Seeliest ignorance

"In that last video, the third part of our interview with Alexander Waugh, Waugh mentioned that Ben Jonson, and somebody else, were accused of "raping Shakespeare's name". This is an interesting nugget, so you might want to know a little more about it. An epigram called ‘Upon Ben Jonson and his Zany, Tom Randolph."

Alexander Waugh is the most entertaining of the doubters. What makes him such a thrill to listen to is that he can talk coherently and humorously and for long, uninterrupted periods of time. Like most doubters, however, he isn't always the quickest at spotting contradictions when displaying arrays of what he calls evidence. His case (and every other doubter's) rests on being able to demonstrate that rather than paying tribute to a lifelong friend and colleague, Jonson is revealing the key to a conspiracy to hide the true author of the work. Waugh's right hand engages in Shakespearean character assassination while the left does the opposite for Jonson, portraying him as the insightful genius, too clever to ever mean exactly what he says.

The fact that Jonson's praise of Shakespeare begins on line 17, following negative content, is ably explained by Richard Dutton in Ben Jonson: To the First Folio. In fact, this was a convention employed by Jonson on a number of other occasions in various inductions, dedications and epigrams in praise of his contemporaries. As Dutton says, a characteristic manifestation of Jonson's appeal to 'knowledge' is the prominence that Jonson "accords to 'negative' principles, coupled with recurrent examples of 'comparative' judgments rather than absolute ones." According to Dutton, two of the best examples of this are Jonson's elegy to Shakespeare and 'To Penshurst', with the elegy beginning, "To draw no envy (Shakespeare) on thy name, Am I thus ample to thy book and fame...and continuing unremittingly for sixteen lines before turning triumphantly ('I, therefore, will begin. Soul of the age...') to Shakespeare's positive achievements." [Dutton, p. 81].

Dutton continues: "This is partly, of course, a matter of verbal shading, darkness to emphasize the light that follows, but the bluntness and prominence of it point to the fact that it goes deeper than this; Jonson is insisting on an uncompromising principle of comparison, an assertion that there are truth and untruth, good standards and bad - and that the reader must 'know' the difference." Jonson "will not allow himself to be carried away by fulsome flattery but will weigh and judge the words and their appropriateness. It is to emphasize this care and discrimination in his praise that Jonson so often uses comparatives when others might have used superlatives." [Dutton, p. 81].

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand'st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy'st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;
Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,

"Seeliest Ignorance"

Nat WhilkWeek 4 · 22 days ago · Edited

Barber invites us to believe that in Jonson's eulogy, "eccho's" (as in "eccho's right") is a possessive noun, or perhaps a contraction. She wants us to think that "in Greek mythology, Echo was cursed so that she couldn't speak for herself." She paused for a reply, and invited us to "to test your interpretation in the discussion thread." So here's mine:

Unquestionably "eccho's" is a verb: that's the only the construction that the grammar will admit. Look at the parallels. Ignorance sounds, echoes; Affection gropes; Malice might pretend. "When it sounds at best, [it] but eccho's right" says that ignorant praise is mere empty repetition.

By the way, that usage of "echo" first appeared in Othello:


Othello: What doest thou thinke?
Iago: Thinke my Lord?
Othello: Thinke my Lord? By heauen he ecchoes me.

You cannot make "eccho's" a noun without breaking the sentence irreparably.

As for your concern about spelling, oh dear. You ask "but would the ultra-finicky Jonson really make so basic an error as a wrongly-placed apostrophe in this important, rather grandiose poem?" The answer is, it wasn't yet an error. "Eccho's" as a plural of both noun and verb appears nearly 500 times in EEBO, in books by Drayton, Dekker, Heywood, Peacham, Leonard Digges, Bacon, Massinger, and many others. Even Milton writes "With thousand echo's still prolongs each heav'nly close." Jonson himself uses it twice more, in the masques ("two Eccho's, rising out of the Fountaines") and in Epicoene ("Good eccho's, forbeare"). I am puzzled that you would make so basic an error as expecting 19th-century orthography in early modern English.


Seeking to defend Barber's spin on the eulogy, a poster criticised Nat's contribution above for concentrating on just the one flaw. This turned out to be a bad idea. Throw down a gage like that and we will always pick it up at Oxfraud.

Elke Brackmann is aggrieved that I "only focus on the echo-example and leave out all the rest."

Here's some of the rest.

While I confesse thy writings to be such,

As neither Man, nor Muse can praise too much.

Barber: “they cannot be praised too much, even by the Muse, one of the Greek goddesses of inspiration.”

If she is speaking of one of the nine Muses, she ought to write “a Muse.” One can say “the Muse of poetry” or “one of the Muses” or “Jonson’s Muse”; but “the Muse” has a particular meaning: “the inspiration of poetry or song, invoked as if being the only Muse” (OED). To call the Muse one of the Nine is an error in arithmetic and poetics.

Jonson is a persnickety grammarian. He uses no article at all, but says “neither Man, nor Muse can praise too much.” Note the italics, which make these nouns concepts or ideas. The indefinite “Man,” without an article, means “any man”; in the negative, it means “no Man.” Jonson is saying “No Man nor any Muse can overpraise these works.” They are beyond all praise, earthly or supernatural.

I am being equally persnickety here, but if Barber is going to set herself up as Jonson’s explicator, she had better mind her Ps and Qs.

’Tis true, and all men’s suffrage

Barber: “‘Suffrage’, ... here probably means 'an opinion in favour of a person or thing'. Jonson had used the word in that sense in his play The Alchemist.”

“Suffrage” is an important word to Jonson, often linked with “common.” He distrusts the vox populi. That line from The Alchemist reads: “If it were put to the question of theirs, and mine, the worse would finde more suffrages: because the most fauour common errors.” In other words, the popular vote is for the worst option.

In Timbers: Suffrages in Parliament are numbred, not weigh'd: nor can it bee otherwise in those publike Councels, where nothing is so unequall, as the equality: for there, how odde soever mens braines, or wisdomes are, their power is alwayes even, and the same.” A fool’s vote counts as much as a wise man’s.

“Nay, if it were put to the question of the Water-rimers workes, against Spencers; I doubt not, but they would find more Suffrages; because the most favour common vices, out of a Prerogative the vulgar have, to lose their judgements, and like that which is naught.” Put it to the vote, and John Taylor’s doggerel would win over Spenser’s exquisite poetry.

And in the Induction to Bartholomew Fayre, the Stage-Keeper tells the audience, that since you’ve already paid, if “you will now adde the other part of suffrage, your hands, The Play shall presently begin.” Remember his Sejanus was hissed off the stage. He’s daring the groundlings to vote him off the island, one more time.

In his bitter experience, his well-made work is unpopular, and he keeps gnawing on that bone.

So when he says “’Tis true, and all men’s suffrage,” it comes as something of a shock to him: a paradox. Wait, how can something be true and commonly agreed? It goes against all his beliefs. He then proceeds to enumerate how the voters are right for the wrong reasons, and he is right for the right reasons.

Barber: “But no doubt he is also aware of the echo of 'suffering' -

No doubt in whose mind? Barber is hearing what she wants to hear in Jonson’s words, remaking them to fit her confirmation bias. He must have written what she wants to read.

As an excellent Latinist, Jonson would know that suffrage derives from suffragium (in the plural, suffragia), which according to Lewis & Short is “a voting tablet, a ballot ... a vote, voice, suffrage ... a decision, judgment, opinion.” Thomas Elyot (1538) defines it as “the voyce of people assemblyd in gyuyng their consent.” Indeed, Jonson gives Every Man Out the Horatian epigraph: “Non ego ventosae plebis suffragia venor.” ("I do not hunt for the changeable votes (or approval) of the common people"). The mob doesn’t like it? Tough.

Nothing to do with suffering torments. The word appears to derive from suffrago, the hock bone of the hinder leg of a quadruped, and (it is conjectured), also a potsherd, cast into a jar as a ballot.

Barber: “so while Shakespeare's brilliance is ‘all men's opinion’, that is also something to be suffered, just a little bit.”

Suffered by whom? The phrase is “all men’s suffrage.” If Barber is trying clumsily to say that Jonson felt pangs of envy, well, he did. But he is not “all men,” and takes considerable trouble to distinguish himself from the herd. Now if he'd actually said, "all men's suffrage and my suffering," she might have a point. Barber uses “beautifully muddy” as praise, so apparently she finds her own misapprehensions pleasing. But Jonson’s poem is tough—knotty, crabbed, complex—not muddy. He is not the sort of woozy poet who would muddle “suffrage” with “suffering.” That’s closer to a malapropism than a pun.

And what’s this “just a little bit”? Weasel words. Just a little bit pregnant. Just a little bit stabbed through the eye. Jonson was immensely envious, and has to wrestle that down before he begins to praise. His admiration is equally immense. For seeliest Ignorance on these may light, Barber: “The spelling [of “seeliest”] with a double-E allows us to associate it...” “Us”? Not this reader. Barber: “... with the verb 'to seel' ... which means, in practical terms, to close the eyes of (a hawk or other bird) by stitching up the eyelids ... Which was used figuratively in the sense of 'closing someone's eyes to something, to prevent them from seeing, to hoodwink them’.” For Ben Jonson, “seeling” was what’s overhead indoors: he consistently spelled “ceiling” that way, five times. As for closing up eyes, I can find only three related references in Jonson. There’s one in the quarto Every Man In His Humour: “When leaden sleepe seales vp the dragons eyes.” And two in Catiline: “Both eyes, and beake seal'd vp” and “Are your eyes yet vnseel’d?” He does use the double-e spelling once out of three times, but prefers ea, and associates the word with lead seals, not stitches. You can’t stitch a beak! Unlike Shakespeare, the city-boy Jonson may have had no practical knowledge of falconry. His eager upstart in the folio version of that play says, “I haue bought me a hawke, and bels and all; I lacke nothing but a booke to keepe it by.” I don’t think Jonson had read that book. Barber: “So when Jonson says ‘seeliest Ignorance on these may light’ he may be hinting not only that some readers of Shakespeare may be ignorant, but that they may have been hoodwinked in some way.” This is desperately far-fetched. If Jonson had wanted to say that Ignorance is blind—which is trite—he would have said so, and not tried to cram a verb into an unrelated superlative adjective. “Blindest” would have done just fine. Or “hoodwinked,” if you like. Instead, his metaphor is of vacuity. Ignorance, he says, is like a cave: it echoes back what’s said to it, unwitting what it means. For seeliest Ignorance on these may light Which, when it sounds at best, but eccho’s right;

none of the stuff about grain dealing, play brokering and making money has any objective relevance to the authorship question. Will of Stratford was a good business man - he also was an excellent playwright.


Joan GreenleafOxfraud

The fact that I don't think Shakespeare is the only hand in the Works doesn't mean that I see his contribution to them as in any way inferior to or more dubious than those of other contributors.


Toni PrinceCourse participant

What is the anomaly? There is no letter 'M', which you can easily verify. In modern English M has a frequency of 2.4% so in this sample of 272 letters between 6 and 7 occurrences would be expected. Even if we allow for the fact this is not prose and English is not static the discrepancy is striking. Is this simply chance? Yes, it could be. If it is not chance then who is M whose missing portrait is replaced by the poem with the missing letter?


Carol PaxtonCourse participant

Carol Paxton's cautiously expressed the suggestion that Jonson's opening 272 characters suspiciously contained no letter "m". She thought it might pointed to Marston as the alternative author This is exemplary doubter technique. Anything at all will do when it comes to pointing the Jonson eulogy at someone other than the man for whom it was written. It gave us the opportunity to demonstrate, again, the very shaky relationship between what doubters believe to be likely and the stratospherically long odds that result when their propositions are examined more closely.

Surely, Carol argues, since 2.4% of characters are "m"s, there should be 6 or 7? An anomaly, therefore. She even offers Poisson distribution in support. Anthony Munday then notices that "y" is also missing. "M" and now "y". Could this point instead to the playwright honoured in his own pseudonym?

Though it might look superficially plausible to some, it's not how probability works. Probability doesn't have a great deal to say about single character strings. It's true that in an ideal sample there should be 6 or 7 instances. Conclusions, however, cannot be derived just because something appears to be missing on a single page. 272 character passages without the letter "m" are, it turns out, like a day in February without rain. Unremarkable.

There's a whole scene in Henry V which has no letter "y", one of the five letters in the play's title. There are almost 1000 sequences of 50 words in Shakespeare which have no letter "m". There are sequences of 272 WORDS which have no letter "m" in Will's work. And there are over 200 "m"less sequences of 272 characters to choose from. These are rough results. We could write a better script or assemble a computer file with all of Jonson's work, but we have the necessary data file for Shakespeare and would not expect much difference in the results. This is not a topic which merits serious investigation.

Attributing significance to the insignificant is the business of the anti-Shakespearean. Arranging collections of suggestive nuggets in curiosity-inducing albums is the Art of the Doubter. But the activity doesn't damage the case for Shakespeare. And in examining anti-Shakespearean method, the learning opportunities lie entirely in the study of how irrational people think.



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