The Tribe of Ben
Seventeenth-century critics thought Ben Jonson England’s finest writer. Even until the mid-18th century he was conventionally regarded as at least Shakespeare’s equal. It was he more than anyone who won a new status for authorship, to befit the moral and educative role he claimed for it. Under James I the former bricklayer and soldier and brawler and convict, the one-time mediocre actor and hack adapter of other people’s plays, became the royal laureate, the friend of courtiers, diplomats and MPs, the honorand of universities. He was Britain’s first literary celebrity, at least to judge by the throng that hailed him outside Berwick as he journeyed to Scotland on foot in 1618 – though he went not for charity, as he might today, but (it seems) for a bet.
[*] The same gift animates Victoria Moul’s book Jonson, Horace and the Classical Tradition (Cambridge, 258 pp., £58, April 2010, 978 0 521 11742 5).
Vol. 34 No. 20 · 25 October 2012
From James Loxley & Anna Groundwater; Julie Sanders
Ben Jonson was not in fact hailed by a ‘throng’ outside Berwick on his walk to Scotland in 1618, as Blair Worden states (LRB, 11 October). A recently discovered account written by a fellow traveller suggests that the poet’s reception there was of a different order. Culverins were ‘mounted’ and the bells rung at his approach, as an overture to three days of – as the account puts it – ‘royal’ entertainment. On his departure northwards he was accompanied by ‘all the knights, gentlemen, Mayor and Aldermen’ as far as the border, where glasses of wine and a volley of shot from a company of musketeers marked his passage from England into Scotland. Such celebratory displays of hospitality were repeated often along the journey, in towns and cities as well as at grand country houses. Sometimes, a more intimate note was sounded: at Howick, in Northumberland, the walkers were sent on their way with a ‘merrybub’, or Marybud, from a lady’s maid ‘for our farewell’, while at North Berwick a piper and a posse of dancing shearers made them welcome. On other occasions the crowds of which Worden speaks were indeed in evidence: at Royston, ‘the maids and young men came out of town to meet us,’ while at Edinburgh ‘the women in throngs ran to see us etc, some bringing sack and sugar, others aquavitae and sugar.’ At Pontefract, Jonson’s arrival even caused some health and safety issues:
All the town was up in throngs to see us, and there was dancing of giants, and music prepared to meet us. And notwithstanding we took a byway to escape the crowd and staring of the people yet a swarm of boys and others crossed over to overtake us, and pressed so upon us, that we were fain to present our pistols upon them to keep them back.
We are currently editing the ‘Foot Voyage’ account for publication as a pendant, of sorts, to the Cambridge Works. It paints a vivid picture of Jonson in his pomp, and provides a striking complement to the ‘Informations’ recorded by William Drummond a few months later. Here, he is genial, generous, expansive and hospitable, a grandly comic turn passing a festive summer with everyone from courtiers and noblemen to itinerant captains, drunken parsons and agricultural labourers, the whole enterprise fuelled by ale, claret, sack, burnt wine and hullock. Such a figure is perhaps difficult to reconcile with the severe moralist and demanding scholar remembered by some of his early admirers, but it does accord with the spirit and tone of much of his work and with the Ben Jonson commemorated in jest books and elsewhere far into the 18th century.
James Loxley & Anna Groundwater; Julie Sanders
University of Edinburgh; University of Nottingham
Vol. 34 No. 21 · 8 November 2012
From Martin Butler
I am grateful to Blair Worden for his review of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, of which I was one of the editors (LRB, 11 October). While praising Colin Burrow’s editing of the poems, he notes the absence of any general essay giving information about the scores of manuscripts to which Burrow’s collations make constant reference. This essay can in fact be read on the website for the edition, along with 65 essays by other contributors to the edition which thoroughly document the manuscripts and early printed texts lying behind Jonson’s plays, masques, prose works and collected volumes. These are all freely available, and will remain permanently accessible after the release of the electronic edition next year.
University of Leeds