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Lines By Heart: Proportion by Ben Jonson

Written by Rachael Norris, 24th May 2020

Dr. Clare Ellis, Head of Learning and Quality at The Reader, recites Proportion by Ben Jonson - put yourself to the test and see if you can memorise this poem to recite aloud.



It is not growing like a tree 
In bulk, doth make 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 short measures, life may perfect be. 

Ben Jonson

‘It’s all about proportion, you know.’ Has anyone ever said that to you? I feel like people have been saying that to me my whole life, and no one more so than myself! Proportion is something I struggle with – I must admit that in spite of the advice kindly being offered in this poem, I am conscious that I do tend to gather things up ‘in bulk’, hoard things up – whether material or psychological – until I have bulk everywhere! In my cupboards as well as in my head! And then things do start to fall off, ‘a log at last, dry, bald, and sere’. But perhaps there is another way of being, living, ‘in short measures’ rather than ‘in bulk’?

I like the permission that this poem gives me to live, act and think both in ‘small proportions’ and in ‘short measures’, baby steps in keeping with the wider framework of the moment, being ‘just so’ is another way I might put it. I am struck by the connection but also different layers of possible meaning in the parallel of ‘small proportions’ with ‘short measures’. Are those phrases simply saying the same thing I wonder? Or are there slight differences, shades of complexity here?

The word ‘small’ makes me think of the size of something, whereas ‘short’ feels perhaps more to do with the duration of time...Could ‘small proportions’ be speaking to the fitting wholeness of something, the way it falls in balance with everything in and around it, whereas is short measures more to do with how these small ‘just beauties’ are to be experienced in and as moments?

It feels like this is something we can adapt from the inside as well as how we notice the world around us? I also find myself wondering about the ‘just beauties’...why ‘just’? Is that also something to do with there being a right proportion of things?

At a time when our whole way of living is undergoing an uncertain period of transition and change, it is good to be able to anchor myself in the small ‘just beauties’ of life. What might that single ‘lily of a day’ be to you today I wonder? Perhaps it may be simply allowing yourself the joy of reciting this small poem aloud and then seeing what you can recall and remember?

It’s a good portable one to carry in your inner anthology, your mental storehouse of useful moments, and I hope that ‘in short measures’ it brings you some moments of joy.

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