Ben Jonson on the Power and Frustration of Prayer

December 11, 2023 | Joseph Bottum
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On the subject of poetry, Joseph Bottum provides an exegesis of the poem “To Heaven,” by the great English poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637):

In his day, of course, Jonson . . . wielded at least as much influence as his contemporary William Shakespeare. . . . Even if we didn’t know that, if we came to this poem with the purity of ignorance, not thinking about comparative reputations, we would still recognize, in these limpid iambic pentameter couplets, that the poem gets at a difficult human truth. Prayer, which is supposed to make us feel better, often doesn’t. It’s not God’s failing, but our own, that we pray not because we love God, but because we’re tired of life. If this poem contains no ringing lines, what it does offer is an unflinching view of the human soul. This is its ambition, and in this lies its excellence.

Herewith, its opening lines:

Good and great God, can I not think of thee
But it must straight my melancholy be?
Is it interpreted in me disease
That, laden with my sins, I seek for ease?

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