During an extended walking (and boozing) tour of his ancestral lands in 1618-9, Ben Jonson stayed at Hawthornden Castle as a guest of William Drummond. His host, a pompous, second-tier Scottish peddler of Petrarchan sonnets, scribbled down notes throughout this visit, later published with the title Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (what else?). These contain a rather biting pen-portrait of Jonson, who did not overly impress Drummond:
He is a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the elements on which he liveth), a dissembler of ill parts which reign in him, a bragger of some good that he wanteth, thinketh nothing well but what either he himself, or some of his friends and countrymen hath said or done. He is passionately kind and angry, careless either to gaine or keep, vindicative, but, if he be well answered, at himself.
This is meant to be a demolition job, it seems, but is undermined by its own ambivalence, as Drummond betrays an undertone of admiration in this litany of bad traits. All these flaws are (at the very least) half-attractive, double-edged. Drummond’s description adds nothing to our esteem of him, but we are not repelled or appalled by his subject, as he possibly thinks we should be. On the contrary: it is Jonson you’d want at the dinner table, not the self-important, saccharine Scot.
Jonson’s poems are smooth and urbane, choppy and charged; he draws on the Roman models of Catullus, Horace and Martial (“I know nothing can conduce more to letters than to examine the writings of the ancients,” he wrote in his Discoveries). They are more disciplined and conventional than Shakespeare’s sonnets and lack the ornate obscurity and startling naturalism of Donne’s early work. This is not always the case, of course, but holds true for the bulk of his Epigrams, the opening collection of poems in his first printed Folio. Jonson mastered “merry Martial”, solidifying the epigrammatic form for the English language, but he also learnt to stretch the convention thematically and structurally by studying the The Greek Anthology. His formidable and famous Classical learning gave him the edge on contemporary court hacks, who he dismissed: “thou hast seen/Davies and Weever/…mine come nothing like…” (Epigram 18).
And yet Jonson’s Epigrams are not all Roman grit and Greek grace: there is some of the bile and bite of his great stage comedies and satires in these pithy, perfectly formed poem-epistles. Throughout the edited collection you can trace Volpone’s abrupt and broken rhythms and feel the energy and irreverence of those dangerous theatre collaborations, The Isle of Dogs and Eastward Ho! (Jonson would be imprisoned for both of these plays, and face torture and possible execution; he was only rescued, each time, by good fortune and influential friends.) The poems savagely lampoon a gallery of Jacobean Court and Inns of Court characters, barely disguised by a series of sobriquets: Sir Cod the Perfumed, My Lord Ignorant, Court-Worm, Sir Voluptuous Beast and Prowl the Plagiary, to name a few. They also glorify Jonson’s Court allies and Country House patrons in extravagant terms. The poems serve a personal purpose here, and Jonson displays dual “modes” (in the Restoration sense): slanderer and scholar; satirist and sycophant. This was, simply, the way a successful poet lived through, or survived, the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.
So there is a general and generous contradiction of character here that we can enjoy and that animate the poems; a “tough reasonableness” underlying lyric grace noted by T. S. Eliot in his 1921 essay on Andrew Marvell. Jonson, as described by Drummond, is abusive, vain, bad-tempered, badly behaved. He was in many ways the wrong sort: son of a brick-layer, convicted murderer (upon plunging a rapier into stage actor Gabriel Spencer), and Catholic convert; an unpredictable theatre-land trouble-maker with connections to the Earl of Essex and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. This was to run just a few of the gravest risks in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. But he was, in the end, too canny, intelligent and talented to die; and, maybe more to the point, too well-connected. The scourge of Society aspirants, phoneys and double-dealers, Jonson was also one of the great buddies and raconteurs of English poetry, a loyal and bold-hearted bugger who could devise a mean masque and drink the King’s favourite under any table.
This stands out in his poem ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’ (Epigram 101), the epicenter and great survivor of the Epigrams. Superficially (and formally) it is one of the least epigrammatic works in the collection, although it consciously draws on the “invitation poems” of Martial, Horace and Catullus (as well as the Greeks). It is within the tradition, relocating Rome and Athens in the gardens, houses and taverns of Jacobean England. Jonson invites a highly-esteemed acquaintance (“my grave friend”) to feast at his table, which over-flows with local produce; the appearance of this great guest will, alone, make the evening “perfect” rather than the delicious treats (“the cates”).
Jonson’s party promises colour and variety in its culinary and intellectual entertainment. The poem, in its rich variety and ease of cadence, is a celebration of conversation, friendship, liberty and learning. The correct company is, of course, crucial; “no Pooly, or Parrot” (spies, traitors, bad eggs) will be admitted into the home. Jonson lures his gang with extravagant enticements in the manner of Martial’s mock invitations: I will “lie” (he teases) “so you will come.” To the “olive, capers…some better salad,” the “mutton” and a “short-legged hen…full of eggs,” he adds an unlikely (yet feasible, and edible) menu of local fowl: “partridge, pheasant, woodcock,” “godwit, if we can:/knat, rail and ruff too.” This will be followed by “digestive cheese” and fruit, and (most importantly) “rich canary wine” from the famous Mermaid Tavern. Across this splendid spread they will share and recite a literary selection in line with the poet’s cherished Renaissance humanist ideal: “Virgil, Tacitus, Livy.”
Jonson presents an abstract ideal and an actual occasion, uniting public theme and private experience, the very art of the epigram. It has a social and personal function. It works and it has purpose. Jonson mastered this form better than the lesser Court Epigrammists because 1) his Classical learning far exceeded theirs, and 2) his “character” was already so dominant and to some extent artificial that private and public conflated in his very being, a psycho-social condition we now call celebrity. If he displayed distaste for publication and booksellers (circulation of elaborate manuscripts in private was the correct way to do things in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Courts and country houses) he was also one of the first of his contemporaries to arrange formal publication of his own work. He chose to display a lot of himself (on stage, on page, at Court and Oxford) and he mostly displayed big, glaring, attractive, forgivable contractions. His work may not have been loved in the same way or to the extent of Shakespeare’s, but there was, after all, ‘The Tribe of Ben’ whose influence was felt in living verse for decades.
T.S Eliot, in the Marvell essay, described an “alliance of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified)” which characterised the poetic “wit” established and refined (in different ways) by Donne and Jonson. This tendency, or method, or skill, threaded through Marvell and the Caroline and Cavalier poets, to Dryden and Pope. (After this, according to Eliot, it was lost, fully eradicated by the Romantics.) In an earlier essay on Jonson, Eliot went a little further, to say: “his poetry is of the surface. Poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study; for to deal with the surface of life, as Jonson dealt with it, is to deal so deliberately that we too must be deliberate, in order to understand.” He distinguishes this, of course, from the “superficial” — a different thing altogether and associated here with Jonson’s pygmy stage rivals Beaumont and Fletcher. (Well, we could do with a Beaumont and Fletcher right now.)
The close weave of classical allusion and real life detail in ‘…Supper’ (“Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,/Are all but Luther’s beer, to this I sing”) is an elegant and easy example of Jonson’s complex surface art. The setting, the purpose, the tone and form are (now) rare and refreshing. This might explain the durability of certain Jonson epigrams, particularly this one: the rare quality and informal use of language in a now defunct formal role. There is something of it in the work of Frank O’ Hara, another singular voice whose influence was also wide but less rewarding than Jonson’s; in, for example, an elegy like ‘Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s’, a piece composed for specific people on a particular occasion that nevertheless transcends its origin with self-conscious ambition and grace. Like Jonson, O’Hara locates and achieves a fine balance between public and private space and moment, the local and elemental, temporal and eternal. They can both, in these poems, transfigure the ephemeral and make the personal details of the day (of a life) speak for all time.