Home  »  Collected Poems by Robinson, Edwin Arlington  »  9. Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935). Collected Poems. 1921.

I. The Man Against the Sky

9. 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!