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Click on the names below to hear these poets read "My Picture Left in Scotland" (in RealAudio):

David Ferry

Gail Mazur

Robert Pinsky

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Previously in Soundings:

Walt Whitman, "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" (October 8, 1998)
Frank Bidart, Marie Howe, and Galway Kinnell read Whitman's stunning poem of self-doubt. With an introduction by Steven Cramer.

W. B. Yeats, "Easter 1916" (February 4, 1998)
Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, and Peter Davison give voice to one of the century's greatest poems. The first installment in a series of classic-poetry readings by contemporary poets, with an introduction by David Barber.

Hear more poetry readings in An Audible Anthology.

Go to Atlantic Unbound's Poetry Pages.

Join a conversation on poets and poetry in Post & Riposte.

Ben Jonson, My Picture Left in Scotland, read by David Ferry, Gail Mazur, and Robert Pinsky
Introduction by Robert Pinsky

November 25, 1998

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Ben Jonson

What is a line of poetry?

To put the question more precisely, what vocal reality underlies the typographical convention of stopping at the right margin and returning to the left margin? (Versus in Latin, from which the word "verse" derives, signifies the ploughman at the end of a furrow turning about to begin again, so that "verse" and "reverse" are closely related.)

Here is a poem that seems particularly conscious of its own lines. The author, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), conveys in his title that a lady to whom he has given his picture (no small gift, in the days before photography) subsequently left that gift in Scotland (a wild, remote place, to a Londoner of the time -- no small distance to leave any valued object behind). In response, Jonson writes:

  My Picture Left in Scotland

  I now think, Love is rather deaf than blind,
                 For else it could not be
                        That she
  Whom I adore so much should so slight me,
                 And cast my love behind.
  I'm sure my language to her was as sweet,
                 And every close did meet
    In sentence of as subtle feet
                 As hath the youngest he
  That sits in shadow of Apollo's tree.

  Oh, but my conscious fears,
                 That fly my thoughts between,
                 Tell me that she hath seen
    My hundred of gray hairs,
    Told seven and forty years,
  Read so much waste, as she cannot embrace
  My mountain belly and my rocky face;
And all these through her eyes have stopped her ears.

The evidence of this poem indicates that whatever else a line may be, it is not necessarily a unit that is the same length throughout a given poem. On the contrary, Jonson seems to delight in varying the line length. One line consists of a single iambic foot: "That she." Quite a few lines consist of three iambic feet: "And every close did meet" or "That fly my thoughts between." And there is one line that consists of four iambic feet (only one such line, a fact no reader is likely to notice unless, as right now, counting for purposes of study): "In sentence of as subtle feet." And there are some longer lines, of five feet, including those with which Jonson begins and ends his poem.

Therefore, judging by "My Picture Left in Scotland," a line is not necessarily a unit of equal length throughout a poem. On the other hand, the lines do unmistakably have a certain rhythm in common, an artful coherence: part of the pleasure the poem gives is hearing that rhythm while the sentence courses over it, or through it, or along with it, or whatever spatial language you like to describe the way we hear the sentence-sound -- the voice saying what Jonson chose to say -- continuing through the iambic lines of varying length.

I find an appealing show-off quality to the lines in this particular poem. Cupid, the classical god of love, is traditionally blind; Jonson chides the one who has not loved him enough by accusing her of paying more attention to the surfaces her eyes see than to the movement of the words he offers. So he makes the sentences perform like the body of a great dancer, as the syntax -- the words in their arrangement, and the dynamic energy the arrangement creates -- sometimes pauses at a line ending, and sometimes streaks or leaps or strains across it. There is a pronounced pause after the first line, then the syntax runs over from the second line to the third, and even more from the very short third to the fourth, with more of a pause after the fourth line, and a full stop after the fifth:
  I now think, Love is rather deaf than blind,
                 For else it could not be
                        That she
  Whom I adore so much should so slight me,
                 And cast my love behind.
The run-over lines and pauses, the varying line lengths, the varying way the unit of syntax (that is, the grammatical phrases) coincides with the unit of rhythm (that is, the lines) or does not coincide -- all of these create an expressive, flamboyant whole. The poem speeds up and slows down many different ways in the course of these five lines. Though the lines are all made of iambic feet, the variation in pace and emphasis is great -- greater than could be easily attained in a comparable thirty-one words of prose.

I invite the reader to say the words of Jonson's poem aloud, taking care not to pause in a stilted way at the ends of the lines, when the grammar runs over. Try to pause only as the grammar might pause, if necessary exaggerating the effect a little to hear what the author has done. The rhymes (for instance, "For else it could not be/ That she/ Whom I adore so much should so slight me") are not lost when the voice carries pretty rapidly through them: on the contrary, they sound better than when the voice stops mechanically at each one. I think that if one tries reading the poem with an even pause after each line, the movement goes dead.

One way I think of the related movement at such moments in a poem is that the syntax is trying to speed up the line, and the line is trying to slow down the syntax. The relation between the two elements, the resulting pull or dance, is pleasing and expressive.

Excerpted from The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998). Copyright © 1998 by Robert Pinsky. All rights reserved.

Click on the names below to hear these
poets read "My Picture Left in Scotland"

David Ferry Gail Mazur Robert Pinsky

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

David Ferry is a professor, poet, and translator whose most recent books are Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse (1992), Dwelling Places: Poems and Translations (1993), and The Odes of Horace (1997), a translation.

Gail Mazur is the poet-in-residence of the Emerson College M.F.A. program. She is the author of The Pose of Happiness (1986) and The Common (1995).

Robert Pinsky is the Poet Laureate of the United States. In 1998 he received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets. He is the author, most recently, of The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (1998), and is the editor of The Handbook of Heartbreak: 101 Poems of Lost Love and Sorrow (1998).

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. Portrait of Ben Jonson after Abraham van Blyenberch courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

CAUTION: Users are warned that the excerpted work on this page is protected under copyright laws, and reproduction of the text, in any form for distribution, is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.
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