Epigram III: To My Bookseller.

Thou that mak’st gain thy end, and wisely well,
Call’st a book good, or bad, as it doth sell,
Use mine so, too: I give thee leave. But crave
For the luck’s sake, it thus much favour have,
To lie upon thy stall, till it be sought;
Not offer’d, as it made suit to be bought;
Nor have my title-leaf on posts, or walls,
Or in cleft sticks, advancèd to make calls
For termers[i], or some clerk-like serving-man,
Who scarce can spell th’ hard names: whose knight less can.
If, without these vile arts, it will not sell,
Send it to Bucklersbury, there ’twill, well.

The joke of this poem rests in the third line’s “crave.”  The word has two meanings: “To ask earnestly, to beg for (a thing), esp. as a gift or favour. Const. of, from (†at) a person”, with the related implication “Often in the courteous or apologetic phrases to crave pardon, to crave leave, etc” (OED, Crave, 2 a. and b.). The primary meaning of the word, however, is less apologetic: “To demand (a thing), to ask with authority, or by right” (1a). This latter entry from the beloved OED is really the form Jonson’s poem uses, even if it appears, in its polite flattery of bookseller John Stepneth’s wisdom[ii], and its posture of seeking leave (or a “gift or favour”), and its seeming well-wishes for Stepney’s good luck, to be making use of the second, less imperative form.

The poem demands on behalf of Jonson’s authority as a poet — and it does so with a subtly outlined threat that not following the poet’s demands will result in the bookseller’s bad luck. If the poet truly believed in the wisdom of determining a book’s worth based on the number of copies it sells, or wholly supported the bookseller’s desire to earn a profit, he probably wouldn’t advise against the  vulgar advertising tactics he describes: recommending the book to browsing customers, and prominently posting the titlepage to show the book’s availability.

Not that Jonson is against his book being sold for profit, but the profit has to be made on the book’s own merit. As though that merit should visibly announce itself to discerning readers. And, if we believe that the poet is simply giving the bookseller the soundest advice for earning the highest profit (or fortune or “luck”), allowing the book to defend and speak for its own merit is the sign of a discerning and wise  bookseller — one whose visible wisdom will further attract wise readers. If the book’s merit isn’t announcing itself, then either the poetry inside the book has failed somehow, or the potential readers have — they aren’t discerning enough, wise enough, to recognise the book’s worth (not enough to pick it out from a pile of books in the bookseller’s shop or stall, at any rate).

But the previous poem in Jonson’s Epigrams (“To My Book”), certainly outlines the book’s maturity, wisdom, and literary merit. If the book isn’t selling, then, the fault must lie in the type of customers the bookseller is attracting: the termers, servingmen, and gentry (probably newly-purchased knighthoods) in the poem’s closing lines. The bad readers who obviously frequent booksellers in abundance — enough that the poet can notice and comment upon them anyways.

These are the type of people who are frequenting the bookstalls. The fault though, according to the logic of the poem, partly lies with the booksellers themselves, who pander to their vulgar customer base, rather than attempting to foster a more discerning one. But if these  customers make up the greatest number of book buyers, then the poem’s advice is decidedly not the soundest way to earning a financial profit. The bookseller’s fastest and most reliable means of securing his financial “luck” does not depend on his ability to appear discerning, or to have a truly literary cleintele, but on his ability to flog wares to the foolish and vain customers he already has. And should it be the case that these customers make up most or all of the reading public — if there are no intelligent customers to draw in their place —  then altering advertising practices in hopes of securing a more truly literary clientele will only lead to the bookseller’s certain financial ruin.

The poet is not at all concerned with the bookseller’s financial profit, but with his own ability to be recognised for his literary merit. His craving for the favour of no advertising is not a request coupled with friendly advice (‘following this tack is the soundest way to good luck’), but an imperative accompanied by the threat of a curse (‘if you don’t follow my directions I’ll use my authority as a poet to bring you bad luck’).

An intentionally and comically hollow threat, though, considering that most of the poem is taken up with the problem that readers don’t care one way or another about the quality of poetry — an attitude that surely divests the poet of his poetic authority. The poem here invokes another meaning of “crave”: to desire intensely. The poet craves a world made up of astute and judging readers, who care deeply about a poem’s literary merit. But he craves in vain — and the poem ultimately becomes one man grumping about the unchangeable state of world today.

He grumps in good, self-depreciating humour though. I love those last two (resigned) lines.

11 December 2010 ~ Hamilton

End Notes.

[i] termers. George Parfitt notes “visitors to London during term-time at the Inns of Court” (483).

[ii] John Stepneth. Another fact borrowed from Parfitt (483)!

Works Cited.

Jonson, Ben. “To My Bookseller.” Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems. Ed. George Parfitt. London: Penguin. 1996. 35. Print.

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