it's a great life, if you don't weaken (matociquala) wrote,
it's a great life, if you don't weaken

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Not without mustard. And a grain of salt. I'm reading David Riggs' biography of Ben Jonson (conveniently entitled Ben Jonson: A Life) and for some reason I'm finding the whole discussion of Ben, his arrogance, his cuckoldry, his tendency to stab people and/or beat them up, his braggadocio, his... well, his intrinsic Ben-ness... a little too amusing. Riggs is going for the psychological construct that seems to me a little overplayed. Also, he's relying an awful lot on the Drummond book (records of private and rather snarky drunken conversations between two poets), which is a problem regarding Ben, because I honestly do not have the feeling that one can take seriously as autobiography--or even commentary--anything said by Ben when he was on a self-aggrandizing tear. (I've only read excerpts of these, not the entire comments, but I tend to think the general mood of the poet while producing these pronouncements could be described as "taking the piss." Also, I'm pretty sure Ben was not the sort to be constrained by the truth when he could come up with something funny. Or pithy. Or both.)

Anyway, Riggs seems to be going for a Ben-Jonson-Elizabethan-serial-killer kind of thing (he claims to have killed a man while in the army; we know he killed a fellow actor in a duel and very nearly went to Tyburn for it: actually, the murder was committed on my birthday (although of course I hadn't been born yet and it's on the wrong calendar anyway)) with the idea that Jonson was specifically looking for ways to express his aggression and act out a sort of generalized wrath at the universe. This seems a little shaky to me; sometimes, an asshole with a massive authority problem is an asshole with a massive authority problem just because he is an asshole with a massive authority problem, and Ben, with his need to shore himself up and undermine those around him, strikes me as somebody with a profound inferiority complex.

One gets the feeling that, as a self-educated man (he can't have had much schooling past his middle teens, when he would have been apprenticed to his stepfather the bricklayer) he had a bit of an Issue with the University Wits. Given the Issue that University Wits had with our buddy the Upstart Crowe over there--nevermind any later evidence of the so-called Poet's War--one presumes it was enthusiastically reciprocated. (And that impromptu allegiance may very well have something to do with Ben's apparently passionate and contradictory feelings about Shakespeare.)

And Ben was a London townie. Even worse.

It's not necessary to look for careful plotting in Ben getting himself into mortal combat--he had a tongue and a temper, and (as near as can be told) never backed down from a fight. (There's a notorious story about Ben--after he was nearly hanged for dueling--pistol-whipping another man who refused to meet him in a duel with the pistol that the other had brought as protection against Ben. (Really, I find that story almost as edifying as the Kit-Marlowe-caning-an-armed-man-on-the-High-Street story) (the man with the rapier was the one who wound up pressing charges. Kit seems to have given him a rather sound thumping) (we get the impression from this and another dueling story, Burgess' Marley aside, that Kit knew his way around a sword.))

Anyway, I don't think we can take anything Ben said about himself very seriously, as he has displayed a marked tendency to reinvent himself--changing his name (twice) (He was born Benjamin Johnson and bits kept falling out of his name over the years) and inventing a mythical connection to the gentry.

The astounding thing about Ben, from my perspective, is the unholy charm he must have been able to bring to bear. His collection of mistresses, both reputed and claimed, is really extraordinary, especially for a fat caustic man with a face like a muttonchop (and most of them seem to have been married to other people, incidentally), and more than that, what's astounding is that anybody would work with him. Or work with him twice. Or come back and work with him again after being on the receiving end of Jonson's famously savage wit.

And yet they did.

One is left with the impression of a charismatic individual, and perhaps the sort of person who was too much fun to be around, as long as he wasn't pointed in your direction this time.

The lovely thing about Ben, however, is that he was so self-aggrandizing. We know so much more about him than most of his contemporaries; he's comparatively well-documented because he did talk about himself so much.

That, and he hated Robert Poley with a passion.

That alone is enough to get him into my good graces right there.

Tags: ben, footnotes to history, posthumous jonson, rengeekery
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