HE WAS THE MOST COM­PRE­HEN­SIVE POET OF THE AGE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

was, at a zenith of artistry that has never been sur­passed, an oc­ca­sional poet who could pro­duce any va­ri­ety of po­etic gold. Within the con­fines of the lyric or the epis­to­lary form Jon­son is a far more vir­tu­oso poet than Shake­speare: Have you seen but a bright lily grow Be­fore rude hands have touched it? Have you marked but the fall of the snow Be­fore the soil hath smutched it? Have you felt the wool o’ the beaver Or swan’s down ever? Or have smelt o’ the bud o’ the briar? Or the nard i’ the fire? Or have tasted the bag o’ the bee? Oh, so white! Oh, so soft! Oh, so sweet is she

This pas­sage, beloved of Ezra Pound, is em­bed­ded in The Devil is an Ass, the play in which Jon­son has an in­ven­tive ver­sion of a is what Macris sets against the world he ob­serves. Great West­ern High­way’s other half is a love story, a ten­der ac­count of two no longer young peo­ple strug­gling to form a con­nec­tion in a vor­tex. The au­thor asks the ques­tion: ‘‘ What is like to live and love in the time of con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism?’’ And the an­swer is un­cer­tain, but not with­out hope.

Nick is a part-time English lan­guage teacher and a wounded soul. The fail­ure of an ear­lier, new devil coming on­stage. But taken in iso­la­tion the pas­sage has a lu­mi­nous chastity of ar­tic­u­la­tion, an em­bod­ied sen­su­ous­ness that is un­like much else in the lan­guage.

Jon­son, not sur­pris­ingly, pub­lished it in his 1640 col­lec­tion The Un­der­wood as well. If we place it to­gether with his el­egy for his son, ‘‘ Here Ben Jon­son doth lie / his best piece of po­etry’’ (where po­etry means that which was made), or with his An Ode. To Him­self we be­gin to see the sheer majesty of Jon­son’s range. And we be­come aware of the fact we are in the pres­ence of a panoramic po­etic en­cy­clo­pe­dist. Lis­ten to the mor­dancy of the mu­sic in the self­por­trait: Where dost thou care­less lie Buried in ease and sloth? Knowl­edge that sleeps doth die; And this se­cu­rity It is the com­mon moth That eats on wits and arts and oft de­stroys them both And since our dainty age Can­not en­dure re­proof, Make not thy­self a page To that strum­pet the stage, But sing high and aloo Safe from the wolf’s black jaw, and the dull ass’s hoof.

If Shake­speare is the drama­tist who could find the myr­iad voices of the world, each with its bright par­tic­u­lar po­etry, Jon­son has an ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity, con­tin­u­ous at some level with his eru­di­tion (but not lim­ited by it) to find a world of tones and rhythms in the form of the poem.

At his most lyri­cal this can make him seem song-like and slight but it is, in fact, his equiv­a­lent to Shake­speare’s great on­go­ing river of cre­ation and seems to be the rea­son he at­tracted the great mod­erns so much.

Pound quotes him, James Joyce read ev­ery word of him and TS Eliot put him on a pin­na­cle where his art tran­scended psychology. In fact when Eliot said Jon­son’s work lacked ten­tac­u­lar roots, that it did not lead down to the deep­est mem­o­ries and de­sires, he was only half-right — though what he was really iso­lat­ing was the fact Jon­son, un­like Shake­speare or Donne, was not a pro­toro­man­tic. He could find the high­est form of art not in the un­willed mur­mur of the heart but in any­thing he ob­served.

Is that the lim­i­ta­tion as well as the glory that th­ese mag­nif­i­cent vol­umes trace? Not sim­ply. Joyce, for in­stance, seems to have lis­tened to (and been in­flu­enced by) the pu­rity of Jon­son’s ‘‘ ear’’ and the poly­phonic rel­ish we find in the aro­matic shop-soiled mar­ket decade-long re­la­tion­ship has left him drift­ing through a se­ries of dead end jobs and share houses. Travel, books and mu­sic are his cho­sen means of es­cape, but he also evinces a hor­ri­fied fas­ci­na­tion with the un­fold­ing con­flict in the Mid­dle East and its af­ter­math.

When we first meet Nick he has re­cently bro­ken up with Penny, a young woman in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion (share house, ca­sual work at a job cen­tre) but with a woman’s typ­i­cally firmer grasp on life’s re­al­i­ties. The novel de­scribes a day in their life that may or may not lead to a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, an ad­mis­sion that they are gen­uinely in love. It is a nar­ra­tive dolled out in tea­spoons. Ev­ery moment, ev­ery thought, ev­ery glance, ev­ery bank poster and TV com­mer­cial is an­a­lysed along the way with anx­ious scep­ti­cism. The pair are drown­ing in in­for­ma­tion and an ex­cess of sig­ni­fi­ca­tion. Their par­don­able sin is to over­think.

Nick and Penny’s cau­tion is un­der­stand­able. There is no fixed spot for them to take bear­ings, to map out a fu­ture. The cou­ple’s de­cency lies in their shared ap­pre­hen­sion of the du­bi­ous claims the world is mak­ing of them. Yet it is that same re­straint that keeps them from ac­knowl­edg­ing real af­fec­tion. The world has con­spired so suc­cess­fully to prepack­age and chan­nel their pos­si­ble life choices lan­guage of that ut­terly panoramic and mun­dane play — in its way a bit like Ulysses — Bartholomew Fair.

It would be a mar­vel­lous thing if this great edi­tion of Jon­son sent the­atre peo­ple — Neil Arm­field and Ge­of­frey Rush have drunk deep of Jon­son — back to the plays them­selves. It was good to be re­minded that Volpone is the most per­formed play of the El­iz­a­bethanJa­cobean the­atre out­side of Shake­speare and that the gleam­ing vil­lain­ous ti­tle role had been played by Ralph Richard­son, Paul Scofield and Michael Gam­bon.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to let the mind roam over ways th­ese plays might have been cast and staged. Simon Rus­sell Beale did The Al­chemist at Lon­don’s Na­tional The­atre in 2006 but what a pair Richard Bur­ton and Peter O’Toole would have made as Sub­tle and Face, the one the most grandil­o­quent of char­la­tans, the other, his part­ner in crime, quick and dash­ing. I was daz­zled by Cati­line: His Con­spir­acy (1611). You know as you start read­ing it that Jon­son will not be able to re­sist the op­por­tu­nity of re­pro­duc­ing Cicero’s great speech to the Se­nate, ‘‘ Quo usque tan­dem abutere, Catilina, pa­ti­en­tia nos­tra?’’. To­gether with the blood­cur­dling Se­janus, this is one of Jon­son’s two Ro­man plays.

But out­side of Shake­speare no one got so much of the mu­sic and rhetoric of Latin into English. I imag­ine Cati­line as Ni­col Wil­liamson at the height of his pow­ers in the early 1970s, with An­thony Hop­kins as his Cicero. But what a sav­age and mag­nif­i­cent voice Jon­son gives Cati­line: ‘‘ Was I a man bred great as Rome her­self / One formed for all her hon­ours, all her glo­ries, / Equal to all her ti­tles? That could stand / Close up with Atlas, and sus­tain her name / As strong as he doth heaven?’’

It’s not for noth­ing that Co­leridge said The Al­chemist was — with Oedi­pus Rex and Tom Jones — one of the three great plots in the his­tory of the world. His favourite among Jon­son’s come­dies was Epicene, which was writ­ten for a chil­dren’s com­pany and which has one of the great sex­ual sur­prises in the­atre.

Ev­ery­one should read Jon­son. The judg­ment that rightly makes Shake­speare supreme has by ne­ces­sity pro­duced a taste — not ir­ra­tional — for Jon­son’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fer­ent but par­al­lel ge­nius. You can turn from Shake­speare to Jon­son the way you can from Michelan­gelo to Ti­tian: it’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent imag­i­na­tive uni­verse but one of great grandeur. The new Cam­bridge Jon­son is a trea­sure-house. It should be snapped up by ev­ery li­brary wor­thy of the name. — ca­reers, mar­riage, mort­gage, chil­dren — that their only choice is to rebel.

Macris’s in­tel­li­gence shines off his characters. His prose reg­is­ters ev­ery twist and turn of their strug­gle but never set­tles into a naive nat­u­ral­ism of the kind that might re­flect a com­plic­ity with the neatly pack­aged nar­ra­tives con­tem­po­rary pub­lish­ing prefers. This makes the novel dif­fi­cult at times but not opaque. The best sec­tions are in fact the most rad­i­cal, as with the hal­lu­ci­na­tory mono­logue by Thatcher that serves as the novel’s the­sis and hinge.

Great West­ern High­way is not an un­blem­ished success. Macris faces the same prob­lem of David Fos­ter Wal­lace and oth­ers of his gen­er­a­tion: that of draw­ing a world that has be­come too com­plex and too dis­persed to con­tain within the novel form. It does rep­re­sent a brave ef­fort by a tal­ented writer, how­ever: a book that thinks harder about the world and its rep­re­sen­ta­tion than many of the pret­tier, more palat­able fic­tions we cel­e­brate.

This novel marks the de­layed re-emer­gence of a fas­ci­nat­ing and ur­gent writer. Let’s hope the pro­jected third part of Macris’s se­quence doesn’t take so long to ap­pear.

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