Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, May 28, 2006

"It is a precious jewel to be plain," says a wonderful, anonymous poem set to music by John Dowland (1563-1626). Just saying the poem aloud creates a kind of tune. The unknown author, speaking as if he were a street vendor of gewgaws, claims a sincere plainness for his ways of writing and courting. Cunning as well as tuneful, the poem is a rather fancy assertion of being straightforward or unadorned. Writing a poem that imitates the call of a street vendor is a paradoxically elaborate way of suggesting that the "wares" offered are unpretentious and truehearted:

Fine Knacks for Ladies

Fine knacks for ladies, cheap, choice, brave and new!

Good pennyworths! but money cannot move.

I keep a fair but for the fair to view;

A beggar may be liberal of love.

Though all my wares be trash, the heart is true.

Great gifts are guiles and look for gifts again;

My trifles come as treasures from the mind.

It is a precious jewel to be plain;

Sometimes in shell the Orient's pearls we find.

Of others take a sheaf, of me a grain.

Within this pack pins, points, laces and gloves,

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