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!


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.

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.