By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Subtitled ‘A Song Apologetic’, ‘In the Person of Womankind’ is a poem by the poet and playwright, and contemporary of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson (1572-1637). As the title suggests, ‘In the Person of Womankind’ sees Jonson assuming the voice of all women, and addressing men. Before we offer some words of analysis, here’s the text of the poem:
In the Person of Womankind
Men, if you love us, play no more
The fools or tyrants with your friends,
To make us still sing o’er and o’er
Our own false praises, for your ends:
We have both wits and fancies too,
And, if we must, let’s sing of you.
Nor do we doubt but that we can,
If we would search with care and pain,
Find some one good in some one man;
So going thorough all your strain,
We shall, at last, of parcels make
One good enough for a song’s sake.
And as a cunning painter takes,
In any curious piece you see,
More pleasure while the thing he makes,
Than when ’tis made – why so will we.
And having pleased our art, we’ll try
To make a new, and hang that by.
‘In the Person of Womankind’ is actually one of several poems Jonson wrote in which he adopted the voice of a woman. None of them perhaps quite captures the authentic feelings and attitudes of women in the early seventeenth century, although debates obviously continue in contemporary literature around high-profile male writers’ abilities (or lack thereof) in writing convincing women.
But ‘In the Person of Womankind’ is a short lyric: a song, as its subtitle makes clear. So perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for too much psychological depth in this poem. Songs often present universal human feelings and even play on types or stereotypes, after all.
And it would be unfair to criticise ‘In the Person of Womankind’ as a poem in which Jonson merely failed to write convincingly about women. Indeed, the poem is partly about men’s inability to portray women well: men’s songs about women depict women as having false virtues, rather than emphasising and praising the ones that actually exist.
Let’s briefly summarise the three stanzas of the poem – or, alternatively, the three verses of the ‘song’. The first verse or stanza sees women calling out men for writing songs for women to sing, songs which praise women for the men’s own benefit. These songs give a false idea of what women are really like. But women have their own imaginations and talents, so why can’t women sing about men, instead of singing false songs about themselves?
The second verse sees Jonson plant his tongue firmly in his cheek: men are mostly awful, the women sing, but women have the skill to root out the small amount of good in at least one man on Earth; they can then sing about that one, and make a half-good song that is (unlike men’s songs about women) true and accurate in their praise.
The final verse uses the analogy of the painter, who enjoys the act of painting more than he enjoys looking on what he has painted (because he’s never truly happy with what he’s painted). The art analogy here is interesting. The pictures of women the male artist paints, like the songs male poets compose about women, perhaps say more about the man painting them than they do about the female subject.
In this regard, perhaps surprisingly, ‘In the Person of Womankind’ can be said to anticipate a poem from around 250 years later, Christina Rossetti’s ‘In an Artist’s Studio’. But Jonson ends his song with the women saying they will take pleasure in the task of trying to discover men’s good points.
‘In the Person of Womankind: A Song Apologetic’ is written in three stanzas of iambic tetrameter, rhymed ababcc. Iambic tetrameter is a metre in which each line has four iambs, an iamb being a foot that comprises an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, as in the line ‘To MAKE / a NEW, / and HANG / that BY.’ (The slashes here are to separate the four iambs to show how the metre works.) Tetrameter is a popular metre for song, although trochees are perhaps more popular than iambs.