Barnaby the Bright

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), after Van Dyck; friend of Ben Jonson

Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), after Van Dyck

If Jonson did indeed set out on his walk on 8 July 1618, as the account suggests, then he was just about 4 weeks past his 46th birthday – well into middle age, certainly, but not necessarily past it. Judging by comments he makes in poems written at the time, he would fit some aspects of the profile for the sixth of man’s seven ages – ‘in fair round belly with good capon lined’, as Jaques famously puts it in As You Like It – but might well balk at others: the figure of the self-proclaimed ‘justice’ is one that he can’t help satirising in his plays, however attractive such judicial poses might seem to him on other occasions.

That Jonson was born in 1572 has been established only relatively recently. The day and month of his birth, however, are plainly stated in a poem he wrote late in life honouring his friend and patron, Sir Kenelm Digby. There, he draws attention to Digby’s 1628 naval battle against a French and Venetian fleet at Iskenderun, or ‘Scandaroon’, on the mediterranean coast of modern day Turkey, an escapade that had made something of a hero of Digby on his return to England. In his poem, Jonson is pleased to note that ‘the action done at Scandaroon’ had taken place ‘Upon my birthday, the eleventh of June, / When the apostle Barnaby the bright / Unto our year doth give the longest light…’ (The Underwood, 78, lines 13-16).

June 11 was St Barnabas’s day, and he was proverbially known as ‘Barnaby the bright’ because this, by the Julian calendar then in use in England, was the longest day of the year. In his Epithalamion, Edmund Spenser had written that ‘the sunne is in his chiefest hight, With Barnaby the bright’ (line 266). There was even a proverbial rhyme: ‘Barnaby Bright, the longest day and the shortest night’. So Jonson was a midsummer baby, celebrating his nativity on the summer solstice. The decision to set off for Edinburgh in the middle of summer was no doubt shaped by the kind of seasonal considerations reflected in this proverb – not just the chance of warmer weather, and better roads, but also the length of the day itself, since walking between towns without street lighting along roads with neither lights nor signposts would be much more difficult in the dark. As he progressed through the weeks, the days would start to shorten; but then, as he went along, he’d find that some of that shortening was offset by the longer summer days in the north – while he’d lose an hour of daylight over the month of July if he stayed in London, he’d find he’d only have lost half an hour, relative to the length of the day at his starting point, if he made it to Edinburgh within that time.

Bright early mornings, then, and long, late evenings. Plenty of daylight to allow the travellers to cover the distance between staging posts, and – just as importantly – to give them time to enjoy the pleasures of the places they’d be passing through.

James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

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