Skip to main content

A Jonsonian Encomium


The man of the week is Ben Jonson: ruddy, large, convivial, viciously witty, convict, convert, pedant, satirist, playwright, poet laureate. How has it taken me so long to meet him? His characters – tricksy, seamy, comic London underbelly figures – seem to be the Jacobean forebears of Dickens’. (Sir Epicure Mammon, Justice Overdo, Dol Common are the easy friends of Bumble, M’Choakumchild and Vholes).

Jonson’s best speeches, however, clearly belong to his puritans. Here is the wonderfully named Zeal-in-the-land Busy (nearly beat by Tribulation Wholesome in The Alchemist, responding to a puppet show in Bartholemew Fair (1614)

Busy: Down with Dagon, down with Dagon! ‘Tis I will no longer endure your profanations...I will remove Dagon there, I say, that idol, that heathenish idol, that remains, as I may say, a beam, a very beam, not a beam of the sun, nor a beam of the moon, nor a beam of a balance, neither a house-beam nor a weaver’s beam, but a beam in the eye, in the eye of the Brethren; a very great beam, a exceeding great beam...Thy profession is damnable, and in pleading for it thou dost plead for Baal. I have long opened my mouth wide and gaped, I have gaped as the oyster for the tide, after thy destruction; but cannot compass it by suit or dispute; so that I look for a bickering ere long, and then a battle.


What rhetoric.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each e…

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo t…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…