Epigram II: “To my Book”

I’m finally returning to my project of reading Jonson’s Epigrams, a project I almost feel I should rename “reading Jonson.” “Epigram II: To My Book,” seems to argue that the two (body of work, body of the poet) are the same.

The apostrophe to the book is not an uncommon device in early modern England: Donne used it in his “Valediction to his Book,“Robert Burton in his preface to The Anatomy of Melancholy. the English-American poet Anne Bradstreet in the introductory poem to The Tenth Muse, conflates it with the equally common book-as-child metaphor. In each of these poems, the book stands as a metonymy for the poet’s ideas [i]. Jonson uses the device somewhat differently, I think.

It’s that second line that bears the weight of the poem’s primary meaning, with its emphasis on where the reader’s eye is immediately drawn to on the first page: the title, yes: the epigrammatic form that Martial (that cynical bawdy) made infamous. It’s not the title alone, however, that gives one pause. It’s those initials right in the centre of his title page: “The Author B. I.”

Jonson imagines himself in “some” reader’s minds with a reputation for licentiousness bawdry (a bit like Martial himself), but mostly for the poisonous, abrasive, bitter, and petulant criticisms [ii] he arbitrarily inflicts upon the public (like a madman). His readership sees Ben as a bit of a curmudgeon, and perhaps this poem shows Jonson (finally) caught in a self-reflective, humourously self-deprecating moment. That first line, with its play on the “but” (or only) suggests the poet’s concern that his reader’s eye will stop at this overtly-positioned name, and, conflating the contents of the book with the poet himself, will give up on the work entirely (or, at least will fail at the close reading necessary to overcome one’s expectations of a “gall[ed]” book).

Is it likely that Jonson would admit to vulgarity? He does, somewhat in “My Picture left in Scotland.” In that poem, however, Jonson makes fun of his physical appearance only, not his writing; and in Jonson’s poetics, dramatic and otherwise, the physical is always the least reliable, and least important quality (how often has he begged to “come to hear, not to see a play”?) [iii].

Returning to the Epigram, the enjambment of that first line tends to muffle the most important point: lacking any end stops, and syntactically continuing on into the next line, we want to read “when some but see thy title”. The line break seems almost incidental; what happens, however, when we pause to read the sentence in a syntactically non-conventional manner? “It shall be looked for book when some but see.” The iambic metre naturally emphasises that last word, with a bit of a sneer, I think, drawn, of course from the subtle (de-emphasised) “but.” The meaning is fairly clear: it’s not seeing the title, or even Jonson’s name that causes misinterpretations, but seeing itself.

Considering that all readers must see in order to read, Jonson’s condemnation of seeing already implicates every one of his readers as likely mis-readers, and faulty judges. Not all readers, the line admits, will fulfill this failing: but those who understand the he nature of poetry and wordplay, and are always open to the process of reinterpreting meanings of words (a process which can only be achieved when one truly contemplates the words), those, in other words, who have ways of reading beyond only seeing, are not the readers with whom Jonson is concerned. It’s the readers who stop at seeing whom Jonson condemns.

This poem is, of course, a condemnation, and not only, I think, of those who will mis-read his poetry, but those who have mis-read the poet himself. When readers see Jonson’s name, they immediately extend to his book those vulgar qualities they believe he himself embodies. Yet were they to read the book, they would find that the gall, sulpher and wormwood which they expect is absent, that the book is not vain or greedy. Perhaps, then, they will extend this reassessment to back to poet himself. Since readers assume the book and poet are one, the book will stand as a symbol of the poet and defend him. The book will teach people to become better readers of people (and poets) as well as words (to realise they have misjudged the moral Ben all along).

We do know Ben thought he was moral: he was the English Horace after all. His epigrams — good and bad — are honest assessments about social peers. Following the Horatian mode, the good are praised by name, the bad disguised as types and charicatures, to avoid slander.

The book is honest, then, as is the poet who writes it, but this somewhat complicates the final couplet. If Ben’s Epigrams are honest, and also a reflection of his self, then isn’t parting with the book (releasing it to the printer, and thus the whole of London) a compromise of Ben’s principles?

No, if the book actually manages to morally educate. Given Ben’s assessment of his readership, however: they are “vulgar” both in their non-noble status and in their moral qualities, the book seems doomed to fail at its didactic task.

What does Ben gain by releasing it? Perhaps a reputation for cleverly turning a bawdy phrase; if it’s the vulgar crowd who delivers this praise, however, the venture may not be worth it after all.

End Notes:

[i] poet’s ideas. The device is still used, as in Leonard Cohen’s recent “To my book.”

[ii] criticisms. As indicated in the words “wormwood,” “sulphur,” and “gall,” respectively.

[iii] “see a play”. The Staple of News. “Prologue” (2).

25 October 2008 ~ St. Catharines


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