Poet's Pick April 21
Gaius Petronius (tr. Ben Jonson): "Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short"
Selected by Noah Warren
National Poetry Month 2016

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Noah Warren's Poetry Month Pick, April 21, 2016

"Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short"
by Gaius Petronius (27 AD - 66 AD)
translated by Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay.
But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,
Let us together closely lie and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

 

* Noah Warren Comments:

There was one winter I set about making myself a focused reader again. I was going through all of Jonson, taking notes. The notes were sometimes embarassingly voluminous, sometimes embarassingly objective. Perhaps I was living in a kind of emotional quarantine, trying hard to pour that energy into thinking, remembering, analyzing.

Jonson’s gift for the true and simple phrase is itself a truism. But it is still a shock to experience that directness after the ormolu of his Catiline or Sejanus. Then, as with any style, one gets used to it, sees it by not seeing it.

After a few weeks, my resolve was teetering. I was bored, I was flipping through the Brobdingnagian green book when I came across this lucidity.

Formally, its balance is nothing less than exquisite: the poem encodes one statement, one feeling, almost one breath. The sentence breaks at the halfway mark, at the “But”; but the sudden dramatization this volta presents is so archetypal, so tender, that we experience it as a purely formal modulation of thought into matter, and not as interruption. But form is the last thing on our minds as we read this poem: for me, its chief virtue is its mellow, Horatian clarity of tone, which mobilizes the logic of argument because it has to, not because it is invested in it.

I love also how the poem works to transpose into conditional futurity that which, it seems to me, has already occurred by the end of the first line, and is regretted by the end of the second. The bitterness behind the language of “lustful beasts” is universally familiar: it occurs in that postcoital space that feels so much like clarity, but is yet so much a reaction against the excess of sweet language that preceeded it. “Unto it/ do it”—the dead rhyme fossilizes the attitude and the act. By line 5, though, the tone is already gentler: “heat”; and soon enough comes the extraordinary 6th line. It performs its own “holiday”: the tone is utterly earnest, but to rhyme “holiday” with “decay” requires the same suspension of disbelief asked of the addressee.

The insistent pronouns and deictics of this poem unsteady it, to a degree, by referring always both to the immediate periphrasis (sex) and the ultimate periphrasis (the poem). In this light, the “this” that shows up in line 7 intensifies the poem’s awareness of itself as artifact—an increasingly triumphant artifact. This is then the second climax of this poem, the achievement of a beautiful delay, and it stands against the sterility of the first, sexual climax. When with a start, the reader realizes he has been being seduced.

The apotheosis achieved in the “this” rings like that of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 (“You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes”)—but the intimacy of Jonson’s translation convinces me more than the Bard’s. I think that Jonson defeats time more convincingly than Shakespeare, here; this little poem returns to its own beginning as it ends, and ends where it begins.


Noah Warren:
Noah Warren is the author of The Destroyer in the Glass, winner of the 2015 Yale Series of Younger Poets. His work appears in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, AGNI, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. He is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford.


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