On the surface this poem seems to be all about beauty, but when we delve a little deeper it is also commenting on mortality. Jonson talks about the relative merits of an oak tree – that survives for hundreds of years, but is plain, uninteresting and uninspiring – and a lily that is brilliant and beautiful, but just for one day.
Jonson is using the oak and the lily as an analogy for the way people live their lives; it’s clear that he favours the lily and suggests that seizing the day and being dazzling, memorable and beautiful is more important than longevity.
It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make a man better be,
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May
Although it fall and die that night;
It was the plant and flower of light.
In small proportions we just beauties see,
And in small measures life may perfect be.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Jonson is another one of our poets who had an interesting life (1572-1637). He’s famous as the next best thing after Shakespeare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but much more interesting than that he was in prison a couple of times: once for killing a guy in a duel.
The background to this poem is very sad. One of Jonson’s best friends, Sir Henry Morrison, died of small pox seemingly some time in his late 20s or early 30s and this poem celebrates his life. Although the title says ‘From Underwoods‘ (italics don’t work in titles) it is really from a poem entitled ‘To the Immortal Memory, and Friendship of that Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Cary, and Sir H. Morison’ that is part of the Underwoods collection of Jonson’s poetry published in 1692. The theme and message of the poem is also meant to help console those who share Jonson’s grief.
Okay, so the main themes that link this poem to others in this section of the anthology are mortality and nature. It should make us question what are priorities are in life – is it about survival or enjoyment and beauty? Jonson believes the latter and uses an analogy with nature to demonstrate his ideas.
It’s pretty simple really.
Jonson tells us that a man is not ‘better’ for living like an oak tree: i.e. for a long time, but dull and boring. Notice the choice of language to describe an oak tree, which I’ll go into detail about in the next section of this analysis.
He contrasts this with a lily that flowers in the summer, but then dies shortly after being in its pomp and glory. His poetic license says a lily dies in a single day, but they can last up to a week; however, you see the point he’s making. Its flowering is enough to inspire him and make him happy, celebrating its beauty.
The final couplet rams home his message: a short life can be beautiful and perfect. The implication here is that he feels his friend’s short life is not a waste of life, but was still something deserving celebration and fond memories.
Language and techniques
Right, first thing we’ll look at is the vocabulary choices used to describe an oak tree. Rather than praising the strength and constancy of the tree he talks about it being ‘dry, bald, and sere’. All of these are negative associations: ‘dry’ makes us think of something brittle or lifeless; ‘bald’ suggests a nakedness of any element of beauty (no blossom or leaves); ‘sere’ means withered and we should be picturing the bark of the tree, which always looks a bit like this, while trees come alive with their branches and leaves. At the end of the oak tree’s life it ‘fall[s] a log’, which again seems fairly boring and mundane, just to be chucked on the fire, and seems an inglorious end, compared to the flower’s Icarus-like existence!
The choice of these words doesn’t reveal Jonson as a hater of trees, but serve to make his comparison between the tree and the lily more stark and help him make his point more clearly. The lily is ‘fairer’ and is ‘the flower of light’ which makes us consider its beauty and suggests it is somehow pure, innocent and maybe even connects the lily with religion as the light could be seen as the light at the end of the tunnel.
Make sure you talk about why Jonson has chosen an oak and a lily for his analogy and what he is really saying about human existence and what we do with our lives.
Also, you need to be aware of the significance of Jonson picking a lily as the flower. He could have pick any one of a million beautiful flowers, but the lily has several associations that link to Jonson’s reason for composing this piece. The most obvious association is with death as lily were and still are used to accompany coffins. This was especially true for the funerals of children that had died as the lily was also meant to symbolise innocence and purity, similarly when saints are pictured in paintings they typically wore or held lilies to show what lovely guys and girls they were. This is relevant because obviously Jonson’s friend is dead and this poem is mourning and celebrating him (like a funeral) and he is trying to link or elevate his life to the height of purity and worth associated with saints.
You could also mention Jonson’s use of ‘perfect’ and ‘beauties’, which are also used to elevate and praise his deceased friend.
There’s actually quite a lot here, despite this being a short poem.
First, notice the difference in punctuation when describing an oak and then describing a lily. We have seven commas in the first four lines, which help to slow down the description of the oak and thus the structure mimics the slow and steady life of a tree. Whereas the four lines describing the lily include two lines connected by enjambment and only one pause. This mimics how short lived the lily’s life is as we have to read it much quicker and when I read it there is also a change in tone from sombre and slow to quick and exciting.
If you really want to push it, you could also mention the length of the lines also mimicking the oak and the lily respectively.
I’d also talk about the rhyming structure here. The rhyming couplets (acting within two quatrains and one couplet) throughout help control the tone and keep the mood appreciative rather than sombre and down. It is almost sing song like at times, particularly when the pace picks up in the second quatrain.
I’ve already mentioned that I think this changes slightly above, but I’ll just recap. The slow start describing the oak sets us off in a sombre, funereal mood, but the faster pace when discussing the lily makes it a celebratory mood and then settling to a calm appreciation of his friend’s life with the final couplet.