Lore and Ordure

Terence Hawkes

  • The Fury of Men’s Gullets: Ben Jonson and the Digestive Canal by Bruce Thomas Boehrer
    Pennsylvania, 238 pp, £36.50, January 1998, ISBN 0 8122 3408 1

In 1616, the year in which Shakespeare died, Ben Jonson became the first English dramatist to publish a collected edition of his own plays. No doubt The Workes of Beniamin Jonson, a folio volume of more than a thousand pages, brought a sharp satisfaction to its author. The indignities of an earlier career as a bricklayer could scarcely have been more roundly redeemed. Only the malice of a contemporary wit,

Pray tell me Ben, where doth the mystery lurke
What others call a play, you call a worke.

hints at their shadowy, shaming persistence. By the 20th century, any whiff of pretentiousness had long since vanished. T.S. Eliot’s respect for Jonson’s constructive skills almost succeeds in presenting his drama as all works and no play. Despite the claims made for his expertise in manipulating plot, what holds Jonson’s best material together, according to Eliot, is something rarer and more durable, ‘a unity of inspiration that radiates into plot and personages alike’. His poetry may be ‘of the surface’, but its complex achievements make it far from superficial. After all, ‘poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study’ and the immediate appeal of Jonson is to the mind. No calls of unconscious to unconscious, no subterranean swarms of inarticulate feelings operate there. Instead, ‘whereas in Shakespeare the effect is due to the way in which the characters act upon one another, in Jonson it is given by the way in which the characters fit in with each other.’ Perhaps the bricklayer had the last laugh.

Eliot’s wary approval of Jonson’s ostentatious erudition makes the assessment offered in The Sacred Wood something of a landmark. His bafflement in the face of the evidence that Jonson’s contemporaries were able to produce works of genius without such a commitment, by reaching down into a deeper well of unlearned, orally-transmitted folklore, is no less significant. Disturbingly, to an East Coast Brahmin, Shakespeare, Donne, Webster, Tourneur (and sometimes Middleton) seem to have a depth, an extra dimension, which Jonson’s work lacks. ‘Their words have often a network of tentacular roots reaching down to the deepest terrors and desires. Jonson’s most certainly have not.’

Insofar as Bruce Thomas Boehrer’s resourceful sifting of Jonson’s plays focuses on the network of tentacular roots animating their language, it might be seen as a salutary transatlantic redressing of an earlier American deformation. His concern to explore the furthest reaches of Jonson’s metaphors of writing as ingestion, digestion and excretion, might even be termed fundamental. It certainly hits pay-dirt. Early Modern ‘workes’ turn out to be subject to processes that mimic the functions of the intestines to the extent that the use by contemporary printers of their own urine as a moistening agent ensures that some ‘minute chemical residue’ of the digestive tract actually transfers onto the page. With printed paper commonly used as a lining for pastry tins – a fate Jonson predicted for some of his own verses – it meant that the food and literary chains were unavoidably intertwined. Given a childhood home in Hartshorn Lane, Westminster, later to become one of the major sewage canals in London, and a family dependent on a kitchen garden abutting the sewage ditch, it begins to seem sustainable – almost suppositional – that ‘inserted into the metaphorical anus of greater London, Jonson begins his life by eating self-consciously recycled excrement.’ As a subsequent upward mobility virtually turns his whole career into an ‘inverted figurative peristalsis’, it becomes difficult to resist the final ‘troping’ of both life and work as alimentary.

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