Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Ben Jonson and Melville's "In a Bye-Canal"

Fronted I have, part taken the span
Of portents in nature and peril in man.
I have swum — I have been
'Twixt the whale's black flukes and the white shark's fin;
The enemy's desert have wandered in
And there have turned, have turned and scanned,
Following me how noiselessly,
Envy and Slander, lepers hand in hand.
--from In a Bye-Canal by Herman Melville
Robert Penn Warren half-suspected the influence of Ben Jonson on Melville's poem "In a Bye-Canal." In a footnote to the speaker's claim there of having literally and figuratively lived between "the whale's black flukes and the white shark's fin," Warren wonders:
Can this be an echo of the "wolf's black jaw" and the "dull ass' hoof" in Ben Jonson's "An Ode to Himself" (Underwoods)? In both Jonson and Melville, the content is the same: the affirmation of independence in the face of a bad and envious age.
--Melville the Poet (number 160 in the Scholarship section of Melville's Sources by Mary K. Bercaw)
Short answer: Yes.
And since our dainty age
Cannot endure reproof,
Make not thyself a page
To that strumpet, the stage,
But sing high and aloof,
Safe from the wolf's black jaw and the dull ass's hoof.
--from An Ode to Himself by Ben Jonson
The next question would be, did Melville adapt the phrasing from "An Ode to Himself" as Robert Penn Warren suggests, or was Melville remembering the same line as it appeared in Jonson's "Apologetical Dialogue"? Melville owned the 1692 Works of Ben Jonson (Sealts 302 / Bercaw 405); his copy has survived and is now held by the New-York Historical Society. So Melville could have recalled "wolf's black jaw" and "dull ass's hoof" from the Apologetical Dialogue that follows Poetaster in the Folio edition. Jonson introduces the appended Dialogue as his only "Answer" to critics:
"only once spoken upon the Stage and all the Answer I ever gave to sundry impotent Libels then cast out (and some yet remaining) against me, and this Play."
In concert with certain additions to the Quarto text of Poetaster, the Apologetical Dialogue thus presents, as David Bevington explains, Ben Jonson's
"supreme defence of his position in the War of the Theatres and more broadly in the writing of drama for the London stage." --Poetaster: Textual Essay
Jonson's much-quoted line may be found in a variety of later contexts. Isaac Disraeli, for one example, includes it in the second volume of his Miscellanies of Literature, with generous extracts from what he calls the "Apologetical Epilogue to the Poetaster":
Leave me! There's something come into my thought
That must and shall be sung, high and aloof,
Safe from the wolfs black jaw, and the dull ass's hoof.
Friend. I reverence these raptures, and obey them." --Quarrels of Authors
In Disraeli's version, speeches by Jonson's companions "Nasutus" and "Polyposus" are assigned to one Friend in dialogue with the Author.


Isaac Disraeli commends "the noble strain in which Jonson replied to his detractors in the town, and to his rivals about him." Disraeli also records Jonson's revelation that his Dialogue had been suppressed. Melville owned four of Disraeli's popular books in 1859 editions, including The Calamities and Quarrels of Authors (Sealts number 185) with the chapter on Jonson and Decker.

The influence of Ben Jonson, particularly in the context of Poetaster and the War of the Theatres, nicely illuminates Melville's concern in "Bye-Canal" with Envy and Slander. Jonson was notably preoccupied with Envy, one of the seven deadly sins and long affiliated with slander:
The intimate relationship between envy and slander is one that pervades medieval and early modern literature. Before Jonson, the poet most attuned to the problem of slanderous defacement was Spenser.  --Lynn S. Meskill - Ben Jonson and Envy
Melville personifies Envy and Slander as a pair of lepers, following the "tradition in which leprosy represents the sin of Envy" (Byron Lee Grigsby, Pestilence in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature) that Spenser models in The Faerie Queene. In Book 1 Canto IV,  Envy spews "Poison" out of his "leprous Mouth." The toxic discharge by Envy is a figure of malicious criticism aimed specifically at writers:
And eke the Verse of famous Poet's Wit
He does backbite, and spightful Poison spues
From leprous Mouth, on all that ever writ:
Such one vile Envy was, that first in row did sit. 

1 comment:

  1. I think "Pestilence in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature" is the best book title I've heard in a while. :-)

    ReplyDelete