October 23rd, 2005

bear by san

One of the nice things about not being an academic is that I don't have to keep track of my sources.

Which is good, because while I don't mind research, I bloody freaking hate footnotes.

Anyway, I'm deep in yet another grovel through Elizabethan literature and biography, preparatory to revising The Stratford Man, which means I'm currently reading heaps and piles of Ben Jonson. That's the big man up there on the right. Or over there on the left, depending on the structure of your friends list.

Anyway, I sent this quote from The Poetaster to truepenny.

"They are a sort of poor starved rascals that are ever wrapped up in foul linen, and can boast of nothing but a lean visage, peering out of a seam-rent suit; the very emblem of beggary."
And I also said: "Jonson's got a way with a visual. He doesn't ladle on the adjectives as Marlowe does. "seam-rent suit." Such efficiency."

truepenny replied: "Marlowe was constitutionally incapable of doing anything by halves. All or nothing. Always."

It's very true. Marlowe tends to commit hard. (I'm talking about literature, here, and not life, though you could argue the life as well.) Anyway, add all that to recent brawl in my comments section, and I got to thinking.

I'm very impressed by Jonson, in general. His command of the language is precise and impressive, his satire is still funny 400 years later, and I've always sort of felt bad for him, as he had the misfortune of being a great poet who was a few years younger than Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare, an exact contemporary of Donne, and a few decades older than Milton. Under other circumstances, he would have bestrode the era, as they say. As it was, he's a second-stringer, which is a pity.

This guy really was awfully good. (If you're interested, this gentleman has a bunch of his work online.)

Look at this:

When, would Men learn but to distinguish Spirits,
And set true difference 'twixt those jaded Wits
That run a broken pace for common hire,
And the high Raptures of a happy Muse,
Borne on the Wings of her immortal thought,
That kicks at Earth with a disdainful Heel,
And beats at Heaven Gates with her bright Hoofs;
They would not then with such distorted Faces,
And desp'rate Censures, stab at Poesie.

The line about "jaded Wits" is not just a rather clever and understated pun (a "jade" is a horse, leading to the extended conceit of poetry as a pegasus hammering the gates of Heaven with her hooves), but it's also a complicates and catty little stab at Marlowe. The University Wits, as they were called, were a sort of loose association of poets and playmakers among whom Marlowe was numbered, and the line is a direct reference to one of the most famous lines in Tamburlaine: "Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia, what, can ye draw but twenty miles a day?"

All the more catty for being put in the mouth of Marlowe's self-chosen poetical exemplar, Ovid.

Meow, Ben.

Ben, of course, does not seem to have been overly known for keeping a civil tongue in his head. Especially when drunk. He also seems to have been the sort of person who was prone to saying anything that came into his head, especially if it was funny. And if it was mean and funny, so much the better. Sort of a 17th-century nihilistic_kid, really.

Here's another, for those as likes the dirty puns in their Jacobean drama, a henpecked husband, his termagant--but apparently dead sexy--wife, and a concealed friend. Bloody arrases...

Albius: Look here, my sweet Wife; I am mum, my dear Mummia, my Balsamum, my sperma cete, and my very City of ... she has the most best, true, feminine wit in Rome!

Chrispinus: I have heard so, Sir; and do most vehemently desire to participate the knowledge of her fair Features.

Albius: Ah, peace; you shall hear more anon: be not seen yet, I pray you; not yet: observe.

Chloe: Give Husbands the Head a little more, and they'll be nothing but Head shortly; what's he there?

Yeah, that all means exactly what you think it means. Knowledge can be biblical, and a woman's wit isn't always between her ears. Nevermind the cities of sperm...

Or, as quoted truepenny: "Your wife, is she a goer? Know what I mean?"

One of the things I find fascinating about these guys is how their lives have become literature. People will assign motivations (Shakespeare thought this, Marlowe thought this, Jonson thought this) and characters (Shakespeare was this one thing, he was something else completely contradictory) but the wonderful thing is that it is an assignment. We're extrapolating from available evidence, when the fact of the matter is likely to have been that they were all these things, in some measure or another, because people are rich and contradictory and inconsistent beings.

It's postmodernism (which I normally hate with a passion) in an environment where it can actually do some good.

Because we don't know. Do we judge Shakespeare as a money-grubbing jerk because he cheated on his taxes and apparently let his brother die in poverty? Well, sure, we can. We can assign him bourgeois pretensions because he registered a coat of arms, or we can argue that it was a business decision, or a practical one (Wm. Shakespeare, Gent. could legally carry a sword. Wm. Shakespeare, player, could not.) or something he did for his father's sake. There are fragments of evidence for any of these arguments. 

It's impossible, to my mind, to make a hard factual statement of character about somebody who has been dead for 400 years.

Here's where the footnotes, or lack thereof, come in. Somewhere, I picked up a critic talking about Marlowe as not so much history or tragedy as dark farce. And now I can't find the cite, of course, because it's somewhere in a stack of books and web pages as tall as my head.

But it occurs to me that if I think of Marlowe as a kind of Elizabethan Vonnegut only without the humane-ness, it explains why I love him so much. Marlowe (as author, not as man) really does not give the impression of liking people very much. His characters do not have the kind of redeeming qualities that Shakespeare's often do, and so they don't offer that poignant pathos. (When Marlowe is kind to somebody in text, it's usually a young woman. They still come to terrible ends, but you get the feeling he thinks maybe they don't deserve it. Unlike the men, who are pretty solidly evil, weak, or both.... oh, wait, actually, I think he's got a lot of sympathy for Mephistopholes, too. Do devils count as men?)

But if you squint just right, in the horror of what happens to them, you can find a kind of savage farcicality, a brutal humor. It's not Jonson's stiletto of satire. More a sheet of glare ice on a slight incline, upon which hapless passers-by step, and go flailing and sailing and gyrating by to the inevitable crash at the end. Train wreck.

And yet, while I'm saying that, I have to be aware that all I'm doing is squinting.

Tangentially (or should that be incidentially? Both? Neither?) Lis Riba (riba_rambles) comments on a new biography of Marlowe over here, with links to a verra nice, may I even say scholarly, London Times review. I have this book on pre-order: it's not out in the US until December.

Sometimes, people say mean things about Christians. This bothers me, because while I am one of the people that certain self-identified (I'm pretty much in line with autopope's recent comments regarding The Real Satanists) Christians say mean things about, I have many, many friends who are Christians. mrissa is one of them.

She wrote this yesterday:

(Sometimes when I take communion, I gloat about the people who have to be Body of Christ with me against their will. James Dobson is a big one that way. This is because I am Not A Good Christian. "We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord," and there ain't nothin' you can do about it, suckahs. Ahem. Sorry. But it was a great theological revelation for me to realize that the Body of Christ has AIDS, has diabetes, has cancer, has everything. The Body of Christ is gay, is bi, is straight, is asexual, is not sure, is sure of something rather more complicated than any of that. Because you can't say, "Oh, well, I'm not bi, my right thumb is bi." Doesn't work that way. So as long as people like James Dobson and the aforementioned worthies of Undefined Cosmic Circumstances keep taking communion, they're part of being transsexual lesbians and unwed mothers and the whole mess of the rest of us who also take communion. Neener neener.)
I love her. It's enough to make me want to take communion.

And eventually, via skzbrust, Collapse )
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