No other Elizabethan poet was more cognizant of his legacy than Ben Jonson. Jonson’s rivals were not just his peers – Shakespeare, John Marston, Tho. Dekker, or Tho. Middleton – but the great poets of ancient Rome – Seneca (4 BC-65 AD), Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BC) and Martial (AD 40–103). In writing poetry and drama, Jonson adopted many of the tenets and poetic forms of these great classical poets.
After all, the English language of Jonson & Shakespeare had no literary past. With the exception of Chaucer and Gower (who few poets emulated), the great literature of the past was the great literature of the Romans and the Greeks. So it was that when other Elizabethan poets were enthusiastically adopting the new-fangled sonnet form – Spencer, Shakespeare, Sidney, and Daniel – Jonson adopted the epigram (the form that Catallus and Martial had developed and established over a thousand years before). What better way to establish yourself as the inheritor of a great tradition than to write within that tradition?
Jonson was the scholar among Elizabethan playwrights.
He was also a bricklayer’s son and because of it he was more sensitive to questions of class and status. In 1598, Jonson killed another actor, Gabriel Spencer, who (according to Jonson) had insulted both him and his dramaturgy. Jonson only saved his neck by pleading Benefit of Clergy (meaning he could read). The episode was a sign of things to come.
His rivalries, both literal and personal, became the stuff of legend. To my knowledge, The Poet’s War refers to only one thing: The rivalry between Jonson, on the one side, Marston, Dekker and eventually Shakespeare on the other. In fact, in one form or another, the rivalry eventually netted just about every poet and dramatist writing during the day. The rivalry appears to have been mostly good natured but, as with all such rivalries, there must have been some bloody noses too.
The theatergoers took tremendous pleasure in the jibes and taunts, and the plays of the time are full of references to the rivalry. Whole books have been devoted to it and it makes for very entertaining reading. No surprise, for instance, that Jonson endlessly ribbed Shakespeare for the latter’s gentlemanly pretensions. When Shakespeare finally obtained a coat of arms(the only extent sketch being above right 1), Jonson was quick to pull the rug out from under his rival – satirizing Shakespeare’s motto.
Here is how Katherine Duncan-Jones sums it up in her book Ungentle Shakespeare [p. 96]:
Duncan-Jones explanation of Jonson’s jibe, the joke behind mustard, is as convincing as any I’ve read. (No one really knows and there are different explanations). James Bednarz, in his book Shakespeare & The Poet’s War, (which I’m just reading) explains Shakespeare’s response in the following paragraph.
Indeed, this quip might have sparked Touchstone’s jest about a knight who did not lie when he swore that “pancakes” were “good” and “the mustard was naught,” although the pancakes were bad and the mustard good, because he swore “by his honor,” and “if you swear by that that is not, you are not forsworn” (1.2.63-77). Shakespeare’s joke about honor and mustard turns Jonson’s critique on its head and mocks the social pretension Shakespeare had been accused of exhibiting. [p. 113 ]
Not only that, but Bednarz goes on to detail his case for just how and when Shakespeare “purged” Jonson (which was apparently the beginning of the end of the whole imbroglio). Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jonson as the slow-witted Ajax in his play Troilus and Cressida (the name Ajax in Elizabethan times was a pun on latrine) must have brought the house down. Many scholars consider Troilus and Cressida to be a “problem play”, but if it is read and understood as, perhaps, the final salvo in the poet’s war, the play makes a good deal more sense.
Anyway, this is going far afield.
There’s lots to say about Jonson. He was one of the most irascible, ambitious and colorful personalities in Elizabethan drama. And possibly because of his literary ambitions, Jonson’s love poems are few and far between. It’s likely that he didn’t consider them to be worthy of great poetry. So, instead of writing sonnets to real or imagined lovers, he resurrected the epigram. Encyclopedia Britannica writes that the epigram was…
…originally an inscription suitable for carving on a monument, but since the time of the Greek Anthology (q.v.) applied to any brief and pithy verse, particularly if astringent and purporting to point a moral. By extension the term is also applied to any striking sentence in a novel, play, poem, or conversation that appears to express a succinct truth, usually in the form of a generalization. Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BC) originated the Latin epigram…
Jonson’s epigrams are full of pithy one liners, wicked satire, scathing quips and pointed praise. The enjoyment of them takes a certain kind of reader – one who enjoys the finely chiseled line for the sake of it and someone who has some knowledge of the Elizabethan period. Jonson is rarely rapturous or “romantic”. He’s Elizabethan through and through: intellectual, ambitious, and always ready to deploy reason, rhetoric and a stinging jest.
But when he lets his guard down, one senses tremendous tenderness and vulnerability. It’s in this light that I like to read his most famous poem – Drink to me, onely, with thine eyes… The poem has the feeling of a genuineness and immediacy that characterizes Elizabethan poetry at its very best. (To me, the later Romantic poets frequently fall short of the honesty and directness of which Elizabethans were capable.)
Of Fonts, Handwriting & Secretary Hand
The lines are simple and straightforward. For the fun of it (and since I’ve already gone so far afield) I’ve printed the poem using a brand new font – P22 Elizabethan. The font was created for a historical novel and reproduces a kind of script that was called Secretary Hand. All Elizabethans who could write, could write Secretary Hand. It was the formal hand of record keeping, the scribal book and court documents. Jonson would have been capable of Secretary Hand but, like most other Elizabethans, wrote a more italic style when writing informally. If this poem had appeared in a scribally published book, however, this is how it might have looked.
- And what follows below is another poem by Ben Jonson as it appeared in a scribally published book, in actual Secretary Hand (but not Jonson’s handwriting). The image comes from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Collection [MS V.b.43] and the entire page can be viewed in Christopher Ivic’s Essay: Ben Jonson & Manuscript Culture.
If it looks like I’m having fun with fonts, it’s because I am. The Folio Font can be found for free and is intended to mimic the typeset used in Shakespeare’s Folio, which was probably the same as that used in Jonson’s. Before I move on to Jonson’s Drinke to me, I want to have just a little more fun. Below is the handwriting of Shakespeare, John Donne, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.
- The first image is of Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More, or rather, his contribution to the play. The writing is believed to be the only extent sample of Shakespeare’s handwriting. His handwriting is considered to be old-fashioned (Tudor) and idiosyncratic – like his spelling. This undoubtedly reflects his schooling which, for one reason or another, was conservative and somewhat behind the times. It may also reflect the possibility that he was privately tutored or self-taught, but that is sheer speculation. If you want a closer look, you will have to do two things: First, click on the image, then enlarge it using the zoom feature in your browser (Firefox is CTRL + to enlarge CTRL- to diminish). Clicking on the image may also suffice.
- Next is an example of Ben Jonson’s handwriting. Compared to Shakespeare’s, it’s almost legible. Notice also the italic style – which gradually all but replaced Secretary Hand. The sample comes from an Epistle to his Masque of Queens. The image is one that I found on-line and mildy colorized. Here is what he wrote:
By the most true Admirer of your Highness’s virtues
And most hearty celebrator of them. Ben Jonson
- The next example is from Christopher Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris. It looks as though the foul paper (Marlowe’s handwritten text) doesn’t match the printed example I found on-line. It’s possible that the final version of the play is different – or I simply can’t read Marlowe’s handwriting. The sample comes by way of Wikimedia Commons – which itself comes from the Folger Shakespeare Library [MS. J.b.8].
- The final sample is of John Donne. Donne’s handwriting is legible enough to not need a parallel text. Donne’s handwriting is thoroughly modern as compared to Shakespeare’s, reflecting a very different education. Not only did spelling vary from writer to writer, but handwriting as well. The English Lanaguage, in every conceivable way, was in flux.
This image also comes form the Folger Shakespeare Library [MSS L b 1712].
Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes
As I wrote earlier, Ben Jonson’s poem is a study in simplicity. It reminds me of Robert Frost’s best poems – simple and yet profoundly effective and affective. The poem is split into two octaves (eight lines each), and the octave are themselves, divided into two quatrains.
The lines alternate between Iambic Tetramater and Iambic Trimeter – a ballad meter known as Common Meter Double – though I’m not sure the form would have been known as such in Jonson’s day. (Jonson’s poem To Celia – see below – was made into a song by Alfonso Ferrabosco.) There are three trochaic feet and none of them are wasted. They nicely and appropriately stress words in a way that adds to the meaning of the poem – the mark of an experienced and skilled poet.
Where the dilettante might let a variant metrical foot slip by without regard to its context, the great poets seem more concerned that the disruption of the meter coincide with the emotional and intellectual content of the poem – not always, but more so.
Why is this poem so famous? It appeals to our sensibility both by its simplicity and through the subliminal pattern of its rhyme and meter. The poem appeals to us for the same reason nursery rhymes appeal to children. But more so, consider the straightforwardness of the imagery – how original and evocative it is:
“leave a kiss in the cup”
“the soul doth rise, /Doth aske a drinke divine “
“I sent thee, late, a rosie wreath… But thou thereon did’st onely breath”
More so, consider that this little poem is really a narrative poem. It tells a story in a few quick, simple lines – and tells us all we need to know. (The poem, incidentally, exemplifies what Jonson prized in classical poetry – balance and unity of thought.)
There’s a lesson in this poem for the modern poet. A great poem can be the simplest poem, like Jonson’s Drinke to me or Robert Frost’s The Pasture. There’s a place and readership for the modern poem, but the supremely simple and masterfully written short poem of traditional poetry has been all but forgotten.
- In the scansion below, all unmarked feet are Iambic.
Wines in Elizabethan England
The Elizabethans didn’t drink water the way we do. It was poison, in large part, unless you lived far from an urban center. The sewage system was above ground and every last drop of it flowed into the sludge of the Thames. A useful website containing, among other things, Elizabethan recipes (when British food could still be called food) had this to say about the wine Jonson might have been drinking:
Honey was used to make a sweet alcoholic drink called mead which was drunk by all classes. Wine was generally imported although some fruit wines were produced in England. A form of cider referred to as ‘Apple-wine’ was also produced. Ales were brewed with malt and water, while beer contained hops that held a bitter flavor.
Another site called simply, Elizabethan Recipes, offers among things: Fartes of Portingale – Spicy Muttonball Soup. (I wonder if they meant Tartes?)
And here’s a modern brew that claims to be as stout as the original Elizabethan ales. (If the link doesn’t work, let me know. They’ve been changing it around.) They write:
It is comparable in strength to the beer produced by Tudor brewers during the reign of Elizabeth I. It has won many prizes and, at the International Brewers’ Exhibition 1968, was awarded the Championship Gold Medal. Regular drinkers simply asked for a ‘Lizzie’.
The website Life in Elizabethan England, offers a description of the bread that might have accompanied Jonson’s wine. Of the wines, they write:
Most wines are sweet and rather heavy. They probably have to be strained before you want to drink them, and may still have solid matter floating in them.
What was Jove’s Nectar? The drink of the gods, by implication, unmatched by anything produced or consumed by mortals and yet, says Jonson, her prefers Celia’s mortal kiss to an immortal drink of Jove’s nectar. There may also be the hint of Ichor of which, Wikipedia writes:
It’s worth mentioning that ichor was considered poisonous to mortals.
Jonson seems to say:
The soul thirsts for immortality, but I would change that immortality for a different kind of eternal joy – a kiss from Celia.
Roses were a symbol of love and Jonson sent not just a rose, but a wreath. Roses were also a symbol of a woman’s virginity (or maidenhead). I think it might be reading too much to read ribald connotations and double-entendres into the latter octave of the poem (though one could easily do so). That said, Jonson’s intentions (in sending the wreath) involved far more than innocent love.
The poem strikes a nice balance between the romance of love and the desires of the lover.
It’s a small masterpiece.
- Poems of Ben Jonson
- English Literature Early 17th Century
- The Holloway Pages Ben: Jonson Page – The Epigrams
More Poems by Rare Ben Jonson
- To Celia
Come my Celia, let us prove,
While we may, the sports of love;
Time will not be ours, for ever:
He, at length, our good will sever.
Spend not then his guifts in vaine.
Sunnes, that set, may rise againe:
But if once we loose this light,
‘Tis, with us, perpetuall night.
Why should we deferre our joyes?
Fame, and rumor are but toyes.
Cannot we delude our eyes
Of a few poore household spyes?
Or his easier eares beguile,
So removed by our wile?
‘TIs no sinne, loves fruit to steale,
But the sweet theft to reveale:
To be taken, to be seene,
These have crimes accounted beene.
- And lastly, Jonson’s translation of the Roman Poet Gaius Petronius. (The Elizabethans. Always delighting in both sides of the coin.)
“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short”
by Gaius Petronius
1 Best, Michael. Shakespeare’s Life and Times. Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria: Victoria, BC, 2001-2005. Visited November 15 2009. (The image of Shakespeare’s Shield came with instructions on how to cite the page, so I couldn’t resist doing so officially.)
If you have enjoyed this post, be sure and let me know. :-)
❧ up in Vermont, November 17 2009