Wednesday

Jun. 11, 2014

Crossing the Bar

by Alfred Tennyson

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

"Crossing the Bar" by Lord Alfred Tennyson. Public Domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the playwright Ben Jonson (books by this author), born on this day in London, probably in 1572. His plays include Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614). A contemporary, friend, and rival of Shakespeare's, Jonson was a heavy drinker and a fighter, no "Gentle Will."

Jonson's father died before he was born, and his stepfather was a bricklayer, so after a good education, young Ben spent some time laying bricks and then went off and joined the army. The story goes that he ran to the front of the lines and challenged a random soldier to single combat, then killed him. He went back to London, where he got work as an actor. Apparently he wasn't a very good actor, but he was a good playwright. In 1597, he co-wrote a play called The Isle of Dogs, which got him in trouble with the government—it was too subversive, and he was thrown in jail for "leude and mutynous behavior." He was let out after a few months, but a year later, he killed a fellow actor named Gabriel Spenscer in a duel. He was arrested and he should have been hanged, but he pulled out a legal defense called "benefit of clergy"—since he could read the Bible in Latin, he got to go in front of a more lenient court, which rarely sentenced well-educated men. Instead, he got another stint in jail, and was branded on his thumb to remind him that he had almost been executed. In 1604, he co-wrote a play called Eastward Ho! that mocked Scotland—since James VI of Scotland had taken over the throne from Elizabeth, making fun of Scotland was not tolerated, and Jonson was once more thrown in jail and informed that his ears and nose would be cut off. This threat never materialized, and when he was released, he hosted a banquet with friends to celebrate yet another narrow escape.

Jonson's plays were more classically inspired than Shakespeare's, less dependent on bawdy jokes and flashy duels. Jonson made plenty of disparaging comments about Shakespeare. He complained that his fellow playwright had "small Latine, and less Greeke." And Jonson was probably alluding to Shakespeare, who did have a tendency to rip off plots from other people, when he wrote:

"Poor Poet-Ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e'en the frippery of wit,
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robb'd, leave rage, and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown
To a little wealth, and credit in the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man's wit his own :
And, told of this, he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish gaping auditor devours ;
He marks not whose 'twas first : and after-times
May judge it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool! as if half eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece?"

Unlike Shakespeare, Jonson was known as a slow, meticulous writer. After Shakespeare's death, Jonson wrote: "I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. [...] I loved the man and do honor his memory on this side of idolatry, as much as any: he was indeed honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions; wherein he flowed with that facility, that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped."

Ben Jonson was famous for his ability to drink—it is said that when he converted from the Catholic Church to the Anglican Church in 1610, he downed the entire chalice of wine during his first communion. His bar of choice was the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside, where he was the ringleader of a group of literary men. There are stories about the great debates and battles of wit that Jonson and Shakespeare had over their pints at the Mermaid, surrounded by the likes John Donne, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Fletcher, Sir Francis Bacon, and Francis Beaumont—but this is probably not true. More likely it was Jonson and some younger literary disciples who were regular patrons. After Jonson's death, the playwright Jasper Mayne wrote an ode, "To the Memory of Ben Jonson," and he wrote: "Such thy drought was, and so great thy thirst, / That all thy Playes were drawne at th' Mermaid first."

It's the birthday of the novelist William Styron (books by this author), born in Newport News, Virginia (1925). He published just eight books during his life — novels, short stories, essays, and a memoir, including Lie Down in Darkness (1951), The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), Sophie's Choice (1979), and Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990). And since his death in 2006, three more books of his have been published. Letters to my Father (2009) is just that, written between 1943 and 1953, and The Suicide Run (2009) is a book of short stories, five fragments of stories about the Marine Corps. Havanas in Camelot (2008) is a series of personal essays.

It's the anniversary of the Broad Street Riot in Boston, on this day in 1837.

It was a hot, humid Sunday afternoon. Fire Engine Company 20 — made up primarily of Protestant "Yankees," descendants of the original English settlers — was coming back from Roxbury, where they had put out a fire. Most of the firemen went to a nearby saloon afterward to have some drinks. When they left the saloon, they started walking down Broad Street toward the fire station and passed a group of about 100 Irish immigrants on their way to join a funeral procession around the corner on Sea Street. Most of the firemen lived in the working-class districts of Boston where ethnic tensions were particularly high, and some of them were suspected of having been involved in the burning of a convent a few years earlier. But still, the two groups almost walked by each other without incident, except that a 19-year-old fireman named George Fay had a few more drinks than his friends, and he either insulted someone or hit someone, and soon the firemen and the Irish were fighting. In no time at all, it turned into a full-scale brawl, and then a riot. Other Yankees, many of them young men, broke into Irish homes, smashing and looting. At least 800 men were fighting in the streets, with plenty more onlookers.

Finally, the mayor of Boston, Samuel Eliot, intervened and sent in about 800 state militia with fixed bayonets to disperse the riot. Eighteen men were prosecuted, 14 of them Irish immigrants, and three of those immigrants were put in prison; the rest of the Irish men and all of the Yankees were let off.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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