Ode to Himself by Ben Jonson

Where dost thou careless lie,
Buried in ease and sloth?
Knowledge that sleeps doth die;
And this security,
It is the common moth,
That eats on wits, and arts and oft destroys them both.

Are all the Aonian springs
Dried up? lies Thespia waste?
Doth Clarius’ harp want strings,
That not a nymph now sings?
Or droop they as disgraced,
To see their seats and bowers by chattering pies defaced?

If hence thy silence be,
As ’tis too just a cause,
Let this thought quicken thee:
Minds that are great and free
Should not on fortune pause,
‘Tis crown enough to virtue still, her own applause.

What though the greedy fry
Be taken with false baits
Of worded balladry
And thinks it poesy?
They die with their conceits,
And only piteous scorn upon their folly waits.

Then take in hand thy lyre,
Strike in thy proper strain;
With Japhet’s line, aspire
Sol’s chariot for new fire,
To give the world again:
Who aided him will thee, the issue of Jove’s brain.

And since our dainty age
Cannot endure reproof,
Make not thyself a page
To that strumpet the Stage,
But sing high and aloof,
Safe from the wolf’s black jaw, and the dull ass’s hoof.

This is one of the two verses of the same title Jonson wrote, this one written after his play The New Inn flopped in 1629 and printed for the first time as an appendix to this play. In this poem, as the title indicates, Jonson exhorts himself to leave the loathed stage and the loathed theatre audience which is incapable of appreciating good plays; it’s like feeding bread and wheat to swine, which prefer swills and acorns. In the third stanza Jonson uses an extended metaphor of sheriff’s basket, into which people threw their leftover food as alms to prisoners as an image for these poor plays scraped together from leftover bits.

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