63. (Ben Jonson)

Let’s take seriously the traditional opposition between the heirs of Jonson and Donne, and use it to ask again where Jonson’s strength lies. It won’t do to only say that his words are solider things, or that they are more closely attached to the solid stuff of the world, to the flesh, its sustenance, and its luxuries.  Donne’s poetry is no less fleshly. But Jonson does care for such objects in a manner distinct from Donne.

In my last post, I described Donne’s poetry as one of property and properties: a word begetting another word, because a property of it, or because of their both being a property of another, and in poetry about the insecure holding onto another person as property, and the insecure desire of resisting the appropriating powers that divide the world between them. Donne’s poetry ruffles proprieties (the meter and line, the social graces) for the sake of re-assessing and re-aligning claims of property and attribution of properties; but it threatens always to dissolves into chaos: too many claims made good and bad. Only Donne, triumphant, defiant, smirking, can bind them.

Jonson is not incapable of relating to language in the fashion of Donne—to take an example, his epigram to Lady Jane Pawlet, Marchioness of Winton, tropes her transformation from earthly to heavenly life by seizing and playing on her properties and attributes.

But Jonson’s relationship to language is best described in terms not of property but of a proprietor, a steward, a poet of economy in its root sense: the management of a household.

Against Donne with his evasions of commitment (the poems to patrons notwithstanding). Jonson recognizes everywhere the attachments that preserve poems and a life in a stable place. The son of a brick-layer, Jonson wrote poetry that seems to proceed from the assumption that words make the shelters in which we dwell…as well as stocking those shelters, and inviting others to dwell there with us. His poetry does not look back to baronial manors and feudal times; for though it celebrates patrons and patronage, it explores most searchingly the bonds of friendship and gift-exchange, the need to accrue provisions, to dispense with care, to scant and save, and to fortify havens and harbors. If these are impulses and necessities that have become cornerstones of conservative estimations of value and politics, they are not irrelevant to liberal thought. At their center is a concern for where liberality belongs, and for its limits; liberality not the same as liberalism, but one of a nexus of neighboring words with which it must reckon.

The thematic foundation to what I am saying is obvious: “Inviting a Friend to  Supper” and “To Penshurst” are among his most enduring poems. Here is the former in full:

Tonight, grave sir, both my poor house, and I
Do equally desire your company;
Not that we think us worthy such a guest,
But that your worth will dignify our feast
With those that come, whose grace may make that seem
Something, which else could hope for no esteem.
It is the fair acceptance, sir, creates
The entertainment perfect, not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectify your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better salad
Ushering the mutton; with a short-legged hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then
Lemons, and wine for sauce; to these a cony
Is not to be despaired of, for our money;
And, though fowl now be scarce, yet there are clerks,
The sky not falling, think we may have larks.
I’ll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come:
Of partridge, pheasant, woodcock, of which some
May yet be there, and godwit, if we can;
Knat, rail, and ruff too. Howsoe’er, my man
Shall read a piece of Virgil, Tacitus,
Livy, or of some better book to us,
Of which we’ll speak our minds, amidst our meat;
And I’ll profess no verses to repeat.
To this, if ought appear which I not know of,
That will the pastry, not my paper, show of.
Digestive cheese and fruit there sure will be;
But that which most doth take my Muse and me,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary wine,
Which is the Mermaid’s now, but shall be mine;
Of which had Horace, or Anacreon tasted,
Their lives, as so their lines, till now had lasted.
Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,
Are all but Luther’s beer to this I sing.
Of this we will sup free, but moderately,
And we will have no Pooley, or Parrot by,
Nor shall our cups make any guilty men;
But, at our parting we will be as when
We innocently met. No simple word
That shall be uttered at our mirthful board,
Shall make us sad next morning or affright
The liberty that we’ll enjoy tonight.

The poem offers abundance, warns that it is but an offer, with the possibility of deception and exaggeration that any contains: “I’ll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come.” And then it moves to promise, among the stock of offerings, talk itself, and words, but words inherited, vintage, and not Jonson’s own: they will read poets of antiquity.

The mention of talk is not surprising; it is an invitation to a dinner party. But the proud confession that the invitation will involve a lie of what cannot be set out on the table suggests something about how the poetry and talk are to be taken: as goods to be enjoyed whether they are genuinely affirmed or not: as both a portion of the evening’s abundance, and also as a satisfying substitute for and addition to it.

The poet’s promise of the household’s generous economy is an integral aspect of that generous economy: it depends on it, in so far as it must be grounded on something solid beyond the words themselves, but it can and should exceed what grounds it, by a partial fiction, since such fictions are themselves integral to the stock of household goods, and can only make themselves felt as additions to it when they are fostered in play, exaggeration, and arrangement in poetry.

Jonson’s poetry is felt to be less open than Donne’s because it commits itself to a table of accounting in which it is balanced against, and constrained by, the extra-poetic transactions of a great house; it opens itself differently from Donne’s because the words are held accountable to standards and requirements differently from Donne’s: not only Jonson’s set of values, but the location of that set of values in a domestic community, and a wider community of households in conversation and exchange with one another.

Jonson’s poetry seems to be itself fitting those houses and their inhabitants, arranging them, even rebuilding them, as alternative edifices (the connection between Jonson and architecture, revealed in his annotations of architectural volumes in his library, is well-studied; note the language of construction in his poem against rhyming), and attributing (and so supplying) them with virtues and characteristics that they ought to possess, given the other, more material facts about them.

The greatest household of all is, for Jonson, the commonwealth; and it is towards it that Jonson would add his words:

I do but name thee, Pembroke, and I find
It is an epigram, on all mankind;
Against the bad, but of, and to the good;
Both which are asked, to have thee understood.
Nor could the age have missed thee in this strife
Of vice, and virtue; wherein all great life
Almost, is exercised: and scarce one knows, 
To which, yet, of the sides he owes.
They follow virtue, for reward, today;
Tomorrow vice, if she give better pay:
And are so good, and bad, just at a price,
As nothing else discerns the virtue or vice.
But thou, whose noblesse keeps one stature still,
And one true position, though besieged with ill
Of what ambition, faction, pride can raise;
Whose life, even they, that envy it, must praise;
That art so reverenced, as thy coming in,
But in the view, doth interrupt their sin;
Thou must draw more: and they, that hope to see
The commonwealth still safe, must study thee.

(CII. “To William, Earl of Pembroke”)

This a poem that bestows praise; whether or not the grounds for the praise are ours matters less than the poise of the poem, as it attempts to honor the poise of Pembroke, who is unmoved by the transactions of money, in his just stance. It is not a poem of household goods in so obvious a way as “Inviting a Friend to Supper,” but the praise of Pembroke, as broad as could be in extolling “virtue” over “vice,” is set against a fear that these are improperly safeguarded in the nation’s economy.

By poem’s end, Pembroke is not solely a man: he has been transformed, by the poet, with his own skill of imitatio, into an object set on display in the commonwealth, to be imitated by others. Jonson, in effect, has arranged him among the disorder in the civic dwelling place.

Jonson’s peculiar faith was that poetry ought to be held a valid item of worth to the stock of the nation’s goods. When, near his life’s end, the king’s household denied him his promised tierce of sack (a 42 gallon unit), he rallied and railed:

What can the cause be, when the king hath given
His poet sack, the Household will not pay?
Are they so scanted in their store, or driven
For want of knowing the poet, to say him nay?
Well, they should know him, would the king but grant
His poet leave to sing his Household true;
He’ld frame such ditties of their store, and want,
Would make the very green-cloth to look blue:
And rather wish, in their expense of sack,
So, the allowance from the king to use,
As the old bard, should no canary lack,
‘Twere better spare a butt, than spill his muse.
For in the genius of a poet’s verse,
The king’s fame lives. Go now, deny his tierce.

[The green-cloth refers to the Board of the Green Cloth, charged with maintaining royal expenses.]

The Falstaffian bluster of the poem makes a moving contrast to the bluster of “Inviting a Friend to Supper,” for here Jonson is denied a place at the table, and can only threaten that the bile of his verse would be more damage than the expense of the sack (“For in the genius of a poet’s verse | The king’s fame lives.”). But Jonson ends the poem by registering the limit of his argument: what good if the king’s fame lives only in a poet’s verse, when that verse is worth only a “tierce” of sack? The last lines—from the verb “spill” to describe poetic creation, to the final rhyme of “verse” and “tierce,”—equate poetry with a commodity; but it is a commodity whose value is only as assured as a household will have it: there is little worth to the fame bestowed by a poem when the poem is held to be of little account.

A poem, for all it can arrange, establish, and mete out in the care of a house, can take for granted no assurance that it will be among the objects cared for by those with authority in the household.


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