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The Two Great Chams

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

Ben Jonson. By John Palmer. New York: The Viking Press. $3.50. Sam-uel Johnson. By Hugh Kingsmill. New York: The Viking Press. $2.75.

More than a mere accident of name unites Ben Jonson of the seventeenth century to Samuel Johnson of the eighteenth. Between them lies a generous kinship of spirit—the same bluff honesty scornful of cant and sentimentalism, the same downright simplicity and courage.

Both of them began life with few apparent advantages, in times when “the accident of birth” was decisive: Ben was the stepchild of a bricklayer and Sam the son of a poor village bookseller, but in the face of poverty and irregular schooling both managed to attain a celebrated erudition in Latin and Greek, the mark par excellence of gentlemen and scholars. Each drank deep of the Pierian spring largely because he found in the classics a discipline congenial to his spirit—each being a Roman born out of his time, a conservative who tried as stoutly as Cato to hold back the floodgates of revolution. In “Ben Jonson,” John Palmer interprets Jonson as the last man of the Renaissance, trying with all his mighty talents of satire and indignation to keep England from tumbling down the abyss of Puritan rebellion. And although Hugh Kingsmill, in “Samuel Johnson,” does not base his entire study upon the Toryism of Johnson, as did Christopher Hollis some five years ago, yet he shows us Johnson setting his battered face grimly against Voltaire and Rousseau, heralds of the Revolution, saying to Boswell: “Sir, it is difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.”

Both Ben and Sam wrought what they did by study and labor rather than by fluency, inspiration, and spontaneous charm. Denied to them was the facility of a Shakespeare, who “never blotted a line,” or even of a Goldsmith whose casual masterpiece, “The Vicar of Wakefield,” Johnson salvaged to pay the rent. Ben Jonson was ridiculed by his enemies for calling his collected plays by the pretentious name of “Works”; he had done so thinking doubtless of the patient months and years which had gone into the invention of plots which (unlike Shakespeare) he was usually too proud to borrow, the careful and sinewy dialogue, the rich classical allusion and annotation of the Roman plays, the idiom of comedies like “The Alchemist” and “Bartholomew Fair,” which Jonson must have grubbed out with the zeal of a Sinclair Lewis cramming on bacteriology, prisons, or the hotel business for fictional purposes. Equally vast was the seven years’ drudgery which Dr. Johnson devoted to the Dictionary, whose publication at length emancipated him from the attics of Grub Street but left him for the rest of his life in a state of chronic fatigue.

Nor can we forget the immense personal loyalty which these men inspired. The “sons of Ben” were not mere followers of a fashionable cult in letters, but disciples who looked upon the old master with warm affection, “on this side idolatry,” as Jonson himself wrote of Shakespeare, and who were privileged to assist at those nodes caenaeque deorum over the canary wine and venison of the Mermaid Tavern which Keats has celebrated. Mr. Palmer also calls attention to those later meetings in the Apollo Room of the Old Devil Tavern, when an aging Jonson wrote in Latin the rules of that convivial club and received the homage of Her-rick, Suckling, Falkland, Sir Kenelm Digby, Marmion, Jasper Mayne, and others. A century and a quarter later came the heyday of the Cheshire Cheese and the Mitre, the Ivy Lane Club and the more celebrated Literary Club, and in their midst sat Dr. Johnson, who, with a sea-coal fire to his back and a glass of port at his elbow, “loved to have his talk out,” to the enchantment of Burke, Boswell, Reynolds, Sheridan, Garrick, Beauclerk, Langton, and the rest of that grand cenacle. And if Dr. Johnson had his Mrs. Thrale, no less did Ben Jonson have his Venetia Digby and his Countess of Rutland—ladies of wit and ton who evoked strains of tender gallantry in these hulking, rough men, who came late in life to discover that the salon had its charms no less than the tavern.

Despite a profound belief in monarchy (not because kings were better than anybody else, but because some one had to rule), both of these self-made men were far too proud and honest to lick the boots of aristocratic patrons. All the world has read Samuel Johnson’s magnificent rebuke to Lord Chesterfield, but perhaps not everybody remembers Ben Jonson’s dedication of “Cynthia’s Revels” to Queen Elizabeth which he signed “thy servant but not thy slave” or recalls his sturdy protest when seated at the foot of Salisbury’s table: “My lord, you promised I should dine with you, but I do not.”

Both of them were good haters, and terrible in anger; we call to mind Marston and Inigo Jones as examples of Ben Jonson’s capacity for wrath, and Samuel Foote, John Wilkes, and James Macpherson as targets for Sam Johnson’s honest rage. Although Dr. Johnson never killed his man, as did Ben in a duel with an actor who had insulted him, yet we remember that in the theatre Johnson once picked up a man, chair and all, and flung him into the pit.

A variety of other analogies might be drawn—ranging from the fact that, for the preservation of their famous talk, we are indebted to two inquisitive young Scots, William Drummond of Hawthornden and James Boswell of Auchin-leek; down to the basic ethical principle which guided their lives, for Samuel Johnson would have subscribed heart and soul to Ben’s dictum concerning the “impossibility of any man’s being the good poet without first being a good man.”

These biographies of John Palmer and Hugh Kingsmill are fruits of dependable though not exhaustive scholarship. Neither contributes new knowledge to the subject nor indeed seems to be aware of the most recent American research. Mr. Palmer, for example, would “fill in the blanks with eligible names” of Jonson’s roaring boys at the Mermaid without knowing that Professor J. Leslie Hotson’s work in the Public Record Office has now made such conjecture unnecessary. Mr. Kingsmill nowhere draws upon that new sine qua non of Johnsonian studies, “The Private Papers of James Boswell,” from Malahide Castle, of which the eighteenth and final volume has just appeared under the brilliant editorship of Professor Frederick A. Pottle.

Yet both biographies have substantial merit. Mr. Palmer’s study contains sound criticism of the plays of Jonson, and ably describes such subjects as the War of the Theatres, the relations of Jonson with Shakespeare, and the rise of the Jacobean court-masque. Mr. Kingsmill’s book is most valuable in marshaling the minor biographers of John-son—Sir John Hawkins, Mrs. Thrale, Miss Reynolds, and Miss Anna Seward—against the hitherto dominant authority of Boswell. In fact, Mr. Kingsmill at heart belongs to the old school of anti-Boswellians, fostered by Macaulay. He is, however, in accord with all recent students of this period in his attempt to go far beyond the eccentricities of Johnson’s behavior—the violent twitchings and contortions, the collection of orange-peel, the purchase of oysters for Hodge the cat, the scorched wig and the unclean linen— about which we have heard perhaps too much. At the deeper level lie the dark places of Johnson’s soul, his fears and doubts, his melancholy and incipient madness, which, according to Mr. Kingsmill, helped to make him the most honest of men, because to him all lies, pretenses, and heresies were but fringes of that world of illusion against which he battled all his life with such personal desperation.


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