Monday, December 18, 2006

Ben Jonson's "Oak and Lily"

I need help.

My buddy JW's mother, an English scholar who used to teach full-time at Smoo (she's now retired, and teaches part-time largely for her own amusement, I think), handed me this conundrum: what, exactly, do the first two lines of Ben Jonson's poem, "Oak and Lily," mean? If you were to write them out in modern English, what would you see?

Here is the poem and my attempt at rendering most of it:

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
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.

My partial rendering:

[first two lines = ??]

Or an oak that stands long, for three hundred years
before finally falling over, dry, bald, and withered

A lily that lives for only a single day in May
is far more beautiful

Even though it shrivels and dies that night,
it was a plant and flower that throve in daylight

We see the truly beautiful in the little things;
life's perfection is found in small quantities

The poem is making a contrast between the oak's bulky permanence (and, ultimately, its ugly demise) and the beautiful lily's fragility and ephemerality. Jonson finds that the lily best represents the nature of the beautiful.

JW's mother is incensed at the way one of her poetry textbooks has rendered the poem in Korean (English and Korean both appear in the book). She demanded that I help her puzzle out both the supposedly faulty Korean translation and the exact meaning of the poem's first two lines. Her ulterior motive is to go after the translator and call him to the carpet for having sloppily translated Jonson's poem. In the meantime, she is seeking reassurance from a native speaker that her critiques of the translation are on the mark.

But we're stuck on how best to understand the poem's first two lines. Any help from my poetry-savvy readership will be appreciated.


1 comment:

And-E said...

Hey! :D

It just means that its the small things in life that make us who we are. the small things that add to the beauty in life and in people.

A man does not grow suddenly in bulk, we are shaped into who were are through small experiences.