Edwin Arlington Robinson
Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford
You are a friend then, as I make it out,
Of our man Shakespeare, who alone of us
Will put an ass’s head in Fairyland
As he would add a shilling to more shillings,
All most harmonious,—and out of his
Miraculous inviolable increase
Fills Ilion, Rome, or any town you like
Of olden time with timeless Englishmen;
And I must wonder what you think of him—
All you down there where your small Avon flows
By Stratford, and where you’re an Alderman.
Some, for a guess, would have him riding back
To be a farrier there, or say a dyer;
Or maybe one of your adept surveyors;
Or like enough the wizard of all tanners.
Not you—no fear of that; for I discern
In you a kindling of the flame that saves—
The nimble element, the true caloric;
I see it, and was told of it, moreover,
By our discriminate friend himself, no other.
Had you been one of the sad average,
As he would have it,—meaning, as I take it,
The sinew and the solvent of our Island,
You’d not be buying beer for this Terpander’s
Approved and estimated friend Ben Jonson;
He’d never foist it as a part of his
Contingent entertainment of a townsman
While he goes off rehearsing, as he must,
If he shall ever be the Duke of Stratford.
And my words are no shadow on your town—
Far from it; for one town’s as like another
As all are unlike London. Oh, he knows it,—
And there’s the Stratford in him; he denies it,
And there’s the Shakespeare in him. So, God help him!
I tell him he needs Greek; but neither God
Nor Greek will help him. Nothing will help that man.
You see the fates have given him so much,
He must have all or perish,—or look out
Of London, where he sees too many lords.
They’re part of half what ails him: I suppose
There’s nothing fouler down among the demons
Than what it is he feels when he remembers
The dust and sweat and ointment of his calling
With his lords looking on and laughing at him.
King as he is, he can’t be king de facto,
And that’s as well, because he wouldn’t like it;
He’d frame a lower rating of men then
Than he has now; and after that would come
An abdication or an apoplexy.
He can’t be king, not even king of Stratford,—
Though half the world, if not the whole of it,
May crown him with a crown that fits no king
Save Lord Apollo’s homesick emissary:
Not there on Avon, or on any stream
Where Naiads and their white arms are no more,
Shall he find home again. It’s all too bad.
But there’s a comfort, for he’ll have that House—
The best you ever saw; and he’ll be there
Anon, as you’re an Alderman. Good God!
He makes me lie awake o’nights and laugh.
And you have known him from his origin,
You tell me; and a most uncommon urchin
He must have been to the few seeing ones—
A trifle terrifying, I dare say,
Discovering a world with his man’s eyes,
Quite as another lad might see some finches,
If he looked hard and had an eye for nature.
But this one had his eyes and their foretelling,
And he had you to fare with, and what else?
He must have had a father and a mother—
In fact I’ve heard him say so—and a dog,
As a boy should, I venture; and the dog,
Most likely, was the only man who knew him.
A dog, for all I know, is what he needs
As much as anything right here to-day,
To counsel him about his disillusions,
Old aches, and parturitions of what’s coming,—
A dog of orders, an emeritus,
To wag his tail at him when he comes home,
And then to put his paws up on his knees
And say, “For God’s sake, what’s it all about?”
I don’t know whether he needs a dog or not—
Or what he needs. I tell him he needs Greek;
I’ll talk of rules and Aristotle with him,
And if his tongue’s at home he’ll say to that,
“I have your word that Aristotle knows,
And you mine that I don’t know Aristotle.”
He’s all at odds with all the unities,
And what’s yet worse, it doesn’t seem to matter;
He treads along through Time’s old wilderness
As if the tramp of all the centuries
Had left no roads—and there are none, for him;
He doesn’t see them, even with those eyes,—
And that’s a pity, or I say it is.
Accordingly we have him as we have him—
Going his way, the way that he goes best,
A pleasant animal with no great noise
Or nonsense anywhere to set him off—
Save only divers and inclement devils
Have made of late his heart their dwelling place.
A flame half ready to fly out sometimes
At some annoyance may be fanned up in him,
But soon it falls, and when it falls goes out;
He knows how little room there is in there
For crude and futile animosities,
And how much for the joy of being whole,
And how much for long sorrow and old pain.
On our side there are some who may be given
To grow old wondering what he thinks of us
And some above us, who are, in his eyes,
Above himself,—and that’s quite right and English.
Yet here we smile, or disappoint the gods
Who made it so: the gods have always eyes
To see men scratch; and they see one down here
Who itches, manor-bitten to the bone,
Albeit he knows himself—yes, yes, he knows—
The lord of more than England and of more
Than all the seas of England in all time
Shall ever wash. D’ye wonder that I laugh?
He sees me, and he doesn’t seem to care;
And why the devil should he? I can’t tell you.
I’ll meet him out alone of a bright Sunday,
Trim, rather spruce, and quite the gentleman.
“What ho, my lord!” say I. He doesn’t hear me;
Wherefore I have to pause and look at him.
He’s not enormous, but one looks at him.
A little on the round if you insist,
For now, God save the mark, he’s growing old;
He’s five and forty, and to hear him talk
These days you’d call him eighty; then you’d add
More years to that. He’s old enough to be
The father of a world, and so he is.
“Ben, you’re a scholar, what’s the time of day?”
Says he; and there shines out of him again
An aged light that has no age or station—
The mystery that’s his—a mischievous
Half-mad serenity that laughs at fame
For being won so easy, and at friends
Who laugh at him for what he wants the most,
And for his dukedom down in Warwickshire;—
By which you see we’re all a little jealous.…
Poor Greene! I fear the color of his name
Was even as that of his ascending soul;
And he was one where there are many others,—
Some scrivening to the end against their fate,
Their puppets all in ink and all to die there;
And some with hands that once would shade an eye
That scanned Euripides and Æschylus
Will reach by this time for a pot-house mop
To slush their first and last of royalties.
Poor devils! and they all play to his hand;
For so it was in Athens and old Rome.
But that’s not here or there; I’ve wandered off.
Greene does it, or I’m careful. Where’s that boy?
Yes, he’ll go back to Stratford. And we’ll miss him?
Dear sir, there’ll be no London here without him.
We’ll all be riding, one of these fine days,
Down there to see him—and his wife won’t like us;
And then we’ll think of what he never said
Of women—which, if taken all in all
With what he did say, would buy many horses.
Though nowadays he’s not so much for women:
“So few of them,” he says, “are worth the guessing.”
But there’s a worm at work when he says that,
And while he says it one feels in the air
A deal of circumambient hocus-pocus.
They’ve had him dancing till his toes were tender,
And he can feel ’em now, come chilly rains.
There’s no long cry for going into it,
However, and we don’t know much about it.
But you in Stratford, like most here in London,
Have more now in the Sonnets than you paid for;
He’s put one there with all her poison on,
To make a singing fiction of a shadow
That’s in his life a fact, and always will be.
But she’s no care of ours, though Time, I fear,
Will have a more reverberant ado
About her than about another one
Who seems to have decoyed him, married him,
And sent him scuttling on his way to London,—
With much already learned, and more to learn,
And more to follow. Lord! how I see him now,
Pretending, maybe trying, to be like us.
Whatever he may have meant, we never had him;
He failed us, or escaped, or what you will,—
And there was that about him (God knows what,—
We’d flayed another had he tried it on us)
That made as many of us as had wits
More fond of all his easy distances
Than one another’s noise and clap-your-shoulder.
But think you not, my friend, he’d never talk!
Talk? He was eldritch at it; and we listened—
Thereby acquiring much we knew before
About ourselves, and hitherto had held
Irrelevant, or not prime to the purpose.
And there were some, of course, and there be now,
Disordered and reduced amazedly
To resignation by the mystic seal
Of young finality the gods had laid
On everything that made him a young demon;
And one or two shot looks at him already
As he had been their executioner;
And once or twice he was, not knowing it,—
Or knowing, being sorry for poor clay
And saying nothing.… Yet, for all his engines,
You’ll meet a thousand of an afternoon
Who strut and sun themselves and see around ’em
A world made out of more that has a reason
Than his, I swear, that he sees here to-day;
Though he may scarcely give a Fool an exit
But we mark how he sees in everything
A law that, given we flout it once too often,
Brings fire and iron down on our naked heads.
To me it looks as if the power that made him,
For fear of giving all things to one creature,
Left out the first,—faith, innocence, illusion,
Whatever ’tis that keeps us out o’ Bedlam,—
And thereby, for his too consuming vision,
Empowered him out of nature; though to see him,
You’d never guess what’s going on inside him.
He’ll break out some day like a keg of ale
With too much independent frenzy in it;
And all for cellaring what he knows won’t keep,
And what he’d best forget—but that he can’t.
You’ll have it, and have more than I’m foretelling;
And there’ll be such a roaring at the Globe
As never stunned the bleeding gladiators.
He’ll have to change the color of its hair
A bit, for now he calls it Cleopatra.
Black hair would never do for Cleopatra.
But you and I are not yet two old women,
And you’re a man of office. What he does
Is more to you than how it is he does it,—
And that’s what the Lord God has never told him.
They work together, and the Devil helps ’em;
They do it of a morning, or if not,
They do it of a night; in which event
He’s peevish of a morning. He seems old;
He’s not the proper stomach or the sleep—
And they’re two sovran agents to conserve him
Against the fiery art that has no mercy
But what’s in that prodigious grand new House.
I gather something happening in his boyhood
Fulfilled him with a boy’s determination
To make all Stratford ’ware of him. Well, well,
I hope at last he’ll have his joy of it,
And all his pigs and sheep and bellowing beeves,
And frogs and owls and unicorns, moreover,
Be less than hell to his attendant ears.
Oh, past a doubt we’ll all go down to see him.
He may be wise. With London two days off,
Down there some wind of heaven may yet revive him;
But there’s no quickening breath from anywhere
Small make of him again the poised young faun
From Warwickshire, who’d made, it seems, already
A legend of himself before I came
To blink before the last of his first lightning.
Whatever there be, there’ll be no more of that;
The coming on of his old monster Time
Has made him a still man; and he has dreams
Were fair to think on once, and all found hollow.
He knows how much of what men paint themselves
Would blister in the light of what they are;
He sees how much of what was great now shares
An eminence transformed and ordinary;
He knows too much of what the world has hushed
In others, to be loud now for himself;
He knows now at what height low enemies
May reach his heart, and high friends let him fall;
But what not even such as he may know
Bedevils him the worst: his lark may sing
At heaven’s gate how he will, and for as long
As joy may listen, but he sees no gate,
Save one whereat the spent clay waits a little
Before the churchyard has it, and the worm.
Not long ago, late in an afternoon,
I came on him unseen down Lambeth way,
And on my life I was afear’d of him:
He gloomed and mumbled like a soul from Tophet,
His hands behind him and his head bent solemn.
“What is it now,” said I,—“another woman?”
That made him sorry for me, and he smiled.
“No, Ben,” he mused; “it’s Nothing. It’s all Nothing.
We come, we go; and when we’re done, we’re done;
Spiders and flies—we’re mostly one or t’other—
We come, we go; and when we’re done, we’re done;
“By God, you sing that song as if you knew it!”
Said I, by way of cheering him; “what ails ye?”
“I think I must have come down here to think,”
Says he to that, and pulls his little beard;
“Your fly will serve as well as anybody,
And what’s his hour? He flies, and flies, and flies,
And in his fly’s mind has a brave appearance;
And then your spider gets him in her net,
And eats him out, and hangs him up to dry.
That’s Nature, the kind mother of us all.
And then your slattern housemaid swings her broom,
And where’s your spider? And that’s Nature, also.
It’s Nature, and it’s Nothing. It’s all Nothing.
It’s all a world where bugs and emperors
Go singularly back to the same dust,
Each in his time; and the old, ordered stars
That sang together, Ben, will sing the same
Old stave tomorrow.”
When he talks like that,
There’s nothing for a human man to do
But lead him to some grateful nook like this
Where we be now, and there to make him drink.
He’ll drink, for love of me, and then be sick;
A sad sign always in a man of parts,
And always very ominous. The great
Should be as large in liquor as in love,—
And our great friend is not so large in either:
One disaffects him, and the other fails him;
Whatso he drinks that has an antic in it,
He’s wondering what’s to pay in his insides;
And while his eyes are on the Cyprian
He’s fribbling all the time with that damned House.
We laugh here at his thrift, but after all
It may be thrift that saves him from the devil;
God gave it, anyhow,—and we’ll suppose
He knew the compound of his handiwork.
Today the clouds are with him, but anon
He’ll out of ’em enough to shake the tree
Of life itself and bring down fruit unheard-of,—
And, throwing in the bruised and whole together,
Prepare a wine to make us drunk with wonder;
And if he live, there’ll be a sunset spell
Thrown over him as over a glassed lake
That yesterday was all a black wild water.
God send he live to give us, if no more,
What now’s a-rampage in him, and exhibit,
With a decent half-allegiance to the ages
An earnest of at least a casual eye
Turned once on what he owes to Gutenberg,
And to the fealty of more centuries
Than are as yet a picture in our vision.
“There’s time enough,—I’ll do it when I’m old,
And we’re immortal men,” he says to that;
And then he says to me, “Ben, what’s ‘immortal’?
Think you by any force of ordination
It may be nothing of a sort more noisy
Than a small oblivion of component ashes
That of a dream-addicted world was once
A moving atomy much like your friend here?”
Nothing will help that man. To make him laugh,
I said then he was a mad mountebank,—
And by the Lord I nearer made him cry.
I could have eat an eft then, on my knees,
Tail, claws, and all of him; for I had stung
The king of men, who had no sting for me,
And I had hurt him in his memories;
And I say now, as I shall say again,
I love the man this side idolatry.
He’ll do it when he’s old, he says. I wonder.
He may not be so ancient as all that.
For such as he, the thing that is to do
Will do itself,—but there’s a reckoning;
The sessions that are now too much his own,
The roiling inward of a stilled outside,
The churning out of all those blood-fed lines,
The nights of many schemes and little sleep,
The full brain hammered hot with too much thinking,
The vexed heart over-worn with too much aching,—
This weary jangling of conjoined affairs
Made out of elements that have no end,
And all confused at once, I understand,
Is not what makes a man to live forever.
O no, not now! He’ll not be going now:
There’ll be time yet for God knows what explosions
Before he goes. He’ll stay awhile. Just wait:
Just wait a year or two for Cleopatra,
For she’s to be a balsam and a comfort;
And that’s not all a jape of mine now, either.
For granted once the old way of Apollo
Sings in a man, he may then, if he’s able,
Strike unafraid whatever strings he will
Upon the last and wildest of new lyres;
Nor out of his new magic, though it hymn
The shrieks of dungeoned hell, shall he create
A madness or a gloom to shut quite out
A cleaving daylight, and a last great calm
Triumphant over shipwreck and all storms.
He might have given Aristotle creeps,
But surely would have given him his katharsis.
He’ll not be going yet. There’s too much yet
Unsung within the man. But when he goes,
I’d stake ye coin o’ the realm his only care
For a phantom world he sounded and found wanting
Will be a portion here, a portion there,
Of this or that thing or some other thing
That has a patent and intrinsical
Equivalence in those egregious shillings.
And yet he knows, God help him! Tell me, now,
If ever there was anything let loose
On earth by gods or devils heretofore
Like this mad, careful, proud, indifferent Shakespeare!
Where was it, if it ever was? By heaven,
’Twas never yet in Rhodes or Pergamon—
In Thebes or Nineveh, a thing like this!
No thing like this was ever out of England;
And that he knows. I wonder if he cares.
Perhaps he does.… O Lord, that House in Stratford!
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