The Holloway Pages and “Honest” Ben Jonson

Posted By on August 27, 2011

 

One of Ben Jonson’s many “sum Ben: Jonsonii liber,” “I am Ben Jonson’s book” from one of the 206 plus books surviving from his library.

 

I was puttering about the internet the other day when I came across an unexpected new resource on the authorship question, namely Clarke J. Holloway’s discussion of the Stratford monument.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Holloway’s online Ben Jonson resource (as are other Oxfordians I know) for some time now, so I was intrigued by Mr. Holloway’s comments about the monument. I’ve long been dubious of the claimed relevance of the monument’s remodeling (even assuming — as Mr. Holloway contests — that it took place).

There is a  simple reason for this. Even the earliest Dugdale sketch, for all its other discrepancies against other sources, shows the Latin and English verses of the monument already present. This alone proves that the monument, even if some features of it were later altered, was originally intended to be taken for a commemoration of the bard. Score ten points for the Strats. There is no way around this, and anti-Stratfordians should stop bothering with at least most of that line of reasoning.

There is something far more interesting and deserving of notice, something Holloway does not address in his analysis even though it is of critical concern, because the anti-Stratfordians have not made enough of it. There is at least one truly remarkable feature of the monument, which has nothing to do with its history but appears to be permanent in the monument since the beginning and still confronts us today.

Stratfordians seem rarely to have bothered themselves with wondering who composed the Latin and English verses of the monument.

To them it either does not matter, is insusceptible on principle of understanding, or is one of those questions they would rather not ask for fear they already know the probable answer and do not like it one little bit.

Into the vacuum left by this none too astounding lack of intellectual curiosity among the Professoriate,  Nina Green, a long time Oxfordian researcher who hails from the ancient Cascade Rain forests of British Columbia, some years ago advanced a caveat that now stakes out the ground for discussion of the monument’s genesis.  By all appearances the author of the English verses at least seems very much to have been none other than either “Honest Ben” or “Honest Ben” himself (Honest Ben seems to be all over the internet these days….).

Now, the reader not already knee deep in the big muddy of the Stratfordian ideology is probably scratching his or her head and wondering not only how Green could have thought of this, but what possible relevance it could have, even if she is right, to the question of Shakespeare’s identity.

Maybe it would be best therefore to begin from the verses themselves. Here is how Wikipedia presents them (as of this writing in late August, 2011), in the “corrected” version:

Stay, passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
Read, if thou canst, whom envious Death hath placed
Within this monument: Shakespeare, with whom
Quick nature died, whose name doth deck this tomb
Far more than cost, sith [i.e. since] all that he hath writ
Leaves living art, but page, to serve his wit.

The first thing we might wish to notice is that there is a textual problem here. In line five Wikipedia prints “sith.” Like so many others who follow this path, Wikipedia clarifies the printing “sith”  with an exegetical definition, [i.e. since]. We need an explanation of this archaic vocabulary. At first glance it seems there is nothing amiss here. Scholars are, all the time, having to explain obscure words like “sith” to their students. Anything that enhances clarity of understanding should be applauded, right?

Well, maybe not. If we are alert, we might notice that the monument doesn’t even write “sith.” It writes SIEH. Even Wikipedia includes a correct and true transcription of the monument verses:

STAY PASSENGER, WHY GOEST THOV BY SO FAST?
READ IF THOV CANST, WHOM ENVIOVS DEATH HATH PLAST
WITH IN THIS MONVMENT SHAKSPEARE: WITH WHOME,
QVICK NATVRE DIDE: WHOSE NAME, DOTH DECK YS TOMBE,
FAR MORE, THEN COST: SIEH ALL, YT HE HATH WRITT,
LEAVES LIVING ART, BVT PAGE, TO SERVE HIS WITT.

How did Wikipedia turn “SIEH” into “sith”?  Well, we can’t really blame Wikipedia, as much as the organization can be faulted for un-problematically perpetuating a plausibly erroneous and ideologically motivated “correction” to the original.

As long as Stratfordian editors have been transcribing the monument they have been — sometimes silently, without even a curtsy in the direction of fact, and sometimes with more or less acknowledgement of the need for necessary emendation to correct the stone-cutter’s apparent illiteracy.

E.K. Chambers, for example, tries  to justify the emendation but cannot really  do so: “the stone-cutter, who put ‘sieh’ for ‘sith,’ would be less capable of the classical substitution [of Olympus for Parnassus].”

In other words, Chambers explains neither the “classical substitution” nor the emendation of “SIEH” –he just plays one off against the other.

Of course “he” — whoever he was — meant “sith” — because, if he didn’t, then we don’t like what the monument is saying, do we?

Consider. SIEH is perfectly correct Dutch/low German of the imperative, “see!”

What happens if we simply take it that way rather than waiting for permission from the Professor?

We then get a perfect triple imperative structure: “stay, read, see!.” Surely all formalists will  rejoice at such a finding and lend to it a greater plausibility than the orthodox alternative, which requires assuming that a professional stone-cutter could make the mistake they attribute to him without ruining his credibility among the very limited range of his possible patrons, a rather implausible scenario to say the least.

And what patron would not have paid, had he the need, to correct such brazen carelessness on a monument of such importance? Yet, restored to their original larger context through a simple accommodation of the assumption that the monument’s language must be entirely English, the “error” now expresses, with clarity consistency, relevancy, and wit….a  terribly demoralizing message:

Stay!

Read (if thou canst:)!

See (if you will)!

Wait a minute:

see all that he hath writ,

leaves living art but page, to serve his wit?

I may be wrong, but I think the objection to this will be grammatical. The question of the “wittier reading” — for it is obvious that for Jonson to jest that the reader doesn’t have a clue about the spiritual significance of the Shakespearean problem and is indeed fooled by his “eyes of ignorance” into  worshipping an idol — doesn’t come up. We don’t want witty, we want “correct.”  Such a jest would surely justify  Jonson’s early reputation for establishing a cult of comical obscurity,  among the “pages” who would posthumously “serve [Shakespeare’s]  wit.”

But this certainly won’t enter into the discussion so far as the orthodox are concerned. Without bringing grammar to their rescue, I don’t see how there’s very much that die-hard Stratfordians can like about that line about “all that he hath writ.”   It just sounds way to close to saying  that “all that he hath writ” is so little (along the lines of “Blessed be the man yt spares these stones”) that only living art can now serve “his” posthumous  wit.

I know I’m a conspiracy theorist looney-tune sub species aeternatis who teaches at what Tom Reedy says is one of the worst Universities in the United States. But I’ll be damned if I can’t help thinking when I read those words, of Jonson’s own in the folio, written to accompany the Droeshout engraving:

This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,
Wherein the Graver had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life :
O, could he but have drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was ever writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

Sounds like the same fella to me. Same picture too.  It was “for gentle Shakespeare cut.”

This reminds me of a funny story from my early days at the Folger library. I happened into the office of one of the more gracious Folger staff members, who happened to display in some glory behind her desk a painting of Honest Ben himself.

It is not every day I walk into an office with a real portrait of Ben Jonson, and I was impressed. When I remarked on the pleasure of being in the company of such a portrait, my colleague in a somewhat disillusioned voice admitted to me that an expert “from England” had said the painting was not of Jonson. Poppycock. That, I must admit, was my first — but carefully silent — response.

“I don’t know about experts,” I said….

My colleague smiled.

This is the trouble with Shakespeare scholarship. When someone from England (literally or metaphorically) says, “this is what it is,” the colonials just nod. We don’t know any better. We know about American literature, not English.  Who are we to question English judgments about English history? We wouldn’t even be who we are without them…..):(.

To Be Continued…..

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively

Comments

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Categories

  • Archives

In "From Crackpot to Mainstream"Keir Cutler, PhD, takes down the recent Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (OUP, 2013)

Criticism of Cutler's "Is Shakespeare Dead?": "A magnificently witty performance!" (Winnipeg Sun). "Highly entertaining and engrossing!" (EYE Weekly). "Is Shakespeare Dead? marshals startling facts into an elegant and often tenacious argument that floats on a current of delicious irony" (Montreal Gazette).