Posted By Roger Stritmatter on September 16, 2011
Next to the bard, I like Ben Jonson best. There is no writer in the English language, even Shakespeare, quite as logical and lyrical at the same time as Ben Jonson.
And no writer, I believe, has been more misunderstood than he.
We call him “Ben” and pat him on the shoulder to assure ourselves that we understand everything he’s up to, since we’re sure it can’t really be anything of any consequence, and certainly should not be hard to understand….
Sure, Ben Jonson is difficult. I can understand the impulse to greet him with a “hail old fellow, well met, see you next time.” Its much easier than enduring the humiliation of admitting that a great deal of what Ben says makes no sense at all to us and might as well be written in Martian.
So, this time around, I’m finding the poems yield greatest fruit of comprehension. I still can’t read Bartholomew Faire without feeling like a three year old in a Gothic cathedral.
Ben was a deep one, that’s for sure.
Exactly who we’re dealing with here became even clearer to me today reading “A Fit of Rime against Rime” from The Vnder-wood. Here are the first few stanzas:
Rime, the rack of finest wits
That expresseth but by fits,
Spoyling senses of their Treasure,
Cosening Judgement with a measure,
But false weight.
Wresting words, from their true calling;
Propping Verse for feare of falling
To the ground.
Joynting Syllables, drowning letters,
Fastening Vowells, as with fetters
They were bound.
Soone as lazie thou wert knowne,
All good Poëtrie hence was flowne
And Art banish’d.
The stanzaic structure places great emphasis on the third short line, and in effect those lines alone can tell the progression of Jonson’s narrative structure, beginning from the power of the poetic art to express “True Conceipt,” through becoming a “false weight” in virtue of spoiled senses, all the way in descent into bondage and banishment. And the very next stanza says:
For a thousand yeares together
All Parnassus Greene did wither,
And wit vanish’d.
The consequence, in other words, of the process related in Jonson’s poem was an age, lasting a thousand years, during which time “wit vanished.”
I hope I am not alone in expressing the dismay that a thousand years is a long time to go without a joke, and wondering how Jonson could ever even have thought of such a thing, let alone made it a theme for one of his rather more curious literary productions.
At this point in fact I suppose the reader of Jonson’s poem has two choices.
One of these I’ll call the default Stratfordian option.
Its possible that when Jonson wrote this, he was sitting on the beach with his sunscreen on in Cuba somewhere sipping a Pina Colada and doing his best to think of how to write a good poem, one designed to hoodwink his readers into the idea that he is actually miserable.
When Stratfordians are asked a difficult question about the genesis of a particular literary work this seems to be at least one of their favorite conventions of answering.
And a good one it is. The beach. The Pina Colada….No papers to grade….Surely no one can possibly object to that, could they?
Well, there is the other choice. Maybe Jonson was writing about something that he actually felt he had experienced.
Is that really such a bizarre supposition that anyone who asks the question should be denied professional advancement because the question itself is proof that the Prof. isn’t “carrying his weight” in the battle against the monstrous adversary?
Have we determined by divine inspiration, handed down through the elect who are responsible for educating the public, that not only Shakespeare, but also Ben Jonson, lived in an age so dull and backward that it doesn’t even deserve our serious intellectual consideration?
Is authority sanctioning us to steadfastly ignore explicit statements like Jonson’s poem, about the circumstances of his own age for writers, simply because we are afraid that if we didn’t ignore them, we might come to understand a rather different Ben Jonson than the one we all thought we’d come to love and know within the “big tent” of Stratfordiana.
Are we afraid of coming to the far end of Jonson’s fit against rhyme with a better understanding of the countryside over which we had “erred” with “honest Ben?”
He that first invented thee,
May his joynts tormented bee,
Cramp’d for ever;
Still may syllables jarre with time,
Stil may reason war with rime,
May his Sense, when it would meet
The cold tumor in his feet,
And his title be long foole,
That in reasoning such a Schoole,
Was the founder.