Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland: An Annotated Edition of the ‘Foot Voyage’ by James Loxley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I first learned of Ben Jonson from Stuart Kells’s Shakespeare’s Library as a member of the Shakespeare triumvirate, I was piqued by the personal background of this unreconstructed Elizabethan playwright and poet and wanted to know more about him. My search for the intelligence of Jonson then met a devotee of Ben (a Tweeter equivalent of Sons of Ben) in London, England, which led me to the treasure cave piled with Jonson’s writings and the writings about him. Among the treasure is this pleasant travelogue of Jonson’s famous walk from London to Scotland with his unknown companion in 1618.
An energetic vicambulist and a lover of sensory delights of life, Jonson’s journey to Scotland, the land of his birth, on foot seems natural and celebratory of his feisty and adventurous spirit in comparison to his statuesque contemporary men of letters. Be it that his working-class background or unconventional Modus Vivendi, Jonson meets people of all walks of life, ranging from a madwoman to a jovial tinker, and to a scullery maid to the lords of stately houses, like a learned troubadour and interacts with them as such artlessly genial attitudes are also reciprocated with respect in jovial mood. The unknown companion whose identity is open to presumptions is nonetheless a vital witness not only to the authenticity of Jonson’s celebratory foot journey but also to the recognition of his humaneness that gives life to the textual figure of Jonson, bringing the reader close to this literary celebrity in his unvarnished prose narrative. In fact, it is this plainness of account without a platitude of florid language in want of erudition that reveals the person of Jonson and the realistic views on social and cultural landscapes of the Elizabethan era devoid of heavyweight academic stuffiness and intellectual seriousness.
Further to the authorship question, I like to think that Jonson as a producer must have commissioned his apprentice or trusty servant of literacy to write it because (1) the original manuscript called ‘A Discovery’ was burned in the 1623 desk fire; (2) the scrolls of documents presented by the Aldersey Family in Cheshire contains a manuscript entitled “My Gossip (c.f. the term meaning a kin through God) Jonson”; and (3) most of all, the narrative does not possess Jonson’s literary allure and erudition proprietary to his oeuvres. Notwithstanding the dubious authorship, the narrator went, saw, and narrated Jonson’s foot voyage to Scotland, where both were made honorary burgesses, a well-deserved titular trophy for the journey completed.
With respect to the motif of this voyage, I think it was intended to be a literary supplement to his well-heeled subscribers as an entertaining accouterments to their library in an appreciation of their patronage. In this regard, it could also have been a wager journey benefiting from the subscribers in the promise of delight from the travelogue to the seekers of vicarious pleasure as if they were traveling with the famed literary figure of their time.
Contrary to the introduction of the book as an appropriate read for upper-level students of English literature or scholars devoted to Ben Jonson, this book is accessibly enjoyable even to a general reader like myself and recommendable to the initiated and the uninitiated with a promising delight to the mind. Upon finishing my travel with Ben Jonson and his unknown companion, I now see him as an artless man of action with bouts of hearty laughter and a caring heart attentive to his ill servant and a lowest sculler maid in a manor he visited, not as an unapproachable Elizabethan celebrity whose star in in the constellation of universal literati sparkles radiantly in the celestial fresco. His bibliographic tantrums of temper were proverbially formidable, but his humanness wonderfully saturated with his literary feat and artistic talent dominated the vice as readers will see in this travelogue. And I think Jonson will like us readers to think of him that way. Or I like to think that way as a fan.