Monday, March 14, 2011

Nine Lives (of the Poets): Jonson!

Our book today is Marchette Chute's warm and winning 1960 biography Ben Jonson of Westminster (which she dedicates, the dear thing, to the New York Public Library). Chute did similar books on Chaucer and Shakespeare, but her Jonson book is my favorite - and I'd be willing to bet it was her favorite too. Sometimes you can just tell from the spirited tenor of the writing that an author is enjoying herself especially well.

Certainly Jonson's life lends itself to that kind of enjoyment. Here is a man in full: he's not a ghost like Shakespeare, nor is he merely a few fugitive mentions in his own verses like Pindar. We cannot suspect him of being a suave court fop like Sidney, and he certainly couldn't possibly have been the thwarted sad-sack we wonder if Spenser was. Instead, he's everything rolled together that they separately were not: family man, branded felon, industrious man-of-work, fierce entrepreneur, and indomitable survivor.

Chute is alive to all these different sides of her subject, and one of the many charms of her book is how that very liveliness of her narrative spills over to include virtually every larger-than-life character she encounters - and almost all of them draw into some kind of parallel with Jonson, whom she clearly likes more than the rest of them put together:
Among Jonson's many acquaintances in London was Sir Walter Raleigh. It was almost inevitable that the two men should know each other, since Raleigh was not only a scholar and an omnivorous reader but was currently engaged on a book of so monumental a nature that he welcomed the assistance of every man of letters who knew anything about the subject.

Raleigh, like Jonson, was incapable of admitting defeat. He was not in his fifties and had been a prisoner in the Tower since 1603 on a charge of conspiracy. But he refused to admit that his mind could be in prison, and it would seem quite reasonable to him to embark on a history of the world, beginning with the Creation and continuing down through the ages.

Her admiration isn't blind, however: she's perfectly willing to relate Jonson's bad moods, enormous errors in judgement, and even the rare occasional critical slip-up:
Donne was one of the few writers for whom Jonson had a profound admiration. He regretted the obscurity of Donne's style, which he feared would make him unreadable in future generations, and he deplored his experimentation with rhythm. But he considered him "the first poet in the world in some things" and in spite of Jonson's independence as a writer he paid Donne the complement of sending him hi own work for criticism.

And what of that most famous of Jonson's contemporaries, that demm'd elusive Bard of Avon? Chute, obviously a first-rank Shakespeare fan, finds a way to like them both almost equally:
Unlike Shakespeare, Jonson could not accept things as they were and settle down to write for ordinary people. His theoretical temperament demanded an audience consisting of select and dedicated spirits, and of course he never found them. Instead, he did most of his work for a stupid, self-indulgent and greedy Court, and searched earnestly for the great men he felt must be in it somewhere.

The Ben Jonson who emerges from these pages is a big, three-dimensional person, a warm, living man of infinite contradictions and the unfailing willingness to confront those contradictions in his own verses, which ring with more plains-spoken truth than almost any other poetry I know of, partly because the author has no qualms about his own mutability:
Let me be what I am, as Vergil cold,

As Horace fat, or as Anacreon old ....

Who shall forbid me then in rime to be

As light and active as the youngest he?

In these benighted days, Marchette Chute's trio of popular biographies may well be out of print, but even so, I urge you to find and read them all - especially since all three subjects have now had the Stevereads seal of approval!

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