Tuesday, December 26, 2006

postal scrotum: Ben Jonson redux... redux

JH Lim writes in re: Ben Jonson's "Oak and Lily":

Hi there,

I'd like to give a go at reading Ben Jonson's poem, "Oak and Lily." I assume that there's a prize attached to the best reading?

Before moving on to what you specifically want--the first two lines--I'd like to first point out that this 10 line poem can be broken down into a 4 + 4 + 2 schema. The first four lines form a unit of meaning, the second four lines another unit of meaning, and the last two lines is the the moral (or the punchline, whichever you prefer) of the poem.

Given the structure, I'd read the poem as follows:

First unit (4 lines): What makes man a good man? Growing big (bulky) like a tree? Standing long for three hundred years like an oak? Nah, can't be. I mean, the oak tree falls, all dead and dried up, in the end.

Second unit (4 lines): A lily in May may only last for a day, but it reflects the essence of light.

Moral (2 lines): Hear you readers, don't try to find beauty in big and grand things. Beauty actually resides in little things! And likewise, we can live a perfect life by taking it in small measures.

It seems to be a poem that plays with the idea of a good life, which looks back, I think, to ancient Epicureanism.

And in such context, I'd read the first two lines as saying that "It is not growing like a tree in size that makes man a better man." Rewriting the first four lines according to a modern, prose syntax would be: "It is not growing like a tree in size that makes man a better man; nor is it standing long like an oak for three hundread years only to fall at last as a dry, bald, and sere log (that makes man a better man).

I enjoy reading your blog. I link through Grand Master Jeonuchi. You seem to be teaching at Smoo? My mom teaches there (not in English), and I used to live in the neighborhood when I was young.

Blog on!


Thanks for writing, and I appreciate the kind words.

We noted the 4/4/2 structure in this post, and in further discussion with Nathan and Charles, I've discovered that "Oak and Lily" is actually part of a much larger work-- see here. I admit I haven't taken the time to stare at the full poem in depth. Having forgotten most of my poetry-analyzing skills, I'm heartened to see so many interested people take a stab at this, especially at those first two lines of "Oak and Lily." I'm further encouraged to see that JH's opinion veers close to my own, though I'd like to hear more about the Epicurean angle.

Unfortunately, I'm increasingly convinced that Charles, Nathan, and Annika are on to something when they suggest or imply that the poem needs to be read in context for us to get a proper sense of it: context insofar as "Oak and Lily" is part of a larger work, and also in that Jonson wrote his poem for a reason.

And now... time for a late dinner (more tacos!). It's been a busy, busy day, and the fun continues tomorrow.

Oh, I forgot: no prizes, JH-- not unless a sense of academic fulfillment counts as a prize.

Congratulations! You've found the secret message and have won the prize! No, wait... there's still no prize. Sorry.

(Does it?)


No comments: