Skip to content

“Good Lord, walk dead still.”

April 4, 2010

Ben Jonson (portrait by Abrham van Blyenerch).

XI. On Something That Walks Somewhere

At court I met it, in clothes brave enough,
To be a courtier; and looks grave enough,
To seem a statesman: as I near it came,
It made me a great face; I ask’d the name.
“A Lord, it cried, buried in flesh and blood.
And such from whom let no man hope least good,
For I will do none; and as little ill,
For I will dare none.” Good Lord, walk dead still.

Another fine poem from Ben Jonson‘s 1612 volume Epigrams, modeled in part on Martial‘s great example, and in keeping with the latter as to theme and style: satire, wit, compression, paradox, etc.

Notice first that throughout the poem Jonson uses the neuter pronoun “it.” The impersonal “something” of the title (instead of “someone”) harmonizes with this, as in OED sense 1. a.: “Some unspecified or indeterminate thing (material or immaterial).” Curiously, the OED reports no use of it as a stand-in for a name unknown prior to the 18th century, when we begin to encounter phrases like this: “1764 G. WILLIAMS in Jesse Selwyn & Contemp. I. 295 Lady Something Grey is here. 1779 C’TESS UPPER OSSORY Ibid. IV. 75 Another man has sworn to shoot a Miss Something, n’importe, if she did not run away with him from the Opera.” Yet the OED has it right—I mean, in not fetching in Jonson’s earlier use of the word to denominate a person. The name in question is neither unknown to him nor forgotten. His “something” is clearly pejorative and deployed consistently with the neuter “it” that follows throughout. Jonson neuters his courtier not merely grammatically but in all ways. The “somewhere” of the title must, of course, mean the court. So, why the vagueness? Because the court is an institution whose influence, though located, is ubiquitous? Possibly. Or because the neutered walking dead—such useless men as the one here described—might as well be nowhere, so unspecifiably vague are their distinctions? That seems more likely, though Jonson may simply prefer, for rhetorical reasons, the parallelism that sets “somewhere” against “something.”

Whatever the case, consider the first two and a half lines, which form a single rhetorical/grammatical unit. The line-end commas should not register a pause in reading the poem aloud or silently. Pretty clearly these lines fall out as though enjambed. So I will reprint them again as I hear them said, with vertical lines indicating the slight pauses (or caesuras), which are all medial (i.e., mid-line), not terminal (i.e., line-end). I shall also color-code the parallelisms.

At court I met it | in clothes brave enough
To be a courtier; | and looks grave enough
To seem a statesman.

A kind of genius informs the lines, as to prosody. The lines terminate in repetends, while the “brave”/”grave” internal rhyme harmonizes the first couplet. Jonson makes his distinctions precisely, too, and in ironic parallel: this neutered man “is” a courtier, but merely “seems” a statesman. So neatly parallel are these lines that we feel in them all the paired terms: clothes/looks, brave/grave, be/seem, and, then, well—”enough” is “enough.”

A courtier in his finery: Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, courtier to Elizabeth, patron of the arts, painted from an engraving by J. Brown, 1575.

“Brave” here works in OED sense 2, current in the early 17th century: “Finely-dressed; splendid, showy, grand, fine, handsome. (Rare in 18th c.; in 19th c. apparently a literary revival, or adopted from dialect speech.)” “Grave,” the second of the two internal rhymes, will soon take on, in a punning sort of way, a mortuary connotation: “It made me a great face,” we are told, and Jonson “ask’d the name”: “A Lord, it cried, buried in flesh and blood.” “Lord” is not a name, of course. It’s a title, and a role. As the OED has it, the title meant, in early 17th century usage, a man numbered among “the king’s barons, and at length mostly applied to the greater of these (the Great Barons) who personally attended the Great Council, or, from the time of Henry III, were summoned by writ to Parliament; hence, a lord of Parliament, a noble, a peer” (my emphasis). This guy’s a player, as we now say, or ought to be rather than merely seem to be. “Statesmen” must act, and this one declares himself—”cries” himself—to be “buried in flesh and blood,” and so, one supposes, dead to the world of honor.

Jonson implies—so I suppose—that this courtier is a sensualist, even to the point of decadence. (I have in mind the connotations of corruption that hover around the idea of being buried in “flesh and blood,” which is to say in the body.) Our lord remains at court for that reason only, it would seem. Poets in the 17th century often spoke of the soul as in some sense “buried” in the body, or “imprisoned” in or by it. Andrew Marvell comes immediately to mind, in his “Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body,” where the soul has the first word:

Andrew Marvell (portrait, ca. 1655-1660, artist unknown)

O, WHO shall from this dungeon raise
A soul enslaved so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fettered stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortured, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart?

Hands “manacle” the soul, eyes “blind” it, veins and arteries enchain it. Jonson’s “Lord” declares himself entirely given over to the body. Whether and how this troubles him is not quite clear. He “cries” it out, and freely confesses his own incapacity to act on any other basis, or from any other motives, whether for good or ill. The Pauline scriptures stand behind all of this, of course—I mean, this idea of the body as a a kind of prison-house or burial ground for the soul. Bear in mind Romans 7:18-25 (where “inward man” means, roughly, “soul,” or in any case that which stands opposed to “body,” which is here referred to as the “members”): “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” And so it is with Jonson’s neutered courtier: he is a “Lord” buried in “this body of death,” utterly commandeered by its “members,” though, unlike St. Paul, he hardly looks toward being “delivered.” His cri de couer has about it something of a frustrated aspirational air, as if he’d prefer not to be thus “buried.” But the aspiration, if it is there, cannot be to rise at court in power, as for example men like Francis Bacon did. No, Jonson’s “Good Lord” tells us he will do neither good nor ill: politics isn’t within his timid scope. So the aspiration, if it is there, must be for something like (say) Epicurean moderation, such as might befit, in dignity at least, a man bearing the title “Lord.”

Portrait of Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Alban, by John Vanderbank (ca. 1731), after a portrait by an unknown artist (ca. 1618)

Or perhaps the cry is more indignant (or shamefaced) than aspirational, as who should say, “No one treats me with the dignity a man of the titled nobility deserves. I am trapped here, in this body, with this body, by this body. And everyone knows it. And there’s nothing I can do to remedy the problem. There are no ‘twelve steps’ I can take to overcome it.” Though, for all that, I may be making too much of the fact that Jonson tells us that the good lord “cries” rather than “speaks.” I’ll leave the possibilities open, saying only that to my ear the indication that he carries himself with gravitas (that “grave” look) suggests that he wishes to, but cannot, command respect.

I will address in due course the possibility that Jonson, in speaking of a “Lord” “buried in flesh and blood” alludes ironically to the Incarnation—a queer notion, it may seem, but I will assay it. Because, of course, whatever the implications may be, the language of the poem undoubtedly recalls, or perhaps overlaps with, the language of the English Bible (with its “Lord” brought down into “flesh”). First, though, the rest of the poem.

“A Lord, it cried, buried in flesh and blood.
And such from whom let no man hope least good,
For I will do none; and as little ill,
For I will dare none.” Good Lord, walk dead still.

Parallelism structures these lines, just as it does the opening three: “let no man hope least good”/”and as little ill”; “For I will do none”/”For I will dare none,” etc. Here, the caesuras are—as throughout the poem—for the most part medial, rather than line-end, especially in the terminal couplet. (Couplets had not at this date so formalized as they would be after the Restoration.) This Lord has neither the daring to play the Machiavel, nor the decency and conviction to act, rather than merely seem, a “statesmen.” So, Jonson  takes him at his word. “Buried” as he is in the body, he is like the walking dead: “Good Lord, walk dead still.” I emphasize “still” because it’s better for the court and for England, in Jonson’s view, that such men remain, so to speak, neuter: out of action, though yet at court. Better still, of course, that they remove themselves. But that’s not in the nature of such a lord as this to do. He possesses at least the self-knowledge to know his real vocation, his real calling: to “walk dead,” which here means to inhabit the body merely, and never rise above it. He just can’t help himself. Though he remains a kind of parasite, in all his “brave” finery, and a sensualist (if that’s what the epigram further implies), well, at least he shall do no serious harm. So much the better that he should walk dead still.

But what of the possibility I spoke of already?—that Jonson sets this too-worldly “Lord,” buried in “flesh,” over against that other Lord, who suffered the Incarnation. We should remember that the court wasn’t simply the center of English political power, but of English Christendom, and the King head of state and Church alike. Epigram V, in Jonson’s book, titled “On the Union,” brings the point home:

King James 1, ca. 1606. Portrait by John de Critz, now in the Dulwich Portrait Gallery.

When was there Contract better driven by Fate?
Or celebrated with more Truth of State?
The World the Temple was, the Priest a King,
The spoused Pair two Realms, the Sea the Ring.

The union spoken of is the one effected in 1603 by the so-called Union of the Crowns, which allowed the accession of King James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, unifying Scotland and England into a single state under his new title King James I, and replacing the Tudor dynasty with that of the Stuarts. Here, Jonson sanctifies the union under color of marriage: “The World the Temple was, the Priest a King, / The spoused Pair two Realms, the Sea the Ring.” The idea—perhaps sincerely felt by the one-tine recusant poet Jonson—is that the court is a holy place. Obviously a lord “buried in flesh and blood” defiles it. Whether we are meant to feel that defilement all the more by some ironic allusion to the Incarnation is another matter, and one I should think very much subject to debate. Anyone not wishing to follow it through may as well stop reading here. But if I were to argue for it, as a kind of experiment, the place to start would be the definition of the Incarnation itself. As given here, for example, in the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia:

"Virgin and Child," oil painting, ca. 1480, Carlo Crivelli.

"Virgin and Child," oil painting, ca. 1480, Carlo Crivelli.

“The Incarnation is the mystery and the dogma of the Word made Flesh. ln this technical sense the word incarnation was adopted, during the twelfth century, from the Norman-French, which in turn had taken the word over from the Latin incarnatio. The Latin Fathers, from the fourth century, make common use of the word; so Saints Jerome, Ambrose, Hilary, etc. The Latin incarnatio (in: caro, flesh) corresponds to the Greek sarkosis, or ensarkosis, which words depend on John (1:14) kai ho Logos sarx egeneto, ‘And the Word was made flesh.’ These two terms were in use by the Greek Fathers from the time of St. Irenæus–i.e. according to Harnack, A.D. 181-189 (cf. Irenaeus, ‘Adv. Haer.’ III, 19, n. i.; Migne, VII, 939). The verb sarkousthai, to be made flesh, occurs in the creed of the Council of Nicaea (cf. Denzinger, ‘Enchiridion,’ n. 86). In the language of Holy Writ, flesh means, by synecdoche, human nature or man (cf. Luke 3:6; Romans 3:20). Francisco Suárez deems the choice of the word incarnation to have been very apt. Man is called flesh to emphasize the weaker part of his nature. When the Word is said to have been incarnate, to have been made Flesh, the Divine goodness is better expressed whereby God ’emptied Himself and was found in outward bearing (schemati) like a man’ (Philippians 2:7); He took upon Himself not only the nature of man, a nature capable of suffering and sickness and death, He became like a man in all save only sin (cf. Francisco Suárez, “De Incarnatione”, Praef. n. 5).” Further on in the article devoted to the Incarnation we read this: “The hypostatic union of the divine nature and the human nature of Jesus in the divine person of Jesus Christ. Here we consider this union as a fact; the nature of the union will be later taken up. Now it is our purpose to prove that the Divine nature was really and truly united with the human nature of Jesus, i.e., that one and the same Person Jesus Christ, was God and man. We speak here of no moral union, no union in a figurative sense of the word; but a union that is physical, a union of two substances or natures so as to make One Person, a union which means that God is Man and Man is God in the Person of Jesus Christ.”

A great deal, I concede, to bring to bear on Jonson’s epigram. I reprint it here, as I said I would, simply to show how the language of the poem touches the language commonly used to talk about the Incarnation. “Flesh” exemplifies the weaker part of our nature—that which, in fact, alienates the believer from God, as the Pauline scriptures already quoted tell us. To encounter, at a court sanctified as Jonson sanctifies it in his epigram on the Union of the Crowns;—to encounter at such a court as this a “Lord” “buried in flesh and blood” is to encounter something of a walking, crying blasphemy, a man impossibly far from answering his higher vocation. If any further ironies than those already outlined above are at work in the poem, I suppose we may find them here.

One note further, as to the matter of a “Good Lord” “walking dead.” Something tingles me into wondering whether there may be some oblique reference, here, to a well-known passage in Luke 24:13-31. Two disciples of the Lord crucified in the flesh, dead in the flesh, and risen in the Spirit, sense His presence “walking dead” (so to speak) alongside them on the road to Emmaus, engage him in conversation, but do not recognize Him until He breaks bread, as at the Last Supper—whereupon he vanishes:

Rembrandt, "I pellegrini di Emmaus" (The Emmaus Pilgrims), 1628-29. Louvre, Paris.

“And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass therein these days? And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre; And when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not. Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.”

I think this rather unlikely as yet another ironic context for the two most salient lines in Jonson’s epigram: “A Lord, it cried, buried in flesh and blood,” and “Good Lord, walk dead still.” And yet, as I say, something tingles me into at least a thought experiment along these lines, if only because Jonson has invited us to think of the court in the language of sanctity: “The World the Temple was, the Priest a King, / The spoused Pair two Realms, the Sea the Ring.” How foul a thing, then, to find that court populated with a “Lord” such as the one Jonson encounters in the epigram I’ve been reading, dominated, as he is, by what St. Paul contemptuously calls his “members”—and to that extent alienated from the “Lord” in propria persona. Jonson’s “Lord” expects no resurrection from the “flesh” in which he is already “buried” alive.

Anyhow, say that this has been a small study in how to delimit the allowable contexts for the language of any given poem. Because (pace Derrida) every poem has its limits—somewhere. Those for “On Something That Walks Somewhere” remain for me rather hazy.

A copy of Jonson's "Works" once held by the U.S. War Department in the late 19th century.

N.B. For an interview (video) with scholar David Bevington, who is currently at work a new edition of Jonson, which will include a digital on-line counterpart, click here. For other entries within The Era of Casual Fridays having to do with Jonson’s Epigrams, click here. For the text of the book in its entirety, click here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 4, 2010 2:42 PM

    I enjoyed this essay on one of my favorites. I think I love the poem because of its great Negative Capability. There are so many ways to read this poem. I like that it could be read as an allegory. And there are elements that point that direction, since Jonson doesn’t actually say the subject is a courtier or statesman. Those are likenings. You’re right to highlight that caveat as you do.

    If one is going to read the poem as an allegory, Jonson could be addressing language itself. For language behaves very much in the way he shows us this (ridiculously diplomatic personage?) is acting.

    And what is more likely to “walk dead still” than language. A poem (or any language) committed to the page won’t budge one millimeter. Centuries fly over its head. But the poem continues to “walk,” in the interpretations people will give it. The poem “has legs.” And is quite habile at “walk(ing) dead still.”

    Both poems and courtiers tend to develop a finesse in flattering every interlocutor, by reflecting their interlocutor’s mind.

    In this reading, the close of the poem indicts language for not truly ever equalling action. Language quickly absents itself like a milquetoast courtier when we look around us, panicked, for the rationale of our actions.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: