010

"The shape of things held by the world"

The frontispiece of Ralegh's History of the World:

Jonson wrote a peculiarly direct ekphrastic explaining how all the Latin tags (barely legible in this image but I couldn't find a better one) fit together:

From death and dark oblivion (near the same)
    The mistress of man’s life, grave History,
Raising the world to good and evil fame,
    Doth vindicate it to eternity.
Wise Providence would so : that nor the good
    Might be defrauded, nor the great secured,
But both might know their ways were understood,
    When vice alike in time with virtue dured :
Which makes that, lighted by the beamy hand
Of Truth, that searcheth the most hidden springs,
And guided by Experience, whose straight wand
    Doth mete, whose line doth sound the depth of things ;
She cheerfully supporteth what she rears,
    Assisted by no strengths but are her own,
Some note of which each varied pillar bears,
    By which, as proper titles, she is known
Time's witness, herald of Antiquity,
The light of Truth, and life of Memory.


I came upon this while trying to decrypt Geoffrey Hill's "Masques" poem but it sort of merits a post of its own, as I've never seen anything quite like it. It's obviously very much an exercise-poem -- Jonson would have had no say in the cover design; note too how direct the correspondences are with the illegible tags --  but it's so well put together that you might not even notice what it was for. (The irrelevant pun in "beamy" is perhaps a blemish. Also, I think "which" in line 9 refers back to "providence" although one can parse "which makes that" as "so.") What one particularly admires in these prosy poems of Jonson's is the combination of intricacy and directness -- the word-order here is almost exactly what it would have been in prose, the sentences are draped comfortably over the pentameter framework like a baggy overcoat -- that was so alien to the practice and the taste of Dryden. (This is a story for another time, but I've always felt that this point is related to the aspect of Jonson's practice that Dryden was grousing about when he invented that infamous preposition rule. If you want to spruce up and tighten the poetic line, Jonson's poems are the worst sort of precedent.)

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