Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.
I’ve always enjoyed dipping into Ben Jonson’s epigrams, of which the following, “On Court-worm,” is a fine and wicked example. It leads us into interesting enough territory to merit notice here. In the epigrams, Jonson is nothing if not our contemporary.
XV. On Court-worm.
All men are worms; but this no man. In silk
‘Twas brought to court first wrapt, and white as milk;
Where, afterwards, it grew a butterfly.
Which was a caterpillar: so ’twill die.
First, bear in mind that in Jonson’s day “worm” and “caterpillar” were quasi-synonyms, at least in certain contexts. As, for example, in O.E.D. sense 5. a.: “The larva of an insect; a maggot, grub, or caterpillar, esp. one that feeds on and destroys flesh, fruit, leaves, cereals, textile fabrics, and the like. Also collect. the worm, as a destructive pest.” Doubtless Jonson has these invidious connotations in mind, in this deft satire of a certain sort of courtier. He had also in mind this sense of “butterfly,” current in the 17th century (again I turn to the O.E.D.): “2. fig. a. A vain, gaudily attired person (e.g. a courtier who flutters about the court); a light-headed, inconstant person; a giddy trifler.” But the wit of the epigram has to do with the integrity of the metaphor underlying it, from beginning to end.
Of course, it was proverbial that men were “worms,” or at any rate “food for them.” In fact, to call a man a “worm” in the 16th century and early 17th century was simply to say that he was “mortal,” as in O.E.D. sense 6c: “worm’s or worms’ meat, said of a man’s dead body, or of man as mortal.” Hamlet has the best lines as to this, of course, in 4.iii:
Enter Hamlet and Guildenstern [with Attendants].
Claudius. Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
Hamlet. At supper.
Claudius. At supper? Where?
Hamlet. Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.
Claudius. Alas, alas!
Hamlet. A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
Claudius. What dost thou mean by this?
Hamlet. Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.
In any case, Jonson’s point is clear: his courtier is, as are we all, a “worm,” but at the same time not, as most all of us are, also a “man” (in the sense of “mankind”). He is, in fact, an “it.” That said, almost certainly there is some invidious impeachment of the courtier’s “butterfly” femininity, as Jonson sees it. That sort of insinuation was common enough at the time, in the language Jonson uses. Another Shakespearean example, this time from Coriolanus. Here, Coriolanus speaks after his great victory at Corioli (which earned him his epithet). He has just fought the Volscians off, single-handed, while locked inside the city gates:
When drums and trumpets shall
I’ th’ field prove flatterers, let courts and cities be
Made all of false fac’d soothing. When steel grows
Soft as the parasite’s silk, let him be made
An overture for th’ wars.
The “parasite” spoken of here is the courtier, the courtly politician; he subsists on the blood of real men, on the blood of warriors, having so little of it in himself. The metaphor Coriolanus deploys is peculiarly rich: “When steel grows soft as the parasite’s silk.” One thinks of rigor, and then, opposed to it, not only of silk, but perhaps (and a little phallically) also of silkworms; the insect suggestion of “parasite” may help the figure along, though that notion seems unlikely. One also thinks, here, of Timon of Athens: “You knot of Mouth-Friends. . . Most smiling, smooth, detested Parasites” (III.vi). In any case, the figure in Coriolanus’s speech is of a rigid blade giving way to a kind of invertebrate laxity and limpness. The metaphor is (latently) a metaphor of detumescence, which is but another way of imagining the turn from “active” warrior to “passive” court politician (or, in a patriarchal vocabulary, from “masculine” to “feminine”).
But let’s consider William Gifford‘s commentary on epigram XI, from his 1816 eight-volume edition of the works of Jonson: “[Alexander] Pope had this epigram in his thoughts when he wrote his Epistle to Arbuthnot,” Gifford suggests, with no small measure of plausibility. I reprint here the passage in question:
Let Sporus tremble—”What? that thing of silk,
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass’s milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?”
Yet let me flap this Bug with gilded wings,
This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings;
Whose Buzz the Witty and the Fair annoys,
Yet Wit ne’er tastes, and Beauty ne’er enjoys,
So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the Game they dare not bite.
Gifford argues that Pope “has confounded the metaphor, which is presented by Jonson with equal accuracy and beauty.” I should perhaps add that, according to Pope scholar Jack Lynch, “Sporus was a favorite and lover of the emperor Nero. Pope uses the name for Lord Hervey (pronounced Harvey), a former friend of Pope, who was rumored to be bisexual.” Lynch further points out that “painted,” in the lines just quoted, refers to the fact that Hervey was “very pale-skinned” and “wore rouge”—that is, cosmetics.
Whatever the case, Gifford is certainly correct. Pope does “confound” the metaphor, bringing in instruments of torture (the “wheel”); insects that, unlike butterflies, both “stink” and “bite”; and cowardly “spaniels” who “mumble of the game they dare not bite,” and so on. Jonson, by contrast, handles the metaphor with perfect integrity. As I’ve said, this “Court-worm” is a “worm,” as are we all. But he is also, unlike most of us—or perhaps unlike most men—“not a man,” or not “mankind,” or not “manly.” How you construe that depends on how invidiously “gendered” you consider the accusations made in the epigram to be. The question falls either way, though, for what it is worth, I think the epigram does imply a gendered sort of slander. Anyway, we follow our court-worm from his cocooned larval stage, when “in silk” he was “brought to court” wrapped “white as milk,” on through his pupal metamorphosis into a fully fledged “butterfly”; which, since Jonson seems to subscribe to the popular idea that butterflies are short-lived, will quickly die—only to become food for other “court-worms” such as himself. That last point simply goes without saying: from court-worm to court-butterfly to court-worm to court-butterfly to, finally, the worm. That’s the circuit.
Anyhow, the argument could not be clearer and cleaner: the court both corrupts, and is rank with corruption. Of course, this idea occurs everywhere in Renaissance writing (as the examples from Coriolanus and Timon of Athens suggest, not to mention the poetry of Sir Walter Raleigh, god bless him); it was highly conventional. What’s not conventional is to express this commonplace as well as Jonson does in epigram XI. Enter the court, and you are “dead” to humanity. And if you’ve seen one court, you’ve seen them all: sic semper politics.
If only a certain Court-worm called Dick Cheney would—together with the Corn Lobby, Halliburton, Joe Lieberman, John Ensign and The Family, Goldman Sachs, the Filibuster, et al—heed Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction and “exit [stage right] pursued by a bear” into some mythical “Bohemia, a desert country near the sea.”
N.B. For a link to a site reprinting Jonson’s epigrams, click here. For another entry in The Era of Casual Fridays on the epigrams, click here. For an essay in the College Hill Review, by yours truly, on Coriolanus, which takes up the question of gender, click here.