Whether he is the first or not, Ben Jonson is among the earliest of the major American writers. A perverse claim, in so far as he never stepped foot on the far (or near) side of the Atlantic, it becomes not only plausible but persuasive when we consider that Jonson’s great subject matter was the gross acquisitive spirit of the city of London, the earliest stirrings of capitalism, which would issue in the settlement at Jamestown, and in later English-speaking efforts at domination and exploitation up and down the eastern seaboard. One need only read Bernard Bailyn’s recent The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America to recognize that the sorts of men who most captivated Jonson in his plays and poems (and Jonson was captivated, in general, more by men than women, in the poetry at least) were responsible for the early American invasions.
And Jonson himself may have been such a man: his desire to acquire not only learning but status through learning, and to set himself apart as a “great man” with the flourishes of greatness, toadying up to the nobility, hungering for the riches of country homes, making his way up in the world from, in a true story that he wanted to see elevated to the stature of myth, his humble beginnings as a brick-layer’s son—all of that was accompanied also by his awareness that the thirst for capital, social and economic alike, could capture and pervert a mind, could blunt its capacity to perceive not true value as something apart from that capital and those riches, but the true value of them—a value that, great and appealing as it might have been, was not essential for life; he admires, in his verse, those noblemen who can eschew and shun the riches available to them, who understand waste as a peril as well a luxury, and who can find value also in other modes of living. But however much he might have praised those who could abstain and whose could master abstemious living in the heart of excess, his work is always alive to the acquisitive and possessive instinct and urge, honoring it at times and fearing it at others; that instinct, though perennial, would become, in the generations after he wrote, the cornerstone of justifications and philosophies of human endeavor, human liberty, and human servitude and slavery.
So far I have spoken in quite general terms–though I have in mind especially the comedies Volpone and The Alchemist, as well as the poetry. The titular character of the former, Volpone, within the opening moments of the play sets himself apart from the common means of acquisition:
True, my beloved Mosca. Yet I glory
More in the cunning purchase of my wealth
Than in the glad possession, since I gain
No common way; I use no trade, no venture
I wound no earth with plough-shares, fat no beasts
To feed the shambles; have no mills for iron,
Oil, corn, or men, to grind them into powder;
I blow no subtle glass, expose no shops
To threatn’nings of the furrow-faced sea;
I turn no moneys in the public bank
Nor usure private.
Instead, he resorts to chicanery and an elaborate scheme of conning those who believe they might inherit or benefit from his fortune, which they themselves sustain and enlarge through their gifts and efforts at ingratiation. It is a tale–quite Renaissance in this respect–of patronage gone awry; it is also a tale of a bubble of confidence, and so feels immediately modern. In the speech he gives to Volpone, however, Jonson’s language roars through the forces of wealth creation; Volpone despises them, but his language is as full of awe as hatred; it approaches the sublime.
Jonson, sensible to the Renaissance investment in rhetorical training, of course knew that language could magnify and inflate the objects of the world; but Jonson recurrently makes the link between the inflation of language, the inflation of value, and the inflation of desire and greed; but inflation of language, the concomitant recognition of what is high worth, and the stirring of desire and greed are essential; how are we to know when the inflation of language is a ruse and when it is not? The answer has to do with restraints and with limits, with the willingness to curb and combat, even when such combat takes on a violent and grotesque form of its own.Jonson’s poetry tests the strength of restraints by the force of the acquisitive desire that drives it.
Some might look at the epigrams to nobility and read most of Jonson’s praise for those in power as pathetic or forced, a compromise of his own perspicuity; but others might take find in them his perspicuity at work, distinguishing between the different drives to amass wealth and luxury, preferring some to others on the ground that some are restrained. But even when he honors and admires the restraint, he stands in awe of the violence of consumption and will for possession.
Take, for instance, one of the finest of Volpone’s speeches, coming after the famous translation of Catullus, Come, my Celia, let us prove, in Act III, Scene 7:
Why droops my Celia?
Thou hast, in place of a base husband, found
A worthy lover: use thy fortune well,
With secrecy and pleasure. See, behind,
What thou art queen of; not in expectation,
As I feed others: but possessed and crowned.
See here a rope of pearl; and each, more orient
Than that the brave Egyptian queen caroused.
Dissolve and drink them. See, a carbuncle
May put out both the eyes of our St. Mark;
A diamond, would have bough Lollia Pauline,
When she came in like star-light, hid with jewels,
That were the spoils of provinces; take these,
And we, and lose them; yet remains an earring
To purchase them again, and this whole state.
A gem but worth a private patrimony,
Is nothing: we will eat such at a meal.
The heads of parrots, tongues of nightingales,
The brains of peacocks, and of ostriches,
Shall be our food: and, could we get the phoenix,
Though nature lost her kind, she were our dish.
The perverted rareness of the final items, the brains of beautiful exotic birds, disregards their loss; it represents, for Jonson, an inane failure to value anything except as an item to be consumed. Beneath the dishonest dealings of Jonson’s satirical villains is a brash honesty that recognizes waste and does not care. Neither the recognition that waste is inevitable nor the acknowledgement that deciding which waste to care about is difficult lessen the obligation to care to decide.
Granting, and deeply feeling, the urge to rise and own and acquire, Jonson may have resented all the more those who rose and wasted or who already owned and expended beyond their means; he no doubt condemns those who fall for the over-estimations of others, and who cannot measure their own stature and status, who cannot accurately assess what they have gained and would gain. Hence the “suitors” of Volpone are open to satire as much as, if not more than, Volpone himself.
And hence the blistering satire that might recall us to the present moment of American politics:
On Don Surly
Don Surly, to aspire the glorious name
Of a great man, and to be thought the same,
Makes serious use of all great trade he knowes.
He speakes to men with a Rhinocerotes nose,
Which he thinkes great; and so readers verses, too
And, that is done, as he saw great men doe.
H’has tympainies of businesse, in his face,
And, can forget mens names with a great grace.
He will both argue, and discourse in oaths,
Both which are great. And laugh at ill made clothes;
That’s greater, yet: to crie his owne up neate.
He doth, at meales, alone, his pheasant eate,
Which is maine greatnesse. And, at his still boord,
He drinks to no man: that’s, too, like a lord.
He keeps another wife, which is a spice
Of solemne greatnesse. And he dares, at dice,
Blaspheme god, greatly. Or some poor hinde beat,
That breathes in his dogs way: and this is great.
Nay more, for greatnesse sake, he will be one
May heare my Epigrammes, but like of none.
Surly, use other arts, these only can
Stile thee a great fool, but no great man.
Getting greatness wrong–what could be more American than that?
The criticism of it, perhaps.
Contested statuses, all around.