A Joke Too Far

Colin Burrow

  • Sir John Harington and the Book as Gift by Jason Scott-Warren
    Oxford, 273 pp, £45.00, August 2001, ISBN 0 19 924445 6

Reader, where are you sitting? Perhaps sunk in a sunlounger by the pool, or perched on a joggling seat on the Tube. Should anyone be reading this on a hard, cold seat in the privy, then they ought to be profoundly grateful to Elizabeth I’s godson Sir John Harington, who in his extraordinary pamphlet The Metamorphosis of Ajax (or ‘A Jakes’ – get it?) invented the flushing water closet. The s-bend was beyond Harington’s technological reach (his privy discharged via a valve directly into a vault beneath), but in a treatise replete with meticulous diagrams and measurements, he describes how to make a sloping basin which could be flushed and refilled with six inches of clean water, insulating the privy from the stench beneath. The invention was presented as a means of avoiding piles, pox and plague. Harington’s great innovation in domestic hygiene was so successful that James I is supposed to have brought him in as a troubleshooter to deal with the privies at Theobalds and Hampton Court.

Harington was much more than a hygienist, however. Indeed, most of his works try to achieve rather too much at once. The Metamorphosis of Ajax is part DIY manual and part minor – and sometimes malodorous – comic masterpiece. Amid endless Rabelaisian jests about privies, it relates the entire history of the Roman sewerage system which Harington learnedly traces through Livy and Sallust. It pauses only when the tireless author gets to the word confornicari in one of his sources and has to call out: ‘Ho sirra bring hither the Dictionarie.’ Harington flips through two volumes – ‘forica, forma, fornicator, (now I think I am neare it), fornix, fornicor, aris, are. There, there’ – before he discovers that the word means ‘to vault or arch any thing. Well said, carrie away the bookes againe,’ rather than ‘to fornicate with’. The joke was probably worth the delay, which mimes its readers’ prurient flutter at the sexy-sounding word. Sterne may have picked up a few tips from Harington.

The main reason jovial, learned, scatological Harington isn’t better known is that he spread his energies so widely among diverse literary kinds. He is best known as a translator rather than an inventor. The story goes that he was ordered by Queen Elizabeth to translate the whole of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso as a penance for having circulated copies of the bawdy tale of Jocundo among the ladies of court. Since Jocundo’s tale is about the compulsive infidelity of women, giving out copies in the court of the Virgin Queen was either a foolish or a deliberately provocative act. Whether or not the anecdote is true (it isn’t recorded until the 18th century) Harington did print his version of Orlando Furioso in 1591; it remains the most vivid and rambunctious translation of this massive, funny, sprawling Italian verse romance. Harington’s Ariosto is stuffed with expensive engravings, including a portrait of Sir John himself with his beloved spaniel Bungey. It was the most sumptuously produced literary text of its era, and its author was not slow to give away copies – several of which were customised by manuscript additions – to the rich and famous.

Harington also wrote and distributed more than four hundred salty epigrams; manuscript copies were carefully adapted to the particular interests of their recipients. Some derive from the broad humour of the early Tudor poet and playwright John Heywood, whom Harington greatly admired, but the most spry anticipate the sharpness of Ben Jonson, which is probably why Jonson was keen to dismiss them in conversation with William Drummond as ‘but narrations’. His most lastingly popular epigram was ‘Treason doth neuer prosper? What’s the reason?/for if it prosper, none dare call it treason.’ The epigrams also include what must be among the earliest mother-in-law jokes in the language, and offer more intimate insights into the domestic politics of a gentry household than almost any other poems from the period. Throughout his career Harington wanted his readers to know about himself, his family and (particularly) his family’s dogs. An epigram records that when he smacked his wife’s dog and made it yelp she rebuked him with the proverb ‘Love me and love my dog.’ He also wrote an epigram about the time one of his maids broke the leg of his mother-in-law’s bitch, which concludes with the wish that the baggage (by which he means the dog and not the maid) had broken her neck. Many of these domestic pieces were gathered in a mini-collection of manuscript epigrams presented to his wife’s mother, Lady Rogers, which Harington lovingly bound together with a presentation copy of his Ariosto. In other poems in this collection he berated his mother-in-law for her scolding tongue and for her tendency to side with his wife in domestic disputes. We can only imagine how Lady Rogers responded to these poems, one of which praises her daughter’s haunches, one of which laments that after 16 years of marriage Harington’s capacity for ‘occupation’ (slang for sex) has declined, and in another of which (translated from a Latin epigram by Thomas More, one of Harington’s early Tudor heroes) he has to leave out a word in order to avoid telling his mother-in-law to eat shit. Lady Rogers, unsurprisingly enough, did not make her son-in-law the executor of her will, which led to violent disputes between Harington and his brother-in-law, Edward Rogers, over the administration and distribution of her estate.

Harington’s conviction that manuscripts mattered led him to run something resembling an informal scriptorium at his house at Kelston, near Bath. The papers copied and preserved by his family and scribes probably tell us more about 16th-century poetry than any other single body of records. His manuscripts include the two most extensive collections of early Tudor verse: the Egerton Manuscript of poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Arundel Harington Manuscript, which contains a miscellany of poems from the 16th century, many of which may have come into the hands of Harington’s father when he was imprisoned in the Tower during Mary’s reign. These documents constitute the strongest physical testament to continuities within 16th-century poetry, a period of literature which histories are notoriously prone to divide between the ‘early Tudor’ and the ‘Elizabethan’ while neglecting the awkward, messy bit in the middle. Harington’s own poetic style is founded in his reading of early Tudor epigrammatists and has its roots in his family’s collection of papers. He augmented this collection with a mass of scribal copies of texts that would otherwise be lost to us: he played a part in preserving the Catholic Edmund Campion’s neo-Latin epic about the papal supremacy, to name only the most recently discovered evidence of his role as a saviour of literary relics. His papers build bridges across the century and across the religious divides that fissured it.

The Harington family also hung on to a miscellaneous collection of writings first printed in 1769-75 as Nugae Antiquae (‘ancient trifles’). These letters and papers, some by Sir John himself, give a piercing insider’s view of life at Court under Elizabeth and James I. The collection includes Harington’s gorgeously mischievous description of a Court entertainment under James, which ends with the performer playing Hope getting hopelessly drunk and being unable to recite her lines. She joined Faith, and both were ‘sick and spewing in the lower hall’. Peace entered and ‘most rudely made war with her olive branch, and laid on the pates of those who did oppose her coming’. The same collection also contains a chilling account of what it was like to be told off by Elizabeth I. Harington records the furious reception his godmother gave him when he returned from Ireland in 1599, having been knighted by the Earl of Essex (Elizabeth regarded it as an act of wilful disobedience for Essex to have knighted anyone on the campaign, and had in any case denied the Earl permission to return). Harington got the full treatment: she ‘bid “Go Home.” I did not stay to bidden twise; if all the Iryshe rebels had been at my heels, I shoude not have had better speede, for I did now flee from one whom I both lovede and fearede too.’

As if all this weren’t enough to ensure Harington’s significance, if not his fame, the manuscript from which the printer Richard Field set Harington’s translation of Ariosto survives in the British Library: it tells us more about the ways in which Elizabethan printers regularised authors’ spelling and punctuation than any other document from the period. When Harington’s lesser efforts are also taken into account – a supplement to Francis Godwin’s Catalogue of Bishops, the short relation of his time in Ireland (which he wrote as part of an audacious but failed attempt to be made Chancellor of Ireland and Archbishop of Dublin in 1605), his translation of the School of Salerne (a popular medieval versified medical treatise), his verse translation of and commentary on Book VI of the Aeneid (dedicated to James I’s son Henry), and his treatise on the succession to the Crown – we have a record of what an Elizabethan courtier wrote, and a sense of why he wrote, which is without parallel in its richness.

Jason Scott-Warren’s marvellously detailed book on Harington brings this huge range of material to life – although it must be said that his version of life is a rather bookish affair. Where most earlier critics who have read substantial amounts of Harington have started to feel that they know him, and have liked him for his bluntness, his scatology and his willingness to put his foot in it, Scott-Warren is interested chiefly in the ways in which Harington used the presentation of books and manuscripts to get on in the world and to show himself in a favourable light. His Harington is both craftier and nastier than any previous account has allowed. His works are, in Scott-Warren’s phrase, ‘powerfully charged with worldly purposes’. Harington distributed books and manuscripts with an acute sense of the preoccupations of the recipients: his treatise on the succession of the Crown was presented to Bishop Tobie Matthew, who in 1602 was wavering in his support for James; his epigrams to his mother-in-law anticipate, and in part participate in, Harington’s vicious disputes with her son over her will and the distribution of her property after her death. Even The Metamorphosis of Ajax, Scott-Warren suggests, is directed towards a carefully chosen group of noblemen with Catholic sympathies, to whom it cryptically presents an argument for greater toleration of Church Catholics in the hope that they would reciprocate by responding tolerantly to Harington’s work. Scott-Warren adds much welcome detail to larger scale theoretical accounts of the role of gift-giving within early modern culture, such as those by Natalie Zemon Davis and by the father of gift theory, Marcel Mauss. Scott-Warren looks in detail at the settings within which Harington wrote, dedicated and donated his books, and finds each act of giving to be a precisely motivated cultural performance, which urges a point of view, seeks an office or chews over (and sometimes rubs salt into) a domestic dispute. For Scott-Warren, books are not simply things to curl up with and enjoy: they work within microclimates, and they usually do so in order to advance the material aims of the giver.

The picture he builds up with remarkable patience is not without its problems. He never quite resolves, although he does acknowledge, the central theoretical problem with his method: it depends a great deal on faith. Even if you build up a full description of the preoccupations which an author and his addressee shared and then suggest that there is a point of resonance between these concerns and the work which is given by one to the other, this does not necessarily prove either that the giver wanted his work to be read in connection with that context or that the recipient recognised the connection. Writing has a habit of being bigger than its immediate circumstances, and readers don’t always read in the ways that authors want them to. So it may be a little hard to believe that if I were a Catholic nobleman who was given a work which seemed partly to be about the mucky business of privy politics and partly about how to make one’s very own flushing lavatory, I would read it as a treatise on how my co-religionists should be tolerated, or (as Scott-Warren less convincingly suggests) how the Earl of Essex should be in charge of the state. I might have done so. But I might not.

The gap between what works might have meant in their original climate and what they can mean also matters, although at his most zealous moments as a historian of the ways in which books have meaning, Scott-Warren sometimes seems to want to make that gap disappear. Books have often been labelled as ‘literary’ because they relish the gap between what they mean in the here and now and what they could mean to people not yet born. As that gap diminishes, it might be right to talk about a work as being ‘historical’ or ‘ephemeral’ rather than ‘literary’. Harington may have targeted works to individual recipients, but he was also someone who wrote things which meant more than his earliest readers understood, and which sometimes meant more than he may have intended.

I have no quarrel with the notion that Elizabethan and Jacobean courtiers had to concern themselves with the world and how to get on, or with the notion that books might be used for self-advancement. Suits for favours, suits for grants, gifts which implied loyalty, gifts which implicitly sought some form of tangible reciprocation, all of these were part of the texture of life in this period, and no one could survive without mastering at least some of the rules of these complex systems of exchange and manipulation. You could get on by passing a letter to someone who had already got on, provided you could persuade them to pass it to someone in power. The way texts worked within this network of aspiration was part of what they meant, and recreating those networks is perhaps the most valuable form of historical work that literary critics of this period can perform. But as an explanatory framework for the period’s literature, how far can this finally get us? Scott-Warren’s book is the best of a string of recent works which have argued that Francis Bacon, Erasmus, Sir Philip Sidney (to name only the most prominent examples) were primarily concerned with negotiating a space for themselves within the Court by exploiting complex relationships between power, manuscript circulation, print and patronage. I am not convinced that any of these studies has fully explained why a particular author should have thought that writing a poem, or presenting a manuscript copy of a translation of Virgil to the heir to the throne, would be a more effective method of getting on than, for example, composing a long treatise on the freedom of the will, or writing a letter to Lord Burghley asking for a reversion of an office. What used to be called literature is certainly illuminated by these studies – and Harington’s work positively glows with hitherto hidden significance after Scott-Warren’s book – but I am not sure that it can be explained by it.

There is one particular aspect of early modern literature in general, and of Harington’s writing in particular, which it is hard to explain as part of a careful design to win friends and influence people: gratuitous humour. It is not clear why anyone whose prime aim in life is to get on should ever make jokes; too often they misfire. True, the best jokes require a judgment about who they are intended for, and so call on a politic canniness, but the chief characteristic of a really good joke is that having made this judgment you then go a little beyond what you know your audience expects. Scott-Warren’s Harington is hypersensitive to the preoccupations of his addressees. His humour can seem to be no more than a protective carapace put on to stop the censorious from realising that The Metamorphosis of Ajax, for instance, is really about the desirability of having the Earl of Essex rather than the cantankerous Elizabeth I in charge. But if Harington was so sensitive to privy meanings, why did his public career fail to take off? None of his books, so carefully presented, so artfully copied, so meticulously cropped and groomed for their ideal readers, did him any material good at all, so far as we can tell – although Elizabeth does seem to have enjoyed Harington’s sense of humour more than her successor. In a slightly breathless final chapter on Harington’s strikingly unsuccessful career under James I, Scott-Warren shows how the King failed to reward Harington despite the poet’s careful attempts late in the reign of Elizabeth to establish himself as a supporter of the Stuart succession. Scott-Warren demonstrates how this practical failure made Harington, like a good humanist, emphasise the importance of rewarding merit – although this had already been a major concern in the Ariosto translation, a decade before – in order to ensure that his own merit was recognised. He also shows how Harington’s disappointment colours the documents printed in Nugae Antiquae, and in turn how those documents have slanted historical accounts of James’s Court. But despite all this splendid work, Scott-Warren cannot finally square the circle which he has created: if Harington’s works were so carefully placed and were intended to advance their author, why did he never land a juicy job?

The traditional explanation for this would be that Harington just could not resist a joke, and with a post-theoretical tweak or two I think this remains the best explanation. Harington’s jokes try to build up a persona of a man who could speak frankly, a ‘plaine fellow’ (as Harington describes himself) who could offer advice on how to clean up the privy of Elizabethan politics with a blast of plain-speaking. In that respect, his jokes could be seen as ‘powerfully charged with worldly purposes’. But his jokes go so far beyond anything his audience would have felt comfortable hearing that one has to conclude either that he was exceptionally bad at judging the tone of voice required to get on, or that in his writing and conduct the need to get on was regularly overshadowed by a surplus of almost uncontrollable mockery.

Harington’s humour never seems to have done him any good. If he was caught up in arguments with his mother-in-law over the administration of her estate, and if he wanted to get his hands on her money, as Scott-Warren argues, why did he give her a volume with a poem which all but told her to eat shit? Here the highly textualised, highly sophisticated, highly decentred model of how human circumstances relate to textual production which Scott-Warren puts forward has, I think, to break down and take account of the fact that while Harington may have tried to fashion a career for himself through the giving of books and manuscripts, he was also a man who could not stop himself teasing people even if it was not in his interests. This is one of his most morally admirable features, and it is of a piece with what is good in the things he wrote. But he would always press a joke too far. During the dispute over Lady Rogers’s estate, Edward Rogers, Harington’s irascible brother-in-law, complained that Harington had taken trees from the estate, and said that ‘he would have those trees out of his throat’; Harington pertly replied: ‘There grew none there.’ This is not the best way to get your hands on your mother-in-law’s money: Harington couldn’t resist teasing his brother-in-law for his unintended canard, and can only have made his life harder with the joke. The reason Harington has struck so many biographers as a real person one can identify with is not simply, as Scott-Warren suggests, that he ‘fashioned his biography’ by manipulating the record of his life. It is because he was a person (who like all real people had both a sense of humour and a dog) whose desire for a joke at any cost made him repeatedly break out from, and sometimes make a catastrophic mess of, his desire to charge his works with worldly purposes.

And that’s why, even after reading Scott-Warren’s subtle, scholarly account of his manoeuvrings, his careerism and his chauvinism, I would still rather spend an evening with Sir John Harington than with any other Elizabethan. He was someone who would never quite do what was expected of him, which is why he wrote poems about dogs and mothers-in-law and composed Rabelaisian prose fantasies about water-closets rather than ever getting a proper job. Literature from this period is chiefly a product of material failure, and is written by men (mostly) who failed to get on. Scott-Warren encourages us to enjoy this writing for the plots in which it participated, and he makes a strong case. But what he cannot quite bring himself to recognise is that writers whose works fail to achieve the worldly purposes they intended have a better chance of being fun to read now than the works by people who wrote simply to get what they wanted from the world.