Sam Leith on the paradoxical nature of Britain’s first literary celebrity
What a piece of work was Ben Jonson! If you lived in Elizabethan England and had just narrowly escaped the gallows after stabbing a man to death in an illegal duel, wouldn’t you want to keep your head down for a bit? Not Jonson. He converted to Catholicism.
A few months after the bishops of Canterbury and London, in 1599, declared the writing of satire illegal, what did Jonson produce? Every Man out of his Humour, a self-declared ‘comical satire’. The writing of history was also proscribed — Tacitean history being a particular sore point. So in 1603 Jonson produced Sejanus, a history play based on Tacitus. Epigrams were banned too. By 1612, Jonson got round to publishing some.
Anyone would think he didn’t want to get on. Yet get on (despite the odd spell in chokey, and a fusillade of letters begging for forgiveness) is exactly what he did. He was the stepson of a bricklayer, with a criminal conviction for manslaughter, and a serial writer of plays that gave offence to court favourites — yet he became the pre-eminent dramatist and deviser of court entertainments of his era.
Jonson was a bruiser, intellectually and physically. He was poet, soldier and brickie. That was when poets were hard. He once walked to Edinburgh and back for a bet. He put his own shoulder to the wheel when scenery needed rotating for his masques. Towards the end of his life he weighed 20 stone. Ugly bugger, too; he was described by his sometime associate Thomas Dekker as ‘a staring Leviathan’ with ‘a terrible mouth’ and ‘a parboiled face … punched full of oilet holes, like the cover of a warming pan’.
But bruiser was only half the story. Even as he feuded with contemporaries and lambasted court favourites, he politicked ably. He wrote verse of wonderful metrical sinuousness, and satires of careful ambiguity. That he always sailed close to the wind can be seen as an index of how skilful a sailor he really was.
It is just one of this biography’s many virtues that it traces with exemplary subtlety the shifting ground on which Jonson built his reputation: not only in terms of courtly factions, but of religion. The Catholic/Protestant divide in early modern England wasn’t a simple matter of priest-holes, excommunications and recusants toasting on bonfires. The late Tudor and early Stuart polity was held together by careful negotiation, qualified tolerance and mobile networks of allegiance. What’s remarkable is not how schismatic European society was, but on the contrary, how accommodating.
Jonson’s friendship with John Donne — the former a Catholic convert, the latter a Protestant convert — is a case in point. So, too, is the fact that at one moment Jonson could be breaking bread with the 5 November plotters and the next be charged by the Crown with rooting out a tame Catholic priest to officiate at the torture of Guy Fawkes.
Then again, Jonson knew everybody. Quite aside from his acquaintance with Francis Bacon and John Donne, let alone his fractious but productive partnership with the great stage designer Inigo Jones, he was rival, collaborator or both with every dramatist of the age whose name survives.
He even acted as an academic mentor to Philip Sidney’s nephew and Walter Ralegh’s son. Both were what we’d now identify as problem kids. His predecessor as tutor to young William Sidney had been stabbed by his charge. Wat Ralegh — afterwards described by Jonson as ‘knavishly inclined’ — smeared faeces on the face of a debating opponent and (shamefully taking advantage of Jonson’s weakness for drink) had his passed-out tutor carted around the streets of Paris, boasting that he was ‘a more lively image of the crucifix than any they had’.
Nowadays we have a very partial view of Jonson. A tiny handful of his plays — Volpone, The Alchemist, Every Man in his Humour, more rarely Bartholomew Fair — get performed. His best known lines of verse, poignantly, are probably those ‘To the Reader’, which prefaced Shakespeare’s First Folio. Of his massive body of scholarly work, his epigrams and his masques, we think next to nothing.
Though Shakespeare proved (in Jonson’s words) ‘for all time’, Jonson himself was eclipsed. What happened? He was classical, where Shakespeare was romantic. As Ian Donaldson suggests, the 18th-century craze for originality elevated Shakespeare and did down Jonson, casting him as a writer barnacled with book-learning and clunkingly imitative of his models. Mind you, as Donaldson points out, Shakespeare borrowed in many cases more freely from authorities than Jonson did.
But many of the modes in which he wrote — masquing, humours comedy, and personification — now look like museum pieces; and at the same time his busy, urban satires were so granularly involved with the preoccupations of the age in which they were written that they ended up harder to recast than Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare’s forests and cities and islands proved portable. Jonson’s London, by and large, did not.
Yet at the time of his death Jonson was the most famous writer of his age, while the Stratford man’s passing was barely noticed. The caricatural notion of Jonson as an envious detractor of his friend and rival, ‘based on a limited understanding of the man and his works’, helped to cast posterity as a winner-takes-all competition between the two.
That’s a terrible injustice. Jonson was, his biographer argues plausibly, ‘the first literary critic in England worthy of the name’, and ‘Britain’s first literary celebrity’ — a man who ardently and shrewdly curated his own reputation: ‘It was through strategic publication of his works that Jonson was eventually to make his career as a writer, step by careful step.’ He was mocked for including anything so paltry and ephemeral as plays (Jonson himself claimed to despise the theatre) within a folio volume called Works; the epigrammatic riposte that circulated was ‘Ben’s plays are works, when other’s works are plays.’
Among his other achievements, Jonson appears to have minted the terms ‘playwright’, ‘poetaster’ and — in its literary application — ‘plot’. He wasn’t as old-fashioned as his facility with traditional forms might be taken to imply. He mistrusted writers, like Spenser, who affected antiquity. He was attuned to the scientific discoveries of the age, sceptical about witchcraft and astrology, and au fait with the emergent work on magnetism and optics.
As far as its position on the pop/scholarly scale goes, this is a book by an academic reaching out to the general reader rather than vice-versa. You won’t find much of the florid, novelistic ‘conjuring of the sights, sounds and smells of Tudor London’, or speculation on what Jonson ‘must have felt’. It’s much more interesting than that.
Instead, you have a work of clarity and lucidity, exact in its historical detail, full of new material and ingeniously suggestive in its conjecture and interpretation. Who needs colour-writing when, for instance, you can simply include a bare list of the grub rustled up by the Merchant Taylors’ Company to welcome Prince Henry into their ranks in the summer of 1607?
Swans, godwit, shovellers, partridges, owls, cuckoos, ringdoves, pullets, ducklings, teal, peacocks, rabbits, leverets and a great turkey… along with 1,300 eggs, three great lobsters and 200 prawns, salmon, salt fish, plaice, sole, dory, carp and tenches, sirloins and ribs of beef, mutton and lambs’ dowsets, neats’ tongues and sweet breads, and to conclude the evening, figs, dates, prunes, currants, almonds, strawberries, g
ooseberries, cherries, pears, apples, damsons, oranges and quinces. Twenty-eight barrels of beer were provided to slake the diners’ thirst, together with more than 440 gallons of wine.
This, too, is a feast: a terrific book about an amazing man.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 15, 2011