In his book on Ben Jonson, Algernon Charles Swinburne opines that the former's celebrated Cary-Morrison Ode-- in which Jonson mourns the death of Henry Morison and celebrates his former friendship with the poem's addressee, Lucius Cary-- is not "even a tolerably good" poem, and distinguishes one stanza in particular as "eccentrically execrable." Swinburne wrote in the latter half of the nineteenth century; we are not accustomed today to this treatment of revered authors, refreshing as it might be. Surprised, I looked for the stanza in question, and I must admit that Swinburne has a point. Here it is, with the preceding stanza:
Call, noble Lucius, then for wine,
And let thy looks with gladness shine;
Accept this garland, plant it on thy head,
And think, nay know, thy Morison's not dead.
He leaped the present age,
Possessed with holy rage
To see that bright eternal day
Of which we priests and poets say
Such truths, as we expect for happy men;
And there he lives with memory, and Ben
Jonson, who sung this of him, ere he went
Himself to rest,
Or taste a part of that full joy he meant
To have expressed
In this bright asterism,
Where it were friendship's schism,
Were not his Lucius long with us to tarry,
To separate these twi-
Lights, the Dioscuri,
And keep the one half from his Harry.
But fate doth so alternate the design,
Whilst that in heaven, this light on earth must shine.
Setting aside the questionable taste of inserting one's own name into a funerary ode-- Hey! I wrote this! Yeah, me, Ben Jonson!-- is there any good excuse for doing so across a stanza break? It's ugly verse. The logic of the second stanza is tortuous; Jonson both writes the ode and imagines himself in heaven after having written it, so that we must suppose either that the poem has no fixed situation, or that it is being penned by a ghost. Then there's the rhyming of "Dioscuri"-- the twin stars Castor and Pollux-- with the first syllable of "twilights," fracturing the word across two lines. Perhaps Jonson thought he was being clever, but if a high school student did this, you would wince.
It's not only Jonson who has his blemishes, though. Take the following description of Lucrece from Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece:
When at Collatium this false lord arrived,
Well was he welcomed by the Roman dame,
Within whose face beauty and virtue strived
Which of them both would underprop her fame.
When virtue bragged, beauty would blush for shame;
When beauty boasted blushes, in despite
Virtue woud stain that or with silver white.
Lucrece has white skin, symbolic of her virtue, and red cheeks, representative of her beauty, and both in such abundance that it's not clear which is uppermost. Very nice. But Shakespeare is just getting started:
But beauty, in that white entituled
From Venus' doves, doth challenge that fair field.
Then virtue claims from beauty beauty's red,
Which virtue gave the golden age to gild
Their silver cheeks, and called it then their shield,
Teaching them thus to use it in the fight:
When shame assailed, the red should fence the white.
Suddenly the Wars of the Roses are being fought across Lucrece's face. White skin is also a sign of beauty, and red (blushing) cheeks a sign of virtue, so each may rightly claim the other's color, and each signifies beauty and virtue at once. Clever enough, this, although we may wish here that Shakespeare would move on. Unfortunately, such is Shakespeare's enthusiasm for the language that he'll worry a metaphor like a terrier running down a weasel:
This heraldry in Lucrece' face was seen,
Argued by beauty's red and virtue's white.
Of either's colour was the other queen,
Proving from old minority their right.
Yet their ambition makes them still to fight,
The sovereignty of either being so great
That oft they interchange each other's seat.
Is this good poetry? Has the Bard not here vaulted beyond cleverness into obscure and outlandish conceit, the sort of verbal "clenches"-- to use Dryden's phrase-- of which he was repeatedly accused before his status as a linguistic icon set him beyond criticism? It's not that I don't respect Shakespeare's poetry-- I do, and Jonson's, too. But it's refreshing, I think, for us to remind ourselves that even the best English poets were not everywhere glowing, that they had their rough edges and their hobby horses. Swinburne wasn't afraid to call a spade a spade.