Editor's Choice

What is the deeper meaning and imagery in Ben Jonson's "An Ode to Himself"?

Quick answer:

Jonson is trying to convey that he is better than his critics and audiences think; he will "sing high and aloof" rather than write for people who are incapable of understanding his work.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The conclusion Jonson comes to in this poem is that although he has been buffeted terribly by the poor reaction to his most recent dramatic work, he is not a poor writer and must not allow himself to wallow in "sloth" because of poor reviews given by the "wolf" and the "dull ass" —his critics and audiences. The imagery he uses characterizes these people as animals, suggesting that they are incapable of properly appreciating Jonson's art. He describes the stage as a "strumpet": a prostitute, something that is fickle and cheap and unworthy of his artistry. Jonson's determination towards the end of the poem is that he will, instead of writing more dramas for people who will not understand them, "sing high and aloof," knowing that his works go above these people's heads.

Jonson uses classical imagery to depict himself as a bard or poet of the ancient world who uses a "lyre" to accompany him as he sings. He alludes to the Roman god Jove, suggesting that he himself is part of Jove's line and will be aided by the gods. Meanwhile, more animalistic imagery is applied to the audiences who have failed to appreciate Jonson. They are "greedy fry"—like a shoal of swarming fish without minds of their own. They are very easily "baited" by simplistic poetry which they believe to be good, while they fail to see the merits in Jonson's work.

Throughout the poem, Jonson allies himself, through his imagery, with what is classical, godly, and great. His critics and his audiences are likened to the moth, the pig, the fry, the wolf, and the ass. They are too close to animals to understand the true "poesy" produced by somebody like Jonson, who is akin to the poets of the ancient world.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jonson coveys several things about himself in this poem: He is resolute. He can acknowledge his own shortcomings. And he can adapt when needed.

Early in the poem, Jonson utilizes a tone of frustration about the lack of favor his most recent comedy has garnered. He equates his efforts to baking a fine bread for pigs; all they care about are simple acorns which literally fall out of the sky. His work, then, is like a "surfeit of pure bread," but the quality is lost on those around him with dead palates for his more exquisite art. Jonson is therefore resolute in the quality of his work and talents despite the reception they have received.

Jonson suffered a series of strokes, and he realizes that some view him as changed and perhaps even incapable after his health issues. He acknowledges this in the fifth stanza and assures himself that he still has the talent to overcome these doubts about his ability to create great works of art. He tells himself that those who wonder about the "palsy" in his brain will stand blushing at their own error as he again emerges with a slightly changed focus.

Thus, he also conveys his ability to adapt to challenges. If the audience scoffs at his talented efforts in writing plays, he will simply change his focus. Committing himself to writing poetry that honors King Charles I, he will praise the King's "zeal to God" as a testament of his loyalty to the crown.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jonson reproves himself for "ease and sloth" in the wake of a failure. He exhorts himself to use his knowledge and talents rather than letting them go to waste and allowing lesser writers to assume the place that is rightfully his. Throughout the poem, Johnson uses classical imagery to illustrate his destiny as a great poet. To this, he opposes imagery drawn from the natural world: moths, fish, wolves, and donkeys. These images symbolize his greatest enemies: sloth, time, inferior competitors, hostile critics, and the ignorant public.

In the second stanza, for instance, the poet refers to Aonia and Thespia, both of which are close to Mount Helicon, the home of the Muses. Later, in the fifth stanza, he exhorts himself to take up the lyre, the instrument that accompanied not only the lyric poetry to which it gave its name, but also epic, traditionally the poetry with the greatest prestige, as well as being the domain of the Muses' leader, Calliope.

The final stanza makes it clear that Jonson does not intend to return to drama, but will follow another Muse in a higher type of poetry. The message here is that Jonson intends to use this setback to reorient himself towards even more ambitious goals. The stage is contemptuously characterized as a "strumpet" and the critics and audience as wolves and asses. In fact, Jonson remains principally known for his dramatic works, though he did fulfill his ambition in part by bringing a weight of classical erudition to the drama.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The speaker in Jonson's poem is, as the title implies, speaking to himself. He thinks highly of his own powers of creativity and feels it would be a shame to waste it.

In the second stanza, Jonson uses classical allusions in a series of rhetorical questions about the state of his artistry. The speaker wonders if his sources of inspiration have gone dormant, and in asking these questions, images are offered of a dried-up spring, a silent nymph, a harp without strings, and the homes of nymphs as a wasteland.

He thinks of lesser poets than himself as "greedy fry" (recently hatched fish) who could be easily taken in by poems ("lesser baites") that are inferior to what he can write.

The speaker exhorts himself to get writing when he exclaims "take in hand thy lyre" and to make sure that what he is writing is the high art of poetry, not the low art of playwriting.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There is at least one other message that the poem is meant to convey.  In the poem, Jonson is saying that an artist must be patient and that, if he is, he will win out in the end.  So a deeper meaning to this poem (beyond the anger) is its counsel of patience and the idea that the superior man's art will be vindicated in the end.

This theme is seen most clearly in the last two stanzas.  There, Jonson is telling himself to calm down and simply make great art (like those classics to which he refers).  If he does that, people will eventually realize that he is a great talent and will be in awe of him.

So, beyond the anger, this is a poem about trusting in your talents and realizing that they will eventually be appreciated.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial