What was it Herrick said about youth?
… being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Jonson’s humorous poem My Picture Left in Scotland details an experience that comes under ‘worse’ rather than ‘worst’, that is the petty strifes of the portly middle aged rather than the infirmities of the elderly. Ben Jonson, on a trip up to Scotland from London, has fallen in love with a local lass and has tried to woo her the best way he knows – through seductive words. Unfortunately for Jonson, the pre-eminent poet of his age – she was unmoved by his outpourings. Oh, the indignities of middle age!
My Picture Left in Scotland
I now think Love is rather deaf than blind,
For else it could not be
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.
O, 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 stopp’d her ears.
This is a playful poem from start to finish: it’s first play is on the old saw ‘love is blind’ – Jonson has discovered it has eyes indeed to see his faults, but is in fact deaf to the beauty of his words. The first stanza records his puzzlement that she could fail to be moved by such a great poet as he – who inflates his poetic prowess to godly proportions, though the myth he alludes is one where a girl resists the advances of the god pursuing her. In keeping with the self-deprecating tone of the poem, the line lengths are hardly what would be expected of a great poet, at one point rhyming a line of two syllables with one of twelve. Of course, there is art in this – one effect is to capture the rebuffed poet’s stuttering befuddlement, another is to playfully undermine his own divine pretensions.
The second stanza seems to be at first a more straightforwardly comic elaboration of the poet’s physical shortcomings that put off the young girl, from his grey hair to his large belly. An added irony, however, is that she seems to be seeing in him a reflection of what the traveller from London sees in the wild lands of Scotland. A hundred means a borough or shire as well as the number, thus ‘hundred of gray hairs’ evokes barren moorlands as much as an aging man’s hair. There is a related pun on ‘waste’: when she ‘reads waste’ in his features it means she sees signs of aging, but it also puns his overly large waist, accrued over forty seven years – a ‘mountain belly’ to match his ‘rocky face’. The terms of disparagement reflect the London traveller’s feelings towards the unwelcoming Scottish country (this was long before the Romantics would find transcendent beauty in rugged landscapes), but this is turned back on the hapless traveller, in whom the girl sees just as unattractive a prospect.