Poem of the Day: ‘To Heaven’

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.

Via Wikimedia Commons
El Greco, 'Saint Dominic in Prayer,' detail. Via Wikimedia Commons

December, this month of yearly summings-up, is a good time to reflect on the human impulse to — well, to sum things up. Every day this December, someone somewhere will feel compelled to publish a “Best Books of 2023” list. Publisher’s Weekly, the Washington Post, and Oprah Daily have already posted their rankings for the year. We might bridle a little at these lists, in the midst of our holiday shopping.

At the same time, some part of us feels a little gush of gratitude. Somebody else, not us, has read all these books and recommended them. We might not have known about them otherwise. We might not have put them on our gift lists, for the readers in our lives. The holiday shopping, that December burden, is so often made lighter, simply because somebody else has said, You or someone you love should read this book. 

This, anyway, is one way to think about advertising and the posting of affiliate links during the high-volume shopping season. Sometimes, though, people are given to lists and rankings for less self-interested reasons. Literary critics, for instance, at least of the old pre-internet school, had nothing to gain by insisting on categories like “greatest,” except maybe a reputation for being a crank.

Take Yvor Winters, a recent Poet of the Day here. As his colleague and friend David Levin wrote of him, ten years after the older man’s death, Winters was irresistibly given to the comparative judgment of literature, the impulse to rank poets and other writers in tiers of “great, greater, greatest.” Or if not “greatest,” then at least “better than.” He championed Jones Very, for example, another of our Poets of the Day this year, as “a better poet than Emerson.”

Winters ranked George Herbert’s “Church Monuments,” our Poem of the Day for November 13, as one of the two greatest short poems in the English language. And while Levin admits to having bridled at this tendency in Winters, he also admits that he “never knew the excellent works” of many of these writers until Winters brought them to his attention. “I never heard him praise a literary work in which I failed to find genuine excellence.”

Yet what is the other “greatest” in the category of “short poems in the English language?” According to Winters, it’s today’s Poem of the Day, “To Heaven,” by Ben Jonson (1572–1637). Like “Church Monuments,” which Winters judged to be an anomaly in Herbert’s whole corpus, “To Heaven” might strike us as an odd choice for “greatest.”

Greater than Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73,” another 2023 Poem of the Day, indisputably both short and great? Greater than Milton’s “Sonnet 19,” one of our December picks for 2022?  Even as we resist Winters’ ranking, we might find ourselves, too, given to that same impulse: to name ten poems greater than “To Heaven.” But to go down that road is not to read the poem before us.

And this would be our mistake and our loss. In his day, of course, Jonson — whose “To Celia” readers will remember as a Poem of the Day in June of this year — wielded at least as much influence as his contemporary William Shakespeare. A whole generation of younger poets styled themselves the “Tribe of Ben.”

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.

To Heaven
by Ben Jonson

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?
Oh be thou witness, that the reins dost know
And hearts of all, if I be sad for show,
And judge me after; if I dare pretend
To ought but grace or aim at other end.
As thou art all, so be thou all to me,
First, midst, and last, converted one, and three;
My faith, my hope, my love; and in this state
My judge, my witness, and my advocate.
Where have I been this while exil’d from thee?
And whither rap’d, now thou but stoop’st to me?
Dwell, dwell here still. O, being everywhere,
How can I doubt to find thee ever here?
I know my state, both full of shame and scorn,
Conceiv’d in sin, and unto labour borne,
Standing with fear, and must with horror fall,
And destin’d unto judgment, after all.
I feel my griefs too, and there scarce is ground
Upon my flesh t’ inflict another wound.
Yet dare I not complain, or wish for death
With holy Paul, lest it be thought the breath
Of discontent; or that these prayers be
For weariness of life, not love of thee.

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use