The poem is only three stanzas long and uses a similar line style in each. The stanzas consist of two different requests and focus on two different emotions, like lust and shame or anger and kindness. Each, for a specific reason, is hard for the speaker to see in the other person’s eyes.
Oh Do Not Wanton with Those Eyes Ben JonsonO, Do not wanton with those eyes,—Lest I be sick with seeing;Nor cast them down, but let them rise,—Lest shame destroy their being.O, be not angry with those fires,—For then their threats will kill me;Nor look too kind on my desires,—For then my hopes will spill me.O, do not steep them in thy tears,—For so will sorrow slay me;Nor spread them as distract with fears;—Mine own enough betray me.
Explore Oh Do Not Wanton with Those Eyes
‘Oh Do Not Wanton with Those Eyes’ by Ben Jonson is about the power of one person’s eyes over another.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker tells someone, likely a woman, to control her eyes. She should not “wanton” with them or cast them down. She should let them rise or hold herself with confidence for fear of shame. The speaker goes on, saying that she also should avoid looking upon the speaker too angrily or too kindly; he doesn’t like the outcome of either. Finally, he says, she should avoid crying or showing fear with her eyes.
Structure and Form
‘Oh Do Not Wanton with Those Eyes’ by Ben Jonson is a short, three-stanza poem that is divided into quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB; changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The poet uses numerous literary devices, despite the poem’s short length, that provides it with structure. This includes the repetition of his address to his listener, that is always focused on the same thing—her eyes.
In this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. These include:
- Parallelism: the use of the same line structure. For example, “—Lest I be sick with seeing;” and “—Lest shame destroy their being.”
- Sibilance: the repetition of the same “s” sound. For example, “sick with seeing.”
- Consonance: the repetition of the same consonant sound in multiple words. For example, “will kill” in stanza two.
O, Do not wanton with those eyes,
—Lest I be sick with seeing;
Nor cast them down, but let them rise,
—Lest shame destroy their being.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker asks someone, an unknown listener to whom he’s close, to “not wanton with those eyes.” Although somewhat confusing, he’s effetely asking her not to show lust in her eyes or try to seduce him with him. He doesn’t feel like this is the right thing for her to do, and it might make him “sick” or turn him off of her.
He has a certain desire to avoid particular expressions on this person’s face, including seeing her with downcast eyes. This would lead to shame, something that could destroy someone. She should keep her eyes strong but within certain parameters.
O, be not angry with those fires,
—For then their threats will kill me;
Nor look too kind on my desires,
—For then my hopes will spill me.
In the next stanza, the speaker says that she should also avoid showing anger in her eyes. He describes this as “those fires.” When she does this, he feels threatened, as those her eyes could kill him. This is another emotion he doesn’t want to experience when he’s around her.
The second half of the stanza tells the woman that she should be too kind to the speaker or give in to all of his desires. It’s important for someone to be disappointed all the time, as too much hope and satisfaction are bad as well.
O, do not steep them in thy tears,
—For so will sorrow slay me;
Nor spread them as distract with fears;
—Mine own enough betray me.
In the final stanza, the speaker tells the woman not to cry. If her eyes are steeped (or filled) with tears, he, too, is going to feel the same sorrow. He’ll be slain by it or overcome by her sadness. The same kind of thing is going to happen if she shows fear in her eyes. This will overwhelm him as he already has enough of his own fears to deal with.
There is far more to this poem than is revealed in just these lines, and it requires that readers do some digging or inferring in order to figure out (or guess at) what Ben Jonson, or the persona he’s using, is getting at.
The meaning is that one person’s emotions, or whether or not they show them, can affect another. In this case, the speaker makes demands of another person, asking them to avoid showing fear, lust, sadness, and more.
This Jonson poem is about one person’s concerns about/for another person’s emotions/eyes (or at least whether or not they show these emotions).
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Ben Jonson poems. For example:
- ‘On My First Daughter’ – a touching elegy written to honor and mourn the death of the poet’s first child, Mary.
- ‘My Picture Left in Scotland’ – a humorous tale of rejection told from the perspective of a rejected would-be-lover.
- ‘Song: to Celia’ – describes the deep love which exists between the speaker and his lover and how it transcends normal bounds.