Big Ben’s Bacchanals
Twenty-stone Ben Jonson was a big man with a big appetite for drink; drink that transformed both his life and work
Ben Jonson liked to prepare for work with wine. John Aubrey has left us this vivid sketch of the burly poet and dramatist:
He would many times exceed in drink (Canary was his beloved liquor), then he would tumble home to bed, and when he had thoroughly perspired, then to study. I have seen his studying chair, which was of straw, such as old women used, . . .
Drummond of Hawthornden, the tetchy Scots poet whom Jonson visited in the winter of 1618-19 after walking to Edinburgh from London (no mean feat for a 46-year-old man tipping the scales at 20 stone), also saw that wine was essential to his combative visitor:
He is a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorn of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the elements in which he liveth), a dissembler of ill parts which reign in him, a bragger of some good that he wanteth, thinketh nothing well but what either he himself or some of his friends and countrymen hath said or done. He is passionately kind and angry, careless either to gain or keep, vindicative, but, if he be well answered, at himself.
Jonson remained with Drummond for only a few weeks. With such sentiments fermenting in the breast of his host, it cannot have been an entirely easy stay.
Jonson’s habit of irrigating his literary life with wine had begun long before this, and had enjoyed perhaps its brightest period in the early years of the reign of James I. Thomas Coryat speaks of “the right worshipfull Fraternitie of Sirenical Gentlemen, that meet the first Fridaie of euery Moneth, at the signe of the Mere-Maide in Breade-streete in London”. Jonson exerted an informal authority over this formidable society of drinkers and writers, which included Shakespeare, Donne, Sir Robert Cotton, Christopher Brooke, Sir Richard Martin, Inigo Jones, and Francis Beaumont. Beaumont was so taken by these evenings of libations to the muse that, when some years later he was stuck in the country trying to finish a play, he wrote a wistful verse letter to Jonson in which he dwelt longingly over the “full Mermaid wine” and the conversations it inspired:
Words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,
As if that every one from whom they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life; . . .
The society of the Mermaid was broken up by deaths and departures, such as Shakespeare’s for New Place. But Jonson maintained the linkage between wine and letters in later life, when he was acknowledged as the “father” of that loyal body of fellow-writers, the “tribe of Ben”. Their favourite haunt was the Old Devil tavern, close to the City side of Temple Bar, where the landlord was Simon Wadloe-“brave duke Wadloe, king of skinkers”, and where they would meet in the upstairs room called the “Apollo”. It is Herrick who has left us the most attractive evocation of these bacchanalia:
Say how, or when
Shall we thy Guests
Meet at those Lyrick Feasts,
Made at the Sun,
The Dog, the triple Tunne?
Where we such clusters had,
As made us nobly wild, not mad;
And yet each Verse of thine
Out-did the meate, out-did the frolick wine.
However, it is Jonson’s own famous poem on “Inviting a Friend to Svpper” which best dramatises the liberating and refining influence which wine can exert over company.
Drawing on similar poems about frugal suppers by Martial, Horace, and Juvenal, Jonson begins on a note of solemn and ceremonious deference:
To night, graue sir, both my poore house, and I
Doe equally desire your companie:
Not that we thinke vs worthy such a ghest,
But that your worth will dignifie our feast,
With those that come; whose grace may make that seeme
Something, which, else, could hope for no esteeme.
He then runs over the promised bill of fare in jauntier, more humorous verse which entices and beckons with bright colloquialisms and unexpected rhymes. Part of what will be on offer is good literature, albeit from authors some of whom might possibly be thought “dangerous”:
Shall reade a piece of VIRGIL, TACITVS,
LIVIE, or of some better booke to vs,
Of which we’ll speake our minds, amidst our meate;
Livy evokes the Roman republic, Virgil its transformation into a principate, Tacitus the sombre excesses and lurid crimes which so quickly overtook the empire, and on which Jonson had drawn so memorably in his tragedy Sejanus (1605). It might be mortally perilous really to speak your mind about such writers.
But the hint of encroaching menace summoned by Virgil, Tacitus, and Livy is dispelled when Jonson moves on to what he and his guests will drink. These lines are the pivot of the poem:
But that, which most doth take my Muse, and mee,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary-wine,
Which is the Mermaids, now, but shall be mine:
Of which had HORACE, or ANACREON tasted,
Their liues, as doe their lines, till now had lasted.
These are very different classical authors, and they bring with them into the poem an encouraging note of immortality. So emboldened, Jonson can reassure his guest that there will be no spies or informers (“no Pooly or Parrot“) in the room, and that therefore “Nor shall our cups make any guiltie men”. The poem ends with an unshadowed prospect:
No simple word,
That shall be vtter’d at our mirthfull boord,
Shall make vs sad next morning: or affright
The libertie, that wee’ll enioy to night.
With this banishing of fear the social hierarchy so evident in the poem’s opening lines has yielded to a liberal and comprehensive equality of condition. It is a wonderful transformation produced by wine.