Ben: Dramatist. Sycophant. Poet?

By now it should be fairly clear that I am the tiniest bit in adoration of Ben and his works. To state the matter more clearly, I adore his plays (excepting Cataline*), find his masques interesting (after reading Orgel’s The Illusion of Power), and his poetry —

It occurs to me I haven’t discussed his poetry much in this archive. This is not because I don’t enjoy his ironic (swiftly approaching sarcastic) reflections on court life; I often find myself a bit mystified, however, at “what to do” with his poetical works. While Ben employs a clear and deliberate poetic structure and the customary double entendres of any decent early modern poet, and while his poetic arguments are witty, and usually not difficult to sort out, I yet find myself having difficulty interpreting his work in any critical manner. Perhaps because his sentences are clearer, his conceites more straightforward than Donne’s or Sidney’s, I find myself not having to engage in the kind of close reading I use when attempting to “figure out” a densely packed (with rhetorical figures) English sonnet.

Perhaps, though, I have not spent enough time with Ben’s poetry. Which means it’s time to begin a new project. I’ve been meaning to have a closer look at the poems — at least the first book of Epigrams — for some time now: my good intentions, however, always seem to fall by the wayside. I note, though, that I tend to read — and write — more frequently in this medium.

(Here’s where I make my actual proposal.)

I will, every so often, us this archive as a space to conduct a brief but as thoroughly close a reading as I can manage of one of the poems from Jonson’s Epigrams (in order). Hopefully, as I progress through the book, we’ll start to notice themes and patterns emerging, make connexions to Jonson’s larger body of work, and maybe even throw in a little theory (or critical analysis). Soon, I predict we (or at least I) will come to love Jonson’s poetry.

Without further ado, then, I present to you, the introduction to Jonson’s Epigrams:

To the great Example of Honour, and Vertue , the most
Noble William, Earl of Pembroke, Lord Chamberlain, &c.

My Lord, While you cannot change your merit, I dare not change your title: it was that made it, and not I. Under which name, I here offer to your lordship the ripest of my studies, my Epigrams; which, though they carry danger in the sound, do not therefore seek your shelter: For, when I made them, I had nothing in my Conscience, to expressing of which I did need a Cypher. But, if I be fallen into those Times, wherein, for the likeness of Vice, and Facts, every one thinks anothers ill Deeds objected to him; and that in their ignorant and guilty Mouths, the common Voice is (for their security) confessing, therein, so much love to their Diseases, as they would rather make a Party for them, than be either rid, or told of them: I must expect, at your Lordship’s hand, the protection of Truth, and Liberty, while you are constant to your own Goodness. In thanks whereof, I return you the Honour of leading forth so many good, and great Names (as my Verses mention on the better part) to their remembrance with Posterity. Amongst whom, if I have praised, unfortunately, any one, that doth not deserve; or, if all answer not, in all Numbers, the Pictures I have made of them: I hope it will be forgiven me, that they are no ill Pieces, though they be not like the Persons. But I foresee a nearer Fate to my Book than this, That the Vices therein will be own’d before the Vertues, (though, there, I have avoided all Particulars, as I have done Names) and some will be so ready to discredit me, as they will have the impudence to bely themselves. For, if I meant them not, it is so. Nor, can I hope otherwise. For, why should they remit any thing of their Riot their Pride, their Self-love, and other inherent Graces, to consider Truth or Vertue; but, with the Trade of the World, lend their long Ears against Men they love not: And hold their dear Mountebank, or Jester, in far better Condition than all the Study, or Studiers of Humanity? For such, I would rather know them by their Visards, still, than they should publish their Faces, at their peril, in my Theatre, where C A T O,* if he liv’d, might enter without scandal.

By your Lordship’s most faithfull Honourer,

Ben Jonson

The above is a rather long passage. It’s also prose. Therefore I feel no obligation to hold myself to that “as close a reading as I can manage” bit for now. Jonson’s introduction does illuminate, however, a few helpful points of contextual information from which to begin reading his work:

1. Ben’s sycophancy. Try as he might to deny it, Ben was desperate to gain the approval of the well-to-do at court, and to separate himself from the common working class from which he was born.[i] Though it was the custom to include dedications to noble lords/princes/poets of note, in order to demonstrate to one’s reading public a higher approval of one’s work and, also to gain some sort of protection against detractors (usually it didn’t work, and just involved the dedicatee in any imbroglios which developed: an awkward matter if, as often was the case, the dedicatee did not approve, or even know of the dedication); however, Ben’s incessant flattery of his benefactors (usually King James) through his poetry and court masques — and his insistence on making far more of his relationship to his royal patrons than actually existed — crosses the line from conventional formality to inexcusable flattery.

2. Ben’s desire to emulate (and become a part of) the titled classes. As signified by his choice to dedicate his poetry to the Lord Pembroke, who, his reading audience would be perfectly aware, was related by marriage to the Sidney family (Sir Philip’s sister, Mary Sidney, herself a poet, married Henry Herbert, the second Earl of Pembroke). All of the members of the Sidney family, most especially Sir Philip, epitomised the type of “gentleman poet” (wealthy, educated, and trained in battle) that Jonson wished to be [ii]

3. Ben’s main poetic sources/models: The “Epigram” is a form of poetry perfected and modernised by the Latin poet Martial*, whose epigrams, as we shall see with Jonson’s, satirise the court and city life (though of Rome, not England). Also like Jonson, however, Martial’s criticism did not extend to his wealthy patrons (a point for which he was often criticised). Too, Martial oscillates between extreme misogyny and (Platonic) reverence for women. Martial, however, is fairly tolerant of (homo)sexuality, which Jonson (in text at least, if not in his own life) usually condemns. [iii] Meanwhile, Jonson’s refusal to attach “particulars” and “names” to the vices he critically allegorises (though he suspects his reading audience will take these satires personally), while praising particular individuals for their virtue, demonstrates the influence of Horace. [iv]

4. Ben’s distaste for narcissistic, extravagant, gossipy, immoral courtiers.

5. Ben’s complex relationship with the theatre. Much as he attempts to uphold the theatre here as a bastion of morality, much as he would love to convince us (and himself) of the theatre’s ability to “delight and instruct” (another Horation sentiment), Jonson can never really divorce himself from the notion that his theatre audiences were a bunch of narcissistic, extravagant, gossipy, immoral courtiers. If he’s lucky. [v]

There’s always the groundlings.

End Notes:

[i] he was born. Which was why his detractors knew the best way to insult poor Ben was to refer to him as a “bricklayer,” a trade he had left behind in order to become a poet. I sympathise with Ben, at least a little. As a young lad, he was educated by the scholar William Camden, out of the latter’s own pocket, which suggests that Ben had some academic talents. In early modern England, however, “poet” was not a job that paid well, if at all, and so the only way to write productively was to have money or, the next best thing, the financial backing of one of the well-to-do class. For a man who loved writing, then, and wanted to succeed as a poet, sycophancy was a necessary, though perhaps undesirable, skill. The problem is Ben’s extreme outspokenness and hostility to other flatterers.

[ii] wished to be. The implication, of course, is that Ben never quite was this nobleman, though he did brag to William Drummond in his Conversations with William Drummond that “in his service in the Low Countries, he had, in the fac of both camps, killed an enemy and taken opima spolia from him” (238-240).

[iii] usually condemns. Though he remarks in the Conversations, that he was “in his youth given to venery” (249).

[iv] Horace. Jonson like to refer to himself as the “English Horace.” He was also influenced by Juvenal, but I must admit I did not make it as far as Juvenal’s poetry before I decided not to write on Jonson’s poems for my thesis, so I can’t make much comment here.

[v] If he’s lucky. Which is why Jonson wants to contribute to the “high” art of poetry: problematically, he somehow fails to see (or periodically fools himself into believing the converse) that the courtiers he mocks in his poetry are the same people attending both public and private theatre.

Works Cited:

Jonson, Ben. Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems. Ed. George Parfitt. London: Penguin, 2006. (Includes the Conversations with William Drummond.)

10 June 2008 ~ Niagara Falls.

Glossary of Terms:

Cataline. n. nom. Full title: Cataline, his Conspiracy. The second of Jonson’s tragedies/historical plays, the frst of which, Sejanus, His Fall, I actually enjoy quite a bit (it reads like a more fully tragic Volpone. Cataline is, however, dreadfully dull. It is noteworthy because of its notes. Footnotes, that is. Jonson, as part of his efforts to make stage plays worthy of categorisation as “literature” (a belief which was considered ridiculous in early modern England), footnoted all of his original Latin sources for the play: another unorthodox (and somewhat pedantical) move in an era where copyrights were non-existent and the “re-writing” (borrowing, plagiarising) of sources was a common practice.

Cato. n. nom. Marcus Porcius Catō Uticensis. Latin poet. I don’t know much about him except that he was supposedly a stickler for moderation and morality.

Horace. n. nom. Quintus Horatius Flaccus. Latin country poet who served under Emperor Augustus. Pretty much the originator of the phrase “Carpe diem.” Jonson translated his “Art of Poetry,” in which the reader can trace many of the origins of Jonson’s own poetics.

Martial. n.nom. Marcus Valerius Martialus. Wouldn’t you guess it? A Latin poet, this time from Hispania (now the Iberian peninsula).


2 thoughts on “Ben: Dramatist. Sycophant. Poet?

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. I tried reading Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler last summer and was, I’m afraid, sorely beaten by the lengthy clauses.

    I’m terribly glad to hear you’re reading Sejanus and The Alchemist (and really, if you’re choosing between his tragedies, Sejanus is the way to go: Cataline is, I think, probably the worst of his plays. I do love Ben: partly, I think, because of his clever sarcasm, partly for his metadrama, and also partly because he’s so conflicted – he really does want to live up to his ideals, but just keeps tripping over his own ego – which means he’s always experimenting with ideas and forms and genres to try to make his poetics work in real life. It makes for interesting drama.

    All the same, his bombast does make him an easy target. Oh, poor Ben!

    Thanks for putting up with my poor grammar/editing on this post. Once things clear up in my schedule I do hope to comment more frequently on your own (admirable and entertaining) work!

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