Enter Witwoud and Petulant. Millamant asks them whether they settled their differences. Witwoud says they are just both great wits going at each other. Petulant says that when he wants to say black is blue, it must be obeyed, Witwoud answers that it may, Petulant answers that upon proof positive it must, Witwoud uses his school logic to point out that upon proof positive sure, it must, but upon proof presumptive it only may. Mrs Marwood says their debates are very learned, and Witwoud answers that Petulant is an enemy to learning. Millamant says she hates ignorant men and can’t think of being married to somebody who can hardly read or write. Petulant answers that he doesn’t understand why: marriage is like hanging in this respect that in both cases it’s the clergyman’s job to read the prayers and the final result is the same. Millamant says he’s stupid and leaves with her maid. Sir Wilful, Witwoud’s brother enters. I think Congreve must have been a fan of Ben Jonson because he keeps on inserting these allusions to his plays: first to Volpone, than when Mrs Marwood talked about the intrigues of Foible, she quoted a title of Jonson’s play The Devil is an Ass, and now Witwoud seeing his brother, exclaims “In the name of Barthelemew and his fair”. Bartholomew’s fair was a big August fair in London, but it’s a play of a comedy by Jonson as well. Witwoud says he has not seen his brother since the revolution (meaning the Glorious Revolution of 1688), which, if we assume the play is set in the year of its premiere, 1700, is indeed very long. Footman says Lady Wishfort is not dressed yet, and Sir Wilful makes the customary noises about how late city dwellers rise from bed in comparison with him and other country folk. The footman is surprised to hear that Sir Wilful refers to Lady Wishfort as his aunt, and Sir Wilful asks him how he has been in her service. A week, answers the footman, which is still longer than anybody in her staff, except for her maid. Tell her that I’ve come, says Sir Wilful, and tell me who these guys are? I really don’t know, answers the footman, there are so many people who come and go here. He leaves.
The last fragment in this selection is Dryden’s comparison of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Shakespeare, in his opinion, was a genius who can withstand even the charges of not having enough education because he was “naturally learned” and didn’t need book-learning. Of course even Shakespeare had his weaker moments, but whenever he had the subject great enough for his genius, he always rose up to the occasion. Even though other poets may be more fashionable nowadays, Shakespeare was considered always the best both in his lifetime and also later, by people of discerning tastes. Jonson, on the other hand, is “the most learned and judicious” of writers. He is not particularly good at writing about and inciting passion, but his real metier was comedy. When he stole from Roman poets, he did so like an invading monarch carrying off the spoils of war and in his Roman plays he in fact outdid Roman playwrights themselves. His weakness might also be his tendency to use too many latinisms in English. In short, Dryden considers him “the more correct poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit… I admire him, but I love Shakespeare.” He also praises Jonson’s work as a literary critic, saying his theoretical writings on the theatre are as good as written by any French critic.
Lady Mary Wroth was a Sidney and she knew it. She was the daughter of Sir Robert Sidney, eulogized by Ben Jonson in “To Penshurst”, who himself wrote some poetry (which, however, was not published until recently) and a niece to Sir Philip Sidney and Lady Mary Herbert. Even though Philip Sidney died before her birth, she must have been intensely aware of her famous uncle, since her work Urania alludes constantly to his Arcadia, starting with the full title The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, recalling The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. After her husband’s death, Mary Wroth engaged in a torrid love affair with her cousin William Herbert (son of Lady Mary Herbert) and had two illegitimate children by him. The affair is reflected both in Urania and in the sonnet sequence which accompanied it. The romance and the Petrarchan sonnet sequence are the first written by a woman in English. (There is an earlier sonnet sequence written by Ann Locke in the 1550s, but it’s religious, not about love). Urania caused considerable scandal, because while women could get away with writing and publishing religious texts, they were subject to much censure when it came to secular literature. Also Urania seems be a roman-a-clef, referring not only to Wroth and Herbert’s affair, but also to other eminent Jacobeans. I think it is very telling that even though Mary Wroth was an aristocrat and a published author, we do not know exactly when she died. Even though she was such an eminent figure, not a shadowy commoner like Shakespeare’s or Jonson’s wife, in the end she was just a woman in the Jacobean England.
There is some fascinating speculation that Mary Wroth’s illegitimate daughter was the mother of Aphra Behn, another important woman writer. Even though I don’t know if there is much proof to that and it sounds rather too good to be true, isn’t it pretty to think so?
After all this fascinating biographical stuff, Urania does start a bit disappointingly. The beautiful shepherdess Urania has just learnt that she is not the daughter of the shepherds who brought her up and whom he considered to be her parents. This makes her very depressed and in the morning, after she drives her flock to the meadow, she indulges in some painful thoughts about how the lambs she tends are happier than her, because they know their mothers. When other shepherds arrive, she, wishing to be alone, leaves her sheep (poor work ethic, but what can you expect from the heroine of a pastoral romance?) and goes off on a solitary walk, during which she recites a sonnet about how her only soalce is hearing her sighs doubled by the mournful Echo, her only friend. She reaches the top of a big rock and climbs into a very beautiful cave, with its walls covered by the ivy. It’s so pretty she can’t help wishing she were in a better mood to admire it. Then she sees some light pouring through a chink. In a scene faintly reminiscent of “Alice in Wonderland”*, she pushes the curtain of ivy aside to reveal a door. Behind the door she finds a room with a stone serving as a table, with a candle and yet another sonnet on it. This sonnet is about the sufferings of a lover who sighs and cries in solitude (presumably in this cave). Only the candle can see his torment, being a fit metaphor of his life, wasting away into the night.
*I don’t think Carroll consciously alluded to Urania – it was out of print until the 20th century. The footnote in the NAEL says there is a similar scene in Sidney’s Old Arcadia, but it was also unknown until the 20th c. – the only printed version was The Countess of Pembroke’s. So unless Carroll was an exceptional connoisseur of rare 17th c. books and 16th c. manuscripts (I don’t think he was), it’s just a coincidence.
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.
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.
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.
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.