Hooked on Ben Jonson

A guest post by John Newton

Christmas browsing in my local book shop, my eyes settled on a portrait of a bearded, middle aged man and I pondered on the words: Ben Jonson – A Life. (Ian Donaldson) . Ever since turning the first pages of that book, I have been like a fish on a line. Why? What’s been the attraction of Ben Jonson?

First it was the bobbing float: who was he, this contemporary of Shakespeare? As I read on, I was amazed at how much seemed to be recorded of Ben’s life and personality (complex, paradoxical) compared to his shadowy friend Will. And then I wondered why it was that his life and work was not more generally well known?

Then came the bait: the drama of his life – from bricklaying to Kings Poet, from prison to palace, from murder to marriage, from Protestant to Catholic and back again.

Then a hook sunk itself in, drawing me along the Jonson road. I learnt of his extraordinary walk from London to Edinburgh. This led me to meet up with James Loxley who discovered in 2009 the long lost document of Jonson’s 71 day journey – his ‘Foot Voyage’ from London to Edinburgh in 1618. I was by now literally tracing many of Jonson’s steps and becoming creatively involved on Ben Jonson-associated projects.

Then the hook twisted, and pierced my publishing skin. Having worked for some years for the publisher of Dr Johnson’s dictionary (Longman) I was fascinated by Ben Jonson’s outrageous assertion (in his day) of his intellectual property rights as a playwright (a word he perhaps created!) with the publication of his Works in 1616. This was a groundbreaking publishing milestone that needed to be celebrated – which this year, 400 years later, I am doing in a concert at Sutton House, the National Trust Elizabethan house in London. (Please come!)

And finally, I was hauled in by some enchanting writing. Some of Jonson’s work has been a revelation to me: to read and see performed some of his plays which I think have relevance to today’s world of greed, corruption and deception.; to enjoy some poems of love and death; to become aware of his masques (like Jacobean corporate events with gigantic budgets!) and some other writings which are often beautiful in themselves or interesting from a historical or biographical point of view.  I’ve just begun, scratched the surface if you like, but ‘Fie how I have been fishified!’ (Sorry Will). I’m just wondering what lies ahead when I’m thrown back in!


Our Friend from the South

So what happened next? The writer of the ‘Foot Voyage’ clearly thought his journey and his job were done once Jonson had been invested with the honour of burgess of Scotland’s capital city at the banquet on September 26. The account is brief about this, despite the suggestion that the companion was himself present. And he appears unmoved, too, by the fact that this was the end of his spectacular summer holiday. As he puts it:

I lay at Effy Wilson’s, her husband is called Thomas Robinson, from Saturday till the Monday sevenight after, which was the fifth of November, at what time I parted from Edinburgh, and at Leith took boat for Brunt Island, where I met with a ship bound for England, the master whereof was John Gadd, and his brother mate. I lay at Robert Clerke’s.

He means ‘October’, of course; and what he did during that week in Edinburgh at the house of Euphemia Wilson (we can note here the Scottish tradition by which wives retained their surnames rather than taking their husbands’) remains entirely unknown. That he should choose to return home by boat makes perfect sense – it was the quickest way of travelling between English and Scottish ports, and he’d covered enough ground already that year. When he steps aboard John Gedd’s ship at Burntisland he shimmers out of view – back into an historical obscurity from which we’ve not, alas, yet been able to retrieve any more of him. What did he do?  He was returning home just in time for the start of Michaelmas term – if he was a young man, as seems at least possible, might he have been heading to one of the Inns of Court or a university? And if he lived for many years after 1618, did he look back with warmth and fondness on his adventures that summer? What stories might he have told of them?

Lamb's House, Leith

Lamb’s House, a 16th century merchant’s dwelling in Leith – perhaps similar to the house in which Jonson stayed

For Jonson, the picture is unsurprisingly clearer. Anna Groundwater has found a previously neglected further reference to him in the city records, dated October 6, concerning expenses paid to civic officials for a visit to him at Leith. So it seems that he returned to his comfortable lodgings with John Stuart down by the Shore, and continued to entertain a range of visitors. Later evidence suggests that he made firm friends with the Edinburgh-based members of families linked to James’s court and with such eminent local dynasties as the Nisbets of Dean. He probably travelled within lowland Scotland, too, perhaps as far west as Loch Lomond – about which he planned to write – and possibly again into Fife, maybe even up to St Andrews. He pursued an interest in the artistic and educational life of the country, and seems to have been particularly taken with the cultural patronage of Alexander Seton, Earl of Dunfermline and Lord Chancellor of Scotland, whom he’d met in Fife on his initial trip there in September. Unlike a rancorous minority of English visitors, who felt compelled to sneer at Scotland in terms still drearily familiar today (I’m looking at you, Simon Heffer), Jonson was impressed: Edinburgh, he said, was ‘Britain’s other eye’ – a bright place, or intellectual centre – and he took an interest in the curricula of the university at St Andrews and of the new ‘King’s College’ or ‘Toun College’ in the capital – my own university, founded by the authority of King James in 1583.

Hawthornden castle

A view of Hawthornden Castle from the North Esk

Most famously, he spent some time at the end of the year at the wonderful Hawthornden castle in Midlothian, which still stands high over the North Esk river. It was substantially improved by its then owner and Jonson’s host, William Drummond, who also had the foresight to take notes of his guest’s often pungent conversation. The forthright opinions and voluble sociability of the understandably expansive Jonson seem to have irked Drummond on occasion during the visit – perhaps especially when the modishness of his own poetry was called into question – since his notes conclude with some pungency of their own: a brief pen portrait, in which Ben’s faults are sharply delineated in terms borrowed, to some extent, from Jonson. So this might, in fact, be a moment of Jonsonian self-criticism, too, or at least take its cue from stories Jonson told against himself.

Anyway, correspondence and other evidence shows that this was neither the first nor only encounter between Jonson and Drummond, and that for the most part their relationship was warm, respectful and friendly. It is to Drummond, too, that we owe our knowledge of the date of Jonson’s departure south – apparently walking again, at least some of the way, but now in the depths of winter:

He went from Leith homeward the 25 of January 1619, in a pair of shoes which, he told, lasted him since he came from Darnton, which he minded to take back that far again; they were appearing like Coryat’s: the first two days he was all excoriate. If he died by the way, he promised to send me his papers of this Country, hewn as they were.

Jonson here compares himself to the ‘Obcombian legstretcher’, Thomas Coryate, whose grand rambles through Western Europe and then much further afield were legendary. Drummond confirms, too, that Jonson’s enquiring mind had been busily accumulating material for further works on ‘this Country’ – i.e., Scotland – which were then in some kind of draft or note form.

But none of this survives. No doubt Jonson had all sorts of plans and ideas that never came to fruition – most writers do. He also lost some of his writings to a 1623 fire in his study – a conflagration perhaps confined to his desk, though no less damaging for that – in which a number of works were consumed irreparably. Among these was his own account of the 1618 walk, ‘my journey into Scotland sung, with all the adventures’. To me – a researcher of early modern literature and culture, a Jonson fan, a Londoner by upbringing who has made his home in Edinburgh – this has long seemed the most infuriating and tantalising loss. The ‘Foot Voyage’ isn’t really a substitute for this vanished hymn to a Jacobean summer, of course. For now, though, it’ll do.

The Ben Jonson Show

When Jonson and his companion left Welbeck on the morning of 6 August, walking on towards Gervase Clifton’s house at Hodsock Priory and the great north road beyond that, they were bringing the curtain down on one of the most extraordinary episodes in the whole adventure. Yet while what happened here, as recorded in the ‘Foot Voyage’, is remarkable in itself, it is also significant for what it says about who Ben Jonson was – or, at least, could be.

Velazquez, Bacchus

Velazquez, The Triumph of Bacchus, 1629

The predominant note is one of unbridled and well lubricated festivity. During his visit to nearby Worksop, we find Jonson going in search of a Welsh goldsmith whose drinking ‘cans’ he has seen at Belvoir, a pair of which he now wishes to acquire for himself. At the workshop they find some exceptionally capacious vessels, and filling these according to the proverbially generous ‘London measure’ they hand them round to anyone passing by. On their last day in the Cavendish household, the account seems to suggest that dinner was punctuated by some kind of pissing contest – you can almost picture the diners staggering off, one after the other, to attempt the toilet challenge that has somehow struck them as a good idea. If this interpretation is even half right, then there would seem to be little sign here of any conformity to ideals of refined and noble hospitality. Earthy humour, rather, would seem to be the order of the day.

This is just as evident in the extraordinary licence allowed to Jonson by his hosts: twice, the account says, he is explicitly granted the freedom of Welbeck when his hosts leave to visit Jane Talbot, Countess of Shrewbury, at Rufford:

Sir William with my old Lady Candish and his own lady went to Rufford, and resigned the whole house to my gossip etc., commanding his steward and all the rest of the officers to obey my gossip in all things, which authority he did as freely put in execution.

The account goes on to say how he used his new authority, making preparations for another feast of venison, and throwing open the wine cellar. Yet equally significant is that he began to play the part of the lord of this particular manor – appointing a local gentleman as his ‘woodman’, a kind of forest officer, and perhaps even – on one reading of a somewhat enigmatic sentence – making ‘fat Harry Ogle’ – one of Sir William Cavendish’s kinsmen and most trusted of retainers – ‘mistress’ of the household over which he was now presiding.

The ‘Foot Voyage’ also highlights how this role-playing continued once the real mistress of the house returned, with Jonson acting the part of an irascible host, barking at his staff like an overbearing and ill-tempered alpha-boss:

Presently upon our return the ladies came, whom Mr Jonson welcomed to his house, and at supper bid them want nothing, for if they did it was not his fault. Chafed at the table for lights, and checked the waiters because there was no more new bread, which freedom of his mingled with a great deal of mirth much delighted the ladies.

The important point here, of course, is that Jonson was acting up for his patron’s amusement – this was a comic performance, for which he adopted a persona calculated to entertain his chosen audience. This is something, I would suggest, that we see quite a lot in Jonson’s writing, though we’re not perhaps as good at spotting it as we should be. Jonson is one of the most self-conscious of early modern writers, in the sense of attempting to cultivate a particular kind of authorial persona. That persona can seem unsympathetic, to say the least, to many readers. When posturing in this way, Jonson comes across as pompous, self-aggrandising and pretentious. We have become used to seeing him, in this mode, as unintentionally comic, with his aspiration towards authorial glory given the lie by his scholarly pedantry, his rejection by theatre audiences, or the embarrassingly proximate and far more substantial achievement of Shakespeare.

Yet this particular joke may be on us, after all. At Welbeck we see Jonson self-consciously playing the role of overweening Ben, in the context of a festive interlude in which he is set up – to his apparent delight – as a kind of lord of misrule. Perhaps, when we recoil from or laugh at his impersonation of the pompous poet, we are mistaking the kind of self-consciousness there on show; perhaps, some of the time at least, ‘Ben Jonson’ is actually one of Ben Jonson’s finest comedic creations.

de Vos, Bacchus

Cornelis de Vos, The Triumph of Bacchus

Reverend Strange’s ‘Little Commonwealth’ at Buntingford

buntingford-st-peter-111202 small

Alexander Strange’s chapel, Buntingford

As Jonson crossed the little bridge into Buntingford on Saturday 11 July 1618 he will have seen a building site on his left. This was to be a small ‘chapel-at-ease’ on which work had begun in 1614, but was not finished until 1628 at a cost of £420. St Peter’s, as it became known, was the great project of Buntingford’s minister, the Rev Alexander Strange, in order to spare the town’s inhabitants the trials of crossing a swollen river to the parish’s main church in Layston. You can still visit it today, though its Victorianisation in 1899 means that it has been altered from the building whose foundations Jonson will have seen. In the western transept, however, there is a plain wood-paneled gallery front from around 1615, and a stone on the east gable bears the inscription DOMUS ORATIONIS 1615.


Rev. Strange’s signature in his memorandum book

Inside, a brass plaque of 1620 hangs on the south wall depicting the minister preaching to his congregation in a small Renaissance chapel, thought to represent Strange and his parishioners, on which is inscribed ‘In Stature small, yet great in mental powers,/ Good Alexander built this Church of ours’. Rev. Strange appears to have been a singular fellow, and we are lucky that his memorandum book survives, his distinctive hand recording the parish accounts and administrative decisions, his advice and a tract on poverty. From its pages emerges a deeply conscientious and intensely godly man, whose concern for his parishioners and the poor amongst them results in several schemes to help them.

The first was to ensure their godly souls by erecting this convenient new chapel, and money was set aside for vicars to include thanks in a sermon to those, like Jonson, ‘at whose expense the chappell was built’. Then Rev Strange himself donated several lands whose income was to be used for the poor. He encouraged wealthy Londoners also to make charitable grants, such as one by a goldsmith in 1623 who gave £20 ‘to be ymployed in the buying of flax to sette the poore to work’.

But Buntingford had a problem common to other towns on the main arterial roads in London’s hinterland. A population explosion in southern England had forced many from their villages in search of work. These itinerant families created a pressing problem in towns such as Buntingford, their numbers outstripping the capacity of the rates collected for poor relief. As Rev Strange wrote in his Advice of 1636, ‘I see and am sorry to see the misery into which Buntingford’s residents are fallen …. I will be bold to tell you the Causes of it. Your misery is this, there are come into your parish within the space of these twenty years past, no less than twenty Families, all of which receive’ the parish’s alms. At the same time, the increased pressure on housing led Rev Strange to castigate his parishioners for having fallen victim to ‘the roote of all evill, covetousness’ in their raising of rents.

Jonson and Strange will have had something in common (if not the minister’s more puritan godliness) since Strange had a library filled with classical volumes, including eight volumes of Tulley. At almost the same age (b.c.1570) as Jonson, both had enjoyed an education shaped by classical humanism, its influence plain in Strange’s Advice of 1636 in which he terms Layston and Buntingford a ‘little commonwealth’ where it was every citizen’s duty to play his part.

ermine stJonson was to experience a number of these ‘little commonwealths’ as he progressed north, towns in which their civic communities fretted equally about how to look after, and control the poor, at Huntingdon, Stamford, Newark etc. And as he left Buntingford, he walked along the road that joined them, a route still marked by road signs bearing its medieval name of Ermine Street. It’s a remarkably straight route, and one I’ve driven now several times at dusk, imagining Ben’s weary footsteps as he toiled up long slopes towards the light and warmth of a welcoming inn.

A Good Gossip

One of the most striking features of the ‘Foot Voyage’ is the narrator’s consistent use of the phrase ‘my gossip’ to refer to Jonson. This phrase, in fact, occurs 92 times in total – making ‘gossip’ one of the most commonly occurring words in the account. Yet the sense in which it’s used here is unfamiliar to modern readers, so it merits a degree of explanation.

What, or rather who, is a gossip? To us, of course, it means idle talk, tittle tattle, usually concerning other people’s – often supposedly private, at least personal – affairs. Hence, too, it’s a noun for those who engage in such chatter. And it’s not all that respectable: say the phrase ‘gossip columnist’ and the concomitant mental image isn’t usually anything like Woodward and Bernstein.

Eugene de Blaas, The Friendly Gossips

Now, this meaning was certainly current in the early seventeenth century – and it usually carried, as it still does now, a distinctly gendered (not to say misogynistic) charge. Gossips were female, and they chattered away incontinently and inconsequentially. They could be played on stage for laughs, as Jonson himself knew: in his play The Staple of News he included a parodic chorus consisting of ‘Gossip Mirth’, ‘Gossip Expectation’, ‘Gossip Censure’ and, unsurprisingly, ‘Gossip Tattle’, ‘gentlewomen lady-like attired‘. Given that this was written for an all-male stage, the resulting impersonations can be seen as the perhaps not too remote ancestors of characters like Monty Python’s head-scarved or pinny-wrapped women, or TV’s very own Cissie and Ada. Of course, we’re past all that now, aren’t we?

'Tis Merry When Gossips Meet...

‘Tis Merry When Gossips Meet…

Yet just as current was a meaning now entirely lost to us. In The Staple, the gossips take up seats at the edge of the stage, to which they are entitled – they say – as ‘persons of quality‘. (This was one of those strange customs of the early modern indoor stages: some of the most sought after seats in the house were stools on the margins of the playing area. Let’s bring it back at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse.) Yet when the Prologue asks them ‘what will the Noblemen think, or the grave Wits here, to see you seated on the bench thus?‘ Gossip Mirth replies ‘Why, what should they think? But that they had Mothers, as we had, and those Mothers had Gossips (if their children were christened) as we are, and such as had a longing to see Plays, and sit upon them, as we do, and arraign both them, and their Poets.‘ The obvious comedy here is no doubt to be drawn from the gossips’ presumption of both social and critical standing; but what gives it something of an edge is their grounding of their own claims to status in genuinely weighty social roles: motherhood, of course, but also other kinds of kinship, created not by blood but by baptism.

A gossip, etymologically (but also, for Jonson’s era, currently), was a god-sib, a sibling made such by standing as godparent to one’s child. So your gossips would be your children’s godparents, or the parents of those children for whom you were godparent, or those who were godparents to the same child as you – and they could, of course, be both male and female. So while a gaggle of gossips might bring to mind the kind of domestic or familial intimacy that the early modern world usually saw as feminine, gossips could still, in an uncomplicated way, be men.

Complication, though, arises from the fact that the term could be used to mean other kinds of intimacy. Still in relation to spiritual kinship, your gossip could be your own godparent – bringing in a cross-generational aspect that would seem to sit badly with the word’s roots in ‘sib’ or sibling. And it could also be used imprecisely, or figuratively, to mean – as the OED fetchingly puts it – ‘a familiar acquaintance, friend, chum‘. It could be used for erotic, or at least eroticised, bonds: in their correspondence, both King James and his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, addressed each other as ‘gossip’.

So when our narrator calls Ben Jonson his gossip, what does he mean? The short, perhaps disappointing answer is that we can’t tell for sure. What we can say is that he’s laying claim to intimacy: ‘my gossip’, as he says on each of those 92 occasions. Jonson may be the big man (in several senses), the celebrity, the famous and feted author, but to me he’s family. He may be heavy, but he’s also (something like) my brother.