Great Instructor

Charles Nicholl

  • Ben Jonson: A Life by David Riggs
    Harvard, 399 pp, £27.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 674 06625 1

Ben Jonson is remembered as a master of English comedy, but you would hardly think so from his portrait. The earliest dateable likeness is the engraving by Robert Vaughan, done in the mid 1620s, when Jonson was around fifty. The face is jowly, bearded, dour, heavily lived-in. The shadowed eyes remind me of photos of Tony Hancock. Comedy, they seem to say, is no laughing matter. It was one of Jonson’s sayings that ‘he would not flatter, though he saw death,’ and his look seems to challenge the artist not to flatter him either. You can see the glisten on his skin from too much canary wine, and the warts and blemishes which more malicious caricaturists like Thomas Dekker dwell on: ‘a face full of pockey-holes and pimples ... a most ungodly face, like a rotten russet apple when ’tis bruised’. You can confirm that, as Aubrey noted, he had one eye bigger and lower than the other. And you can guess at what was by then his vast bulk. In his youth he was tall and rangy, a ‘hollow-cheekt scrag’, but by middle age he had swelled to a corpulent 19 stone. In his poem ‘My Picture Left in Scotland’ (1619) he mocks his unwieldy frame –

So much waist as she cannot embrace
My mountaine belly and my rockye face

– yet seems also to celebrate its craggy solidity. This sense of solidity and stature is also conveyed in the portrait. Here, in every sense, is a big man.

Even his literary greatness seems sometimes more a bigness, a triumph of volume and stamina. His career spanned three reigns and four decades, from the first flexing of comic power in The Isle of Dogs (1597) to the last melancholy fragments of The Sad Shepherd, probably written in the final year of his life. During that time he wrote 18 plays, 37 masques and court entertainments, two volumes of poetry and a volume of epigrams. This list does not include the lost plays from his days as one of Henslowe’s hacks at the Rose, nor the mass of work unpublished at his death: over a hundred miscellaneous pieces of verse, a translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica, an English grammar, and the compendium of jottings, musings and mini-essays later collected under the title of Timber (or ‘Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matter’).

In an age when most writers burned out young, Jonson kept on going. Right at the end, embattled by debt and alcoholism, half-paralysed by a stroke, he was still at work. Among his last pieces was probably the English Grammar, published posthumously in 1640. It shows him still niggling away at the nuts and bolts of the language, purifying that ‘sterling English diction’ which Coleridge praised in him, involving himself in such orthographic minutiae as the superiority of the ‘serviceable k’ over ‘this halting Q, with her waiting-woman u after her’. Also among his papers were fragments of two plays: the pastorale called The Sad Shepherd, and a chronicle-play, Mortimer His Fall. The printed text of the latter concludes curtly, ‘He dy’d, and left it unfinished,’ furnishing an apocryphal vision of the aged maestro finally keeling over with the ink still wet on his quill. It was not probably like that, but Jonson encourages these vignettes.

He died in August 1637, aged 65, at the gate-house in Westminster where he lived his last years with a pet fox and a drunken housekeeper. His funeral was attended by ‘the greatest part of the nobilitie and gentry’, and a volume of memorial odes, Jonsonus Virbius, was published the following year. Here his disciples – the ‘Tribe of Ben’, as they were called – praise him as the ‘great Instructor’, the ‘voice most echoed by consenting men’. A generation later, in his essay ‘Of Dramatick Poesy’, Dryden singled him out as the ‘greatest man of the last age’.

These are literary judgments. Posterity has preferred a briefer, more elusive epitaph. As his grave at Westminster Abbey was being covered, a passer-by, Sir Jack Young, noticed that the headstone was still blank. He ‘gave the fellow eighteeen pence’ to cut an inscription. It read simply: ‘O Rare Benn Jonson’.

Like the portraitist, Jonson’s biographer has to achieve a kind of dual image. He has to convey Jonson’s huge stature, his pre-eminence as a public literary figure, yet also to reveal something of the private flaws and tensions that lay behind it. It is odd how few have risen to this challenge. C.H. Herford’s memoir in the 11-volume Oxford Ben Jonson published in 1925, has remained the best account long after modern scholarship has found omissions and errors in it. Chute’s biography (1953) is too heavy on the rumbust, and Rosalind Miles’s (1986) is pedestrian, an accumulation of scholarly detail that is never quite a ‘life’. Now at last we have a biography that pulls out all the right stops. David Riggs provides a fastidious, challenging and compassionate reading of the man. Not everyone will agree with some of its psychiatrist’s couch diagnoses – anal fixations, stepfather traumas, and so on – though personally I find them convincing.

There is something daunting about Jonson, something that rejects you. This, too, you feel in his portrait. You even feel it in his comedies: their core of harshness, the derision and punishment that go with the laughter. Also the sense of huge verbal labour in them, which is always contrasted with Shakespeare’s agility and flow. This note is already sounded by Dryden, who styles Jonson the Virgil of English drama to Shakespeare’s Homer, and adds tellingly: ‘I admire him, but I love Shakespeare.’ This perhaps articulates the basic problem. You cannot quite love Ben Jonson. In fact, sometimes you’re not sure if you even like him.

There were plenty who didn’t at the time. There is a rich store of contemporary material on him, and much of it is disparaging. The earliest and funniest is the caricature of Jonson as ‘Horace’ in Thomas Dekker’s comedy, Satiromastix. This played in 1601, when Jonson was 29. Subtitled ‘The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet’ (referring to Jonson’s popular ‘humorous comedies’), it gives a scurrilous portrait of Jonson in the first swagger of literary success. Dekker dwells on his ugliness – a face ‘like the cover of a warming pan’, a voice that ‘sounds so i’th nose’ – and portrays him as a seedy penny-a-liner whose only aim is to ‘skrue and wriggle himself into great men’s familiarity’. The avowed purpose is to give this ‘thornie-tooth’d satyricall rascal’ a dose of his own medicine, but somehow Dekker ends up seconding the vigour and charisma of his target, as when he bids Horace not to ‘dippe your manners in too much sawce, nor at table to fling epigrams, emblemes or play-speeches about you lyke hayle-stones’.

This was one of the exchanges in the so-called ‘War of the Theatres’. Shakespeare was briefly involved in this, and according to one well-informed contemporary, he gave that ‘pestilent fellow’ Jonson a ‘purge which made him bewray his credit’. Historians have wondered what form this literary laxative took. Some suggest that Jonson is guyed as big morose Ajax in Troilus and Cressida (with, according to Honigmann, the diminutive epigrammist John Weever as Thersites). Others say Jonson is a model for Jaques, the embittered satirist of Arden (‘They that are most galled with my folly, They most must laugh’). Riggs offers, rather unconvincingly, Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

The richest contemporary account of Jonson is the record of his conversations with the Scottish poet, William Drummond. In the summer of 1618, Jonson walked from London to Scotland (Francis Bacon remarking drily that ‘he loved not to see poesy go on other feet than poetical dactyllus and spondaeus’). Having been fêted in Edinburgh, he passed a few pleasant weeks in the autumn as Drummond’s guest at Hawthornden. There he bent the Scotsman’s ear with a barrage of anecdotes, aphorisms, jokes and libels. Drummond duly transcribed, preserving the authentic timbre of Jonson’s table-talk, highly seasoned and doubtless well-pickled (drink, Drummondtartly observed, ‘is one of the elements in which he liveth’). The Conversations offers a crabby review of the current literary scene – Donne ‘deserved hanging’ for his metrical liberties, Shakespeare ‘wanted art’, Sharpham, Day and Dekker were ‘all rogues’, Samuel Daniel was ‘a good honest man, but no poet’ – but more importantly it provides the rudiments of autobiography. In Drummond, as in everyone else, there is that uncertain reaction. He is awe-struck yet curiously disappointed. Jonson’s flamboyance is there – ‘passionately kynde and angry, careless either to gaine or keep’ – but Drummond finds him a ‘bragger’ and a ‘scorner’. He is ‘oppressed with fantasie’. He would rather ‘lose a friend than a jest’.

The achievement of Jonson’s greatest comedies – Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair (1613) and The Devil is an Ass (1616) – is their openness to social realities. He harnessed the texture and parlance of Elizabethan street-life, and fashioned a rich yet austere poetry out of

Deedes and language such as men doe use,
And persons such as Comoedie would chuse,
When she would shew an Image of the times ...

This pungency was to him a dramatic requisite every bit as important as the Neoclassical notions of structural ‘unity’ he insisted on. As he put it in the Induction to Bartholomew Fair, you cannot write about a day at the fair ‘without a language that savours of Smithfield, the booth and the pig-broath’. Jonson’s achievement is about what literature can use, what it can include. One of the lessons of his life, Riggs says, ‘is that everything is of use.’

His early life, as stormy as the rest of it, seems in some ways the perfect apprenticeship for this. By the time he turned to play-writing in the mid-1590s, Jonson had seen something of the seamier side of Elizabethan life. He had grown up on Hartshorn Lane, a street-cum-sewer running between Strand and the Thames. He had worked as a bricklayer, apprenticed to his stepfather, Robert Brett. He had fought with the English troops in the Low Countries, later boasting that he had killed an enemy ‘in the face of both camps’, and ‘taken oppima spolia from him’. He had married, and held a new-born daughter in his arms, and buried her six months later:

This grave partakes the fleshly birth,
Which cover lightly, gentle earth.

His actual literary apprenticeship (like Shakespeare’s probably) took the form of acting in the provinces. Dekker liked to remind him of his lowly beginnings, when ‘thou amblest in leather pilch by a play-wagon in the highway, and tookst mad Jeronimoes part to get service amongst the mimickes.’ He must have been good: Hieronimo in Kyd’s evergreen Spanish Tragedy was a plum part. His first mention in the accounts of Philip Henslowe, manager of the Rose theatre, is the loan of £4 in ‘redey mony’ to ‘Bengemen Iohnson, player’.

I wish he was here to pass comment on latest developments at the Rose. He would hardly be surprised: this smothering of the theatre in an office-block seems a perfect Jonsonian device. His view of Jacobean social values was a raw one. He sees a scrabbling, acquisitive society, a society of victims and predators. Its predominant ‘humours’ are greed and delusion, personified onstage by a comic cast of scavengers and speculators, legacy-hunters and gold-diggers, Meercrafts and Eithersides, Sir Moth Interests and Sir Politic Would-bes. The issues today at the Rose are Jonson’s issues: loadsamoney humours, political double-speak, and the things they destroy.

Riggs reminds us of the courage that went into his theatrical ‘images of the times’. Chaotic though it was, Jonson’s career has a cumulative pattern: one of questioning and defining the poet‘s public role, testing the scope of his comment. This was edge-work with very real dangers attached to it. His first known work was The Isle of Dogs, co-written with Thomas Nashe, performed in July 1597. The play is lost. Its nascent comic skills cannot be judged, but its political bite is clear enough. The play was immediately suppressed by the Privy Council as ‘lewd, seditious and sclandrous’. All the playhouses in the London area were shut down, and Jonson and two of the actors spent ten weeks in jail in the Marshalsea. He later boasted of his obstinate silence: his ‘judges’ – who included rackmaster Richard Topcliffe – ‘could get nothing of him to all their demands but Aye and No’. He was also plagued by prison informers, ‘two damn’d villains’ who tried to wheedle seditious sentiments out of him. One of these was Robert Poley, the government agent who was present at the death of Christopher Marlowe in Deptford four years earlier.

This was the first of many skirmishes with the authorities. In 1603 his tragedy Sejanus was denounced to the Council for ‘popery and treason’, and in 1605 he was in prison again, for the comedy Eastward Ho, co-written with George Chapman and John Marston. The trouble this time was a joke – ‘I ken the man weel: he’s one of my thirty pound knights’ – which hit too obviously at King James’s sale of honours. Punishment for this sort of thing was no joke. When the authors were arrested, ‘the report was that they should then have their ears cut, and noses.’

Confrontation was Jonson’s mode as a man and a writer. He was a fighter. His literary quarrels often spilled over into physical violence: he ‘beat’ his colleague Marston and ‘took his pistol from him’, and in 1598, he killed the actor Gabriel Spenser in a sword fight on Hoxton Fields. This resulted in another spell in prison, and nearly the gallows for manslaughter. While in prison he converted to Catholicism: another confrontation. For 12 years he and his wife Anne suffered the fines and petty recriminations of recusancy. In 1610 he returned to the Anglican fold and ‘at his first communion, in token of true reconciliation, he drank out all the full cup of wine’: a typical Jonson gesture.

Sometimes the confrontation seems like truculence, literary machismo: a 17th-century Hemingway. Sometimes he mocks it in himself. But in the end it is his particular gift. Riggs champions that ‘powerfully subversive streak’ in him. There is courage and isolation in Jonson’s story, the ‘plain-speaker’ in an age of political concealment. He ‘comes near to us not as a father or a judge, but as a chronic transgressor who lived to tell the tale’. The price he paid for this can be seen in his turbulent life, and in the eyes of his portrait. His own motto, hand-written in his books, was from Seneca: Tamquam Explorator. That was how he valued himself, ‘as an explorer’