A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now



Main site index




by Michael Peverett


Section 2  1588 to 1790



Note: Entries marked with * are separate HTML pages. Click the link to get to them.


Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)     Dr Faustus and no time

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)    * 3HVI, KJ, MV, MM, KL

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)    Sejanus, The Alchemist, Catiline, Bartholomew Fair

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640): The Judgement of Paris * 

Molière (1622-73)    not much I can’t manage

John Aubrey: The Natural History of Wiltshire (1656-91)  before botany

John Dryden (1631-1700)      time-serving and innovation

William Congreve: The Way of the World (1700)  NEW

Alain René Le Sage (1668-1747): Gil Blas     without aim or fate

John Gay: The Birth of the Squire (1720)       all-day drinking

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)        the madness of superfluous health

Hester Lynch Piozzi: Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786)  loving exposure

Charlotte Smith (1749 - 1806)   *   NEW




Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

Dr Faustus (1588? or 1592?)


[Line references are to the Revels edition, ed. Bevington and Rasmussen (1993). But I have not necessarily stuck with their spelling or punctuation.]



The corpus of plays attributed to Christopher Marlowe makes a double and somewhat contradictory impression. On the one hand what you want to remember is a cleanness and directness that are intensely exciting; on the other hand, it’s rather a ragbag, with many pages and even whole plays in which our interest, unless stoked up by biographical considerations, is really quite tepid.


In the English-speaking world the two parts of Tamburlaine make a powerful, troubling statement, and one of enduring significance for our literature. But Marlowe’s “mighty line” and his confrontational immorality are local matters. Outside the English-speaking world, Marlowe simply means Dr Faustus, a formidable European classic, a key text.


[This is so even though, most people think, Marlowe wrote only the pivotal scenes and left the foolery demanded by the Faust Book to be written up by an unknown collaborator. (Elizabethan collaboration usually meant that the co-authors worked independently on the scenes assigned to them, and did not have a close knowledge of each other’s contributions.) The date of composition is uncertain, the evidence favouring 1588. The result of that collaboration is more or less represented by the version now known as the A-text, printed in 1604. More or less, because the text is short; some scenes are disordered and others seem to have disappeared altogether.  The A-Text of Dr Faustus makes quite modest demands on theatrical resources. It was well adapted to touring companies such as Lord Pembroke’s Men, who were presumably playing it during the recess of London playhouses in 1592-93. But when Dr Faustus became a long-running hit in London during the mid-1590s, there was an impulse to exploit the diabolical reputation that the play was earning by spicing it up with more devils and more spectacle, as well as re-working bits of clown repartee that had not worn well.  In November 1602 Henslowe’s diary records payment to  wm Bvrde & Samwell Rowle” for additions to Dr Faustus. Byrde and Rowley’s dressed-up version is presumably the basis of what is known as the B-text, first printed in 1616. This had now taken over as the acting version, and in B there is some censorship of the language, reflecting the impact of the 1606 Act of Abuses. Both the printed versions are good plays, but A is the obvious choice for most purposes.


The above paragraph represents what is currently the orthodox view of many difficult problems. It must be admitted that the evidence for most of its assertions is more slender than one could wish. The strongest arguments for e.g. the date, or the collaborator, are probably that they “feel” right. In detail, however, there are some difficulties with the orthodox view.


One is as follows. The B-text makes valiant (if not too convincing) efforts to redress the disordering of scenes that is manifest in A; the obvious assumption therefore is that the text from which Byrde and Rowley were working was more or less the same one that was printed a couple of years later as the A-text, in 1604. In other words, A’s disordering of scenes did not take place in the printing house. But there is important evidence that, in fact, the improvers’ source-text did differ from A. This evidence is contained in The Taming of A Shrew (printed in 1594), which appropriates several passages from Dr Faustus; for full details, see Appendix B, below. Some of what the Shrew-compilers borrowed turns up in B but not in A, which suggests the possibility that B may contain some valuable testimony to the material that seems to be lost from A. One of the parallel passages in A Shrew relates to lines in B IV.2, the scene where the Emperor’s knights ambush Faustus and he sets the devils on them; but this whole episode is absent from A. There must be another scene missing between A IV.1 and A IV.2: Faustus and Mephistophilis leave the stage and re-enter immediately though there has been a gap in the action – which is a fine cinematic cut, but foreign to Elizabethan stage practice. B supplies just the kind of scene we’re looking for: a swift comic scene in which neither Faustus nor Mephistophilis appear at all. And in it, the Clown/Robin tells us that “one of his (Faustus’) devils turned me into the likeness of an ape’s face”, which is indeed what happened in A III.2, but not in the revision of the scene (B III.3). Obviously there is more than one way of interpreting what has happened here, but the simplest is that Byrde and Rowley revised the action of scenes that were in fact present in the original work by Marlowe’s collaborator, though they went missing from the 1604 printing of A. But if this is true one naturally begins to think of the copy text for A not as virginal “foul papers” but as reflecting some stage history, e.g. of cuts to reduce the number of actors. And with that the whole editorial edifice begins to totter.]


In Dr Faustus Marlowe explores (as the Faust Book had not) the intriguing potency of the folkloric notion that one can irrevocably make a pact with the devil in return for a temporal span of luxurious living. The play spends very little time worrying about how Faustus arrived at such a horrific decision; it is not a play about character and motivation. We only need to know that Faustus is “resolute” – not why. The opening scenes cruise with unstoppable momentum through the final stages of making the pact. Faustus agrees with the Evil Angel that it is a pact – everything is irrevocable now. But the devils are by no means so sure; they seem to agree with the Good Angel. (Faustus himself quite understands that it is Lucifer who stabs him with pain for naming Christ, even so near the end; he is being strong-armed into hell.) The nagging possibility of redemption creates a sense of strain that runs through the dream-like centre of the play (where no such matter is discussed) and becomes ever more taut as time runs out in the final scenes. The deeper the darkness that gathers around Faustus, the brighter its pinpoint of salvation seems to burn.        


Peter Hammill, lead singer of the ‘70s progressive rock group Van der Graaf Generator, said in an interview that one of their “concept albums”, Godbluff, dramatizes an action that took about two seconds. It’s the same with Dr Faustus, which compulsively replays the same two-second moment of choosing over and over again, casting it into new dramatic forms with ceaseless invention. The aesthetic of Dr Faustus is not so far away from the aesthetic of Shakespeare’s sonnets to his young man, every one of which is a different way of saying “I love you infinitely”. 


The real action of Dr Faustus concerns a choice of purely metaphysical dimensions, a choice that may never have been made at all and is perennially fresh, in defiance of time. But everyone makes a choice of life – it doesn’t matter what - . Everyone has made choices in the past: big, unpleasant and probably wrong, unassessable at best... so Dr Faustus makes us think about ourselves. To respond to this no awareness is needed other than of our own potential; which is why Faustus appeals (like the novels of Dostoyevsky) to adolescents. 


The awareness of our own potential is inconclusive. It appears to be limitless, in principle. But then we are conscious of all sorts of restraints. Have we, in fact, already made our choice, and is it irrevocable? Have we already drifted far, so that now the apparent choice only confirms what our natures have already become? Are we freely resolute to be ourselves, or does our “resolution” only conceal from us that we are trapped in our own destiny?


And then, increasingly with the years, one drifts away from this contemplation and finds ways to avoid thinking about the choice (if it was already irrevocable, more years make no difference; and if it is after all revocable, we may yet wait for a more energetic mood). But perhaps in those seedy middle years one is actually making the choice by not thinking about it? These are the years in which what we once projected does not bring happiness, only age. Nothing big that you ever bought actually delivered its payload. No friendship that you formed or marred leaves you any less alone on the day when you face the choice again and see that you are just where you were, that time has not healed and nothing that you pursued in the meanwhile has made the choice itself go away. 


            The god thou servest is thine own appetite,

            Wherein is fixed the love of Belzebub;

            To him I’ll build an altar and a church,

            And offer lukewarm blood of new-born babes.  (II.1.11-14)    


With these words Faustus settles himself into a firm decision after a moment of doubt. We understand that when he blusters about lukewarm blood this is nothing more than “resolution” making itself look resolved. Faustus in fact does nothing in the play that is repugnant to human morality – this would introduce a quite different set of concerns. On the contrary he is (but his character is not really the point of it) really rather gentle with those around him. (His behaviour to the Pope does not count.) Like many polite, gentle people, he is probably in truth indifferent. Faustus is a scholar’s play as well as an adolescent’s play. Mephistophilis denies him a wife, and Marlowe’s collaborator finely hints at Faustus’ melancholy sense of isolation from the concerns of the Duke of Vanholt and his pregnant Duchess. Faustus goes about consuming the years with his nasty little imaginary friend, to whom also he is noticeably polite. The Third Scholar is not far astray when he surmises: “Belike he (Faustus) is grown into some sickness by being over-solitary”. [* See Appendix A, below] 


The collaborator must take credit for this, too:


Now, Mephistophilis, the restless course

That time doth run with calm and silent foot,

Shortening my days and thread of vital life,

Calls for the payment of my latest years.

Therefore, sweet Mephistophilis, let us make haste to Wittenburg.

(IV. 1. 100-104)


This is what any aging but still-busy person might say. It’s as if the collaborator has forgotten that Faustus has a rather more dreadful payment to make than such comfortably stoical words normally imply. What comes across is that Faustus has forgotten. Or rather, he doesn’t like to talk about it. The collaborator is perhaps just taking us as smoothly as possible through to the point where his task is done and where Marlowe takes over again; the result is a wonderfully moving moment, a very un-Marlovian one, but one that is true to the multiple vision of the play. For Faustus is an Everyman too. If the literal image of a pact with the devil is folkloric and perhaps contradictory to Christianity, there are realities in every life that the pact can very well stand for – which was obvious in that Calvinist age and no less obvious now.   


In Dr Faustus all times and places are omnipresent.


Faustus. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?

Mephistophilis. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.     (I.3.77-78)


Though Faustus may pretend otherwise, it is always the last hour before the last midnight, the pact and the final payment are coincident. The final hour is defined by Faustus at last seeing his choice in its true colours. 


            See see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!  (V.2.78)


I still don’t know quite what Faustus says he is seeing (As a teenager I always thought of a system of glass tubes, like in chemistry lessons). But it is, approximately, a universal wound at the back of all things; the world is eternally in a critical condition.... This might be the only time in all art that Christ’s blood suddenly affects me like the sight of real blood. That is to say, with horror.


Perhaps one may say, with unconfined heterodoxy, that what tortures the damned in hell is nothing other than the vision of Christ. Contrariwise, the advancing militia of hell could be salvation (though they aren’t for Faustus), which is what ought to have been portrayed at the end of V.1, when the pious Old Man is engulfed by devils, and is triumphant in martrydom. Dyce’s mischievous idea that the Old Man repulses the devils and smartly nips off stage in an opposite direction makes nonsense of Mephistophilis’ point that the devils can (and will) afflict bodies to the uttermost.   


[Note how at this moment in Faustus’ final speech “Marlowe’s mighty line” stretches and tears. He has made good use of that clean, end-stopped pentameter in parts of Faustus (the speech about Helen being its apotheosis) but it is only one of the tools, hastily taken up and thrown down, that the multiple vision of the play has called forth. Think of Faustus’ astonishing prose speeches in the first part of V.2, when the scholars are still with him.] 


What the fully-engaged Faustus sees now is what has been happening all along. Mephistophilis in fact manifested some impatience at Faustus’ pert coolness in the earlier scenes when he made the pact. Stupidity, even when it happens to suit our plans, can be unacceptable; and Marlowe, with one of those swift intuitions of genius that also produced the Good and Evil Angels, sees no reason for Mephistophilis to be a mere devil. As the scene with the scholars demonstrates, the panoply of devils may be all in Faustus’ own mind anyway.


            I would lift up my hands, but see, they hold them, they hold them.  (V.2.33-34)


When Faustus is lost in adoration of his Helen, the most important and pitiable aspect of the scene is that Helen is his own projection. As the old joke goes, nobody knows better how to please you.





Dr Faustus: Appendix A


[The following scrap of dialogue, though reflecting the probably mistaken belief that Marlowe wrote the middle scenes of the A-text, is the source of my thoughts about the Vanholt scene:






.... I don’t agree with that at all. In fact I don’t agree that Marlowe had a fixed conception of Faustus’ character at all. That’s a Bradleyan notion of character which might often be quite appropriate to Shakespeare, but Marlowe’s play is a completely different kind of thing. To be frank, he has not much interest in human character. Faustus was a perfect vehicle for him. It is about a sin that involves no human relations. It takes place almost outside of time. Twenty-four years, one hour, what are they? The sequence in the middle of the play is dream-like. Just as everyone grasps that the opening scene of the play dramatises years of thought, so in these scenes we have no doubt that we are seeing a specialized concentration of Faustus’s twenty-four years. Of course it was going round in his head the whole time. The same sickening thought-sequences: I will be resolute, that means I can’t repent, yes I can if I wish, no it is too late, I have made a pact...  But there was no point in Marlowe presenting that same thought-sequence over and over again. What he does instead is show us some other things, all of them important. First, that Faustus’s inner struggle makes no outward impression on other people. Second, that Faustus in despair turns out to have no taste for slaughtering new-born babes or bridging continents. He is almost an automaton – he even enjoys a guided tour, for God’s sake! Third, that Faustus’s damnation, or rather his conviction of damnation, is quite consistent with being a kindly and sociable person.   




So for you the middle of the play – of the A-Text, that is – is completely integrated with the rest of it.




I don’t claim that it is full of dramatic highpoints -  the play has enough of those anyway. But I think it works. Think of that odd little scene with the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt and the grapes. Of course it is poetically vacuous, but as I’ve said that’s typical of one element in Marlowe’s stagecraft. But consider what it means – for everyone registers what Marlowe means in this play, which I suppose is what you meant  by “fluency”. Would you like to read the scene? You are the heavily-pregnant duchess. Start it from “summer”






and were it now summer, as it is January and the dead time of winter, I would desire no better meat than a dish of ripe grapes.




            Alas, madam, that’s nothing.


Then, after an aside to Mephistopheles and a small pause while Mephistopheles departs, he goes on:


Were it a greater thing than this, so it would content you, you should have it.   – Here they be, madam. Will’t please you taste on them?


Fern. (laughing)


I wish you had really produced some grapes!




Don’t, it’s too creepy. Faustus blatantly manipulates our buried belief that devils really can be invoked if you say the right things.




I don’t think I have that belief, but it’s quite clear that Marlowe exploited it in his audience.




I get scared just reading through the scene where Faustus does the invocation - it ought to be sensational in the theatre. Anyway, the duchess tucks into the grapes while Faustus makes scholarly chit-chat about geography to the duke. Then he turns to her and says:


            How do you like them, madam? Be they good?




Believe me, Master Doctor, they be the best grapes that e’er I tasted in my life before.




            I am glad they content you so, madam.


And that’s more or less it, apart from a ceremonious exit. Now, what’s going on here? Is this comic relief?




It’s idyllic relief, perhaps. A pregnant woman, like the old man who is a staunch Christian, shows us the good things that Faustus has given up.




He is a scholar, he knows nothing of child-bearing. He lusted after knowledge, but Mephistopheles wouldn’t let him be married, so he is ignorant of most things that matter. Do you think he likes grapes?




He does particularly mention, in another scene, that he wants a book about plants.




But that’s as a scientist. That’s to emphasize his lack of interest in human life. There’s only one sin that Faustus is capable of being tempted by.




I don’t think Faustus is very pleased with the grapes. He refuses to name them. When he asks the duchess about them, that’s politeness – to bring her back into the conversation. Faustus is a very polite person in this scene.




I agree. Including “Alas, madam, that’s nothing.” Alas registers disappointment, but it’s not with the duchess, is it? Does he imply that her imagination doesn’t exactly set us on fire?





He would have liked the opportunity to do something more spectacular than produce a bunch of grapes.





And as a theatre audience, we might agree. We too might have looked for something more of a spectacle.





The disappointment must certainly have to do with his own situation. I know! Read this - what the duke says as they’re going out.


            Come madam, let us in,

            Where you must well reward this learnèd man

            For the great kindness he hath showed you.


He is over-stating it in a gracious way, but still, he does think that Faustus has done a kindness to his wife. Faustus knows he really hasn’t. Everything comes too easy to him. The power he has bargained for is itself a kind of damnation. It places him outside the sphere of ordinary human aspirations and intimacies.





Look again at that line – “I am glad they content you so, madam”. No reader believes him. Not that Faustus is vindictive, but the fact of the grapes pleasing her so much is something that he is utterly distanced from. What he senses is the insignificance of his own part in the transaction. The whole scene makes him feel isolated. It certainly does not “feed his soul”, whatever you might believe about the procession of the Sins. There is a dramatic tension here, too. It’s a long time since Faustus has really told us about his feelings. We won’t have much longer to wait...]



Dr Faustus: Appendix B


Borrowings from Dr Faustus in The Taming Of A Shrew (1594)



The Taming Of A Shrew  is a play that was “reconstructed” from none-too-recent memories of Shakespeare’s early masterpiece The Taming Of The Shrew (c. 1589) , probably by actors for the use of a touring company (i.e. the Pembroke company mentioned on the title page). This reconstruction took place some time before 1594 when the text was sold for printing. The company must by then have been in financial straits. The actors had not been able to recollect many of Shakespeare’s actual words, or even the exact story of the “Bianca” sub-plot, but what they produced was sufficient for its purposes. Their basic conception of  a good play was Marlovian rather than Shakespearian; they wanted high-sounding rhetoric and then they had recourse to a wealth of material remembered from other plays in which they had acted, including Dr Faustus. The upshot is a number of parallel passages. Some are distinct “borrowings”, appropriated word for word; one would like to think the actors had fresh memories of playing the parts of Wagner/Chorus and of Faustus himself. Others have been adapted at will and the most imponderable ones may well have been unconscious or even coincidental, so drawing conclusions about the textual evidence for Faustus is not straightforward. Since the details of these parallel passages are not easy to come by, I present them in full here. This information comes from The Taming of A Shrew, ed. F.S. Boas (1911), in which an Appendix is devoted to Marlovian borrowings (some from Faustus, the rest from Tamburlaine), supplemented by The Taming Of The Shrew, ed. Brian Morris (1981), p. 36n, which lists a few other parallel passages that have been discerned in the years subsequent to Boas’ edition. A Shrew line references are to Boas’s edition. I preserve the old spelling given in Boas’ Appendix where this is my source; for the others I quote the modernized English of Boas’ main text. Faustus line references and quotations are from Bevington and Rasmussen ed. (1993). I make the assumption that where A Shrew has the same words as either A or B or both, this represents the text of Dr Faustus in the form that was known in 1594, and for convenience I refer to this text as the original. Other hypotheses are of course possible; for example that manuscripts of Faustus were already diverging into two streams at this earlier date. 


1. (=Boas 1)


A Shrew, Induction Sc 1, 9-12


Lord. Now that the gloomie shaddow of the night

Longing to view Orion’s drisling lookes,

Leapes from th’antarticke world unto the skie

And dims the welkin with her pitchie breath.


Faustus A and B I.3.1-4


Faustus. Now that the gloomy shadow of the earth, [A: earth, B: night,]

Longing to view Orion’s drizzling look,

Leaps from th’Antarctic world unto the sky

And dims the welkin with her pitchy breath,


Comment: A’s reading of  earth” is more attractive, but the Shrew players seem to have been familiar with “night”, as preserved in B. It looks like A improved on the original.


2. (=Boas 8)


A Shrew, II.1.79-80


Aurelius. To seeke for strange and new-found pretious stones

And dive into the sea to gather pearle.


Faustus A I.1.84-87, B I.1.81-84


(Faustus) I’ll have them fly to India for gold,

Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,

And search all corners of the new-found world

For pleasant fruits and princely delicates.


Comment: A Shrew preserves the general sense, and the words “pearl” and “new-found”, though the latter is applied in a different context, and America drops out of sight. A and B texts are identical at this point.


3. (=Boas 13)


A Shrew, II.2.1-4


Boy. Come hither, sirha, boy.

Sander. Boy, oh disgrace to my person, souns, boy

Of your face, you have many boies with such

Pickadevantes I am sure, souns would you

Not have a bloudie nose for this!


Faustus, A I.4.1-4


Wagner. Sirrah boy, come hither.

Robin. How, ‘boy’? ‘Swounds, ‘boy’! I hope you have seen

many boys with such pickedevants as I have. ‘Boy’,



Faustus, B I.4.1-4


Wagner. Come hither, sirrah boy.

Robin. ‘Boy’? O, disgrace to my person! Zounds, ‘boy’ in your

face! You have seen many boys with beards, I am



Comment: The original was clearly closer to B, but for the phrase “such pickedevants”. B has dropped this (perhaps because the expression no longer raised a titter, or because the current Robin did not have a pointy beard). The A-text is substantially re-worded.


4. (=Boas 15)


A Shrew, III.6.31-32


Emelia. As once did Orpheus with his harmony,

And ravishing sound of his melodious harpe.


Faustus, A II.3.29-30; B II.3.26-27


(Faustus) And hath not he that built the walls of Thebes

With ravishing sound of his melodious harp


Comment: A and B are identical here. The lines in Faustus refer to Amphion, not Orpheus.


5. (=Boas 16)


A Shrew, IV.2.60-61


Duke. This angrie sword  should rip thy hatefull chest,

And hewd thee smaller than the Libian sands.


Faustus, B IV.2.73-74


(Faustus) And had you cut my body with your swords,

Or hewd this flesh and bones as small as sand


Comment. This scene (in which the Emperor’s knights ambush Faustus) is not in A. It forms part of the substantial material in B that concerns Benvolio and his companions.  Boas points out that the Duke’s subsequent wish to “muster bands of hellish fiends” (A Shrew IV.2.73) also reflects the general context of the Faustus speech, which leads up to summoning a troop of devils to persecute the knights. B probably elaborated the original; but it is yet more certain that A cut it.


6. (Morris, loc.cit.: first recognized by Raymond Houk, 1947)


A Shrew, II.1.10 and16-17


(Kate) For, trust me, I take no great delight in it...

(Valeria) If that, sweet mistress, were your heart’s content,

You should command a greater thing than that


Faustus, A IV.2.4-5 and 15-16


(Faustus) But it may be, madam, you take no delight in

this. I have heard that great-bellied women...

(Faustus) Were it a greater thing than this, so it would content you,

you should have it.


Comment: From the Vanholt scene. This scene is also in B (IV.6) but the relevant passages are dissimilar, presumably because of revision by  Byrde and Rowley.


7. (Morris, loc. cit.: first recognized by Robert A.H. Smith, 1979)


A Shrew, Induction Sc 2, 32-35


Lord. Ay, my gracious lord, and your lovely lady

Long time hath mournèd for your absence here,

And now with joy behold where she doth come,

To gratulate your honour’s safe return.


Faustus, A IV.Chorus, 3-6


(Chorus) He stayed his course and so returnèd home,

Where such as bear his absence but with grief –

I mean his friends and nearest companions –

Did gratulate his safety with kind words.


Comment. This chorus is not in B (and is generally agreed to be misplaced in A). Its content, describing a visit that Faustus makes to Wittenburg before attending the Emperor, would not have been consistent with the action in B, where Faustus is said to have come straight to the Emperor from Italy in the company of  Bruno, the rival pope. Perhaps the Bruno material was Byrde and Rowley’s innovation, and hence they dropped the chorus. This is the least persuasive of the parallel passages, I think; the Shrew­-author is exceedingly fond of the word “gratulate”, though of course it may be from Faustus that he picked it up. It becomes one of his portmanteau expressions to add a poetical colouring, like “precious stones” and “Medean silks” (both ultimately from Tamburlaine). The word “gratulate” does not appear in Tamburlaine or in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, but it does appear in Richard III (IV.1), while in Titus Andronicus (another play that the hard-up Pembroke company sold for printing in 1593-94) we find “And gratulate his safe return to Rome” (I.1.222), which is close to the Shrew line above. To “gratulate” someone’s “safe return” appears indeed to have been a fixed form of words, for William Ponsonby’s dedicatory note to Spenser’s Amoretti (1595) begins: “Sir, to gratulate your safe return from Ireland...”. It was a small world: A Shrew had the same printer (Peter Short) as the Amoretti volume (as did also e.g the Quartos of I Henry IV). The case for a recollection of Faustus  rests on little more than the unstartling thought-progression from mourning (or grieving) someone’s absence to gratulating their safety. 


8. (Morris, loc. cit.: first recognized by Robert A.H. Smith, 1979)


A Shrew, III.6.7-8


Emelia. Should thou assay to scale the seat of Jove,

Mounting the subtle airy regions,


Faustus, B III.Chorus, 3-4 (A III. Chorus, 3-4) and 18-19 (not in A)


(Chorus) Graven in the book of Jove’s high firmament,

Did mount him up to scale Olympus’ top,...   [B: him up A:himself]

And, mounted then upon a dragon’s back,

That with his wings did part the subtle air,


Comment: “Scale”and “Jove” also appear together in Tamburlaine, Part One, I.2.199-200, while “mounted up the air” appears at Tamburlaine, Part Two, I.1.140, and “airy region” at Tamburlaine, Part Two, IV.1.119. It is not always easy to distinguish a definite recollection from a general Marlovian colour, and much depends on that fragile testimony, the “subtle air”. If you accept it, the same conclusion applies as to No. 5: B’s 25 lines  may elaborate the original, but A’s 11 lines are certainly an abridgment. In this case what B preserves may well be almost pure Marlowe.










Ben Jonson (1572-1637)




Sejanus (1603)


I have always favoured Ben Jonson’s writing - he is of course abundantly entertaining,, but there is something else too, a sort of rugged justice in the grain of his writing, so it's something I can take even from a panegyric addressed to some obscure noble.


In spite of this I had never happened to read some of his masterpieces. Sejanus deserves to be called one of these, and is an astonishing play.


It begins in a way that is familiar from Shakespeare, with a discussion of “the times” by two minor characters. We hardly anticipate, however, that both will meet their violent deaths during the course of the play; there is a sort of impersonal savagery about what we are to witness, which reaches its summation, perhaps, in the accounts of Sejanus’ and his family’s deaths (the daughter raped before execution).


In the first scene, too, the words have a restrained intensity that produces many powerful lines:


Like snails on painted walls


                                         sell to gaping suitors

The empty smoke, that flies about the palace


                               Alas! these things

Deserve no note, conferred with other vile

And filthier flatteries, that corrupt the times ...


Compared with the tedious bombast of contemporary satires, I appreciate Jonson’s reliance on syntax to suggest that he is never overstating his case,  at the same time giving it full force.


The more significant difference from Shakespeare is that Jonson’s play never becomes a play of character. We are not interested in Silius or Sabinus as personalities but as mere humans inhabiting a world where power forces humans into desperate shapes.


The dialogue between Lepidus and Arruntius in Act IV Scene 6 is another instance of this characteristic strength; but the soliloquy of Arruntius that precedes it is weak. It is when people are quietly discussing, not emoting, that the play comes impressively to life.


When, in Shakespeare, the major character arrives on stage, we feel an intensification of drama. Not here. Sejanus is in fact uninteresting, except as a political fact (Jonson is driven to some weak expedients - such as vacuous vying with the gods - in order to give Sejanus anything sufficiently time-consuming to say). Macro is interesting for what others quite rightly fear about him. But the feeble comedy of Act V Scene 3 is wholly unfitting - Jonson is driven to it because Macro in private life is a cipher. When Macro and Sejanus are in camera (of course, covertly spied on) in Act V Scene 6, there is no revelation of character - Sejanus swallows Macro’s bait, and that’s that. 


Tiberius, it’s true, has a certain fascination - but on analysis this fascination refers to the play of his supreme power - and his eccentric but deadly way of exercising it. Accounts by others of his gross voluptuousness are persuasive, but Jonson makes no attempt to present this or any other personal trait to us in Tiberius’s own words. Those words are purely manipulative - they are weapons - self-revelation is the last thing they are intended for.


All of which might lead one to conclude that Sejanus is neither dramatic nor humane - in fact it is both. Act III Scene 1 - the accusation of Silius - is perhaps the greatest scene; Afer is repellently brilliant. The terror that ensues is a moving spectacle - so is the dreadful end of Sejanus, which seems in fact not a revenge for the terror but merely a continuation of it; this evil is not contained in an individual but in a social climate.


With the overall humanity goes a certain cool judgment - this no doubt is one effect of Jonson’s experiment in sticking accurately to history. Despite the somewhat over-insistent commentary of Arruntius and his anti-Sejanus colleagues, we are in fact fair-minded: we don’t altogether believe in Cordus’ innocence of intention, for example. We also reserve some of the warmth we might usually accord to unfortunate young nobles when their names happen to be Caligula and Nero. Given a free rein, they will be no different from their persecutors. 


The Shakespeare play that is most similar to Sejanus (and very likely influenced by it) is Coriolanus. But masterpiece as that is, I cannot feel that it vanquishes Sejanus in every particular. It dramatises, with marvellous insight, the interplay of political situations with an individual’s temperament. Jonson could not do anything requiring such sensibility. But Shakespeare’s Rome and its people are a sort of timeless Anyplace. The Rome of Sejanus has a specific condition - and it could conceivably be altered. In that respect Sejanus is the more truly political work.  




The Alchemist (1610)


Coleridge singled out the plot of The Alchemist as some kind of perfection. But if we are thinking of the plot of a Shakespeare play, then The Alchemist  has no plot at all; i.e. there seems to be no character-expressed-through-action and accordingly none of that particular kind of dramatic momentum. Lovewit’s arrival is in no respect a consequence of the first four acts, for example. Jonson really has too much else on his mind – and so does everyone else – to develop a story out of the threats (internal and external) to Face and Subtle’s establishment.




Face and Subtle are rogues of a common sort, and certainly not the worst of rogues, but they are shown in a very harsh light: in the scenes when they’re not performing a role for someone else they are concentrating solely on their business and their gains, as busy as market traders who, if they ever do get a breathing space, will use it first to tot up their winnings.


When Surly’s apparent ignorance of English presents them with an opening (like a psychoanalyst’s test) to verbalize without any immediate end in view, what they say turns out to be very coarse fare.


(Face)                                             Don,

Your scurvy, yellow, Madrid face is welcome.   (4.3.30-31)


But even in this scene they are hard at work trying to decide just how to make maximum capital from the Don, so they throw these witticisms out to each other with only half a mind on them.




Huge visions of the world’s learning pass through this nasty little shop: Classical, Christian, Arabic, Indian, Faerie, French and Spanish. All are thoroughly illusory, but the director has to make them do something to us, even while we can feel how irrelevant they really are to what we’re seeing. If the learning starts to sound like just rhubarb, the play stops working.




Lovewit’s age is important in re-establishing a sense of order and kindness in the final scenes of the play. Face claims (to Subtle) that he actually sent for Lovewit (5.4.129), but that’s untrue (see 5.4.89-90, as well as Face’s manifest confusion when Dol announces Lovewit’s arrival). Subtle and Dol probably don’t believe Face’s claim either, but their position is now untenable; if they remain to bring down Face, they must give up their chance of escape. (It’s important to Face that Lovewit does not meet the other older personage in the play, Subtle – if he did, he might have a rather less rosy idea of his amusing servant.)




The action of The Alchemist takes place on 1st November 1610, presumably more or less exactly when it was first performed. This can be worked out from Ananias’ time references and from Dame Pliant’s age (for details, see Ian Donaldson’s interesting essay "Clockwork Comedy: Time and The Alchemist").  




One of the things that Face and Subtle are talking about in front of the Spanish gentleman is Dame Pliant. From the moment that Drugger mentions the “rich young widow” (2.6.30) – and adds promisingly, “but nineteen at the most”, Face and Subtle evince the usual behaviour of men at work; they think about sex every six minutes.


At the end of this scene they agree to draw lots to decide which of them will have the widow. Dol must be kept out of it, they both agree.


They repeat the terms of the agreement in 4.2.3ff, just before Dame Pliant first appears. Face is very taken with her, and tries to get Subtle to give up his claim (for a consideration). Subtle rejects his suggestion and threatens to tell Dol if Face goes it alone. It would be a clear breach of their “venter tripartite” (1.1.135), which requires them to share all things in common, apparently including Dol herself.


But, confronted with the disguised Surly, Face has a new idea (4.3.63ff.); why not give Dame Pliant to the Spanish gentleman? As he pragmatically observes, she’s not a virgin anyway and it’s only one man the more, whichever of them draws her in the end. Subtle, apparently somewhat repulsed by the thought of damaged goods, re-opens the question of giving her up to Face for a consideration, but Face rejects the proposal and bullyingly threatens to tell Dol himself. Subtle seems to be scared of this, but a moment later Face changes his mind and agrees to take the widow anyway, and they shake on it. Face’s bullying still rankles, though, and at the end of the scene Subtle takes pleasure in creating the opportunity to “make the widow a punk, so much the sooner, / To be reveng’d on this impetuous Face” (4.3.102-03).


Later, when it turns out that Dame Pliant has not been debauched by Surly after all, Subtle tries to renege on this (4.7.102ff) and to put himself in the frame again. Again (though the situation is now precisely opposite), Face threatens Subtle with Dol and seems to get his own way. But in the event it’s Subtle who tells all to Dol, in order to turn her against Face (see 5.4.70). By that time, however, Face is already employing Subtle to assist unwittingly in the marriage of Lovewit to Dame Pliant, and he will very shortly be bringing the curtain down on the triple alliance.


It’s unclear to me why Face feels he can threaten Subtle with Dol on two separate occasions when in both cases he is at least as likely, or more likely, to earn Dol’s enmity. Presumably the general idea is that Subtle is afraid of making trouble with Dol while Face establishes his dominance by seeming not to care. But exactly how seriously the two are discussing all this is open to question; they may be merely passing the time with agreeably squalid chatter.


[Pinter includes a similar discussion towards the end of The Homecoming, with the dim young Joey playing Subtle to Lenny's Face.]




One of Jonson’s editors, in the early nineteenth century, was William Gifford, the violently partial editor of the Anti-Jacobin and the Quarterly Review, notorious to admirers of Wordsworth or Keats. Championing Jonson, against the insinuations of the bardolators who considered Jonson an enemy of their hero and an author to be depreciated at every opportunity, momentarily takes on a political dimension: it meant standing up for conservative common sense in the face of liberal enthusiasm. Gifford is naturally a diligent seeker-out of prejudice in others and is an entertaining editor. His best insight is that Surly’s “this ferret” (2.3.80) alludes to Face’s red eyes (this is Face in his guise as Lungs, who has bleared eyes from all the smoke).






Catiline his Conspiracy (1611)


If Gifford is correctly informed, then Catiline, though not well-thought of when first staged in 1611, was played frequently in the years following, and was successfully revived after the Restoration.


But Catiline now is a play that’s dead in the water. It is modestly rewarding when read, and especially when all hope of dramatic interest has been surrendered, but it compares badly with Sejanus (which has much more interesting power shifts) and its stagecraft is to our eyes unspeakably crude by comparison with Shakespeare’s Roman plays. One supposes (but this is probably fantasy) that Jonson’s apparent inability to learn from Shakespeare’s triumphs must be deliberate and pointed. What’s certain is that Jonson had utterly different ends in view.


Jonson found in his books that Catiline conspired evilly, but he never thought it necessary to think of Catiline’s motives: an insane lust for power, or for evil itself, was sufficient. And all the conspirators are differentiated only by their strength of commitment. Cethegus, disagreeably reminiscent of Corporal Jones, is probably meant to be terrifying when he says:


Slaughter bestrid the streets, and stretched himself

To seem more huge; whilst to his stained thighs

The gore he drew flowed up, and carried down

Whole heaps of limbs and bodies through his arch.  (1.1)


But it’s soon apparent that Cethegus is such a one-dimensional character (and so utterly null in effect) that he is at best comic; but in as much as he is funny, the impact of the conspiracy is weakened. His bluster eventually ends with:


(Cicero) –Take him to the due

Death that he hath deserved, and let it be

Said, he was once.


Cethegus. A beast, or what is worse,

A slave, Cethegus. Let that be the name

For all that’s base hereafter; that would let

This worm pronounce on him, and not have trampled

His body into – Ha! art thou not moved?


Cicero. Justice is never angry. (5.6)


We are made to feel that the conspirators are not only evil but ridiculous, that they presented no threat. This is not only history written by the victors, it’s history written by the press office of a police state. Cicero’s spy network is held up for particular praise, and his triumph is recognition on the civil list.


For the most part Catiline consists of impressive rhetoric, which such poor attempts at other entertainment as are supplied by Fulvia and Cethegus tend to get in the way of. Cicero’s rhetoric is reportage from his own works and is unshakably principled. Catiline’s (in default of motive or the documentation of victory) is blustering invocation of sheer evil. Catiline is admitted as dying heroically, but Jonson hasn’t supplied us with anything in his character to base this heroism on, so the praise of his opponents looks merely polite. Catiline is indeed ambitious, as Macbeth is, but his ambition has no other emotions to contend with, and we haven’t even a very concrete idea of what he is ambitious for (as e.g. Sir Epicure).


What Jonson’s intentions really were, I’m still not sure. James’ government must have highly approved the sentiments of the piece. Jonson seems to have become thoroughly interested in producing an exhaustive and accurate account from his sources – this accuracy, of course, being a matter of representing details rather than of the critical interpretation those sources so patently require. But it seems bizarre to suppose that so great an author, at the very apogee of his career, aimed at nothing more than propaganda or edification.





Bartholomew Fair (1614)


This is another play I have spent 25 years not reading. Comparing my long-held idea of the play with what I have now read, there is no great disparity. It is a comfortable play, popular in the eighteenth century and probably in the nineteenth too, at least among readers. But although in many useful senses a “sheer entertainment” (it is also a play about an entertainment), one can’t help reflecting on its date – it comes just after the last of Shakespeare’s plays, and is possibly Jonson’s last great play. The influence of Act IV of the Winter’s Tale is discernible. Bartholomew Fair is so good-natured that even its Puritans, not to speak of its pimps and cutpurses, are not villains. Zeal-of-the-Land Busy is granted a gluttonous energy that Jonson must have enjoyed. From the author of Volpone this is a little disquieting. One senses a grateful slackening of the moral reins; a subsidence into the easy conclusion that human life in general is a joyous, bustling, well-meaning thing. This is of course consonant with Jonson’s values elsewhere, but it presents those values in their least confrontational form. 


The Induction to the play bears reading only once; it shows Jonson’s intention of embodying the vastness of the Fair’s riches, by first amazing us with a list of everything he has missed out.


The First Act supplies us with a long, finely choreographed, sequence that introduces the major characters. The conversation of Jonson’s gallants, Quarlous and Winwife, deserves praise. This is reminiscent of Epicoene and anticipates the interest of Restoration drama - Jonson avoids the tiresomeness of “straight” characters - their wit and cynicism keep them lively.


Nothing is monstrous. Waspe’s furious tetchiness leads no-one to doubt his essential normality (humanity? fitness for business? reasonableness?) - and Waspe can be other than mere bad-temper. When he slips out of the stocks and departs “For this once, sir”, we recognize a normal sense of humour. Busy, as suggested above, is sufficiently humanized by being discovered “fast by the teeth in the cold turkey-pie in the cupboard, with a great white loaf on his left hand, and a glass of malmsey on his right”. 


Adam Overdo, who begins Act 2, is a more literary creation. His unworldly mildness, oddly linked to a love of Horace with which Jonson must have identified, is nevertheless a significant clue to the galaxy in which the author’s imagination now moves.


From this point the pace of the play more or less matches the real time of its events - two hours, say, to cover a visit to the fair which might in reality be supposed to take four or five. This has the effect of identifying the play with the fair, and our entertainment with the characters’ entertainment. (Indeed, Mrs Littlewit’s retirement in search of a toilet - in fact, a empty bottle - lasts for some seventeen pages, which might be thought rather lengthy.) The slow-paced dramatic time allows for some interesting effects. For example, people can be shown waiting for time to pass, as when Winwife and Quarlous arrive early, or Edgeworth and Quarlous sit through a nonsensical drunken quarrel for the chance to rob Waspe of the license. Quarlous and the Littlewits, at different times, can show themselves uneasy about time passing. A similar impatience gathers in the preparations for the puppet show, which in turn proceeds with none of the abbreviation that we sense in The Mousetrap or Pyramus and Thisbe. In short, Jonson interests himself in the process of time moving at sixty minutes an hour.  (The puppet show proves quite capable of accommodating a real dispute with Busy. Its chief business is to tell the tale of Hero and Leander in the unlikely mode represented by exchanges such as:


You whoremaster knave. [They fight].


Thou art a whoremaster.


Whoremasters all. etc


A fair is licensed time for dawdling - and both licenses and dawdling are significant themes of the play. The Watch are embodiments of both, in marked contrast to police in other situations. They have little knowledge of clocktime, and though they are loving subjects, they take exception to being called obedient. They enforce placing people in the stocks, but are uncertain if their authority really extends to this. The word “discretion” inevitably arises. Perhaps the malefactors should remain in the stocks for an hour or so. In truth the Watch’s main object is to enjoy the fair themselves and allow it to proceed, as far as possible, without the disturbance of real action (each action that they do being itself an action within the fair, an entertainment rather than a stubborn deed). The “enormities” detected - in many cases all too “justly” - by Adamm Overdo are, we are persuaded, insignificant. The apparatus of law and order is comically present but operates in a displaced manner, finding nothing unpardonable to operate upon.


It would be heavy-handed to describe Cokes as incapable of distinguishing the world of the Fair from reality, when all give themselves up to a certain (licensed) lack of distinction. It is axiomatic that goods sold at a fair are all trash (“stale bread, rotten eggs, musty ginger and dead honey”). But as Cokes says sadly of Waspe, “He does not understand”. Cokes’ credulity at any rate allows him to enter into the puppet show with envious fullness (“Well, we have seen it, and thou hast felt it, whatsoever thou sayest.”)


For us, the concept of a Fair is incomplete without children. It is pleasing that the Boys of the Fair at least make one brief appearance, mischievously trailing Cokes around. It’s clear from Waspe’s remarks that some of Coke’s purchases (his “toys”) are primarily suited to children. Perhaps Jonson intended that some of the unspecified crowds of people crossing the stage should also be children. 





Molière (1622-73)


[pseud. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]



You can easily read through Molière, mildly entertained, but thinking, how hackneyed all this is! When two people are at cross-purposes for pages at a time (e.g. Harpagon and Valère in Act V of L’avare), it seems a weak sort of entertainment, like a sitcom before the watershed. Then the sun shines, you feel a little more apt to join the human race, and all the jokes get deeper, they put down roots and extend into the play around them.


Dom Juan (1665)


[Dona Elvira.] ... But be assured that your infidelity will not go unpunished, and that the Heaven you mock at will find means to avenge your perfidy to me!

Don Juan. Ah! Sganarelle, Heaven!

Sganarelle. Ay, ay, little we care for that! Fellows like us!


The story of Don Juan, unlike Dr Faustus perhaps, could never be other than disturbing to the orthodox. Its hero holds far too many cards, is unrepentant, courageous, a gentleman. Molière’s play was first cut, then discreetly banned, then restored in censored form, and the original cannot be fully recovered. The well-meaning Sganarelle is unable to articulate his beliefs or to persuade his master; his position and the play itself coerces him into a friendly companionship that partly depends on his own disapproval. Juan and Sganarelle are symbiotic, Juan ever outraging Sganarelle’s feelings (his outrage involving deep admiration), Sganarelle able to speak out yet always caring for his master and each giving the other a sense of who he is. Here Juan alludes gracefully to Sganarelle’s earlier sermon. Juan, by pitting himself against Heaven, makes it more real, brings a little of it down to earth. His end is, perversely, saintly in its dedication, his earthly servant distressed and betrayed, not just about the wages but about their companionship. Sganarelle at last is to experience what it means to be abandoned by Juan. 


[Perhaps he sang "Days", the Ray Davies song that, like a perfectly-poised farewell card for miscellaneous occasions, remains in heart-piercing good taste no matter how you choose to understand the nature of its dear one and their departure.]


L’amour médecin (soon after Dom Juan)


Lisette. Oh, go on, you mustn’t let him have things all his own way. So long as a girl does nothing to be ashamed of she has a right to use her wits to get round her father. What does he expect you to do? Aren’t you of an age to be married? Does he think you’re made of marble? ...


L’amour médecin is a brief impromptu in three scenes, with music. Sganarelle (no connection with the previous play) is to find out what Lucinde, his daughter, is made of. When she feigns sickness the doctors are brought in. Their best moment is when, supposedly discussing the case, they discuss such professional matters as getting around Paris and the importance of not contradicting a senior. That’s only natural. As Dr Tomés says,


When a man’s dead he’s dead and that’s all it amounts to, but a point of etiquette neglected may seriously prejudice the welfare of the entire medical profession.


Death is indeed both the most serious thing and a nothing. In an institution, you disable the user account and you recruit. Death comes sooner or later anyway. The doctors are there to manage it, not to eliminate it. In the mean time, Clitandre sallies in like the quack of all quacks and marries Lucinde under her father’s very nose. 


L’avare (1668)


Cléante. Confound it! What use is that to me?

La Flèche. Patience, please. ‘Item – three muskets, inlaid in mother-of-pearl, with three assorted rests; item – one brick furnace with two retorts and three flasks, very useful for anyone interested in distilling; item –‘


‘.... item – one crocodile skin three foot six inches in length and stuffed with hay, a very attractive curio for suspension from the ceiling...’

Cléante. ... The miserable rogue! Did you ever hear of such usury! Not content with charging outrageous interest, he must rook me three thousand francs for his collection of old junk...


The unnamed lender turns out to be Harpagon, Cléante’s father. Harpagon is far too comic, foolish and intelligent to be unlovable, and his relationship with his son, though they are always at loggerheads, is clearly a fond one. The liberating zest of the play (somewhat intermittent, it is true) consists of its treatment of both money and possessions as a social game, where personal peculiarities are to be observed, as in Valère’s wonderfully mealy-mouthed hypocrisies, and both truth and value are exposed as subjective. Cléante and Harpagon are in fact at one; money is worth much more as money than when translated into this alarming collection of things that someone else once thought well of.    



Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670)


M. Jourdain. The natural sciences? What have they to say for themselves?

Philosopher. Natural science explains the principles of natural phenomena, and the properties of matter; it is concerned with the nature of the elements, metals, minerals, precious stones, plants, and animals, and teaches us the causes of meteors, rainbows, will-o’-the-wisp, comets, lightning, thunder and thunderbolts, rain, snow, hail, tempests, and whirlwinds.

M. Jourdain. This is too much of a hullabaloo for me, too much of a rigmarole altogether.


This is from Act II (the first two Acts are like a sort of massive prelude to the intrigues that constitute the regular story). Jourdain is an idiot but his childlike naivety is often appealing. The distaste for natural science that he articulates so well is what makes Aubrey (see below) defensive about his interests. The philosopher does a poor job of marketing – with the enthusiasm of the inward he overpowers Jourdain with a noisy catalogue of fascinations, and inevitably produces a “rigmarole”.


When the intrigues get going, the highpoint is during the dinner-party when Dorimène refers, very naturally, to her new diamond (Act IV). Dorante, the only person who fully knows what is going on, is momentarily not in control. Then the estimable Mme. Jourdain arrives. It’s a contrived situation, basically farcical, but at this moment Molière has four developed characters in motion at once. 


Les fourberies de Scapin (1671)


From Act I – Scapin has just entered for the first time, his character is being established:


Scapin. Well, to tell the truth, there isn’t much I can’t manage when I’m put to it... I had built up a pretty good reputation for that sort of thing, but it’s like everything else today – credit goes to anyone but those who have earned it! I got into trouble over a certain little matter, and since then I’ve sworn I’ll give it all up.

Octavio. What trouble was that?

Scapin. Just a case where the law and I didn’t see eye to eye.

Octavio. The law, was it?

Scapin. We had a bit of a difference.

Octavio. You and the law?

Scapin. Yes, they treated me badly. I was so disgusted with the way things are done nowadays, I made up my mind I’d do no more for anyone.


It sounds like one of Scapin’s dodges led to his nose being slit. Octavio’s re-iterated questions point up the mental contortions that Scapin has needed to make (and has automatically made) in order to survive being judged a criminal. The memory of these lines adds underlying steel to later scenes such as the blissful sequence of exchanges between Leander and Scapin in Act 2, with Scapin at one point proclaiming:


No, no! Don’t forgive me anything. Run your sword through my guts. I should be very glad if you would kill me.


Scapin is triumphant. He has learnt to lay his own life on the table, he even enjoys it.




John Aubrey: The Natural History of Wiltshire (1656-91)





The book I have read is in fact an abridgement first published in 1847. The book was not published in Aubrey’s lifetime and represents a sort of ongoing compendium of “papers” that was added to over many years. He had freely offered these papers to Dr Plott, so he does not seem to have thought of them as a book, even when “tumultuarily stitch’t up”.


[Rather surprisingly, this 1847 edition is available freely on the web (part of the E-Gutenberg project).]


I pointed out a maybug on the pavement of a residential street in Bath. “Look at his antennae, like fans”, I lectured happily to a child in the vicinity -  and look! his poo is green!” The child lingered while we strolled up the hill. When we were far enough off, he stamped on the maybug, no different perhaps from a child of Aubrey’s time. Of his own secret impulse to “make a scrutinie into the waies of nature”, Aubrey says that generally “’Twas held a sinne”, and of himself “Credit there was none; for it gets the contempt of a man’s neighbours”. So it does still, except in highly buffered zones such as universities where, however, natural history is not a subject.


Undoubtedly it benefits, in Aubrey’s book, from being an almost unlimited subject. Thus it comprises, apart from weather, plants, animals, etc, such things as architecture, agriculture, the “historie of cloathing” (i.e. the cloth trade), notable families and “accidents”. To some extent this breadth is enjoyed as a license - and Aubrey is quite content to go outside Wiltshire, if he knows of something interesting to report.


Aubrey saw things differently from us. In his time people didn’t move around much, and some districts were healthier than others, so that he speaks of the North Wiltshire folk, for example, as “phlegmatique, skins pale and livid, slow and dull, heavy of spirit; hereabout is but little tillage or hard labour, they only milke the cowes and make cheese; they feed chiefly on milke meates, which cooles their braines too much, and hurts their inventions” etc. etc. The explanations sound like guesses, but his observation may be fairly sound. Man in those days was an animal who varied with his habitats. Now we are all under glass, so to speak, and a uniform strain.


On June 3rd, 1647, Aubrey’s mother noticed the sky, in which two rainbowy circles were intersecting around the sun. As Aubrey remarks, she might not have noticed it at all but for the accident of going outside to look at the dial. I saw something similar while on the beach at Benidorm (30/3/02 18:00), though on this occasion there was thin cloud, the sort that makes sundogs visible, but Aubrey says that when his mother saw the haloes “it was a very cleare day”. No-one else in Benidorm seemed to be aware of the phenomenon, which lasted all the time we were walking back to the hotel. Just being outside (as most people must have been in June) was not enough - “few took notice of it because it was so near the sunbeams”.


[I saw three suncave arcs and two sunvex arcs. If they were the Parry arcs and other exotic haloes, I am obviously lucky or spend too much time looking at the sky. I can also report an authentic Wiltshire observation; a complete lunar rainbow seen while driving westward on the A303 at Amesbury (19/1/03 19:20). The rainbow appeared for only a couple of minutes. To me it looked like a white beam, arising as from a spotlight, but bent into a bow. I was driving and couldn’t pull over in time to have a good look, but Maria said she could make out faint rainbow colours, in particular if she didn’t look at it directly. From these somewhat casual remarks you will gather that we had never heard of lunar rainbows and consequently had no idea of their intense rarity (the Met Office receives about two reports a year). If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have stopped dead on the carriageway. Alas! it’s most unlikely that any person previously informed about lunar rainbows has ever gone on to see one. Has a lunar rainbow ever been photographed? And those colours... – if only we’d checked, we could have dealt a blow to the common surmise that the moon doesn’t produce enough light for a lunar rainbow to be coloured. But Maria can’t rule out the possibility that the colour she saw was just the tinting along the top of my windscreen...] 


The difficulty of discussing plants in the days before Linnaeus is brought home to us vividly. At Priory St Mary: “In this ground calver-keys, hare-parsely, wild vetch, maiden’s honesty, polypodium, fox-gloves, wild-vine, bayle.” John Ray, who wrote some contemporary notes on the manuscript, complained: “Calver-keys, hare’s-parseley, mayden’s-honesty, are countrey names unknown to me.” Local knowledge may have been great, but knowledge cannot be passed on using such unsystematic equipment.


Of the “wich-hazel” Aubrey was well aware that in some counties it was called “wich-elme”. To our minds it seems impossible not to go one step further and to state that the trees quite obviously are elms, and not hazels. Some such perception of natural groupings must have enabled Linnaeus to develop his genera, though he didn’t conceive of a common origin. Aubrey has only one kind of classification, which loosely equates to the species; though he can say, as of the hazel, “Wee have two sorts of them”. This would clearly pose an interesting problem if all hazels were supposed to be connected by kinship to a primordial pair (in Eden, perhaps). But I think that this was not conceived. Local varieties were probably assumed to be “just there”, their ancestry a cloud. God could have intervened many times, making special creations. In Aubrey’s time many insects were believed to emerge from inanimate material.


Considered as a whole, Aubrey’s conception of his county is rather like an account of the “wonders” that you’d find stepping through the grounds of a spacious country seat. He is anecdotal. The world in which he lived had less structure, less roads, less development, less grasp.


Dr Ralph Bathurst, Dean of Wells, and one of the chaplains to King Charles 1st, who is no superstitious man, protested to me that the curing of the King’s evill by the touch of the King doth puzzle his philosophie: for whether they were of the house of Yorke or Lancaster it did. ‘Tis true indeed there are prayers read at the touching, but neither the King minds them nor the chaplains. Some confidently report that James Duke of Monmouth did it.


Such a passage opens a window, and the view is very curious. A whole fabric of credulity is being forked over by inappropriate mental instruments. It must collapse, or retire into some more shadowy mode, such as ceremonial, but has not quite done so for Aubrey. He is prepared to record the story that woodpeckers can drive out iron nails with the help of a leaf; he reports an experiment, apparently in confirmation, and suggests that it be repeated. But John Ray impatiently cuts the traces: “without doubt, a fable”. For science is also about seeing what experiments not to bother with.  


Undoubtedly Ray’s cold clarity has given us a vast fresh field in which to roam. But I like the emphasis that Aubrey’s conceptions place on the Orcheston Grass and the Glastonbury Thorn. He is alive to individual phenomena, to the peculiarities of place. It is credulity, but it’s also an openness of mind that seems to me now an important component in our relations with nature. We need, not to “recover it”, for it was only a hint, but to find something like it.




(2002, revised 2003)






John Dryden (1631-1700)




Dryden’s Poems


January 2001. For the last four months or so I’ve been reading Dryden. It began with an accidental dip into the Auden/Pearson anthology of English poetry - a book my father acquired from a brief dalliance with Heron Books, a sort of classic book club. He passed it on to me when I began university twenty-five years ago. I’ve always used it, and it survived the purge of my library in 1996 - by choice not accident; I wanted to keep the canon by me.


So, I dipped in Volume III, my least-loved period in English verse. Then I wanted to read Absalom and Achitophel in full, so I went to Waterstone’s. There was no Dryden at all - I was astonished, and then of course hooked on the quest. A second-hand bookshop in Bath supplied further inadequate selections, eagerly devoured. Then came the Arthos selection, found in St Leonards on Sea; like all in the Signet series, generous and attractive. Finally the Oxford Poems, borrowed from Frome library, and - ordered from bookshop - the cheap Wordsworth volume - £2.99, and as complete as any.


[This curious hiatus of Drydens didn’t last; there are now, it seems, a mass of Selected Drydens in the shops (2002).]


Dryden is a poet who can’t quite be made to fit into a single volume. But after many years I can more or less claim that I have read another “complete” English poet, to add to Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton and Keats; but that was all a long time ago. It means more now; there’s less time. And I have really immersed: I feel like saying (as biographers do) “Dryden has been a good companion”. Indeed, I don’t want it to end. I have an eighteenth-century volume of Plutarch with an introductory Life by Dryden; his prose too is a fine thing – though somehow a bewilderingly different thing.


None of the books mentioned is really complete because there’s no Aeneid - though I have since discovered that this has an unexpectedly vigorous life on the Internet, since it’s invariably the translation used by those benefactors who have made Virgil available on their websites. I was at first misled into thinking that the bulky Oxford volume was complete but it’s a selection, pointedly excluding The Hind and the Panther. I appreciate the polemical gesture, but don’t really condone it; a poet’s original work, however unsatisfactory, must always supply a fuller idea of the writer than translations. And whether Hazlitt is right to say this, it is certainly a higly defensible claim, that  it has more genius, vehemence, and strength of description that any other of Dryden’s works, not excepting the Absolom and Achitophel. It also contains the finext examples of varied and sounding versification...” You need The Hind and the Panther to sign off Dryden.  


His early poems are the most exciting, though the translations constitute a graceful re-education in many classics. I like the social and political emphasis; I feel that I’m present at the forging of Toryism at the historical moment when the pressure of Dryden’s ideas was strongest. Johnson or Scott, still less Powell, could never convert me - Dryden at times almost could. In the later Tories the body of thought is already to a great extent “given” - however convinced they are, I never quite feel that they are thinking it out for themselves, there is always a measure of adhesion to a predetermined tradition for which they have sentimental feelings - a hazy mental leap, an “of course!” that they don’t fully understand themselves. But Dryden’s vision arises quite naturally from his experience - not logical but intuitive, nevertheless an unfiltered response, and his expression of it a true act of creation. That’s how I should like to write.


But now I think of it, this descent onto the corpus of Dryden has other distant causes. I studied him at university - my copy then was the Everyman Selected, ed. Bonamy Dobrée (who, I think, was one of the many people roasted in Muggeridge’s memoirs). It was a graceful yet unconvincing collection; seeming to confirm C.S. Lewis’s assertion (in the essay about Shelley) that Dryden wrote from hand to mouth and produced good work only with qualifications, uncertain in taste and apt to spoil a good idea.


After this, I pretty much ignored Dryden for twenty-five years, but in fact the seeds of future interest were germinating. Three things in particular operated as signposts: the first, seeing a couplet or two as epigraph to the chapter of some book; the second, reading Peter Levi’s praise of Annus Mirabilis in his anthology of Christian verse; the third, skimming a review of a biography of Dryden (perhaps in The Times) - the reviewer calmly taking it for granted that Dryden was a “master”, one of the great figures in our literature. From such tiny details initiatives start (the Levi remark was backed up by impressive quotation, and thinking it over it was probably Annus Mirabilis that I most wanted to read in full).



The State of Innocence.


I had not heard of this until today; it’s very impressive and interesting - cold words, perhaps, but much of the undoubted excellence is due to Milton (this is a sort of dramatised condensation of Paradise Lost). Dryden drops all Milton’s more questionable inclusions - Sin and Death, the Father and Son, the war in Heaven, etc - and leaves himself with material for a swift, absorbing, five-act play. Was it worth the trouble? Well, I never planned to re-read Paradise Lost, so I am grateful for being gifted most of the best drama and the key apophthegms (you miss the extended similes, the forest-like, organ-voluntary-like paragraphs - but what a gain in some respects!). In Dryden’s “opera” the story, the psychology, the ethics all make sense - this could be an aid to devotion, not (like Paradise Lost) a prevention of it.


And I think it would play well. The verse is vivid - a mixture of blank verse, couplets, short lines, alexandrines - but the couplet predominant. It makes quite a sinewy vehicle for dramatic verse.


(Luc.) Think’st thou these wounds were light? Should I not seek

The clemency of some more temperate clime,

To purge my gloom; and, by the sun refined,

Bask in his beams, and bleach me in the wind?


I hardly know, after Shakespeare, where else I’d look for poetic drama in English so confidently achieved.  




T O    W H I C H    I S    P R E F I X E D


T H E   L I F E   O F   P L U T A R C H,


W R I T T E N      B Y     D R Y D E N.



Dryden is self-consciously writing a “Life” on the Plutarchan model (but, as he suggests, with especially little material). He pitches Plutarch as a wise, “human” writer – thinking of Montaigne, and no doubt of Shakespeare. Thinking hopefully of himself, too. I said “human” because of Harold Bloom. The expressions used by Dryden include:


great friendliness”


“By this liberal sort of education” (not wasted, as Dryden notes, on learning dead languages) “study was so far from being a burden to them, that in a short time it became a habit; and philosophical questions, and criticisms of humanity, were their usual recreations at their meals.”


like a true philosopher, who minded things, not words...”


“so it was his own virtue, to suck in with an incredible desire, and earnest application of mind, their wise instructions; and it was also his prudence so to manage his health by moderation of diet and bodily exercise, as to preserve his parts without decay to a great old age; to be lively and vigorous to the last, and to preserve himself to his own enjoyments, and to the profit of mankind.”


diligent” “wise” “modest” “moderation”


so grateful in his nature”


and more than all this, for a certain quality of goodness which appears through all his writings”.


Dryden draws together all these faint colourings into his notion of historical biography. It does not have the strength or status of major history (as for instance Thucydides or Commynes), but in compensation it has an intimacy   

and agreeableness that is admirable. For example, of Plutarch’s digressions he says:


The best quarry lies not always in the open field: and who would not be content to follow a good huntsman over hedges and ditches, when he knows the game will reward his pains? But if we mark him more narrowly, we may observe, that the great reason of his frequent starts, is the variety of his learning: he knew so much of nature, was so vastly furnished with all the treasures of the mind, that he was uneasy to himself, and was forced, as I may say, to lay down some at every passage, and to scatter his riches as he went...


He writes of great men not only in staterooms.


You may behold a Scipio and a Lelius gathering cockle-shells on the shore; Augustus playing at bounding-stones with boys; and Agesilaus riding on a hobby-horse among his children. The pageantry of life is taken away; you see the poor reasonable animal, as naked as ever nature made him; and are made acquainted with his passions and his follies, and find the Demi-god a Man.


digesting all their memorable deeds with so much care, that he has not omitted those even of their women, or their private soldiers...


In short, his formal impurity is a roundedness of personality, what we may well call humanity.


There is a political dimension to this vision, for positive words mean something specific to those who employ them. Here are some sentences I missed out earlier.


Boys lived then as the better sort of men do now; and their conversation was so well bred and manly, that they did not plunge out of their depth into the world, when they grew up; but slid easily into it, and found no alteration in their company.


Plutarch’s family, Dryden suggests, belonged to a line of Archons, or as it were Lord Mayors.


He was not so austere as to despise riches, but being in possession of a large fortune, he lived, though not splendidly, yet plentifully; and suffered not his friends to want that part of his estate, which he thought superfluous to a philosopher.


As often in Dryden, we remark a sensation of flexibility or opportunism. Dryden’s image of the ruling class co-opts the features of “humanity”, be it Plutarch’s or Shakespeare’s, both as an acknowledgement of changed conditions and as a way of maintaining its privileges. It was in the end a highly effective way of avoiding a revolution, and not I think a calculated one. Dryden, an instinctive time-server, nurtured a literary community more than he moulded it.


[I hope you admire the extract from the elegant title-page of the 1770 edition, in Baskerville’s manner, as considered suitable for classical works. This third edition of The Lives, in eight volumes, was printed in London for a conger of ten publishers headed by J. and F. Rivington.  Unlike the publishers, Dryden (like Dacier and Plutarch himself) has shed his initial, as befits a dead author.]



(2001, 2004)

William Congreve: The Way of the World (1700)


Congreve (1670-1729) threw over his career as a dramatist at the age of thirty. The Epilogue to The Way of the World ends:


So poets oft, do in one piece expose

Whole belles assemblées of cocquets and beaux.


It was not so true of other poets as it was of him. The Way of the World soars above the details of its ingenious plot-line and even the real passion of its lovers - it creates an edifice of wit that none could match, and you feel this came easily to him, easily enough to cast aside after a disappointment.  


What single model, indeed, could deserve the honour of inspiring such a flight as Lady Wishfort's ever-more-salacious propriety?


But as I am a person, Sir Rowland, you must not attribute my yielding to any sinister appetite, or indigestion of widow-hood; nor impute my complacency to any lethargy of continence– I hope you do not think me prone to any iteration of nuptials––

Wait. Far be it from me––

Lady. If you do, I protest I must recede– or think that I have made a prostitution of decorums, but in the vehemence of compassion, and to save the life of a person of so much importance––

Wait. I esteem it so––

Lady. Or else you wrong my condescension––

Wait. I do not, I do not––

Lady. Indeed you do.

Wait. I do not, fair shrine of virtue.

Lady. If you think the least scruple of carnality was an ingredient––


The scene can only end by being interrupted. What coarse stuff "Malapropisms" must seem to be, after this.










Alain René Le Sage (1668-1747): Gil Blas de Santillane





.... I therefore went in search of Doctor Sangrado, and brought him to the house. He was a tall, meagre, pale man, who had kept the shears of Clotho employed during forty years at least. This learned physician had a very solemn appearance, weighed his discourse, and gave an emphasis to his expressions: his reasoning was geometrical, and his opinions extremely singular.


After having observed the symptoms of my master’s disease, he said to him with a very physical air: “The business here is to supply the defect of perspiration, which is obstructed: others, in my place, would doubtless prescribe saline draughts, diuretics, diaphoretics, and such medicines as abound with mercury and sulphur; but cathartics and sudorifics are pernicious drugs, and all the preparations of chymistry are only calculated to do mischief: for my own part I practice a method more simple, and more sure. Pray, what is your ordinary diet?” – “My usual food,” replied the canon, “is broth and juicy meat.” –“Broth and juicy meat!” cried the doctor, surprised, “truly, I do not wonder to find you sick: such delicious victuals are poisoned pleasures and snares, which luxury spreads for mankind in order to ruin them the more effectually. You must renounce all palateable food: the most salutary is that which is most insipid: for as the blood is insipid, it requires such victuals as partake the most of its own nature. And do you drink wine?” added he. “Yes,” said the licentiate, “wine diluted.” –“O! diluted as much as you please,” replied the physician, “what an irregularity is here! what a frightful regimen! you ought to have been dead long ago. How old are you, pray?” –“I am going in my sixty-ninth year,” replied the canon. “Right,” said the physician, “an early old age is always the fruit of intemperance. If you had drunk nothing else than pure water all your life, and had been satisfied with simple nourishment, such as boiled apples, for example, you would not now be tormented with the gout, and all your limbs would perform their functions with ease. I do not despair, however, of setting you to rights again, provided you be wholly resigned to my directions.”


The licentiate having promised to obey him in all things, Sangrado sent me for a surgeon, whom he named, and ordered him to take from my master six good porringers of blood, as the first effort, in order to supply the want of perspiration. Then he said to the surgeon: “Master Martin Omnez, return in three hours, and take as much more: and repeat the same evacuation to-morrow. It is a gross error to think that blood is necessary for the preservation of life; a patient cannot be blooded too much; for as he is obliged to perform no considerable motion or exercise, but just only to breathe, he has no more occasion for blood than a man who is asleep; life, in both, consisting in the pulse and respiration only.” The doctor having ordered frequent and copious evacuations of this kind, told us, that we must make the canon drink warm water incessantly; assuring us that water drunk in abundance, was the true specific in all distempers whatever. And when he went away he told Dame Jacinta and me, with an air of confidence, that he would answer for the patient’s life, provided we would treat him in the manner he had prescribed. The governante, who possibly thought otherwise of this method, protested that it should be followed with the utmost exactness. Accordingly we set about warming water with all dispatch; and as the physician had recommended to us, above all things, not to be too sparing of it, we made my master drink for the first dose two or three pints, at as many draughts. An hour after we repeated it, and returning to the charge, from time to time, overwhelmed his stomach with a deluge of water: the surgeon seconding us, on the other hand, by the quantity of blood which he drew from him, in less than two days the old canon was reduced to extremity.  (Book II Ch II)


Dame Jacinta and Gil Blas, not ill-pleased by the event, barely have time to bring a notary so that a will can be made out in their favour. As the poor old man expires, Doctor Sangrado returns,


and looked very foolishly, notwithstanding his long practice of dispatching patients. Nevertheless, far from imputing the canon’s death to his watery draughts and evacuations, he observed as he went out, with an air of indifference, that the patient had not lost blood enough, nor drank a sufficient quantity of warm water...



I have quoted this, one of the most arresting passages in Gil Blas, on the assumption that few English-speaking readers will have encountered it.

(How Smollett must have relished translating this!) For though the name of Gil Blas is familiar to anyone who has studied the English novel (Scott, Dickens and so on being fervent readers of Le Sage), the book is now barely available, though it is still read in France. 


Things would be different, no doubt, if Gil Blas were always, or often, as fiercely vigorous as this. Doctor Sangrado, perhaps an invention of sheer fancy, is a satire so generalized that it works equally well as a critique of conventional and of alternative medicine; you might say as a critique of all the professions whatever, inasmuch as all of them presume that one can validly be in a position to advise others on how to live their lives and solve their problems, a presumption whose successes are rarely demonstrable and whose unrelieved failure, even, is so well bolstered by a conspiracy of discourse that it usually escapes notice.


[I might add, though, that I was caught up short by a sentence in Bruce Chatwin’s Utz (1988): “The Doctor would kill his patient in order to rid him of his disease.” This is implied to have been a familiar motif of the Commedia dell’ Arte, but I am unable to confirm it – on the contrary, the Dottore of the Commedia was a lawyer. Anyway, the death-dealing Doctor is a stock joke, e.g. in Molière’s L’Amour médecin   I am so ignorant, I have no business writing this... There’s also Barrabas’s autobiography in The Jew of Malta:


            Being young, I studied physic, and began

            To practise first upon the Italian;

            There I enriched the priests with burials... (II.3)


This, however, is but one in a list of murderous professions. Later, in Scott’s The Abbot, we see the joke mutating gently into Dr Lundin’s ridiculous concern for his professional prestige and his “honorarium”, his respectful attitude towards chronically enfeebled potion-takers and his disgust at the rudely healthy who never employ his services. 


The seventeenth chapter of Richard Ford’s lively Gatherings from Spain (1846) is devoted to a discussion of the wretchedness of Spanish doctors, who are “dangerous like a rattlesnake”. Among the causes that Ford proposes are 1. an indifference to science resulting from Philip III’s law, motioned by universities led by ecclesiastics, “prohibiting the study of any new system of medicine, and requiring Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna”; 2. the low status of the calling, in a land where status and the pundonor are of such high account; 3. “the philosophy of the general indifference to life in Spain, which almost amounts to Oriental fatalism, in the number of executions and general resignation to bloodshed”.


But in 17th c. Protestant Europe things were not much better. Quinine, which was so effective in the treatment of malaria (then a disease that infested Europe), was vehemently condemned.  “At this time, the profession was still in the thrall of Galen’s dictum laid down in the 2nd century AD, which strongly promoted bleeding as a way to expel corrupt humours. Even when the efficacy of the Jesuits’ powder was demonstrated, the medical profession shunned it, using the excuse of its religious connections. A more likely reason for its rejection was that bleeding was more profitable. For instead of a short course of efficacious bark infusions, several expensive bleedings would have been administered, and since this was no cure the fevers would return, requiring further, costly treatment” (Toby and Will Musgrave, An Empire of Plants, 2000). ]


Whatever its literary provenance, Le Sage’s stock joke about doctors has a plain relevance to his book, in which health, like destiny, cannot be explained and is therefore portrayed as a matter of chance.


Gil Blas gains from its lack of ambition. Passing blithely from story to story, its common framework is the hero (or sometimes another person) being involved in some means of getting by. This might not necessarily mean a job; it might mean involvement in some scam or temporarily important affair. Most of the jobs that Gil Blas tries his hand at are singularly useless, by modern standards; they do not produce economic issue. For the most part they are in service. Jobs are easily found, and not long retained; usually, we find ourselves sharing those formative early days when a servant is forming impressions of his milieu. If you like a steadiness of moral vision, Gil Blas admirably supplies the steadiness, at the expense of the morality. 


The hero’s shallowness of character is important. In Book III Chapter I he begins work for a new master: “He was a man turned of fifty, seemed to be serious and reserved, though good-natured withal; so I conceived no bad opinion of him.” Since the master has no obvious place in society, however, scandal begins to circulate, and Gil Blas is infected by this immediately. He thinks that his master is a spy: “I saw him walking in the street with an air of assurance that a first confounded my penetration: but, far from being duped by those appearances, I distrusted them, having no favourable opinion of the man.” In fact, the corregidor’s visit reveals that the master is merely well-off and outstandingly lazy; his way of life is a philosophical proposition. Gil Blas swings with the tide again: “After this conversation, which the alguazil and I overheard at the closet-door, the corregidor took his leave of Don Bernard, who could not enough express his gratitude; while I, to second my master, and assist him in doing the honours of the house, overwhelmed the alguazil with civilities, making a thousand profound bows, though in the bottom of my soul, I harboured that disdain and aversion which every man of honour has for one of his occupation.” The bottom of his soul lies about two inches, but the presentation is all the better for it.


By the time we reach Book III we might think that a pattern is emerging. Book III Chapter IV finds Gil Blas in service with a beau. “Well”, says a fellow servant pretty soon after, “don’t you begin to get rid of your rust?” Such remarks are irresistible, and soon Gil Blas confesses that  though it (this way of life) was quite new to me as yet, I did not despair of being reconciled to it in time.” After Don Matthias has been killed in a duel (an affair of no great gravity), Gil Blas switches seamlessly, and even more entertainingly, into service with an actress, in the company of the delightful Laura. But at this point there is an unexpected check. Gil Blas reminds himself (what we have long forgotten) that he originally set out to be a tutor, and under the temporary influence of moral remorse he withdraws from this circle. (Fairly obviously, he can’t keep pace.) What follows in Book IV dispels any simple pattern. He finds himself in service to one Aurora, and after pleasingly mistaking her advances and making himself ridiculous, gets involved in a good-natured plot to entrap a rakish lover. But in the midst of this, we are treated to a highflown tragedy about mistaken purposes in Sicily (“The Baleful Marriage – A Novel”, as Smollett has it). Le Sage may have been one of those authors, like John Ashbery, who prefer to think that they write to no program.


We are bound to read these early novels from the perspective of later ones, and at first to characterize the “picaresque novel” by its emptinesses – for instance, the lack of signification that is signified by the word “episode”. This makes the book easy to put down (no-one now could read Gil Blas day after day). What makes it easy to take up again is, to us though not to contemporary readers, a more elusive matter. No doubt it’s true that much of this elusive attractiveness is what Le Sage and his readers would be surprised by; the insouciance that was always a component in the book itself is magnified by its distance from us, by the weight and spaciousness of the crumbling brown volume, its appallingly interesting engravings, Smollett’s meaty prose, and other reassuring reminders that the book is secure in an untroublesome category of our existence.


In Book IV Chapter IX Gil Blas, “having seen everything that was curious in Toledo” (an unexpected foreshortening) is on his travels again. He overtakes a stranger whom he recognizes as the man being sought by the party of soldiers he has just passed by at the inn, and in view of this pursuit and the imminent onset of a storm, they decide to take leave of the high road and to seek shelter with a “holy hermit”, who welcomes them. The storm breaks fearsomely; “The hermit fell on his knees before an image of St Pacomo, which was glued to the wall, and we followed his example.” Soon a frugal though wholesome meal is supplied, but Don Alphonso (the travelling companion) is too distracted to eat. The hermit observes: “I perceive that you are accustomed to better tables than mine, or rather, that sensuality has corrupted your natural taste. I have been in the world, as you are now: the most delicate viands, the most exquisite ragouts, were not too good for my palate: but since I have lived in solitude, I have retrieved the former purity of my taste, and at present can relish nothing but roots, fruits, milk; in a word, that which composed the nourishment of our first parents.” It’s a speech that appeals to us, despite the faint tincture of Dr Sangrado. Don Alphonso is persuaded to tell his story; then a fellow of the hermit returns to the grotto, and they confide that their holy appearance is a disguise; in fact they turn out to be two scoundrels who have already fleeced Gil Blas in an earlier chapter.  They too have now discovered that they are being pursued, and urge Gil Blas and Don Alphonso to join them: “You cannot do better than to join your fortune to ours; you shall want nothing: and we will baffle all the search of your enemies. We know almost every inch of Spain having travelled over it; and are acquainted with the woods, mountains, and every place proper for an asylum against the brutality of justice.” So the four hastily abandon the grotto, though it is now nightfall, “leaving as a prey to justice the two hermit’s robes, with the white and red beards, two pallets, a table, a rotten chest, two old straw-bottomed chairs, and the image of St. Pacomo.”


The transformation in our attitude to that image is of course very funny. At the same time Don Raphael, both as hermit and robber, focusses a sense of pastoral liberation, though we now recognize the malicious amusement in his unctuous remarks about diet. This sense of liberation persists all the while the four are together, though it won’t be long before Gil Blas and Don Alphonso will part amicably from the others (for once again, the pace is a bit too hot). As they hide in a pleasant glade, drinking wine and eating slices of roasted meat, Don Raphael gives us a splendidly colourful account of his adventures, which include a long captivity in Algiers. It makes a long chapter, and the next one begins: “When Don Raphael had ended his narration, which I thought very tedious, Don Alphonso was so polite as to say it had diverted him very much indeed.” Thus Gil Blas is able to take a small literary revenge for Don Raphael’s dominance (and for the loss of his purse); Le Sage knows that the story is far from tedious.


I am sorry to say that “the brutality of justice” eventually catches up with Don Raphael and Lamela, in the form of an Auto da Fe in which they are the principal luminescences. Gil Blas witnesses the ceremony with horror, with swooning, with self-congratulation on his own good sense in separating from them, and, in the space of one sentence, with oblivion: “but these afflicting images, which disturbed my imagination, dispersed insensibly...” (Book XII Chapter I).


Liberation and insouciance are natural themes of the picaresque novel, if you compare it with the claustrophobically taut plotting of later novels – the High Victorian and most of its successors. In these books, everything signifies. Human beings are in thrall to chains of event developing from their own characters, their family and acquaintance, their society. The novelist sees a mission in drawing out the logic that entraps them: El destino de un pueblo es como el destino de un hombre. Su carácter es su destino (J. Wassermann, quoted as the epigraph to Los Bravos (1954) by Jesús Fernández Santos).


In Gil Blas this business of destiny is less known. Destiny might exist (Gil Blas mentions it sanctimoniously on a number of occasions), but its operations are just as invisible to the reader as to the hero; the visible procession consists of chances, good and ill luck. Just deserts are rarely apparent. (Two typical instances: the tutor who is not allowed to punish the stupidity of Don Raphael’s noble schoolmate has the clever idea of whipping Don Raphael instead; and Gil Blas, tentatively producing the honest literary criticism that his employer the archbishop has urged on him, is of course instantly dismissed.)      


Prose fiction is always a mimesis of experience; at least, it always is when it’s read. The mimesis interposes, however, a contrast between experience and the literary monument that mirrors it. The picaresque novel, by comparison with the forms that spring from Scott and Balzac, omits the element of explanation. The book lives alongside the reader’s own progress through the days; it does not, so to speak, turn to confront it with annihilating intelligence. Both its hero and its reader live from hand to mouth. 


[“Camille Pissarro died in Paris on 13th November 1903 of blood poisoning caused by an abscess of the prostate: his homeopathic doctor had attempted to cure it without operation.” Perhaps one may conclude, with Dr Sangrado in mind, that any form of medicine is blighted by a doctrinaire spirit.]





John Gay: The Birth of the Squire (1720)


first published in Intercapillary Space.


"Gay has all the gifts of a great poet except the highest intensity of passion and imagination", I read in one of those multi-volume paperback surveys of EngLit that were so popular thirty years ago. The writer (Charles Peake) seems to be inadvertently reproducing Arnold on Chaucer, and it's Chaucer who is bound to come to mind - not so much Chaucer's manner as, what is yet more unusual, some kinship in the vistas opened up by the poetry - when we read such lines as the following:


Beagles and spaniels round his cradle stand,

Kiss his moist lip and gently lick his hand;

He joys to hear the shrill horn's ecchoing sounds,

And learns to lisp the names of all the hounds.

With frothy ale to make his cup o-'er-flow,

Barley shall in paternal acres grow:

The bee shall sip the fragrant dew from the flow'rs,

To give metheglin for his morning hours;

For him the clustring hop shall climb the poles,

And his own orchard sparkle in his bowles.


This is early in the poem, when Gay is still, just about, doing what his subtitle claims: imitating the Pollio of Virgil (i.e. the fourth Eclogue). Hence the sentence beginning "With frothy ale" runs parallel with Virgil's prophecy of a golden age. Nor can the beauty of such harvest be denied. Lyrical home-brewers would be hard-pressed to choose for their motto between Gay's last line and Shakespeare's


And were not summer's distillation left

A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass...


Surely Pope learnt from here the prophetic music beginning "Another age shall see the golden Ear", that would end the Epistle to Burlington? Yet Pope's  "His father's acres who enjoys in peace" is as it were ironized in advance by Gay's vision, written ten years earlier, of a golden age requiring heroic capacities for all-day drinking on the part of its chief consumer. 


It is not, however, the cycle of these liquid harvests, consumed in their season, that do for Gay's hero, but the strong ale,


Firm-cork'd, and mellow'd till the twentieth year;

Brew'd or when Phoebus warms the fleecy sign,

Or when his languid rays in Scorpio shine.


That is, in March or October, the standard times for brewing "keeping beers". Small and table beers were brewed more or less all year round; but these strong ales were for special occasions and guests, as at the squire's own birth,


And old October reddens ev'ry nose.


The October was the most valued, as the malt was fresh from the barley harvest; to compensate, the successful brewing of March beer involved selecting top ingredients and it was brewed even stronger since it had to survive the risks of fermentation during the heats of summer. Naturally a certain snobbery attached to ales that were laid down for many years. Though the legend of mellowing implied that the ageing improved the drink, the real point was that only a very strong brew, costly to produce, would keep that long; thus they reflected favourably on the house. The anonymous author of The London and Country Brewer (1736) notes:


[The method described] is attended with extraordinary Labour and Time, by the
Brewers running off the wort almost continually, and often returning the
same again into the mash Vat, but then it certainly gives him an
opportunity of extracting and washing out the goodness of the Malt, more
than any of the common Methods, by which he is capacitated to make his
October or March Beer as strong as he pleases. The Fame of Penly
October Beer is at this time well known not only throughout
Hertfordshire, but several other remote Places, and truly not without
desert, for in all my Travels I never met with any that excell'd it, for a
clear amber Colour, a fine relish, and a light warm digestion. But what
excell'd all was the generosity of its Donor, who for Hospitality in his

Viands and this October Beer, has left but few of his Fellows.


A prudent toper would drink these "sipping beers"  from a "dwarf ale", a small funnel-shaped glass (their modern descendants are the barley wines). In his final scene the squire, the last man standing, goes for a different approach:


Methinks I see him in his hall appear,

Where the long table floats in clammy beer,

'Midst mugs and glasses shatter'd o'er the floor,

Dead-drunk his servile crew supinely snore;

Triumphant, o'er the prostrate brutes he stands,

The mighty bumper trembles in his hands;

Boldly he drinks, and like his glorious Sires,

In copious gulps of potent ale expires.


A bumper is a mug or glass filled right to the brim, usually for the purposes of making a ceremonial toast.[*see note] In this case the toast is a private one; just as the honoured guests appear to be absent and the friends of whom Gay promises to write turn out to be nothing but a "servile crew". 


Moral censoriousness, however, is not what Gay is about; the sting of satire is taken off by this being framed as only a hypothetical finale (everything after the scene of the squire's birth is narrated partly in a fast-forwarding present tense and partly in a prospective future tense, so the precise degree of fictionality claimed by the various episodes is impossible to pin down). Just as he has not stuck to imitating Virgil, so he has not quite managed to sustain an "ages of Man" structure, but the pervasive idea of speeded-up temporal cycles has been layered onto a groundwork of pleasures, that goes like this:







Latin (scorned)

Priscilla, the milkmaid




All these pleasures, and a good few subsidiary ones, are portrayed with the utmost sensual brilliance, and this is not absent even in the darkened tones of that final scene where we share an ugly delight in the liberated tongue of


Foul scandal to the lying lip affords,


and even in the rock-bottom splurge of "copious gulps of potent ale". Lips and mouths are ever-present forces in this poem.


After the hero is incapacitated from the chase following that fateful tumble on St Hubert's Day (November 3rd) when


Low in the dust his groveling honour lies,

Headlong he falls, and on the rugged stone

Distorts his neck, and cracks the collar bone


he becomes instead a country justice and a severe preserver of game from the depredations of poachers; a conversion in mid-hunt that leadenly echoes Hubert, patron saint of hunters, who turned to the Lord as a result of encountering a miraculous hart with a crucifix set between its antlers.) Here, and when he makes his spirited defence against learning ("Why should he wiser prove than all his race?"), the hero is seen - under duress - haplessly trying to impose orderliness on the tides of pleasure, which in the end carry him away. 


But is it he who has this thought, or is it his "too fond mother"? - You can read it both ways, just as you can't be sure if


These storys that descend from son to son,

The forward boy shall one day make his own


means that he appropriates his father's tall stories or simply ends up with the same sort of stories to tell. His life is a prolongation of the family's, and indeed the household's, since Priscilla takes a full share of responsibility for their energetic use of "The dairy, barn, the hay-loft and the grove". Because the squire is the realization of a community's idea he eludes satire (as often in Gay) by being both beneath it and beyond it. 






      Prithee fill me the glass

      'Till it laugh in my face,

With ale that it potent and mellow;

      He that whines for a lass

      Is an ignorant ass,

For a bumper has not its fellow.


This is a drunken song sung out by Sir Wilfull Witwoud, in Congreve's The Way of the World (1700) - an irresistible country squire very much in line with the figure in Gay's poem. Sir Wilfull's song proceeds to connect the seasonal/diurnal cycles with drinking; he is a stage presence in the long tradition that begins, perhaps, with Heracles in the Alcestis - the bumptious late arrival who unexpectedly diverts an already absorbing play along the brink of chaos.




Alexander Pope (1688-1744)


An Essay on Man in Four Epistles


[The epistles were published separately in 1733-34. Apparently written in 1730-31, but perhaps Pope deliberately gave them a Horatian three years to mature.]


The madness of superfluous health, says Pope in one of the chiding moments in the Essay on Man. There are rather too many chiding moments. The balance feels wrong. One did chide in such expository poems, Hesiod had done it, so had Lucretius, but Pope's lessons have not a sufficiently copious enthusiasm to excuse his lofty reproofs.  Go, wiser thou... Go wondrous creature... Fools! (he proceeds) thou fools ... Blind to truth... Cease then... - and much more in the same vein. This is not so much about enlightening the insanely healthy questioners as about telling them to shut their noise: Whatever is, is RIGHT. His paean to Order involves too much ordering people about.


Anyway, here's the phrase back in its context, the opening lines of Epistle III:


Here then we rest: 'The universal cause

Acts to one end, but acts by various laws.'

In all the madness of superfluous health,

The trim of pride, the impudence of wealth,

Let this great truth be present night and day;

But most be present, if we preach or pray.


It's the healthy, wealthy and proud who hold all the poetic cards here. How can Pope, the great apophthegmist, try and pass off this unmeaning, uninteresting verbiage about the universal cause as a great truth? As pallid is my conception of Pope preaching, or indeed Pope praying. I think he'd rather be playing in the road with the trim and impudent.


Pope knew there was something unachieved about the Essay on Man. He self-accuses it of a certain dryness, of generality without detail; defines its method as a faute de mieux; demotes it to the status of preliminaries to a more fruitful sequel; tacitly condemns it by not delivering that sequel. 


Still, the great chain is fascinating. When he says:


See dying vegetables life sustain,

See life dissolving vegetate again:


when he sees the insulated concentration of the kind:


Say, will the falcon, stooping from above,

Smit with her varying plumage, spare the dove?


when (best of all) he admires the essential motors of action and passion, and their creative patterning thus:


The rising tempest puts in act the soul,

Parts it may ravage, but preserves the whole...

Passions, like elements, though born to fight,

Yet, mixed and softened, in his work unite...


these are glimmerings of the processes that sustain an ecology. That image of a chain, however, is inevitably too one-dimensional; too much like a gentlemanly line, or the grades of estate staff. It has its later analogy in apex predators and the like, but it isn't helpful when thinking about the inter-relations of complex groups of plants and animals. Pope intermittently knows it too: the lioness has a hopeless sense of smell. Who claims the grain? Even the humble birds. And the enchanting hog, "that ploughs not nor obeys thy call", makes his living as well as Man.


Of the chain's mechanism, no satisfactory explanation emerges.


From Nature's chain whatever link you strike,

Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.


In Pope's own terms it's difficult to see what could justify this assertion except a pious compliment to the great maker's precision. The chain is conceived as a fragile perfection, like the one and only answer to a difficult sum. Adaptation, the continuing self-repair and adjustment to changed conditions, these ideas are not to be glimpsed. The chain, being divinely imposed and RIGHT, is apparently too static to require what, to our eyes, makes the natural world a far more impressive creation.  


And still, there's sometimes a wonderful energy in Pope's intuitions roving, with a liberty that was already becoming amateurish, from Nature to Man. This of the strange comforts that make us unwilling to trade places with another:


The starving chemist in his golden views

Supremely blessed, the poet in his muse.


Of our toys: the child "Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw" carried through to the deflating grace of "beads and prayer-books are the toys of age". No simplicities of RIGHT here: but a broad, amused, wonderment; the spirited delectation of a superfluous health that Pope experienced only in his verse.









Hester Lynch Piozzi: Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786)






1709  Samuel Johnson born

1735  Marries Elizabeth (Tetty) Jervis

1740/41 Hester Lynch Salusbury born

1746-55 Johnson’s Dictionary

1749   The Vanity of Human Wishes

1750-60 The Rambler, The Adventurer, The Idler

1752  Tetty Johnson dies

1759  Johnson’s mother dies. Rasselas

1763  Johnson meets James Boswell

1763  Hester marries Henry Thrale.

1765  Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare.

         Johnson meets the Thrales. A year later, he moves in with them.

1775  Journey to the Western Islands

1777-81 Lives of the Poets

1781  Henry Thrale dies

1783  Hester moves to Bath. Last meeting with Johnson (April).

1784  Hester marries Gabriel Piozzi (July). Death of Johnson (December).

1785  Hester writes Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson in Italy (Summer).

          Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.

1786  Anecdotes published.

1791  Boswell’s Life of Johnson

1809  Gabriel Piozzi dies

1821  Hester Piozzi dies


The main points arising from this chronology are as follows. Johnson was in his mid-fifties when he met the two young friends who did so much for him and who would become his chief biographers (Boswell and Hester Thrale disliked each other, by the way). His wife had died more than a decade earlier. The literary achievements that had established him were in the past; he was semi-retired. In another sense, his life may be said to have begun again. During the remaining twenty years of his life he lodged most of the time with the Thrales, in fact for most of each week throughout their marriage. Hester was usually pregnant; the Thrales had twelve children. Henry Thrale’s death, the burden of supporting an increasingly difficult Johnson, and his disapproval of the liaison with Piozzi, brought all this to an end. Hester’s life, in turn, began again. She was about 24 when she first met Johnson, and about 42 when they last saw each other.


She revered Johnson; he was always her friend; and she had nursed him through serious depressions. Still, her book is quite candid; there was something monstrous about him. At first his presence in the house (she calls it her confinement) was “terrifying”, towards the end “irksome”. Boswell tries to canonize him, portraying his prejudiced, bullying and often unintelligent conversation as if it was a dialogue in heaven.


(For the unanswerable unintelligence, see e.g. Johnson’s parody of the line Who rules o’er freemen should himself be free as Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat. There is a coercive pressure to enjoy the hearty laugh, so it seems pompous even now to point out that Johnson completely misses – or probably, chooses to ignore - the point of the original line, which lies open to other criticisms but not that of fatuity.)


She did not see him only at Streatham. In the early years he went with the Thrales to Brighton (“Brighthelmstone”), and later they went on tours, to Wales in 1774 and France in 1775. Johnson, half-blind and half-deaf, had narrowed his interests, however. He liked conversation above all, and liked an endless coach-trip so that he could talk all through it. He never read a book through, and it’s striking in the end how we are forced to take Johnson as he took the world – that is to say, in pages and anecdotes. No other writer wrote so much who wrote less books. Yet it’s important to emphasize that the biographies portray an oldish man for whom many enjoyments have lost their lustre, and who is content to remember the intense and open-hearted engagements of his prime. Hester Piozzi calls her book a “candle-light picture of his latter days”. But in fact it is not at all like a picture. There is no static concentration; it is more like a vivid, animated network.


The book that she wrote up in Florence from her own commonplace books is “the first I ever presented before the Public”. It has no chapters, and proceeds with skilful circuitousness. It does indeed begin with material relating to Johnson’s youth, but this is soon overwhelmed by the voice of Johnson speaking about his youth, and by the author’s own thoughts as she compiles her anecdotes, so that all times and places are present to us at once. Thus it is not until almost half-way through the book that she gets round to describing her first meeting with Johnson, while her account of the break-up of their domestic arrangements does not end it. “Brighthelmstone”, to take one easily-spotted word, appears on pp. 51, 56, 65, 87, 94 and 118, describing all manner of visits and occasions. It thus interweaves with the names of familiar people, books, other places and topics. On almost every page there is an image that conflates time; Johnson commenting on whether something that he wrote years before referred to something years before that... “Some of the old legendary stories put in verse by modern writers provoked him to caricature them thus one day at Streatham...”


If Hester had been a firm believer in rational analysis, her enterprise must have foundered on Johnson’s depressive temperament and the wild contradictions that his friends had to ride – each moment demanding its own codes of conduct. But she knew better. As she writes, she thinks how she may one day lament “the hours I might have profitably passed in the Florentine Gallery, and reflecting on Raphael’s St. John...” Such hours of calm reflection never come, though they are pretended in books; trouble is our element. Johnson thought the same: “A man is seldom in a humour to unlock his book-case, set his desk in order, and betake himself to serious study...” In fact Johnson’s despairing disbelief in “the sheaves of reason / stacked high, matter for self-satisfaction” is a principle of his depressions: “regularly the mind’s works do not mount up”. (These quotations are from John Wain’s fine translation of the Latin poem that Johnson composed after correcting his dictionary; it’s an intense and surprising exploration of his depression.)


Hester’s text is full of contradictions because a depressive person makes his companions live with contradictions, each bit of them real for the time. On p. 122 she writes: “The nice (i.e. finicking, exacting) people found no mercy from Mr. Johnson.. He had no such prejudices himself, and with difficulty forgave them in another...” And then, five pages later: “no accidental position of a ribband escaped him, so nice was his observation, and so rigorous his demands of propriety...” And on the next page, patience finally worn out: “All these exactnesses in a man who was nothing less than exact himself, made him extremely impracticable as an inmate...” Similar contradictions surround his veneration for, or total neglect of, manners (e.g. p.116); and his love of, or rage against, frolics and jest (p. 52). Her words here, of “strange serious rules”, sound naive but are a precise record of experience. 


She can also say (and it was quite true of her experience when Johnson’s mental weather permitted) that “I saw Mr. Johnson in none but a tranquil uniform state”, or write panegyric sentences of his “force of thought and versatility of genius, that comprehensive soul and benevolent heart which attracted and commanded veneration from all...” And why should she not say what she often believed; what Johnson himself often believed? And yet her text spirals giddyingly into “a passion of tears” (p. 22), or “he used to shock me from quitting his company” (p.55), or “Why do you delight (said he) thus to thicken the gloom of misery that surrounds me? is not here sufficient accumulation of horror..?” (p. 124), or Johnson wildly proclaiming “what he could at last persuade no one to believe; and what, if true, would have been so very unfit to reveal” (p. 57).


Johnson was by the way scornful of Goldsmith, among other acquaintances, for being the “frigid narrator of his own disgrace”. This however is not a contradiction; for like other desperate people, Johnson needed to keep an iron bolt on his own passages of misery when they were temporarily quieted. Hester, on the other hand, must have been relieved to throw open that bolt at last. He was dead, and she was right to reject the imputation of treachery. She could now complete her love for him and forget him, as nature intends.






A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now



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