The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0829  Tuesday, 6 April 2004

From:           Al Magary <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 6 Apr 2004 02:25:14 -0700
Subject:        "Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford"

The Today in Literature enewsletter
(http://www.todayinliterature.com/register.asp) reminds thatEdwin
Arlington Robinson died on this day in 1935, and points to his
substantial poem "Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford."  I looked
that up at Toronto
(http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem1728.html), though it's
all around the web, and spent a very pleasant hour or more with it.

In this accessible, quotable poem, Robinson imagines that Ben Jonson is
in a quiet nook, a tavern, as he often was with Shakespeare, this time
with a visiting alderman from Stratford.  The year is 1609; the Sonnets
have been published; Antony & Cleopatra is apparently in progress.

Alternately critical-especially of Shakespeare's desire to return to
Stratford (he's "fribbling all the time with that damned House") and
richly generous in his estimation, Jonson reminisces, wonders about the
source of Shakespeare's powers, regrets he'll be leaving the city ("Dear
sir, there'll be no London here without him"), recalls conversations,
refers to Robert Greene ("I fear the color of his name"), tells of
Shakespeare's fondness for both women ("The Fitton thing was worst of
all, I fancy") and drink, has unpleasant things to say about Anne
Hathaway (she dislikes Shakespeare's friends, and the feeling was
mutual, but: "Oh, past a doubt we'll all go down to see him"), predicts
his death, and expresses the love of a tender friend even while trying
to pin him down, define what drives him:

                             ...there's the Stratford in him; he denies it,
             And there's the Shakespeare in him. So, God help him!
             I tell him he needs Greek; but neither God
             Nor Greek will help him. Nothing will help that man.
             You see the fates have given him so much,
             He must have all or perish...

This Ben Jonson will be droll:

             He must have had a father and a mother --
             In fact I've heard him say so -- and a dog,
             As a boy should, I venture; and the dog,
             Most likely, was the only man who knew him.
             A dog, for all I know, is what he needs
             As much as anything right here to-day,
             To counsel him about his disillusions,
             Old aches, and parturitions of what's coming, --
             A dog of orders, an emeritus,
             To wag his tail at him when he comes home,
             And then to put his paws up on his knees
             And say, "For God's sake, what's it all about?"

But on a sunny day he sees the shadows:

           I'll meet him out alone of a bright Sunday,
           Trim, rather spruce, and quite the gentleman.
           "What ho, my lord!" say I. He doesn't hear me;
           Wherefore I have to pause and look at him.
           He's not enormous, but one looks at him.
           A little on the round if you insist,
           For now, God save the mark, he's growing old;
           He's five and forty, and to hear him talk
           These days you'd call him eighty; then you'd add
           More years to that. He's old enough to be
           The father of a world, and so he is.
           "Ben, you're a scholar, what's the time of day?"
           Says he; and there shines out of him again
           An aged light that has no age or station --
           The mystery that's his -- a mischievous
           Half-mad serenity that laughs at fame
           For being won so easy, and at friends
           Who laugh at him for what he wants the most,
           And for his dukedom down in Warwickshire...

At once talkative in a crowd, this Shakespeare is also remote, a man
from another place:

                                    Lord! how I see him now,
           Pretending, maybe trying, to be like us.
           Whatever he may have meant, we never had him;
           He failed us, or escaped, or what you will, --
           And there was that about him (God knows what, --
           We'd flayed another had he tried it on us)
           That made as many of us as had wits
           More fond of all his easy distances
           Than one another's noise and clap-your-shoulder.
           But think you not, my friend, he'd never talk!
           Talk? He was eldritch at it; and we listened --
           Thereby acquiring much we knew before
           About ourselves, and hitherto had held
           Irrelevant, or not prime to the purpose.

But there is a quality that Shakespeare lacks, Jonson says:

           To me it looks as if the power that made him,
           For fear of giving all things to one creature,
           Left out the first, -- faith, innocence, illusion,
           Whatever 'tis that keeps us out o' Bedlam, --
           And thereby, for his too consuming vision,
           Empowered him out of nature; though to see him,
           You'd never guess what's going on inside him...

Jonson knows that his own gift can wound, and he is sorry:

                                        To make him laugh,
           I said then he was a mad mountebank, --
           And by the Lord I nearer made him cry.
           I could have eat an eft then, on my knees,
           Tail, claws, and all of him; for I had stung
           The king of men, who had no sting for me,
           And I had hurt him in his memories;
           And I say now, as I shall say again,
           I love the man this side idolatry.

But the sensitive Shakespeare becomes hot, intense, and mortal:

           The roiling inward of a stilled outside,
           The churning out of all those blood-fed lines,
           The nights of many schemes and little sleep,
           The full brain hammered hot with too much thinking,
           The vexed heart over-worn with too much aching, --
           This weary jangling of conjoined affairs
           Made out of elements that have no end,
           And all confused at once, I understand,
           Is not what makes a man to live forever.

As Shakespeare was born in Stratford, Jonson knows when he goes there,
he will stop creating--he will die--and the friend is acid:

           But what's in that prodigious grand new House.
           I gather something happening in his boyhood
           Fulfilled him with a boy's determination
           To make all Stratford 'ware of him. Well, well,
           I hope at last he'll have his joy of it,
           And all his pigs and sheep and bellowing beeves,
           And frogs and owls and unicorns, moreover,
           Be less than hell to his attendant ears.

As he ends his alehouse tribute to the other man from Stratford, Jonson
is wistful, then explosively passionate:

           He'll not be going yet. There's too much yet
           Unsung within the man. But when he goes,
           I'd stake ye coin o' the realm his only care
           For a phantom world he sounded and found wanting
           Will be a portion here, a portion there...

                                              Tell me, now,
           If ever there was anything let loose
           On earth by gods or devils heretofore
           Like this mad, careful, proud, indifferent Shakespeare!
           Where was it, if it ever was? By heaven,
           'Twas never yet in Rhodes or Pergamon --
           In Thebes or Nineveh, a thing like this!
           No thing like this was ever out of England...

"Ben Jonson Entertains..." (which first appeared in book form in
Robinson's The Man Against the Sky, 1916) would make a fine actor's
monologue.  I wonder if it's been recorded?

Al Magary

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