On the Road (with Ben Jonson)
By MICHAEL CAINES
Ben Jonson’s London was a place where devils feared to tread. That much is clear from the first scene of his comedy The Devil Is an Ass, in which Satan, wary of maintaining Hell’s “reputation” among sophisticated metropolitan sinners, wonders if a “foolish spirit” called Pug ought not to be sent to Lancashire “or some parts of Northumberland” rather than the other place. “Stranger, and newer” forms of vice flourish there, and are “changed every hour”. True devilry can’t keep up.
On this day in 1618, Jonson himself got out of London: it was on July 8 that he set out on an expedition to Scotland, by foot. In general terms, this is territory Jonson had imagined, fifteen years earlier in an “Ode Allegorike”, coming under the flight path of a black swan, which unites King James’s kingdoms as it wings its way over them – from the “Hebrid Isles” and “scatter’d Orcades” to “Loumond lake, and Twedes blacke-springing fountaine”. Elsewhere, he alludes to Will Kemp who “Did dance the famous Morrisse, unto Norwich”.
Until recently, however, not much more could be said with any certainty about the poet’s own northern expedition, other than that it led to William Drummond of Hawthornden and his notorious notes on Jonson’s table talk: Shakespeare “wanted Arte”, Beaumont “loved too much himself and his own verses” etc. We now know a great deal more about it, however, thanks to a discovery reported by James Loxley in the TLS a few years ago.
Jonson, it turns out, had a travelling companion (identity currently unknown), a previously unsuspected Boswell to this Johnson without an “h”, who kept a manuscript account of what he called their “foot voyage” together. Whereas Drummond’s “Informations” about Jonson are all gossip and garrulity (about vermilioning Queen Elizabeth’s nose, among other things), the author of the foot voyage gives us dates and destinations, detours to Pontefract and Rufford Abbey, and encounters with a “network of friends and benefactors”. Noblemen receive them courteously; at Welbeck, “my Gossip made fat harry Ogle his Mistress”. . . .
Now – virtually at least – Professor Loxley and his collaborators, Julie Sanders and Anna Groundwater, are setting out in Jonson’s footsteps. From today until October 5, it will be possible to keep track of Jonson on the road, via Twitter and Facebook. Tonight, as they note on their blog, Jonson gets as far as Tottenham, after spending last night, “no doubt, at the Mermaid or Mitre in the City, or over at the Devil Tavern on Fleet Street”. It will be good for him, no doubt, to get away from those London devils. And good for any virtual camp-followers, too, now we have the Cambridge Edition of Ben Jonson (to be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS) and Ian Donaldson’s biography of “the dominant literary figure of his day” from which to draw further inspiration.