Ben Jonson & Bartholomew Fair

Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair has been a play I’ve wanted to read time and again. Unlike most plays during the era, the play is written entirely in prose (rather than blank verse) and it’s a book length play. I started out with the sparsely annotated Yale edition (The Yale Ben Jonson) bought many years ago, but was thoroughly lost by the end of the second act. Completely. Lost. I had no idea what was going on. And with only the thinnest of thin annotations, Jonson’s topical allusions, references and Latin jokes went straight over my head. I can’t fathom what Yale was thinking when they printed this play. Did they think we were all taught Latin and Greek at an Elizabethan grammar school? So I shelved my Yale edition and ordered the Revels Student Edition, edited by Suzanne Gosset, and started once again from the beginning—this time with ample annotations.

Part of what makes Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair so challenging is that it’s, well, a fair, and stuffed with principle characters. There are so many that rather than being about individual characters, the play is really more about groups of characters. Additionally, because there’s so much going on, the first two acts are more or less exposition, establishing the various comedic entanglements that will unravel in the last two acts.

Of course, the play wasn’t written to be read like a closet drama but to live and breathe on the stage. I don’t doubt that actually watching the play would make following the plot lines simpler—characters are far easier to follow and differentiate when they’re embodied by actors, but the trade off would be the loss of nearly all the topical Elizabethan humor—Elizabethan puns, the various allusions to goings on in London, and the clothing. Much of the punning on sex might be lost as well without some signaling from the actors.

So what kind of playwright was Jonson? Ben Jonson was generally considered Shakespeare’s rival in his own day, though perhaps less for Jonson’s poetic and dramatic skills (which were still formidable) than for his notoriety. Jonson was an inveterate self-promoter, loud, picked fights, killed a man and was thrown in prison, had grandiose notions of himself as a writer, and had very set ideas about how plays should be written. He could be dogmatic to a fault, insisting that Elizabethan Drama conform to the classical unities of action, time and place (making his unpopular tragedies more like historical reenactments than works of drama). Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V, which wafted excited playgoers from one side of English channel to the other, was something Jonson jeered at. Like any charismatic personality, Jonson acquired a number of followers who became known as the Tribe of Ben. The result is that Jonson’s theories of poetry and drama greatly influenced the next generation. Shakespeare, whose primary ambition (it seems) was to retire as Stratford’s wealthiest Gentleman, left much less of a mark on the generation that followed.

All that said, Jonson was capable of writing genuinely great poetry, On my First Son and Song: to Celia, among others, and among his comedies, Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair. There’s also The Sad Shepherd, his final unfinished play that nevertheless contains, in my opinion, his most beautiful poetry and comes nearest to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. That Jonson’s reputation survives today is a testament to these plays, his flair for comedy and his true poetic genius.

So why can’t we find a complete edition of Jonson’s plays? One can find Marlowe’s complete plays, but then Marlowe was a great poet and dramatist comparable to Milton, Keats and Shakespeare. Likewise, one can easily purchase the complete plays of Middleton, and yet his best plays, though labeled masterpieces, are generally considered inferior to those of Jonson and he seemed to have no poetic ambition. He imitates poetry rather than writing poetry and apart for the rare gem like the one from A Game at Chess, “I’m taken like a blackbird/ In the great snow,” his imagery is conventional and workaday. Yet if you want a complete print edition of Ben Jonson you can expect to pay upwards of a thousand dollars. I find that astonishing. By in large, Jonson is ranked second only to Shakespeare, and yet in the 21rst century English readers can’t obtain a hard copy of Jonson’s works without paying a fortune!

Probably the most cogent explanation for Jonson’s comparative neglect comes from T.S. Eliot’s famous (in its circles) essay on Jonson:

THE REPUTATION of Jonson has been of the most deadly kind that can be compelled upon the memory of a great poet. To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read the book; to be afflicted by the imputation of the virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries—this is the most perfect conspiracy of approval. For some generations the reputation of Jonson has been carried rather as a liability than as an asset in the balance-sheet of English literature. No critic has succeeded in making him appear pleasurable or even interesting.

T.S. Eliot (1888–1965). The Sacred Wood.  1921.

So what makes Bartholomew Fair worth reading? First and foremost, alongside Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Bartholomew Fair is possibly as close as you’ll get to glimpsing what Elizabethan life must have been like in London (if that interests you). Jonson has a brilliant ear for the language of the street. And what you’ll discover is that any one of us would have fit right in.

For me, one of the more interesting characters was Zeal-of-the-land Busy, a satirical portrait of the Puritans who railed against playgoing, among other social innovations, and who would eventually, some forty years later, succeed in temporarily closing down London’s theaters. The character of Busy is readily found among our modern day populists, evangelists and reactionary conservatives.

Look not toward them, hearken not; the place is Smithfield, or the field of smiths, the grove of hobby-horses and trinkets, the wares are the wares of devils, and the whole Fair is the shop of Satan: they are hooks and baits, very baits, that are hung out on every side, to catch you, and to hold you, as it were, by the gills, and by the nostrils, as the fisher doth; therefore you must not look nor turn toward them.—The heathen man could stop his ears with wax against the harlot of the sea; do you the like with your fingers against the bells of the beast.

Act III Sc. 2

As compared to our present day “Puritan”, Evangelist John Ramirez on Halloween:

“…did you know that as soon as you dress up, whether you color yourself or put on a costume, the enemy owns you? Because by doing so, you have turned over your legal rights, and you have dedicated yourself and your kids to celebrating the devil’s holiday You have just made a pact with the enemy, and you are already sacrificing your children spiritually by dressing them up and changing their identity.”

And a little later Busy, using the “rhythms, divisions and repetitions” [Gosset p. 68] typical not only of Puritan rhetoric but religious and evangelical speechifying to this day, will say:

I will remove Dagon there, I say, that idol, that heathenish idol, that remains, as I may say, a beam, a very beam,—not a beam of the sun, nor a beam of the moon, nor a beam of a balance, neither a house-beam, nor a weaver’s beam, but a beam in the eye, in the eye of the brethren; a very great beam, an exceeding great beam; such as are your stage-players, rimers, and morrice-dancers, who have walked hand in hand, in contempt of the brethren, and the cause; and been born out by instruments of no mean countenance.

Leath. Sir, I present nothing but what is licensed by authority.

Busy. Thou art all license, even licentiousness itself, Shimei!

Leath. I have the master of the revels’ hand for’t, sir.

Busy. The master of the rebels’ hand thou hast. Satan’s! hold thy peace, thy scurrility, shut up thy mouth, thy profession is damnable, and in pleading for it thou dost plead for Baal. I have long opened my mouth wide, and gaped; I have gaped as the oyster for the tide, after thy destruction: but cannot compass it by suit or dispute; so that I look for a bickering, ere long, and then a battle.

Act V sc. 5

Jonson was surely capturing some of what he heard. Some four hundred years later the American preacher Billy Sunday, who apparently never bothered to read Jonson (though he seems to have Shakespeare) will sermonize:

If you want obscenity you will find it in the theater.  If you want to see character destroyed, you will find that both behind and before the footlights.  Your show has to be tainted in order to gather in the coin.  The capacity for amusing people along decent lines seems to have gone by.  That may sound foolish, but you let somebody go out on the road with a Shakespearean play and that somebody will go into bankruptcy while the musical show and the burlesque show and the leg show are playing to full houses across the street and the people are drinking in from them gutterish ideas and filthy lines and obscene songs. 

I do not mean to say that all plays and all actors are rotten.  But you will have to hunt pretty hard to find those that are not.  They will tell you that there is money in the theater.  Well, there’s money in highway robbery and there’s money in prostitution and there’s money in the saloon.  Sure, there’s money in it! 

Dancing, Drinking, Card Playing by Billy Sunday  (1862-1935)

Notice the similar rhetorical habits and repetition. Sunday could have been describing Bartholomew Fair. Exchange Sunday’s “highway robbery” for Busy’s “cutpurses”, Sunday’s prostitutes for Busy’s “strumpets”, and Sunday’s saloon’s for Busy’s “stalls”, and you’ve got Bartholomew Fair. The only thing missing is the stage (which is what Sunday was lambasting no less than the Elizabethan Puritans), but Jonson brilliantly solves that by featuring a puppet play in Act V—a play within the play. This is what Zeal-of-the-land Busy was excoriating in the passage above. The puppet show is an analogous stand-in for the Elizabethan Stage. And what really has Zeal-of-the-land Busy exercised?

Yes, and my main argument against you is, that you are an abomination; for the male, among you, putteth on the apparel of the female, and the female of the male.


There it is. Gender. Zeal-of-the-land Busy furiously objects to the cross-dressing, gender switching and homosexual undertones of men and boys playing women. Some things never change. The preoccupations of reactionary conservatives during the Elizabethan Era were no different then as now. The mistake that Zeal-of-the-land Busy makes is the same mistake that all modern fundamentalists make—an odd inability to discern the figurative from the literal (literal interpretation being at the very core of fundamentalism). Jonson hilariously deflates this literalism when the puppeteer raises the skirts of the puppets to show that they’re neither male nor female.

It is your old stale argument against the players, but it will not hold against the puppets; for we have neither male nor female amongst us. And that thou may’st see, if thou wilt, like a malicious purblind zeal as thou art.

[Takes up his garment.


But the deflation of Busy’s fundamentalism is only one thread in the play. Jonson also satirizes the hypocrisies of justice, both in its application and in the person of Adam Overdo, a Justice of the Peace; and also the shallowness of the monied class in the person of Bartholomew Cokes. And if you read Suzanne Gosset’s introduction to Bartholomew Fair (see the link above), you will also get a sense for the ways in which Jonson reveals, wittingly or otherwise, the objectification and commoditization of women—then as now.

There is one piece of Jonson’s poetry in the play, A Caveat for Cutpurses, because what’s an Elizabethan Fair without a good Ballad?

My masters, and friends, and good people, draw near, 
And look to your purses for that I do say; 
And though little mony in them you do bear, 
It costs more to get than to lose in a day; 
You oft have been told, both the young and the old, 
And bidden beware of the Cut-purse so bold; 
Then, if you take heed not, free me from the curse, 
Who both give you warning for and the cut-purse. 
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv'd by thy nurse, 
Than live to be hang'd for cutting as purse. 
It hath been upbraided to men of my trade, 
That oftentimes we are the cause of this crime. 
Alack and for pitty! why should it be said, 
As if they regarded or places or time? 
Examples have been of those that were seen 
In Westminster-hall, yea, the pleaders between; 
Then why should the judges be free from this curse 
More than my poor self is, for cutting a purse? 
Youth, youth, &tc. 
At Worster, 'tis known well that even in the jale, 
A knight of good worship did there shew his face. 
Against the foul sinners in zeale for to raile, 
And so lost, ipso facto, his purse in the place: 
Nay, once from the seat of judgement so great, 
A judge there did lose a fair pouch of velvet. 
Oh Lord! for thy mercy how wicked, or worse, 
Are those that so venture their necks for a purse! 
Youth, youth, &tc. 
At playes and at sermons and at the Sessions, 
'Tis daily their practice such booty to make; 
Yea under the gallows, at executions, 
They stick not the stare-abouts' purses to take; 
Nay, one without grace, at a better place, 
At Court, and in Christmas, before the Kings face. 
Alack then for pitty! must I bear the curse, 
That only belongs to the cunning Cut-purse? 
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv'd by thy nurse, 
Than live to be hang'd for cutting as purse. 
But oh, you vile nation of Cut-purses all! 
Relent and repent, and amend, and be sound, 
And know that you ought not by honest men's fall 
Advance your own fortunes to dye above ground: 
And though you go gay in silks, as you may, 
It is not the highway to heaven, as they say. 
Repent then, repent you, for better for worse, 
And kiss not the gallows for cutting a purse. 
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv'd by thy nurse, 
Than live to be hang'd for cutting as purse. 
The players doe tell you in Bartholemew Faire 
What secret consumptions and rascels you are; 
For one of their actors, it seems, had the fate, 
By some of you trade to be fleeced of late: 
Then fall to your prayers, you that are way-layers! 
They're fit to chouse all the world that can cheat players; 
For he hath the art, and no man the worse, 
Whose cunning can pilfer the pilferer's purse. 
Youth, youth, &tc. 
The plain countryman that comes staring to London, 
If once you come near him he quickly is undone; 
For when he amazedly gazeth about, 
One treads on his toes, and the other puls't out; 
Then in a strange place, where he knows no face, 
His mony is gone, 'tis a pittifull case. 
The divel of hell in his trade is not worse 
Than gilter, and diver, and cutter of purse. 
Youth, &tc. 
The poor servant maid wears her purse in her placket, 
A place of quick feeling, and yet you can take it; 
Nor is she aware that you have done the feat, 
Untill she is going to pay for her meat; 
Then she cryes and she rages amongst her baggages, 
And swears at one thrust she hath lost all her wages; 
For she is ingaged her own to disburse, 
To make good the breach of the cruel Cut-purse. 
Youth, &tc. 
Your eyes and your fingers are nimble of growth, 
But Dun many times hath been nimbler than both; 
Yet you are deceived by many a slut, 
But the hangman is only the Cut-purses cut. 
It makes you to vex when he bridles your necks, 
And then at the last what becomes of your tricks? 
But when you should pray, you begin for to curse 
The hand that first shewd you to slash at purse. 
Youth, &tc. 
But now to my hearers this counsel I give, 
And pray, friends, remember it as long as you live, 
Bring out no more cash in purse, pocket or wallet, 
Than one single penny to pay for the ballet; 
For Cut-purse doth shrowd himself in a cloud, 
There's many a purse hath been lost in a crowd; 
For he's the most rouge that doth crowd up, and curses, 
Who first cryes, "My masters, beware of your purses!" 
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv'd by thy nurse, 
Than live to be hang'd for cutting at purse. 

Anyway, if you’re interested, below is an amateur production of Bartholomew Fair from Boston University. What else have you got to do whilst stuck at home?—avoiding the plague?

The Minimalist Poet | A Place to Start

What inspires this first post (of several I hope) are the various bloggers and vloggers, in German and English, who were initially inspired by Minimalism, vloggers like Matt D’Avella and Anthony Ongaro at Break the Twitch. I’ve also enjoyed recent articles like Kyle Chayka who criticize the more (ironically) insipid and commodified aspects of “minimalism”, close quotes. She writes: “The literature of the minimalist lifestyle is an exercise in banality.” Hopefully, I can avoid that.

Since Minimalism isn’t solely about how many forks and spoons one owns, I thought I’d explore what the aesthetic of Minimalism might mean to a poet, even if it risks being ahistorical and anachronistic. If you’re not familiar with minimalism, the best place to start is probably with The Minimalists. You can watch a trailer for their autobiographical movie here. At the heart of minimalism is the belief that neither possessions nor the pursuit of possessions will bring you happiness. There’s freedom in loving what you have and only having what you love. And there’s a freedom in living a life that costs less. All possessions come with costs that can be anything from the obligations of ownership to the debt incurred by their acquisition.

There are some minimalists who go so far as to limit their possessions to 100 items or less, and why not? But for most, I think, minimalism means knowing the difference between the meaningful and the superfluous; and that will be different for every person. And as far as that goes, Minimalism is hardly new. If you go back to Stoicim, the Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium, you will discover that his writings and beliefs are eerily similar to current Minimalist literature, right down to their own version of mindfulness and the implicit moral “goodness” of fewer posessions. As Wikipedia writes: ” According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness) for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself…” Modern Minimalism can easily be understood as a modern variant of stoicism.

I originally started this post meaning to define minimalism the way one defines good poetry verses bad. But if there’s one lesson for Minimalists, it’s that there’s no one right or wrong way to simplify ones life. There’s not a set number of possessions that defines minimalism. And while Minimalism may seem like a lifestyle only the well-off can afford, living beyond ones means is hardly the province of the rich. Too many allow themselves to be defined through their possessions rather than by self-possession. As The Minimalists like to say: Love people, use things; the opposite never works. How does one define a possession when writing poetry? I would say it is when the poet makes a possession of his or her poem: when the poet treats the poem as a storehouse rather than a meeting place, when the poet is unwilling to give ownership of the poem to the reader but dictates to the reader how the poem should be interpreted or how the reader should feel.

Just to start out with, and to demonstrate that this concern with possessions and lifestyle is hardly new, I thought it might be interesting to read opinions from two of our most famous Elizabethan poets—Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. If there’s a cynical difference between Hellenistic stoicism and modern Minimalism, it’s that the former rationalized the reasons we shouldn’t want (and were better off without) the kinds of possessions we weren’t about to get a hold of anyways. Call it Sour Grape Minimalism: The “Didn’t want it anyways and am morally superior with out it”-Minimalism.” Current day minimalism assures us that we shouldn’t want (and are better off without) all the possessions we did actually managed to horde. Ultimately though, the goals of Stoicism and Minimalism are largely the same—to be happy with less.

Shakespeare most directly addressed his opinion on excess in the character of King Lear:

    O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars 
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady.
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need—

  [Act II, iii 261-267]

Beyond the contradictory testimony of his poetry, we know nothing of Shakespeare’s personality. We only know through legal documents that while he lived frugally in London, he became, as Bill Bryson put it, “one of the most conspicuous men of property in Stratford”. His bequest included four houses. If he lived like a minimalist in London, perhaps to avoid taxes, he was no minimalist in Stratford. Back then, a lack of property and possessions most commonly meant a short, if not brutal, life of servitude. In Elizabethan England, if you weren’t the hustler, then you were the hustled. But in his art?—poetry? If he were alive to day he might have written:

Allow literature not more than the words needed, and poetry is as cheap as prose.   

The line between traditional poetry and prose, in Shakespeare’s day, wasn’t remotely as stark as it is today. But maybe you get the drift?  Traditional poetry has been stripped of what made it “gorgeous”—meter, rhyme, figurative language, metaphor, form. But insofar as semantic content goes, all these traditional techniques are superfluous. Stripping poetry of this superfluity hasn’t made it beastly, but it has made it prose. So my own approach to minimalism (as regards the aesthetics of poetry) is to keep some of the clutter around. Shakespeare, for his part, did more than keep some clutter around. His earlier works were baroque in their excess, their puns, their extended conceits, and convoluted eddies into, for all intents and purposes, plays within plays.

 So makest thou faith an enemy to faith;
 And like a civil war set'st oath to oath,
 Thy tongue against thy tongue. O, let thy vow
 First made to heaven, first be to heaven perform’d,
 That is, to be the champion of our church!
 What since thou sworest is sworn against thyself
 And may not be performed by thyself,
 For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss
 Is not amiss when it is truly done,
 And being not done, where doing tends to ill,
 The truth is then most done not doing it:
 The better act of purposes mistook
 Is to mistake again; though indirect,
 Yet indirection thereby grows direct,
 And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire
 Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d.

          [Act III, Scene I] 287-

And Shakespeare goes on like this for another twenty five lines. The link to this site actually explains, in equally convoluted modern English, what Shakespeare is trying to say. He could have simply said: Keep your vow to the church. Instead, as was the fashion of the day, he wrote an extended conceit that is, in essence, a kind of play within a play. Shakespeare literally must have seen the world as a stage. Not only did he observe human beings as characters in their own dramas, but the very words they spoke were like characters on the stage of their psyches, competing for dominance. Shakespeare regularly personified inanimate objects with motive and desire. In the conceit above, Shakespeare makes faith an enemy to faith, a kind of character competing against itself. Then he makes the vow a character who, as if in a morality play, first performs his promise in heaven (on heaven’s stage)—champion of the church—only to be perplexed by the moral ambiguity of dueling vows. In the conceit, the vow becomes a character in and of itself, directed or misdirected against itself by the King.

None of this is minimalist and Shakespeare was criticized for his excess by none other than Ben Jonson, his friend and colleague.

I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech.

And he continued:

Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, “Caesar, thou dost me wrong,” he replied “Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,” and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

In Jonson’s example, Shakespeare’s excess leads to folly. But there’s more to it than that. Jonson adhered to the Aristotelian notion of the three unities:

  • unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
  • unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
  • unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.

In a sense, you could interpret this as Jonson’s effort to prune what he perceived to be the excesses/maximalism of his fellow dramatists. He didn’t care one whit for Shakespeare’s flighty Prologue wafting audiences from England to the fields of France, or for the Prologue of The Winter’s Tale who not only ignored unity of place but unity of time. He critiqued Shakespeare’s maximal prologues in his own “Introduction” to Bartholemew Fair.

So, in temperament, at least, Jonson was very different from Shakespeare, and it’s interesting that we have a passage from one of Jonson’s plays that can stand in almost direct contrast to Shakespeare’s King Lear.

             Who can endure to see
The fury of men's gullets and their groins?—
What fires, what cooks, what kitchens might be spared?—
What stews, ponds, parks, coops, garners, magazines
What velvets, tissues, scarfs, embroideries,
And laces they might lack? They covet things—
Superfluous still; when it were much more honor
They could want necessary. What need hath Nature
Of silver dishes or gold chamber-pots?—
Of perfumed napkins, or a numerous family
To see her eat? Poor and wise, she requires
Meat only; hunger is not ambitious.

[The Staple of News Act III, Scene 4 45-55]

Jonson starts with “who can endure to see” men’s avarice or, in so may words, the fury of their gullets and groins? Then asks, who can bare to see the cooks and kitchens that might be spared (if they weren’t so avaricious), and what stews, ponds, etc., they could just as easily go without—”they might lack”. We covet superfluous things, writes Jonson, when it were of “more honor”, morally and ethically, to only lack and pursue what is necessary—”They could want necessary”. (“Want”, in Elizabethan parlance, more commonly had the meaning “to lack”. ) Then he asks who has need of gold chamber-pots (a fad that continues into modern times)? Jonson, it would seem, also considered a “numerous family” to be a superfluous luxury. Nature, being poor and wise, needs only meat. Hunger, says Jonson, is not ambitious but something necessary and for that reason virtuous. What does a human being need besides their next meal? All the rest is ambition and vanity (gold chamber-pots). Shakespeare’s King Lear would answer that such a parsimonious attitude toward human potential makes a “man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s”.

To be fair to Jonson, the words of the Second Peni-Boy are those of a character in a play, just like Shakespeare’s words are those of King Lear’s, but given what we know of Shakespeare and Jonson, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to read a bit of themselves in what they wrote. Whereas Shakespeare wasn’t about to be embarrassed for the enjoyment he took in his success and acquisitions, Ben Jonson, the rough and plain-speaking bricklayer’s son had a strong distaste for pretension of any kind, and made fun of Shakespeare, among other reasons, for his desire to obtain a coat arms. Non Sans Droit said Shakespeare’s freshly acquired coat of arms, meaning “Not Without Right”. In Jonson’s Every Man Out of his Humour, the socially ambitious fool Sogliardo is a country bumpkin, newly arrived in the city, and eager to show off his freshly purchased coat of arms. Another of Jonson’s characters recommends that Sogliardo use the motto, “Not Without Mustard”.

Whereas Shakespeare’s material positions increased, his poetic art was a steady trimming of his youthful excess. In a sense, and to use a current term, he decluttered his verse. Wolfgang Clemens, in The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery, devotes a book to describing just how Shakespeare does this—how Shakespeare learns to create the illusion of imagery arising organically from the circumstances at hand (subsumed by the drama of the moment) rather than as, in effect, an elaborated aside. To give just one example from Clemens’s book:

Exaggeration is characteristic of many of the conceits of the early plays. In The Two Gentlemen it is said of Proteus’ mistress:

She shall be dignified with this high honour—
To bear my lady's train, lets the base earth
Should from her vesture chance to steal a kiss
And, of so great a favour growing proud,
Disdain to root the summer-swelling flower
And make rough winter everlastingly. [II. iv. 158]

This conceit, too, is carried out for its own sake and for the sake of an exaggerated inventiveness. But what points to Shakespeare’s early period is not the fact that nature has here been violated, and that it is somewhat extravagantly demanded of her that she take consideration of a woman. For Shakespeare has also used this motif at a later time. When, for example, after the happy landing of Desdemona in Cyprus it is said by Cassio of the wild rocks and foaming seas:

Traitors ensteep'd to clog the guiltless keel,—
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their mortal natures letting go safely by
The divine Desdemona. [Othello, II. i. 70]

we have here, too, a violation of nature and a motif like that of Two Gentlemen. But the difference is that the image from Othello results organically from the joyous excitement over the rescue of Desdemona in the storm just experienced: the rescue appeared to the hard-pressed seafarers in a miraculous light, and Cassio rivets this imrpession with an image. But this organic relationship is still wholly lacking in the image from Two Gentlemen in which the two friends outbid each other with praises of their mistresses. And out of such mutual rhetorical rivalry grows the conceit.

The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery P.35

The decluttering of Shakespeare’s imagery from the early to the late plays is remarkable. It’s also interesting that so few modern poets are aware of Shakespeare’s innovation. While modern poets don’t avail themselves of the Elizabethan conceit, those few who strive to introduce some metaphor and imagery into their poetry (most contemporary poets write discursively) most often do so with similes and prepositional metaphors—conceits in miniature. They don’t arise organically but most often have the feeling of cluttering a poem’s momentum. As an example, one of our previous Poet Laureates, Charles Wright, begins his poem Archaeology

The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods,
Hoping to fin the radiant cell
That washed us, and caused our lives
    to glow in the dark like clockhands
Endlessly turning toward the future,
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that,
    all golden, all in good time. 

with a four line simile that is as long as a Shakespearean conceit, the kind of thing John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s younger contemporary, availed himself of, having learned only a little from his elder collaborator.

Getting back to Ben Jonson: Whereas Shakespeare, in a sense, decluttered his verse and created an ever more elliptical style, Jonson’s poetry gradually became less austere until, by the time he was writing his last and unfinished play “The Sad Shepherd“, his lines touch on the superfluous lyricism (with echoes of Cymbeline and Midsummer Night’s Dream) that might have been described by Lear as “gorgeous”.

Who had her very being, and her name
With the first knots or buddings of the spring,
Born with the primrose, or the violet,
Or earliest roses blown; when Cupid smiled;
And Venus led the Graces out to dance,
And all the flowers and sweets in nature's lap
Leap'd out, and made their solemn conjuration,
To last but while she lived!

        [Act I. ii]

Or Jonson’s description of the witch’s dell:

Within a gloomy dimple she doth dwell
Down a pit, o'ergrown with brakes and briars,
Close by the ruins of a shaken abbey,
Torn with an earthquake down unto the ground
'Mongst graves and grots, near an old charnel-house,
Where you shall find her sitting in her fourm,
As fearful and melancholic as that
She is about; with caterpillars' kells,
And knotty cob-webs, rounded in with spells.
Thence she steals forth to relief in the fogs,
And rotten mists, upon the fens and bogs,
Down to the drowned lands of Lincolnshire;
To make ewes cast their lambs, swine eat their farrow,
The housewives' tun not work, nor the milk churn!
Writhe children's wrists, and suck their breath in sleep,
Get vials of their blood! and where the sea
Casts up his slimy ooze, search for the weed
To open locks with, and to rivet charms,
Planted about her in the wicked feat
Of all her mischiefs, which are manifold. 

[Act II. ii]

If Jonson had been a minimalist, you might say that he made room for a cup of flowers and knick-knacks on his mid-century Swedish table. One might broadly say that Jonson and Shakespeare met in the middle—Shakespeare’s poetry became more elliptical and organic, while Jonson discovered a new and generous lyricism. (The Elizabethans also understood austerity vs. excess as masculine and feminine attributes, respectively. Shakespeare went so far as to dramatize the tension between austerity and excess in the characters of Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia. Coriolanus typified the ideology of Seneca in his verbal austerity while Volumnia typified, as Elizabethans deemed it, the hyperbole, excess and artifice of the Ciceronian, feminine style. Shakespeare later fused these contradictory ideologies—much to Jonson’s distaste—in the romances.) As far as Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd goes (and lyricism aside) there is still not one conceit or simile in the above passages and adjectives are few. They are gorgeous purely in their evocative and concrete descriptiveness. Jonson is still a “minimalist poet”, rooted in a broadly Senecan taste for the plain and masculine, but finds a place for the gorgeous within that ideology.

So, anyway, that’s my first post on minimalism and poetry—a very brief look at two of our greatest poets and their conflicting notions of the necessary and the superfluous, the austere and the hyperbolic. Hope you enjoyed.

upinvermont | January 7th 2020

What’s with Shakespeare’s ‘Poet’ in Julius Caesar?


Because I was having trouble focusing on my own poetry, I flipped open my complete Norton Shakespeare, to a page at random, and started reading. I had stumbled into Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 2 — the argument between Brutus and Cassius — one of my favorite dramatic scenes. The swift give and take between the two characters is beautifully imagined (naturally enough, this is Shakespeare). At the very end of their argument, do you remember this part?

Cassius Hath Cassius lived
To be but mirth and laughter  to his Brutus
When grief and blood ill-tempered vexeth him?
Brutus: When you spoke that, I was ill-tempered too.
Cassius: Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
Brutus: And my heart too.
[They embrace]
Cassius: O Brutus!
Brutus: What’s the matter?
Cassius: Have you not love enough to bear with me
When that rash humour which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?
Brutus: Yes, Cassius, and from henceforth,
When you are over earnest with your Brutus,
He’ll think your mother chides, and leave you so.
[Enter Lucillius]
Lucillius and Titinius, bid the commanders
Prepare to lodge their companies tonight.  etc.

Some readers might have a vague memory of this. Others, much more familiar with the play, may notice something or someone missing — the Poet. The Poet is a character who only appears once in the entire play, without any warning, without any preamble, and only between the lines shakespeareabove (which I removed).

Now, if you’re anything like me, the first thought that occurs to you is: Huh? Where did this utterly superfluous and arbitrary character come from? And why? What purpose does he serve? And where did he go? The scene works just fine without him. So I got to thinking about it and came up with an almost completely baseless theory proceeding from the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. But hear me out. The first thing to notice is that I could excise the passage without messing up the lines (meter). This may be complete coincidence, but it may also hint that the passage is an interpolation added later.

However, knowing that Shakespeare based Julius Ceasar on Plutarch,  I first wanted to see if “the Poet ” is in Plutarch. In fact, he is… sort of.  Here’s the relevant passage from here:

Brutus now summoned Cassius to Sardis, and as he drew near, went to meet him with his friends; and the whole army, in full array, saluted them both as Imperators. 2 But, as is wont to be the case in great undertakings where there are many friends and commanders, mutual charges and accusations had passed between them, and therefore, immediately after their march and before they did anything else, they met in a room by themselves. The doors were locked, and, with no one by, they indulged in fault-finding first, then in rebukes and denunciations. 3 After this, they were swept along into passionate speeches and tears, and their friends, amazed at the harshness and intensity of their anger, feared so untoward a result; they were, however, forbidden to approach. 4 But Marcus Favonius, who had become a devotee of Cato, and was more impetuous and frenzied than reasonable in his pursuit of philosophy, tried to go in to them, and was prevented by their servants. 5 It was no easy matter, however, to stop Favonius when he sprang to do anything, for he was always vehement and rash. The fact that he was a Roman senator was of no importance in his eyes, and by the “cynical” boldness of his speech he often took away its offensiveness, and therefore men put up with his impertinence as a joke. 6 And so at this time he forced his way through the bystanders and entered the room, reciting in an affected voice the verses wherein Homer represents Nestor as saying:—

“But do ye harken to me, for ye both are younger than I am,”

and so forth. 7 At this Cassius burst out laughing; but Brutus drove Favonius out of the room, calling him a mere dog, and a counterfeit Cynic. However, at the time, this incident put an end to their quarrel, and they separated at once. 8 Furthermore, Cassius gave a supper, to which Brutus invited his friends. And as the guests were already taking their places at the feast, Favonius came, fresh from his bath. Brutus protested that he had come without an invitation, and ordered the servants to conduct him to the uppermost couch; but Favonius forced his way past them and reclined upon the central one.b And over the wine mirth and jest abounded, seasoned with wit and philosophy.

So, a mystery is afoot. If Shakespeare was solely being faithful to Plutarch, why introduce Favonius as a “Poet”? And if faithfulness was at issue, why exclude Favonius from Brutus and Cassius’ drinking bout? And if faithfulness was not at issue, why introduce Favonius at all? How does he advance the play? In Plutarch’s original, it was Favonius’ interruption (and Brutus and Cassius’ mutual contempt for him) that united them and ended their quarrel. In Shakespeare’s version of events, Brutus and Cassius had already embraced prior to the “Poet’s” appearance, so there’s no reason for Favonius, or the Poet, to enter the scene (let alone the play). None.

So, what’s going on? Well. I have a theory.

My theory, which I’ve already alluded to, is that the Poet’s appearance wasn’t in the original play, but was an interpolation added by Shakespeare (most likely) at some point after the play was originally written. Why? I think the clue is that Favonius was changed to a poet. ben-jonsonRight about this time, the famous (or infamous) “Poet’s War” was getting started (Ben Jonson being in the middle of it). I think the “Poet” was Shakespeare’s jab at Jonson. There’s reason to think that Shakespeare made other jabs at Jonson, and Jonson appears to have lampooned Shakespeare in his plays (setting aside his satirical characterizations of Webster and Dekker). The Poet’s War was no secret and the Elizabethan audience was in on it. They were well aware of who was being satirized and lampooned — and they loved it.

But, you may object, the character of Favonius was never referred to as “a poet”. How would the audience have been in on the joke? My answer? Probably because he was dressed like a poet, or dramatist, and possibly was even made to look like Ben Jonson. And furthermore, going completely out on a limb, my bet is that Shakespeare (to really capitalize on the joke) played the part of the Poet. But before we go any further, let’s take a step back. Would Shakespeare really “mar” one of his masterpieces for the sake of a joke?

We know that Shakespeare was involved in the poet’s war because of a reference to Shakespeare and Jonson made by an anonymous author at St. John’s College in 1601-2, in his A Return from Parnassus. My source for this (and all that follows) is Shakespeare & The Poet’s War by James P. Bednarz. Bednarz writes:

 …the anonymous author has the students impersonating Richard Burbage and William Kemp not only reveal that Shakespeare participated in the struggle but also affirm that by the strength of his wit he managed to overcome all other combatants in the process. “Kemp” especially exults in Shakespeare’s victory over Jonson:

Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, ay and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow. He brought up Horace giving the Poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit. [p. 21]

The rest of Berdnarz’s book is dedicated to teasing out exactly what this “purge” might have been. All critics agree on the “pill” — Jonson’s denunciation of Marston and Dekker in Act 5, Scene 3 of Poetaster, but there’s no real agreement on the “purge”. First to the pill. Jonson was in a snit. Marston had gotten things going by, among other things, stating that Jonson was little more than a translator who stole the works of others. Jonson’s riposte was to satirize Marston’s turgid style and mannered vocabulary in the character of Crispinus. The specific passage is about half way down, but I’ve copied this much because it begins with the “pill”. As Bednarz points out, “Crisponus disgorges fourteen words and phrases that can still be located in Marston’s prior work: ‘barmy froth,’ ‘chilblained,’ ‘clumsy,’ ‘clutched,’ [etc…]” p. 215]

Hor. Please it, great Caesar, I have pills about me,
Mixt with the whitest kind of hellebore,
Would give him a light vomit, that should purge
His brain and stomach of those tumorous heats:
Might I have leave to minister unto him.
O, be his AEsculapius, gentle Horace!
You shall have leave, and he shall be your patient. Virgil,
Use your authority, command him forth.
Caesar is careful of your health, Crispinus;
And hath himself chose a physician
To minister unto you: take his pills.
They are somewhat bitter, sir, but very wholesome.
Take yet another; so: stand by, they’ll work anon.
Tib. Romans, return to your several seats: lictors, bring forward
the urn; and set the accused to the bar.
Tuc. Quickly, you whoreson egregious varlets; come forward. What!
shall we sit all day upon you? You make no more haste now, than a
beggar upon pattens; or a physician to a patient that has no money,
you pilchers.
Tib. Rufus Laberius Crispinus, and Demetrius Fannius, hold up your
hands. You have, according to the Roman custom, put yourselves upon
trial to the urn, for divers and sundry calumnies, whereof you
have, before this time, been indicted, and are now presently
arraigned: prepare yourselves to hearken to the verdict of your
tryers. Caius Cilnius Mecaenas pronounceth you, by this
hand-writing, guilty. Cornelius Gallus, guilty. Pantilius Tucca–
Tuc. Parcel-guilty, I.
He means himself; for it was he indeed
Suborn’d us to the calumny.
Tuc. I, you whoreson cantharides! was it I?
Dem. I appeal to your conscience, captain.
Tib. Then you confess it now?
Dem. I do, and crave the mercy of the court.
Tib. What saith Crispinus?
Cris. O, the captain, the captain—
Bor. My physic begins to work with my patient, I see.
Virg. Captain, stand forth and answer.
Tuc. Hold thy peace, poet praetor: I appeal from thee to Caesar, I.
Do me right, royal Caesar.
Marry, and I will, sir.—Lictors, gag him; do.
And put a case of vizards o’er his head,
That he may look bifronted, as he speaks.
Tuc. Gods and fiends! Caesar! thou wilt not, Caesar, wilt thou?
Away, you whoreson vultures; away. You think I am a dead corps now,
because Caesar is disposed to jest with a man of mark, or so. Hold
your hook’d talons out of my flesh, you inhuman harpies. Go to,
do’t. What! will the royal Augustus cast away a gentleman of
worship, a captain and a commander, for a couple of condemn’d
caitiff calumnious cargos?
Caes. Dispatch, lictors.
Tuc. Caesar!                   [The vizards are put upon him.
Caes. Forward, Tibullus.
Virg. Demand what cause they had to malign Horace.
Dem. In troth, no great cause, not I, I must confess; but that he
kept better company, for the most part, than I; and that better men
loved him than loved me; and that his writings thrived better than
mine, and were better liked and graced: nothing else.
Thus envious souls repine at others’ good.
If this be all, faith, I forgive thee freely.
Envy me still, so long as Virgil loves me,
Gallus, Tibullus, and the best-best Caesar,
My dear Mecaenas; while these, with many more,
Whose names I wisely slip, shall think me worthy
Their honour’d and adored society,
And read and love, prove and applaud my poems;
I would not wish but such as you should spite them.
Cris. O–!
Tib. How now, Crispinus?
Cris. O, I am sick–!
Hor. A bason, a bason, quickly; our physic works. Faint not, man.
Cris. O——retrograde——reciprocal——incubus.
Caes. What’s that, Horace?
Hor. Retrograde, reciprocal, and incubus, are come up.
Gal. Thanks be to Jupiter!
Cris. O——glibbery——lubrical——defunct——O——!
Hor. Well said; here’s some store.
Virg. What are they?
Hor. Glibbery, lubrical, and defunct.
Gal. O, they came up easy.
Cris. O——O——!
Tib. What’s that?
Hor. Nothing yet.
Cris. Magnificate——
Mec. Magnificate!  That came up somewhat hard.
Hor. Ay. What cheer, Crispinus?
Cris. O! I shall cast up my——spurious——snotteries——
Hor. Good. Again.
Oris. Chilblain’d——O——O——clumsie——
Hor. That clumsie stuck terribly.
Mec. What’s all that, Horace?
Hor. Spurious, snotteries, chilblain’d, clumsie.
Tib. O Jupiter!
Gal. Who would have thought there should have been such a deal of
filth in a poet?
Cris. O——balmy froth——
Caes. What’s that?
Hor. Balmy, froth, puffie, inflate, turgidous, and ventosity are
come up.
Tib. O terrible windy words.
Gal. A sign of a windy brain.
Cris. O——oblatrant——furibund——fatuate——strenuous—
Hor. Here’s a deal; oblatrant, furibund, fatuate, strenuous.
Caes. Now all’s come up, I trow. What a tumult he had in his belly?
Hor. No, there’s the often conscious damp behind still.
Cris. O——conscious——damp.
Hor. It is come up, thanks to Apollo and AEsculapius: another; you
were best take a pill more.
Cris. O, no; O——O——O——O——O!
Hor. Force yourself then a little with your finger.
Cris. O——O——prorumped.
Tib. Prorumped I What a noise it made! as if his spirit would have
prorumpt with it.
Cris. O——O——O!
Virg. Help him, it sticks strangely, whatever it is.
Cris. O——clutcht
Hor. Now it is come; clutcht.
Caes. Clutcht!  it is well that’s come up; it had but a narrow
Cris. O——!
Virg. Again! hold him, hold his head there.
Cris. Snarling gusts——quaking custard.
Hor. How now, Crispinus?
Cris. O——obstupefact.
Tib. Nay, that are all we, I assure you.
Hor. How do you feel yourself?
Cris. Pretty and well, I thank you.
These pills can but restore him for a time,
Not cure him quite of such a malady,
Caught by so many surfeits, which have fill’d
His blood and brain thus full of crudities:
‘Tis necessary therefore he observe
A strict and wholesome diet. Look you take
Each morning of old Cato’s principles
A good draught next your heart; that walk upon,
Till it be well digested: then come home,
And taste a piece of Terence, suck his phrase
Instead of liquorice; and, at any hand,
Shun Plautus and old Ennius: they are meats
Too harsh for a weak stomach.
Use to read (But not without a tutor) the best Greeks,
As Orpheus, Musaeus, Pindarus,
Hesiod, Callimachus, and Theocrite,
High Homer; but beware of Lycophron,
He is too dark and dangerous a dish.
You must not hunt for wild outlandish terms,
To stuff out a peculiar dialect;
But let your matter run before your words.
And if at any time you chance to meet
Some Gallo-Belgic phrase; you shall not straight.
Rack your poor verse to give it entertainment,
But let it pass; and do not think yourself
Much damnified, if you do leave it out,
When nor your understanding, nor the sense
Could well receive it. This fair abstinence,
In time, will render you more sound and clear:
And this have I prescribed to you, in place
Of a strict sentence; which till he perform,
Attire him in that robe. And henceforth learn
To bear yourself more humbly; not to swell,
Or breathe your insolent and idle spite
On him whose laughter can your worst affright.
Tib. Take him away.

Note the monologue at the end, where Ben Jonson, in the guise of Virgil, gets to pompously lecture Marston and Dekker. My point in copying it here is, first, because it’s actually hilarious if you can imagine it onstage and, two, to show how Jonson, Dekker, Marston, and eventually Poets' WarShakespeare, after his own fashion, were playing out their argument before all of London. Not only were they making their case before the Elizabethan public, but it’s also liekly that their on-stage dispute was raking in the money; and they weren’t fools (Marston, Dekker, and Jonson would all happily work together again.) It’s not unreasonable to suspect that they kissed and made up well before they ended the feud. But getting back to Shakespeare, what was his fashion? Berdnarz argues that Shakespeare satirized Jonson in the character of Ajax from his play Troilus and Cressida:.

“As Elton observes, the language of A Return from Parnassus is more prcise in its connotations than readers had heretofore recognized. Kemp’s line, “our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit,” uses the word “beray” as a synonym in Elizabethan parlance for “befoul” or “beshit.” Elron concludes that Shakespeare ‘purged’ Jonson by satirizing him as a witless braggart soldier compounded of humours, and berayed his credit — befouled his reputation — by naming him Ajax, signifying a privy’ Shakespeare needed Ajaz for the depiction of Trojan history, but he built into the role a reference to Jonson in order to expose him by proxy to his own comic plotting. Ever since John Harington in The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) encouraged his readers to pronounce the hero’s name with a stress on the second syllable (“a jakes”), it had had a latent comic association. Harington incited a reply from an anonymous rival who took him to task in Ulysses Upon Ajax, or in other words, “Ulyssess on the privy.” [p. 32-33]

Shakespeare’s satire of Jonson is gist for the entire book, but this at least gives an introduction. What did Jonson say that irked Shakespeare? As it turns out, one of Jonson’s surviving criticisms of Shakespeare pertains to his play Julius Caesar:

“Many times he fell into those things could not escape laughter: as when he said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him, “Caesar, thou dost me wrong,” he replied “Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause,” and such like, which were ridiculous. But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.”

Now, strangely enough, this line can’t be found in the play as it as come down to us. Instead, we find the following:

“Know Caesar doth no wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.”

Somebody changed the line. Not only that, when but when they changed it they left a half-line, as if, in Berdnarz’s words, they indicated a revision. What this tells us is that the play was altered subsequent to Jonson’s barb; and this is important because it adds just a little plausibility to my own contention that the “Poet” was also, possibly, a subsequent revision. In other words, Shakespeare may have corrected the much maligned line, but also added a little barb in the guise of the “poet”.

But before I copy out the lines with Shakespeare’s “Poet” included, a couple more observations. There was another criticism that Jonson made of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, and that was lambasting Shakespeare for ignoring the classical unities. Jonson especially singled out the Shakespeare’s Henry V, contemptuous of the play’s personified “Prologue” who wafted the audience hither and anon in complete disregard of the “classical unities“. In the 1616 Folio Edition of Jonson’s plays, the following prologue appeared in Every Man In His Humour.


Though need make many poets, and some such
As art and nature have not better’d much;
Yet ours for want hath not so loved the stage,
As he dare serve the ill customs of the age,
Or purchase your delight at such a rate,
As, for it, he himself must justly hate:
To make a child now swaddled, to proceed
Man, and then shoot up, in one beard and weed,
Past threescore years; or, with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot and half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster’s king jars,
And in the tyring-house bring wounds to scars.
He rather prays you will be pleas’d to see
One such to-day, as other plays should be;
Where neither chorus wafts you o’er the seas,
Nor creaking throne comes down the boys to please;
Nor nimble squib is seen to make afeard
The gentlewomen; nor roll’d bullet heard
To say, it thunders; nor tempestuous drum
Rumbles, to tell you when the storm doth come;
But deeds, and language, such as men do use,
And persons, such as comedy would choose,
When she would shew an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.
Except we make them such, by loving still
Our popular errors, when we know they’re ill.
I mean such errors as you’ll all confess,
By laughing at them, they deserve no less:
Which when you heartily do, there’s hope left then,
You, that have so grac’d monsters, may like men.

The whole of it is a scathing criticism from beginning to end. From what I can gather, the assumption seems to be that because the prologue first appeared in print in the 1616 Folio Edition, it must have been written then. I don’t see a compelling reason to make that assumption. Why would Jonson write such a scathing prologue almost 20 years after Henry V’s first appearance (1599)? My own supposition, and based on Shakespeare’s “Poet”, is that it appeared much earlier, and was probably appended to the play during the Poetomachia. Every Man In His Humour was first staged in 1598, before Henry V, but continued to be staged, and probably contemporaneously with Henry V. In fact, Jonson’s play was entered into the Register of the Stationers’ Company on 4 August 1600, along with Shakespeare’s  As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V. It’s much more likely, in my opinion, that the prologue, or an early form of it, appeared shortly after Henry V as the Poetomachia heated up. If I’m right, then Jonson only formally added it to the play, for the sake of the folio, in 1616.

And one last bit of information before we read the passage with the poet. Here’s a brief explanation of Jonson’s Humours from here:

As Jonson has been much misrepresented in this matter, let us quote his
own words as to “humour.” A humour, according to Jonson, was a bias of
disposition, a warp, so to speak, in character by which

“Some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions, all to run one way.”

But continuing, Jonson is careful to add:

“But that a rook by wearing a pied feather,
The cable hat-band, or the three-piled ruff,
A yard of shoe-tie, or the Switzers knot
On his French garters, should affect a humour!
O, it is more than most ridiculous.”

Jonson’s comedy of humours, in a word, conceived of stage personages
on the basis of a ruling trait or passion (a notable simplification
of actual life be it observed in passing); and, placing these typified
traits in juxtaposition in their conflict and contrast, struck the
spark of comedy.

Now, what would you do if you were Shakespeare? Not only does Jonson lay into your play Julius Caesar, shooting off his mouth about a phrase that he finds utterly nonsensical,

“I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. . .” ~ Ben Jonson

But he’s he added a rhyming Prologue to his play Every Man in his Humour, accusing you of provincial incompetence, of ignoring the classical unities (messing with the normal progress of time and place), and does it all while lording his own classical education over you. Why, if you were Shakespeare, you might go back and insert a few lines, changing Plutarch’s Favonius into a character who looked and acted suspiciously like Ben Jonson, and probably much to the uproarious delight of the playgoers.

Cassius: Hath Cassius lived
To be but mirth and laughter  to his Brutus
When grief and blood ill-tempered vexeth him?
Brutus: When you spoke that, I was ill-tempered too.
Cassius: Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
Brutus: And my heart too.
[They embrace]
Cassius: O Brutus!
What’s the matter?

Cassius: Have you not love enough to bear with me
When that rash humour which my mother gave me
Makes me forgetful?
Brutus: Yes, Cassius, and from henceforth,
When you are over earnest with your Brutus,
He’ll think your mother chides, and leave you so.
Enter [Lucillius and] a POET
POET: Let me go in to see the generals.
There is some grudge between ’em; ’tis not meet
They be alone.
Lucillius: You shall not come to them.
POET: Nothing but death shall stay me.
Cassius: How now! What’s the matter?
POET: For shame, you generals, what do you mean?
Love and be friends, as two such men should be.
For I have seen more years, I’m sure, than ye.
Cassius: Ha, ha! How vilely doth this cynic rhyme!
Brutus [to the Poet] Get you hence, sirrah, saucy fellow, hence!
Cassius: Bear with him, Brutus, ’tis his fashion.
Brutus: I’ll know his humour when he knows his time.
What should the wars do with these jigging fools?
[To the Poet] Companion, hence!
Cassius: Away, away, be gone!
Brutus: Lucillius and Titinius, bid the commanders
Prepare to lodge their companies tonight. etc.

That Poet, I propose, is Ben Jonson. He can’t keep from barging in and giving his pompous, bloated opinion in the midst of the play. I suspect the audience immediately recognized him. In he goes! Nothing but death shall stay him! (And that might be a barbed reference to Jonson’s boasting that he had taken Marston’s pistol from him. ) What does Jonson do? He claims legitimacy “for I have seen more years” in a way that echoes his claim to a superior knowledge of classical literature — (400px-Lucius_Junius_Brutus_MAN_Napoli_Inv6178the classical unities & dramaturgy). “How vilely doth this cynic rhyme!” cries Brutus. Favonius was a cynic, a “member of a philosophical school that refused to respect differences in social class.” [The Norton Shakespeare p. 1575] Jonson, among other jests, ceaselessly made fun of Shakespeare’s desire to be a gentleman and obtain a coat of arms. Consider this from Wikipedia:

Every Man Out of His Humour includes several references to Shakespeare and his contemporaneous works: a mention of Justice Silence from Henry IV, Part 2—”this is a kinsman to Justice Silence” (V,ii) and two allusions to Julius Casear, which help to date that play to 1599. “Et tu, Brute” occurs in V,iv of Every Man Out; in III,i appears “reason long since is fled to animals,” a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s line “O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts” in Julius Caesar, III,ii,104. Some critics have seen a dig at Shakespeare in the coat of arms that Jonson gives his character Sogliardo in III,1, whose crest features a ” boar without a head, rampant – A boar without a head, that’s very rare!” and the motto “Not without mustard.” The motto of Shakespeare’s family coat of arms granted three years earlier was Non Sans Droit, “not without right.”

Shakespeare’s humorous jab is both true to Plutarch (Favonius was a cynic) and also true of Jonson (who disrespects Shakespeare’s social climbing). The “rhyme”, in my opinion, refers to the rhyming of the prologue to Every Man In His Humour. Shakespeare, in the character of Brutus, then brusquely dismisses Jonson:  “Get you hence, sirrah, saucy fellow, hence!”

Cassius, perhaps representing the common opinion on Jonson, says: “Bear with him, Brutus, ’tis his fashion.”

This is the praise that damns. Jonson’s posturing is merely fashion, rather than anything principled. And then Brutus executes the coup de grâce:

I’ll know his humour when he knows his time.
What should the wars do with these jigging fools?

In my view, Shakespeare all but spells it out. “I’ll know his humour” — a sly reference to Jonson’s plays Every Man In and Every Man Out of His Humour, if not his philosophical dramaturgy in generalwhen he knows his time.” I suspect time is a coy jab at Jonson’s harping on the classical unities. In other words, Shakespeare will give a damn what Jonson thinks when Jonson knows his time — that he’s a playwright in Elizabethan England and not ancient Rome. Basta. And then he adds (with possibly a reference to Henry V) — “What should the wars (Henry V) do with these jigging (rhyming) fools (Ben Jonson).”

“Away, away, be gone!” says Cassius, as though speaking the general censure.

All the while, Brutus and Cassius are laughing; and this too is true to Plutarch, who wrote that Favonius’s foolery disarmed both Brutus’s and Cassius’s anger. Shakespeare substitutes the so-called “Poet”, Ben Jonson, for the fool, Favonius; and probably to the delight of the Elizabethan audience, who laughed along with Brutus and Cassius.

A stroke of genius, if you ask me (and if I’m right). Let me know what you think.

Ben Jonson ❧ Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes

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Jonson’s Ambition

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). Shakespeare's ShieldThe 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]:

Ungentle Shakespeare

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.

Shakespeare & The Poet's WarIndeed, 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

And if you want to see more from Jonson’s Epistle, click on the image and enlarge.

  • 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 Celiasee 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:

In Greek mythology, ichor (pronounced /ˈaɪkər/ or /ˈɪkər/; Greek ἰχώρ) is the ethereal fluid that is the Greek gods’ blood, sometimes said to have been present in ambrosia or nectar.

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.

Useful Links

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

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay.
But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,
Let us together closely lie and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

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

Doe but consider this small dust
that runneth in the glasse
by Autumnes mov’d
would you beleeve that it the body ere was
of one that lov’d
who in his M[ist]r[i]s flame playing like a Fly
burnt to Cinders by her eye,
Yes and in death as life vnblest
to have it exprest
Even ashes of lovers finde no rest.