HE WAS THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE POET OF THE AGE
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.