Ben Jonson bares all.
Pretty soon it will have been four hundred years since Ben Jonson (1572–1637) walked from London to Edinburgh. I don’t know the whole story. I know he stayed at some length with William Drummond of Hawthornden, a few miles south of Edinburgh. Jonson was around forty-seven at the time; Drummond was around thirty-four.
Both of these guys were poets, were into languages, bought a lot of books. Jonson was of course right in the middle of things in London. He knew Shakespeare, knew Donne. Drummond, meanwhile, had money.
People still read Jonson, with how much love I don’t know. There are a number of famous lines. “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” “Though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek.” Drummond got a boost with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (1861), eight items to Jonson’s three. Still, these days, if you love Drummond’s poetry (I do) you pretty much feel you have him all to yourself.
But to come to the point. In 1618, Jonson stayed with Drummond in Scotland. Apparently he talked Drummond’s ear off. It seems that every night, after Jonson had passed out (I’m speculating here), Drummond tiptoed to his own room and, as a sort of revenge (still speculating), wrote down, in the form of a rigmarole, everything his guest had said. To give you an idea of how it comes off, I’ll quote the third section:
His censure of the English poets was this: that Sidney did not keep a decorum in making everyone speak as well as himself.
Spenser’s stanzas pleased him not, nor his matter, the meaning of which allegory he had delivered in papers to Sir Walter Raleigh.
Samuel Daniel was a good honest man, had no children, but no poet.
That Michael Drayton’s Poly-O[l]bion, if [he] had performed what he promised to write, the deeds of all the worthies, had been excellent. His long verses pleased him not.
That Sylvester’s translation of Du Bartas was not well done, and that he wrote his verse before it ere he understood to confer. Nor that of Fairfax his.
That the translations of Homer and Virgil in long Alexandrines were but prose.
That John Harington’s Ariosto under all translations was the worst. That when Sir John Harington desired him to tell the truth of his epigrams, he answered him that he loved not the truth, for they were narrations, and not epigrams.
That Warner, since the king’s coming to England, [h]ad marred all his Albion’s England.
That Donne’s Anniversary was profane and full of blasphemies.
That he told Mr Donne, if it had been written of the Virgin Mary it had been something; to which he answered that he described the idea of a woman, and not as she was.
That Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.
That Shakespeare wanted art.
That Sharpham, Day, Dekker, were all rogues, and that Minsheu was one.
That Abraham Fraunce in his English hexameters was a fool.
That next himself only Fletcher and Chapman could make a masque.
This particular run of “thats” centers on Jonson’s evaluations of his contemporaries, but there are other sections devoted to Jonson’s “jests and apothegms,” Jonson’s personal history, Jonson’s preferences among the ancients—and a great deal of straight-up gossip. There are nineteen sections total. Here is section 11:
His acquaintance and behavior with poets living with him.
Daniel was at jealousies with him.
Drayton feared him, and he esteemed not of him.
That Francis Beaumont loved too much himself and his own verses.
Th[a]t S[i]r John Roe loved him; and when they two were ushered by my Lord Suffolk from a masque, Roe wrote a moral epistle to him which began “That next to plays, the court and the state were the best. God threateneth kings, kings lords, and lords do us.”
He beat Marston, and took his pistol from him.
Sir W. Alexander was not half kind unto him, and neglected him, because a friend to Drayton.
That Sir R. Ayton loved him dearly.
Ned Field was his scholar, and he had read to him the satires of Horace, and some epigrams of Martial.
That Markham, who added his English Arcadia, was not of the number of the faithful, i.[e.,] poets, and but a base fellow.
That such were Day and Middleton.
That Chapman and Fletcher were loved of him.
Overbury was first his friend, then turned his mortal enemy.
Now, partly I am writing this post in hopes that I will interest readers of The Paris Review Daily in the “Conversations with Drummond” itself, pure and simple. But I also want to say something about genre.
Drummond didn’t write up these “informations and manners” for publication. As I hinted earlier, I believe he wrote them so that he could fix in place, for his own study, the mentality of a person he considered a fascinating—and possibly even quite wonderful—monster of self-regard.
The effect of the piece, read all at once, is exhilarating. It’s quite like reading a book of interviews with V. S. Naipaul. Three quarters of the world’s literature is dismissed with mandarin contempt, and yet the unmistakable love of good writing is everywhere on display. Also there is terrific speed, because reason-giving is kept to a minimum.
The genre is rigmarole, in particular the sort of rigmarole dedicated to opinion and complaint. Another famous example of the form is the Declaration of Independence—which is also strangely exhilarating to read. (It retains its power even in the form of a delicious parody by H. L. Mencken: “The Declaration of Independence in American.”) A much less famous example, but well worth your time, is the “Baines Note”: a legal document, but really a rigmarole of accusations (atheism, pederasty) against Christopher Marlowe, from 1593. You can find it in the back of the Everyman edition of Marlowe’s poems and plays.
I am going to propose: The rigmarole is truly underexploited. Everyone should write a “Conversations with Drummond” about themselves and about every opinion-spouting person they know. For the historical record. For revenge. For the children. Especially if you’re well-known, or right in the middle of the action, or both.
A straightforward index—bold, clear, rude—of everything you really think. A straightforward index—bold, unintelligent, wrong—of everything your best friend thinks. All your best friends. Let brother Drummond show the way.
Anthony Madrid lives in Chicago. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium Books, 2012). He is a correspondent for the Daily.