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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

Not without mustard. And a grain of salt.

...so 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.



Dear Gd, he sounds like the Harlan Ellison of the 17th Century!
You wouldn't be far off, though I'm not sure Ellison ever actually stabbed a man in SHoreditch just to watch him die.

Maybe... two Ellisons stacked on top of each other. *g* Ben was, incidentally, most likely something over six feet tall. In the Elizabethan/Jacobean era.

(Ned Alleyn was also very tall. And Burbage apparently quite short. The things people will bother to write down.)
Also, the women he was linked to tended to be both very smart and famous beauties, at least in later years. Of course, the thing about Mary Wroth could just be scurrility...

...but then again, he was smart enough to court women by praising their intellect and talents:


I that have been a lover, and could shew it,
Though not in these, in rhymes not wholly dumb,
Since I exscribe your sonnets, am become
A better lover, and much better poet.
Nor is my Muse or I asham'd to owe it
To those true numerous graces, whereof some
But charme the senses, others overcome
Both brains and hearts; and mine now best do know it:
For in your verse all Cupid's armory,
His flames, his shafts, his quiver, and his bow,
His very eyes are yours to overthrow.
But then his mother's sweets you so apply,
Her joys, her smiles, her loves, as readers take
For Venus' ceston every line you make.

...I mean, I'd do him. Kicks the stuffing out of tht misogynistic crap of Will's in terms of sheer pants-removing power. *g*
I that have been a lover, and could shew it,
Though not in these, in rhymes not wholly dumb,
Since I exscribe your sonnets, am become
A better lover, and much better poet.


We could.... but he might start offering critique. *g*
I'm interested in whether the Shakespeare line he used as a Horrible Example was ever actually part of Julius Caesar.

On paper, Jonson doesn't remind me of Harlan Ellison. He reminds me of Norman Spinrad or Robert Sawyer.
It's quite probable that you already know this book, but on the off-chance that you don't, by all means get a copy of Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography. I only recently discovered it for my own research, and I'm madly in love with it, to the point of recommending it to anybody who will stand still long enough to listen.
I'm afraid Ackroyd gives me hives. I am still recovering from the travesty that is his Shakespeare bio. He's not a very good historian, I'm afraid.

May I counter-recommend Liza Picard?

Interesting. I've heard nothing but good reviews of his London book, though as a counterpoint, I've heard nothing at all about his Shakespeare bio. Perhaps this one is better? Or are you simply the first anti-Ackroyd person I've found?

My enthusiasm for this book comes in large part from its organization, which approaches London by topic (noise, poverty, fairs, the lost rivers, magic, etc) rather than chronologically. It's less efficient for my purposes, which have me skipping backwards through London's history to specific years, but it makes for rather more interesting reading, I think.
Hee. You must have joined this journal after I sporked my way through The Biography.

Hang on....







Read comments for more spork....
I don't suppose this will help, but Jonson has always made me think of Nero Wolfe.
Oh my, I can see that one... *g*
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)

I always ignore the calendar change. That way I can say I have the same birthday as Ben. :D (Also that my birthday is the same as Spenser's wedding anniversary.)
Yanno, I think I love you.