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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.1 (2000) 103-122
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Liberty and History in Jonson's Invitation to Supper
To night, graue sir, both my poore house, and I
Doe equally desire your companie.
In Epigram 101, Ben Jonson invites a friend to supper. 1 The location of the supper is not given, the date is unknown, and the friend is unnamed. Probability favors the place as Jonson's house in St. Anne's, Blackfriars, and a date sometime before 1613. 2 Of more import is the identity of the friend. That the schedule for the evening includes readings from historians makes it plausible, if no more, that the grave guest should have been a historian. Jonson's old master at Westminster, William Camden ("Than thee the Age sees not that thing more graue") or, of an age with Camden, the translator of Tacitus, Sir Henry Savile ("grave, and truly letter'd"), are likely candidates. 3 One is as likely as the other. Both appear elsewhere in the Epigrams in poems which are explicitly celebrations of history, "(t)hat dares not write things false, nor hide things true." 4 They are allowed a public face there and addressed by name--appropriately in a collection where only villains are regularly deprived of their names. In Epigram 101, a poem seemingly preoccupied with frankness, the friend remains anonymous and the villains are named. But this is a poem occupied also, and more crucially, with bad faith; and whoever is celebrated here is made secure from it by the poem's reticence.
The poem may indeed be one of Jonson's "masterpieces on generalized situations" and it may be that there is no real dinner; it may even be so that the anonymity of the guest allows readers to suppose themselves the "grave" invited ones. 5 There are, however, oddities of tone in Jonson's invitation which suggest a motive or an occasion, which, even if not properly specifiable at this distance, would have been specifiable by the properly [End Page 103] invited guest. The poem's oddities relate most obviously to its conclusion. But the very fact that the poem seems to be constituted by the details of the menu--so matter-of-factly offered, so apparently uninterfered with--is an oddity. The poem's reticence about what is going on, its being overtaken by an accumulation of named foodstuffs, is unprecedented in English. At least it is unprecedented outside satirical fantasy. Its affinities are almost with such more familiar mock menus as Volpone's wooing Celia with "The heads of parrats, tongues of nightingales, / The braines of peacoks, and of estriches," or Sir Epicure Mammon wooing Doll Common with "mullets, / Sous'd in high-countrey wines . . . phesants egges . . . cockles, boild in siluer shells." 6 But the specificities of "Inviting a Friend to Supper" suggest something graver. The "(b)ig fatt man, that spake in ryme" and who deplored meatless hospitality might have written a celebration of eating; but he has not. 7 No one has any difficulty in agreeing with Thomas Greene that the poem's "real subject" has nothing to do with the accumulation of dishes. 8 For a start, it celebrates only an imaginary excess. While no one counts any costs, Jonson is surely not taking on himself the role of the bounteous host. The menu, which half-promises so much, qualifies its own extravagance with labored documentary honesty.
Jonson's poem has a gravity appropriate to the "grave sir" he invites. Wesley Trimpi invites us to hear in the poem "the flexible control of a potentially swift movement" and Ian Donaldson has to repunctuate it so as to liberate its "intimate liveliness." It is "swift" and "intimate" as invitations to enjoy oneself might be, "happy, familiar, unmisgiving" as Leigh Hunt judged the passage about wine (lines 30-2) actually to be. 9 But it is these things only potentially. Most readers enjoy the poem's easiness of manner. But why, however flexibly, does Jonson impose the...