Ben Jonson – the last excerpt from “Timber”

In this excerpt, which is based on the Roman rhetorician Quintilian and the Spanish scholar Vives, Jonson discusses good style. Words are like coins, there are worth anything only if they bear the mint mark, i.e. are accepted by the general public, which means one should not coin too many words. Jonson (Quintilian/Vives) advises perspicuity and good editing in writing, and while using archaisms from time to time may give some flavour, too many of them spoil the text, as in the case of people who try to imitate Chaucer. All this advice boils down to: be clear, don’t complicate matters too much and don’t use too many verbal ornaments. Also an interesting point is that a composition should have a strong beginning and even better end, while in the middle you can let yourself go a little, because then the reader is carried by the momentum of the stream, so to say.

So that’s the end of my adventure with Ben Jonson. It was sometimes charming, sometimes somewhat monotonous. I’m afraid all the learning he was so proud of sometimes tends to drag him down, at least in the eyes of an illiterate rube like me – it’s no fun reading a text full of allusions for the deciphering of which you constantly have to go to the footnotes. I think the texts I liked best were the ones about the food, because this was the matter so clearly close to Jonson’s heart. And I finally got round to reading all the Jonsonian passive-aggressive compliments/hidden barbs about Shakespeare, which I usually came across in the critical texts on Shakespeare.


Ben Jonson – Excerpts from”Timber”

Timber is a kind of collection of quotes Jonson kept all his life on various aspects of writing literature, connected together with his own reflections. Since his era had different ideas than ours about originality and plagiarism, Jonson felt free to borrow freely and translate if needed any author whose ideas chimed with his. The title is a kind of logical continuation – since his previous cycles of poetry were called Forest and Underwood, it should imply that the literary criticism is like the raw product of literary activity, I guess? In the first excerpt Jonson complains that poetry does not pay well, at least not to those who make it their sole occupation. It may help people’s careers in law or in Church (he does not list any names, but he may have thought about e.g. John Donne), but those who spent their whole lives in its service may find themselves overlooked, like a faithful servant of many years who is overlooked for promotions in favour of new faces or parasites. What’s more, the multitutde (and Jonson makes clear he means not just common people but also those seemingly educated ones) appreciate more showy writers, like the sport audience who prefer a more aggressive wrestler or fencer instead of the one who is actually better technically. This goes also for, yes you guessed it, Jonson’s frenemy Shakespeare. Other actors often said admiringly about Shakespeare that he never blotted out a line, to which Jonson always answered “Would he had blotted out a thousand!” And Jonson assures us “Listen, I loved this guy, so that gives me the authority to say this, but really, he would have benefited from some good editing. For instance this line in Julius Caesar ‘Caesar did never wrong but with just cause’, isn’t it terrible?” I must say I find nothing so dreadful in this line, although perhaps if you are trained in classical logic like Jonson, you may find fault with it. But more importantly, Jonson misremembers it or it got amended before the First Folio was published, because the line is actually “Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause/Will he be satisfied”, which makes more sense.

I find it very difficult to muster any interest for the second excerpt, because, as with all poets writing about poetry, I find it full of the usual platitudes. So the poet should read the best poets, observe the best speakers, and practise as much as they can. Jonson advises again editing and re-reading of one’s own work, comparing it to a run-up before a jump or moving our arm backward before we throw a javelin. Don’t be too happy with the first words that come to your mind and practise, practise, practise. It’s good to imitate great writers because they are great writers, or something. I guess that’s why Jonson had no qualms about cribbing from all the authors ancient and modern.

Ben Jonson – “Ode to Himself”

This is one of the two verses of the same title Jonson wrote, this one written after his play The New Inn flopped in 1629 and printed for the first time as an appendix to this play. In this poem, as the title indicates, Jonson exhorts himself to leave the loathed stage and the loathed theatre audience which is incapable of appreciating good plays; it’s like feeding bread and wheat to swine, which prefer swills and acorns. In the third stanza Jonson uses an extended metaphor of sheriff’s basket, into which people threw their leftover food as alms to prisoners as an image for these poor plays scraped together from leftover bits. Interestingly enough, Jonson uses Shakespeare’s Pericles as an example of such a play, which makes his previous praises of Shakespeare a bit disingenous. Sure, Pericles may not be among Shakespeare’s finest and he probably only wrote the second part of it,  (much better than the first), and that’s why probably Jonson thought about it when he thought about the random contents of the sheriff’s basket. But collaboration in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre was more of a rule than an exception, and surely there were many worse plays around, so why such diss? I must admit I don’t understand the fourth stanza and the notes don’t help. It’s something about parasites who were cast-off actors’ costumes (the way actors in these times wore second-hand clothes of rich people as costumes) and who are happy to have their large ears larded with “their foul comic socks” (socks were the emblem of comedy, as opposed to tragedians who wore high platform shoes).

Finally, Jonson decides to switch to poetry, evoking the examples of ancient poets such as Horace, Anacreon and Pindar. He is going to prove that he still has it, even though onlookers may doubt it, taking into account his palsy (Jonson had a stroke recently). Instead of pleasing the fickle audience, he now is going to please one patron, King Charles I, whose power and piety he is going to praise and make his name elevated above Charles’s Wain.

Ben Jonson – “To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us”

This poem with a rather long title was prefixed to the First Folio of Shakespeare. It reminds me a little bit about this anecdote about a guy who went to see Hamlet for the first time and was not impressed – “all the author did was to cobble all these popular sayings together”. Jonson’s poem is the one from which all the famous epithets about Shakespeare come from. Jonson begins his poem with considering the very idea of lavishing praise on a dead fellow poet. Nobody can do true justice to Shakespeare, and compliments may come from tainted sources: ignorance, blind affection or actual malice which tries “to ruin where it seemed to raise”. Such praises are like when a whore or a bawd praises a respectable matron. But Shakespeare’s fame cannot be hurt by anything, even the most ill-thought-out compliments. Having calmed himself down in this manner, Jonson begins his praise by calling Shakespeare “Soul of the age!” Alluding to the fact that Shakespeare was buried in his home town of Stratford, not in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, Jonson says he is not going to ask Chaucer or Beaumont to move over, because Shakespeare is in a sense still alive. His poetry cannot be compared to anything else: not to Lyly, not to Kyd or “Marlowe’s mighty line”. He won’t compare him also to great writers of antiquity, and that’s not for the reason that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek” (well, it must have pained Jonson enormously that Shakespeare was a greater poet than he, even though Jonson was better educated, and he had to deliver this burn even posthumously. Shakespeare’s Latin was actually pretty good, although he certainly was not as good a classicist as Jonson). So neither great tragedians nor comedians of ancient Greece and Rome can compare with Shakespeare, who managed to portray nature as it is and at the same time use his art to frame it in the most appropriate way. The poem ends with a vision of “sweet swan of Avon” flying over the banks of the Thames and ascending into the sky to be turned into a new constellation of stars. From there, he is going to rule the English stage the way stars rule people in astrology – but the stage is not going to be the same without him anymore.

Ben Jonson – Songs from various plays

Today’s selection includes two songs from Cynthia’s Revels and one from Epicene.  “Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount” is a song sun by the nymph Echo, heartbroken after her beloved Narcissus died after gazing for too long at his own reflection and was turned into the flower bearing his name. She asks the spring which was the cause of Narcissus’ death to flow more slowly to keep pace with her mourning. She asks other herbs and flowers to droop down together with her and says she could drop like melting snow on a mountain top, implying she herself is going to dissolve into tears. “Queen and Huntress”, from the same play, was sung by Hesperus (the evening star) addressing Diana, the moon goddess, obviously referring to Queen Elizabeth. Hesperus describes Diana, “Goddess excellently bright” (this line is repeated at the end of every stanza as a refrain) seated on her silver throne and asks the Earth not to eclipse her with its shade. Finally he asks Diana to lay down her bow of pearl and her crystal quiver to give the animals she hunts a moment of respite. “Still to Be Neat” chides in a light-hearted way ladies who spend too much time on perfecting their clothes and make-up. I can only imagine, looking at the portraits of Elizabethan ladies, that putting on all this finery was very time-consuming. If you take so much time to be always dressed to the nines, powdered and perfumed, the implication is, Jonson writes, that without all that you are not as sweet and sound. More simplicity, looser robes and freely-flowing hair, such “sweet neglect” is far more enchanting “than all the adulteries of art”.

Ben Jonson – “The Ode on Cary and Morison” (the end)

Jonson, continuing his theme about the short but brave life being preferable to a long but dull one, compares the two to an oak and a lily. People, unlike trees, do not get better simply by getting bigger or living longer, but like lilies, their life can bloom perfectly within a short span of time. Thus he encourages Cary to celebrate his friend’s life and be glad, knowing that Morison is not dead, but enjoying eternal life. Then Jonson does something very funny and daring: he divides his own name between the two stanzas, like that: “and Ben/Jonson, who sung this of him”. He then does an even more daring separation, when he cuts the word “twilights” by a line break. I am not quite sure why he played with his name, but since in the next stanza he calls Cary and Morison “Dioscuri”, i.e. Castor and Pollux, the inseparable hero twins, it seems he wants to emphasize the cruelty of death which separated the indivisible bond between two fast friends. Jonson ends the poem with the praise of their friendshpi, which did not start for love of gain, or by chance, or out of duty, but it was begot by the true virtue in the hearts of the two and kindled by their recognition of this virtue in each other. The two young men became the pattern of true and virtuous friendship forever, and Morison was just the first one to get his reward.

Ben Jonson – “The Ode on Cary and Morison”

The full title of the poem is “To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of That Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Morison”. The poem is an imitation of the odes written by the ancient Greek poet PIndar both in its contents (a song of praise) and its rather complex structure: since the ancient chorus would move forward when singing one part of the ode, go back when singing another and stand still during yet another, Jonson marks the stanzas of his poem as “the turn”, “the counterturn” and “the stand”. The “turn” and “counterturn” are written in rhyming couplets, “the stands” follow a different rhyme scheme.

Young Sir Lucius Cary, one of the so-called “sons of Ben”, an informal group of younger of Jonsons young friends/fanboys lost a close friend, Sir Henry Morison, who like him was only about twenty then. (Cary also married Morison’s sister one year later.) Jonson’s poem is in a sense an answer to Cary’s own elegy, in which he laments the breviry of his friend’s life, which did not allow him to accomplish much.  Jonson starts his consolatory ode by an example from Pliny about an infant being born when his city was being besieged by Hannibal; seeing the battle raging, he returned promptly into his mother’s womb and was buried there. Jonson praises the wisdom of the child, saying that if all the babies could foresee the misery of life, undoubtedly they would all follow his example. His point is, life should not be measured by its length but what one does with it (well, the child used here as an example did not exactly accomplish much, either, unless this act of suicide counts as such a towering example of wisdom you don’t need anything more.). In contrast, you can live eighty years and do nothing useful through sixty years, but trouble “both foes and friends”. Wouldn’t it be much better for this “stirrer” to die at twenty? Another man started his life well but then “stooped… to sordid flatteries, acts of strife” and sank so deep that only “the cork of title” kept him afloat. So when you say Morison fell young – excuse, me, “fall” is a slip of the tongue. He never fell but stood until the end, the perfect friend, soldier, patron and son, and in this way he truly lived more than anybody who has just “been long”, because life is not measured by the amount of days one gets through, but by actions.