Wednesday 14 October 2009

Weak gamesters in poetry

I recently claimed that having read an epistolary novel without ending up in hospital was a sure sign that was I sufficiently over my grad school experience to claim the entire literary world as my oyster again.

That I'm reading the poems of Ben Jonson is perhaps more convincing proof of this. Ben Jonson is the quintessential Renaissance writer, as the breadth of his work was matched by none of his peers, not even your man Shakespeare.

Jonson (1572-1637) wrote plays, masques, and the most widely varied (in topic and style) abundance of poetry that you can imagine. He also consciously worked towards making the notion of paid authorship respectable (and he succeeded), although he initially scandalized some by calling his collected works Works, which until then had only been done by that talented amateur King James VI. Jonson also escaped death for killing a man by claiming benefit of clergy, and was the son of a brick-layer. Like Whitman, he contained multitudes.

And most people (Renaissance scholars excluded) tend to know him, if at all, for two poems only: the beautiful and sad elegies "On My First Son" and "On My First Daughter." These are stunning poems, but in no way reflect where Jonson's concerns tended to lie: in the intellectual, and very often in the satirical.

I've recently finished reading his collection Epigrams, which was included in his 1616 publication of the Works. Jonson's epigrams were written in respectful homage to Martial who was the master of the Latin epigram. Like Martial, Jonson was going for variety and wit in his epigrams; his emotional elegies to his lost babies stand out for not fitting into their surroundings at all. You see, "On My First Daughter" is rather awkwardly sandwiched in between a poem dedicated to the abuse of a "reformed gamester" and a poem dedicated to the praise of one of his poetic contemporaries (that sexy beast, John Donne)!

Indeed, Jonson's epigrams almost entirely comprise either abuse of his fellows or praise of his peers or, most often, his patrons. The poems to patrons, like all Jonson's poems, display his erudition and stunning command of language; but for me, their interest is still more academic than pleasurable (the literary world may be my oyster now, but that opposition still stands) for while the details change, the sentiment in these celebrations of literary influence doesn't vary all that much.

However, Jonson, also often combined two traits that I find irresistible when placed together: that's right, funny and mean. Jonson abusing people is a pure joy to read both silently and aloud - and now to post, for your edification. That's correct, I sift out bitchy, smart, and hilarious poems so you never ever again have to crack a tome in which any rhyming occurs! The following are from Epigrams, of course.
XLII On Giles and Joan

Who says that Giles and Joan at discord be?
Th' observing neighbors no such mood can see.
Indeed, poor Giles repents he married ever;
But that his Joan doth too. And Giles would never,
By his free-will, be in Joan's company:
No more would Joan he should. Giles riseth early,
And having got him out of doors is glad;
The like is Joan: but turning home is sad;
And so is Joan. Oftimes when Giles doth find
Harsh sights at home, Giles wisheth he were blind;
All this doth Joan: or that his long-yearn'd life
Were quite out-spun; the like wish hath his wife.
The children that he keeps, Giles swears are none
Of his getting; and so swears his Joan.
In all affections she concurreth still.
If now, with man and wife, to will and nill
The self-same things, a note of concord be:
I know no couple better can agree! (p. 47)

LVI On Poet-Ape

Poor Poet-Ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e'en the frippery of wit,
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robbed, leave rage, and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown
To a little wealth, and credit in the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man's wit his own.
And, told of this, he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish gaping auditor devours;
He marks not whose 'twas first, and after-times
May judge it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool, as if half eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece. (pp. 51-52)
Now, back to Trollope!


Heidenkind said...

I have never even heard of Ben Jonson. Cool! I learned something. :)

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

That bastard Shakespeare, crushing everyone around him. Ben Jonson wrote four of the greatest comedies in the language; the best masques are unique; and everything Colleen says about the poems is true.

He couldn't do tragedy, though.

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: Cool! I learn something every day in bookblogland. :)

Amateur Reader: I know, Shakespeare was a total jerkface.

But yeah, Jonson's tragedies weren't great. Le sigh.

Jeanne said...

I love "that sexy beast, John Donne." Of course Donne was well-known as a hopeless romantic, having married his patron's daughter for love against the patron's will!

Bookphilia said...

Jeanne: Yes, Donne was a total hotpants. Sigh.