Sunday, August 22, 2010

`Stand for Truth, and 'Tis Enough'

“Many writers perplex their readers, and hearers with mere nonsense. Their writings need sunshine. Pure and neat language I love, yet plain and customary. A barbarous phrase hath often made me out of love with a good sense; and doubtful writing hath racked me beyond my patience.”

So writes Ben Jonson in Timber: or Discoveries, a commonplace book and gathering of aphorisms and meditations distilled from vast reading and published in 1641, four years after the poet's death. I’m rereading it in George Parfitt’s edition of The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, 1988). Jonson is deemed the arch-classicist among English poets – a judgment not always intended as praise – and Timber is a densely wooded forest of quotations, mostly Greek and Roman, we can read as a proto-blog of the better sort. Parfitt translates Jonson’s prefatory note, “Sylva,” from the Latin:

“The fundamental material of facts and ideas, the wood – so to speak – and called so as a result of the variety and multifarious nature of the contents. Exactly as we call a great number of trees growing at random `a wood,’ so the ancients use the word `wood’ or `timber-trees’ for those writings of theirs which had in them material on a range and diversity of things collected at random.”

Not quite “at random,” at least in Jonson’s case. His reading was athletic in its exertions and his literary taste was almost flawless. In the first three pages of Timber, Parfitt glosses citations from Seneca, Plutarch, Tacitus, Juvenal, Euripides and Quintilian. Jonson’s prose recalls Montaigne’s and Burton’s in its learning but is more concise, less baroquely discursive. Like his poetry, his prose is a model of compactness and common sense. For readers suspicious of reliance on the wisdom of the ancients and deferral to tradition, Parfitt has an explanation:

“The basically derivative nature of the work is admitted in the prefatory note: he takes material from others which interests him or which expresses views with which he agrees, adding his own comments and illustrations whenever he wishes. The process is not unlike that found in the poems and it should be remembered that borrowing can be as selective and personally revealing an activity as invention.”

No writer, regardless of pertinent biology, practices autogamy. Guy Davenport taught me that every book is a response, a creative echo, acknowledged or otherwise, to at least one other book. Every sentence is half a dialogue. Beware of pretensions to originality. Don’t make it new; make it excellent. Jonson writes in Timber:

“I do not desire to be equal to those that went before; but to have my reason examined with theirs, and so much faith to be given them, or me, as those shall evict. I am neither author, or fautor [patron, one who gives support] of any sect. I will have no man addict himself to me; but if I have anything right, defend it as truth’s, not mine (save as it conduceth to a common good). It profits not me to have any man fence, or fight for me, to flourish, or take a side. Stand for truth, and ‘tis enough.”

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