The Tribe of Ben

Blair Worden

  • Ben Jonson: A Life by Ian Donaldson
    Oxford, 533 pp, £25.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 812976 9
  • The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson edited by David Bevington, Martin Butler and Ian Donaldson
    Cambridge, 5224 pp, £650.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 521 78246 3

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.

His early reputation is now a surprise. His poems, though frequently studied in universities, are less often read outside them. They are rarely loved as much as Shakespeare’s sonnets or the verse of Jonson’s friend John Donne. His plays are a different matter. Among his contemporaries no dramatist other than Shakespeare has overtaken him. The depictions in his comedies of social and economic fantasy, and of their exploitation, have never seemed more pertinent than amid our financial convulsions. Where would a character called Madoff have been more at home? Nonetheless, Shakespeare, the rival of whom Jonson wrote with magnanimous prescience that he was not of an age but for all time, has left him far behind. Only a few of Jonson’s plays, Volpone, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair and perhaps Epicene, are performed with any frequency. The impulse to rescue him from undervaluation runs beneath these new publications. The almost simultaneous appearance of a major biography and a major edition is no accident, for the writing of Ian Donaldson’s Life became entwined with the seven-volume collection of Jonson’s writings, of which Donaldson has been one of the triumvirate of general editors. Frequently, the two enterprises echo each other’s claims.

The attitude that does most to bind them is a suspicion of what both of them call Jonson’s ‘idealised’ image of himself. How many poets name themselves so often or write so many verses to or about themselves? He wishes to be seen as the embodiment of, and as the forthright spokesman for, an unchanging set of elevated principles. Donaldson warns us against taking his ‘tactical declarations of personal constancy and imperturbability’ at face value. We should attend to the ‘shifts, transformations, experiments, back-trackings and inconsistencies’ detectable in ‘the serpentine progress of his professional career’. If that premise deserves credit for the stringency of Donaldson’s questioning of the biographical material it has more than earned its keep. There has been no more authoritative or assured biography of a Renaissance writer, and none that has more successfully brought historical and literary insights together. If Donaldson’s self-effacing prose (so un-Jonsonian a quality) and the quietness of his reasoning may occasionally obscure the novelty and penetration of his narrative, there is no missing the surges of power when he tackles hitherto unyielding biographical mysteries. The reasons for Jonson’s journey to Scotland are one such high point, his appearance before James I when his friend the historian John Selden was in trouble another.

Most searching of all is the account of Jonson’s relations with his fellow Catholics before and during the Gunpowder Plot of 1605; of the troubles with authority that arose from them; and of their bearing on his writing. Here as elsewhere a familiar but hazy landscape is clarified and in the process transformed. Until now no one has adequately confronted two terrifying moments in Jonson’s life. First, why did the satire of James I’s Scottish favourites in the play Eastward Ho! a few months before the plot provoke such a fierce reaction, and why was he imprisoned and threatened with physical mutilation? Second, when and why was he charged, apparently before the Privy Council, with ‘popery and treason’? Though no proof is possible, Donaldson finds in Jonson’s Catholicism, and in the suspicions it provoked, a thread which alone gives consistency to the evidence.

Modern literary criticism has been slower to recognise the religious preoccupations of Renaissance writers than their political ones. Jonson converted to Catholicism in 1598, during an earlier imprisonment. He detested the methods of interrogation and surveillance that were practised against his new co-religionists. He supped with conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot only weeks before the attempted coup. It is unlikely that he gave encouragement to the plotters. As far as we know, he always sided with the party among the Catholics which renounced sedition. Yet the tensions between loyalty to king and country on one hand and his Catholic faith and friendships on the other took acute practical forms at a time of grave national emergency. The discovery of the plot was a turning point in his life and in his art. He quickly distanced himself from the conspiracy, helped the government try to penetrate it, and began attending Anglican services. Donaldson notes that in the years after the plot the terms ‘patriot’, ‘public good’, ‘common good’ and ‘commonwealth’ appear with growing frequency in his writings. Any true religion, he insisted, would complement and sustain those secular ideals. He injected the theme into the Roman tragedy Catiline His Conspiracy, which was written in 1611, the year after his final renunciation of Catholicism, and in which ‘the public good’ is served by those who grasp that ‘no religion binds men to be traitors.’

Donaldson superannuates simple dichotomies which have represented Jonson as a friend or critic of the establishment, or as an unqualified and consistent advocate or adversary of any particular political programme. Like many people he took now one point of view and then another, and looked now to one ally or patron and then another. He groped his way through the great debates over parliamentary authority and Jacobean foreign policy and, late in his life, through the crises of political and religious authority under Charles I, a period which Donaldson and the edition portray as one of neglected literary achievement on Jonson’s part.

Yet adjustments to complex circumstances may be compatible with continuities of personal direction. Donaldson, employing an adjective that has become almost obligatory in literary studies, describes the youthful Jonson as ‘notably conflicted’. Creativity can indeed hardly prosper without mental conflict. Conflicts within Jonson are evident enough, not only in his youth and not only in religion. There are the divisions within a writer who, having grown up amid a fashion for romantic comedy that did not suit his gifts, struggled to choose a medium, whether comedy, tragedy or satire, that did; who wanted to be the scourge of court and society and yet to be embraced by them; who asserted the poet’s independence of monarchs and patrons and had repeatedly to compromise it; who with one half of his mind disdained the audiences of the playhouse and with the other indulged and befriended them; whose talent for comic exuberance tussled with a commitment to classical order and restraint; and in whom anger and passion vied with a philosophy of civility, moderation and stoicism. Yet the more we dwell on those tensions the more central to his life and writing seems his striving for a coherence – for, in his phrase, a ‘gathered self’ – that will master them. Are his assertions of constancy merely ‘tactical’? Are they not a principal feature, rather than a mask, of his biographical journey?

Milton apart, no major author of 17th-century England was so insistent on the didactic power of literature or on his own duty and capacity to wield it. None, with the same exception, was so ready to accuse and correct his age. On this front too his statements encounter resistance in these publications. Didacticism, ill-suited to a relativist or postmodern era, is out of critical fashion. How can art be reduced to the teaching of moral lessons, or anyway of Renaissance lessons in virtue which by Jonson’s time could have surprised no one and which were surely too simplistic or too bookish to meet the complexities of human experience? Was it not the literary breakthrough of Jonson’s era to get beyond the medieval and Tudor barrage of literary injunctions against sin and misconduct? Donaldson emphasises not Jonson’s moral certitude but his ‘poised ambiguities’. In the new edition, The Devil Is an Ass is said to be marked by ‘moral ambiguity’, while the editor of Bartholomew Fair identifies ‘indeterminable ambivalences’ in a play which ‘encourages openness to uncertainty and multiple possibilities’.

Those cases are powerfully and sympathetically made. Yet they prompt uneasy questions. Why were such things, which are now often said about Renaissance literature, not said by the Renaissance? Why, in Jonson’s pronouncements on literary art and duty, is there no hint of them? If moral ambiguity was his aim he had no obvious motive for concealing it. His contemporary admirers, especially the disciples of his later years who kept the flame alive after his death and helped make him the literary president of Civil War royalism, observed no two-sidedness in what that devoted Jonsonian Lord Falkland called the ‘ethic lectures’ of his plays. Falkland’s intimate friend Edward Hyde, the future earl of Clarendon, the leading statesman and leading historian of his age, whose firm and unambiguous definitions of ethical obligation frequently echo Jonson, remembered during the Restoration how the ‘virtue and example’ of Jonson’s circle had rescued him from his own youthful degeneracy. He called Jonson ‘the best judge of, and fittest to prescribe rules to poetry and poets, of any man who had lived with, or before him, or since’. For all the manifold blessings of these books it may be that something of the massiveness of Jonson’s moral authority is lost.

Mindful of the gaps in the record of Jonson’s life, Donaldson argues that the problems of conjectural reconstruction faced by his biographer are ‘not … so very different’ from those facing Shakespeare’s. But Shakespeare’s recorded life is little else but gaps, whereas by the standards of the time Jonson’s is unusually well documented. It’s true that the writings of Jonson, as of all authors, set traps for biographical interpreters. Donaldson counsels us against regarding particular inhabitants of his plays as Jonson’s spokesmen. Rather, he points out, Jonson sets characters against each other who project contrasting aspects of his own personality or convictions. Yet if the autobiographical presence is divided, it is unmistakably there. Again, we notice the difference from Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s plays there is no identifiable autobiographical presence, none of Jonson’s impulse to thrust his name and opinions on the public, none of his prescriptive intent. Donaldson reminds us, with another of those near compulsory adjectives, that plays are inherently ‘multivocal’. The word seems more aptly applied to the limitless versatility of Shakespeare’s characterisations, and to his unending oppositions of perspective, than to the stamp of personal conviction borne by Jonson’s writing.

There is no fully annotated collection of Shakespeare’s writings to match the new edition of Jonson. There does not need to be, for the affective capacity of his writing does not depend on explanation. We can benefit from, but can manage without, knowledge of Shakespeare’s sources or an alertness to his literary or contemporary allusions. Who but a pedant would say of Shakespeare what T.S. Eliot wrote of Jonson, that he ‘cannot be understood without study’? Eliot was enjoining an immersion in Jonson’s writings, not in their intellectual hinterland, but the explanatory apparatus of the new edition brings home our need for that too. Modern labour has to reconstruct Jonson’s own learned exertions. Again with the exception of Milton no other major poet of the era took such pride in his own learning. None other than Milton so fulsomely saluted the partnership of imagination and scholarship that was dear to Renaissance thinking. Jonson’s observation that Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek was the objection of a writer whose own mission centred on classical reading. We can come closest to the workings of his mind in tracing, in his translations, adaptations and allusions, his inner dialogues with Roman authors of the early empire, the principal shapers of his philosophy and of his perception of the political and social tensions of his own time.

Here as elsewhere in the new edition the classical sensibility that has often illuminated studies of Jonson makes its mark, most prominently in Colin Burrow’s editing of the poetry. Jonson’s allusions are not merely noted but felt.[*] Yet how widely will the feeling travel? Has the decline of classical education shamed us by restricting Jonson’s appeal? Or is Jonson’s addiction to classical sources and values itself a limitation? The best-known play of the 17th century was not any of Shakespeare’s, not even one of Jonson’s comedies, but his austere Roman tragedy Catiline His Conspiracy. Today, when it is never performed, it is a dons’ play. Is it Jonson’s modern fate to be a dons’ writer?

Perceptions of Jonson, more than of most authors, have been governed by distinctive editing. He started the process himself, with the decisions he took in preparing the dignified folio volume of 1616, The Workes of Beniamin Jonson, which printed writings composed over nearly two decades. Initially, the book provoked mockery. ‘Pray tell me, Ben, where doth the mystery lurk,/What others call a play you call a work,’ a contemporary teased. The ornate frontispiece, where the figures of tragoedia and comoedia stand above emblematic representations of the theatre, aligns the book with the Opera of Renaissance scholars in whose company Jonson yearned to be seen. Plays were normally printed, if at all, in the humbler rank of quartos, as his had previously been. Poems, which share The Workes with his theatrical texts, could claim a higher stature, but poets rarely presumed to publish collections of their verse, a compliment usually left to the discretion of posterity. On the publication of the folio Jonson was 44 and had 21 years to live, though most of his best received writing was behind him. It was the year of Shakespeare’s death. Only seven years later would the example of Jonson’s folio be followed, and then with a more modest title: Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies.

All comprehensive editions of Jonson’s writings have been called his Works except for what has until now been the outstanding one, which was edited for the Oxford University Press by C.H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson and simply titled Ben Jonson. It was a landmark in the emergence of modern editorial standards. The publication of its 11 volumes began in 1925 and ended in 1952, fifty years after the signature of the publisher’s contract. Perhaps ‘works’ would have sounded too suggestive of perspiration or professional self-consciousness to suit that exercise in gentlemanly Oxonian scholarship, where exact and patient learning always serves and never overpowers the human concerns of an intelligent lay readership. Yet the very achievements of the edition undermined it, for its volumes were gradually outdated by the research which they facilitated. New findings, and refinements of bibliographical understanding, called for a fresh start.

With the Cambridge edition we are back to Works. The Oxford editors completed their volumes before the expansion and diversification of the academic community and the formalisation of its protocols. After a brief preface they moved directly to a genial account of Jonson’s life and literary development. Most of the first 86 pages of the Cambridge edition, and a further 36 pages soon after them, are occupied by explanations of editorial procedures or by lists of texts and abbreviations and sigla. The eight pages of acknowledgments amount to a topographical survey of tracts of academic life and a guide to the grant-giving and grant-administering bodies that succour it. The three Oxford editors did the editing themselves. The Cambridge triumvirate, though they have individually edited a number of the texts, have divided the rest among 25 colleagues, who have been supplemented by a succession of research associates.

It must have been a hard enterprise to steer. There will be legitimate quibbles at editorial features which seem intelligible only as compromises between the imposition of uniform rules on the team and the indulgence of its members’ preferences. Yet the inconsistencies pale beside the overall achievement. Though editions of this magnitude are fully tested only by long use, two things are soon apparent. There has been, on an exceptional scale, some exceptionally able and rigorous editing, which quickly wins the reader’s confidence. Second, the editors’ aim of ‘pleasurable reading’ has been ideally attained. Jonson’s texts are beautifully laid out, and the eye moves easily from them to the succinct editorial expositions economically arranged at the foot of the page.

The other big change since the Oxford edition has been the computer. Here the outcome for readers is more mixed. There is to be an electronic version of the new edition, to which readers of the printed one are recurrently referred and which is to appear ‘in staged instalments’, we are not told when (or what their price will be). It will carry an enormous range of material, textual, biographical and bibliographical, which looks likely to dwarf the printed version, whose purchasers should know what they will not be getting for their £650. There are moments, among them the cruel discovery that there is no index, to prompt the ungrateful thought that this is the tourists’ package. On the other hand, the resort to technology brings one gain to non-specialists. The printed version presents Jonson’s writings in a modernised form, not in his now antique spelling and sometimes forbidding punctuation, which the Oxford edition reproduced and which any ambitious edition needs to make available, but which are conveniently allocated to the electronic version.

Further departures from the principles of the Oxford editors display the resolve of the Cambridge ones to get behind Jonson’s presentation of himself. The Oxford editors took The Workes of 1616 to be the definitive version of that majority of Jonson’s writings which it contained, on the grounds that it enshrined his final thoughts on texts which he had composed, or had published less grandly, over nearly two decades. The Cambridge editors overturn that decision. The Workes, they argue, shows how he wished to be seen ‘at a particular moment of his career’. The volume deliberately concealed processes of literary and personal development which it is the intention of the new edition, as of Donaldson’s biography, to recover. It ‘aims to present Jonson’s texts in a form as close as possible to that in which they were first staged or published’. Two more breaks with the Oxford edition are likewise meant to prise Jonson from The Workes. The Oxford editors, like their own predecessors, followed the folio of 1616 in dividing his writings into three categories: plays, masques and entertainments, and poems. The Cambridge ones, adopting a purely chronological arrangement, mingle the genres. Second, repudiating the ‘hieratic’ assumptions of their predecessors, they refuse any privilege to the achievements of art. In their volumes Jonson’s poems and theatrical writings jostle with matter which he would have been startled to find placed among his ‘works’: begging letters; a contemporary account of bibulous conversations; information supplied by the editors about lost theatrical ventures which in the folio Jonson consigned to oblivion.

Those decisions are in line with the principles of contextual recovery that have come gradually to the forefront of literary criticism since the era of Herford and the Simpsons. Time and again, the Cambridge edition insists on the relationship of the first version of a particular text to the ‘historical’ or ‘original’ or ‘precise moment’ of its composition or publication – occasions that are accorded the deference denied to the ‘particular moment’ of the folio. The statement of didactic purpose in Jonson’s preface to Volpone becomes less an account of the timeless responsibilities of authorship than an allusion to ‘the original moment of the play’, the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. The contextual emphases thrive on some imposing feats of historical reconstruction. The settings and purposes of the masques and entertainments, a subject of revolutionary scholarship since the days of Herford and the Simpsons, are resourcefully re-created; so is that ‘original moment’ of Volpone; a new date, and with it a new context, are proposed for the Roman play Sejanus His Fall; and so on. Yet for all those gains the edition never quite captures the sense of biographical ‘progression’ at which it aims. That is partly because of the division of labour, which leaves the majority of the textual editors with only one ‘moment’ to address, not its relationship to those before and after it; partly because so many of Jonson’s writings are of uncertain date and have to be positioned speculatively; and more fundamentally, because of the sometimes long gaps between the dates of composition, even when we know them, and those of publication, which are more solid grounds and which the editors normally follow in ordering the texts.

It is in the handling of Jonson’s poetry, the aspect of his writing most in need of reclamation for a public readership, that the chronological ambition of the volumes, and the challenge to the stance of the Oxford editors, falter. His verse falls into two categories: the poems that were published in three collections, Epigrams, The Forest and The Underwood; and those that were not collected. The first two collections appeared in the folio of 1616, the third in the posthumous folio published by his disciples in 1641. Most of the collected poems had been written, and a number of them published, much earlier. The gathering of the first two collections, and such progress as Jonson may have made towards the third before his death, belong to those processes of self-editing from which the Cambridge edition elsewhere seeks to recover his writing, but which here proves inseparable from them. The collections artfully enhance the poems by placing them in relation to one another, and so make the whole greater than its parts. The Cambridge edition, conceding the point, keeps each of the collections together and places them under the dates of the respective folios. Yet the minority of his poems which were not collected, and which the Oxford editors brought together as ‘ungathered verse’, are scattered around the volumes, baldly headed and – because of the difficulties in dating them – often inconclusively positioned.

The convenience of the Oxford edition, which placed Jonson’s poems within a single volume, is thus lost, with little compensating gain in chronological understanding. Donaldson takes as a test case of the problems of biographical interpretation a poem in The Underwood, ‘An Epistle Answering to One that Asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben’. He dates it in the late summer of 1623, the time of the fraught negotiations for a marriage between the future Charles I and the Infanta of Spain, the context on which, in Donaldson’s account, an understanding of the poem hangs. Yet in the edition it has to be placed not in 1623 but in 1641. One of the Cambridge editors’ purposes in removing Jonson’s generic walls is to bring the preoccupations that traversed them into view. The decision works well in illustrating themes that unite the plays with the masques and entertainments, but can do little for those that link either genre to the gathered verse. Thus it alerts us to analogies between the political and social concerns of Sejanus His Fall and those of the entertainments, here placed next to the play, with which Jonson greeted James I’s accession and enthronement at about the same time. Yet it cannot catch the associations that connect his later Roman tragedy Catiline to the poem ‘To Penshurst’, probably written soon after it, which was published in The Forest and so appears in a separate volume.

Those difficulties are the more regrettable in view of the daunting ambition and accomplishment of Burrow’s editing. Aided by the archival labours of Peter Beal, he has examined, and collated the variations among, an astonishing range of manuscripts in which copies of Jonson’s poems prove to survive, some of them in his own hand. The Oxford editors, unaware of the extent and esteem of the circulation of verse in manuscript, tended to think of manuscript versions as drafts which the printed ones had corrected. Burrow, who presents Jonson as ‘an exceptionally careful composer of manuscript poetry’, has traced an untold wealth of revisions of arrangement and phrasing. There seems every likelihood that, as the editors promise, the electronic version will make possible ‘an entirely new assessment of Jonson’s habits as a poet’. But again the tourists miss out. The printed version offers only a selection of the revisions and, more problematically, leaves readers to guess what to make of them. There is no guide to the dates, character or authority of the manuscripts where variations are to be found. The opening volume of the edition has excellent essays on Jonson’s career, on the playhouses, on masques, on print and publication, but no essay on the poetry, where such assistance, and with it the sense of biographical progression the editors seek, might have been expected.

All editorial choices are unenviable. Most of them are neither right nor wrong but assessments of a balance of advantage and disadvantage. If I have perhaps laboured some of the disadvantages of the Cambridge editors’ decisions, I should end on a note of awe. The Cambridge volumes happen to have appeared only two months apart from another formidable enterprise, Noel Malcolm’s edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan, which sets altogether new standards for the presentation of works of political philosophy. Jonson was a ‘loving and familiar friend’ to Hobbes, who – doubtless eager for the answer but also knowing the way to please him – asked him his opinion of his translation of Thucydides. There would have to be either a transformation of our mental world beyond present imagination, or some sensational textual discovery, before anyone could think it necessary to edit Jonson or Leviathan again. In an academic environment where fashionable hypotheses command swelling attention but shrinking shelf-lives, the two editions remind us of something Jonson knew, the obligation of learning to the pursuit of permanence. What will survive of us is scholarship.

[*] 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).