Saturday, May 06, 2006
Ben Jonson and Samuel Beckett?
A few years ago Jonathan Post edited a wonderful anthology called Green Thoughts, Green Shades: Essays by Contemporary Poets on the Early Modern Lyric. It includes essays by Anthony Hecht, Peter Sacks, Alice Fulton, Heather McHugh, Linda Gregerson, Calvin Bedient, Robert Hass, William Logan, Stephen Yenser, and Eavan Boland.
I want to offer just a footnote to Linda Gregerson’s wonderful essay. Gregerson has had an interestingly schizophrenic career: not only has she published both poetry and criticism, she has published two very distinct kinds of criticism. Wearing her poetry hat, she has produced not only reviews but substantial essays on contemporary poetry and poetics. Her work on Renaissance writers, on the other hand, has been more or less New Historicist and focused on topics like the links between the representation of Irishmen and Native Americans in early modern English writing.
In “Ben Jonson and the Loathed Word,” though, Gregerson combines her two modes of criticism. She offers an elegant distillation of recent work on Jonson’s strategies for praising patrons without demeaning himself, but she also slips in some quirkier observations and suggestions, including her provocative and unexpected couplings of Jonson with Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound.
The link to Beckett is a brilliant bit of rhetorical sneakiness: Gregerson observes that both Jonson and Beckett distrusted actors and audiences and tried to prescribe how their works would be performed and interpreted. That is true, as far as it goes. But Gregerson also intends by this comparison to suggest more than a shared anti-theatricality: she wants to recover a sense of Jonson the proto-Augustan, the rigid classicist, the conventional moralist, as a radical artistic innovator of a particular kind: one who strips an art form down to its essence, driven by a rage for purity (Giacometti might be another example). This is definitely thought-provoking.
The connection to Pound is a little less arbitrary since, as Gregerson shows, Pound seems obsessed with Jonson’s “A Celebration of Charis in Ten Lyrick Pieces” and echoes it numerous times in The Cantos. And Gregerson acknowledges how different the two artists are: “the Jonson distilled by Pound to become a precipitating essence of modernist poetics is a Jonson wrested from social and political context to become a secret sharer in very different patterns of affliction and longing, a Jonson carefully stripped of satiric distance, a Jonson estranged from his own most characteristic modes” (101). Gregerson does not enunciate the other grounds for her comparison: both men were irascible, arrogant autodidacts who spoke with absolute conviction, saw their eras as both artistically and socially degenerate, and believed that their poetry could help educate their hapless contemporaries in how to live. But by the time Pound turned to “A Celebration of Charis,” he was sitting in a cage and considerably less confident about his authority. And the lines he chooses to imitate are, as Gregerson says, Jonson at his farthest remove from satire:
Have you seen but a bright lily grow,
Before rude hands have touch’d it?
Ha’ you mark’d but the fall o’ the snow
Before the soil hath smutch’d it?
Ha’ you felt the wool o’ the beaver?
Or swan’s down ever?
Or have smelt o’ the bud o’ the briar?
Or the nard in the fire?
Or have tasted the bag of the bee?
Oh so white! Oh so soft! Oh so sweet is she!
I agree—the Pound analogy works better. (Another parallel: The writers that Jonson and Pound championed tend to be read more than themselves.)