University of Virginia Library


Before showing the relationship between these three manuscripts and Herbert, it is appropriate to give another example, both of Jonson's use of Italian paper and, more importantly, of Simpson's mis-description of manuscript material. The example is Jonson's letter to Sir Robert Cotton in British Library Cotton MS. Julius C. III, reproduced by Greg as Jonson's last surviving manuscript in English Literary Autographs.[25] The manuscript is in a collection of letters to Sir Robert Cotton, with no letter written later than 1629. The volume was at one time arranged in approximate chronological order with Jonson's letter bound in at f. 62.[26] It was subsequently broken up and re-arranged in alphabetical order with Jonson's letter placed at f. 222. Because the original binding has been destroyed, it is impossible to tell whether the letter was inserted at a later date, or indeed to determine when the volume was originally bound—which is why it is dangerous to modify the physical structure of historical documents. There are, in fact, errors in the original placement of undated letters—one from Donne to Cotton was, for instance, written in 1610, not 1614—but someone had made a fairly serious attempt to get the order approximately right. The confusion that the British Library introduced, however, by re-ordering the letters allowed Simpson to redate the letter without further comment.

When the Cotton Catalogue was first prepared, Joseph Planta (the librarian concerned) did not recognise Jonson's hand and thought the letter had been written by someone called 'Bell'. This is significant because it shows that there was no reason for Planta to have placed the letter out of order on the basis of a mistaken inference. The overwhelming probability must, therefore, remain that the Cotton Catalogue records the placement of the letter at an earlier date by someone with a sense of its position in the chronological sequence. It was Simpson who discovered that 'Bell' was 'Ben'. The letter is slightly cryptic.

Sr, as seriously, as a man but fayntly returning to his despayr'd health,
can; I salute you. And by these few lines request you,
that you would by this bearer, lend me some booke, that would
determinately satisfy mee, of the true site [of canceled] & distance
betwixt Bauli, [and canceled; next word interlined with caret] or portus Baiarñ,
and Villa Augusta into wch (if I erre not) runnes Lacus lucrinus.
They are neere by my historicall ayme to Cumæ Chalcidensium
Misenñ , Avernus. in Campania./
Good Sr adde this to many other Courtesies you haue done mee
that though I chance to suruiue now, I may herafter dye
more in yor Debt./


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The Booke shall be returned this night
wthout excuse./

Your infirme
BEN. now./

In and of itself, all this undated letter reveals is that Jonson had been seriously ill, that he wished to borrow a book, and that he was concerned about the geography of Campania and 'the true site & distance betwixt Bauli, ... and Villa Augusta'. In the Catalogue, the letter was placed with other undated material after the letters written in 1609 and thus 'c.1609?' is the pencilled note on the stub in the binding. More generally, this group of material might represent letters that were thought by whoever gathered them to have been written during the first decade of the seventeenth century. Simpson, however, concluded that the letter must have been slipped in later and that it was written towards the end of Jonson's life. He assumed that as Jonson was 'a man but fayntly returning to his despayred health' and signed himself 'Your infirme | BEN. now.', these were the rather desperate laments of an aged sick man who might 'herafter dye more in yor Debt'. In the Oxford edition, he placed the letter after the one to Newcastle on 20 December 1631 and described the letter as 'written in [Jonson's] latest years after the attack of palsy'.[27] He did not mention that there might be a problem with date or infer doubt as to its place in the historical sequence. The next step was taken by Greg, who realised that Cotton's library had been closed by royal order in 1629 and that Cotton had died in May 1631.[28] Access was not permitted to the Cottonian library again till after Sir Robert's death. Greg therefore redated the manuscript c.1635 and assumed that rather than being written to Sir Robert, it had been written to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton.

Yet if Sir Thomas Cotton had inserted the letter in the volume, the chances are that (like the Desmond Ode in the Christ Church Salusbury Manuscript) it would have been gathered with other papers that had been inserted out of order in the same place.[29] The surrounding letters were written by Sir Anthony Mildmay (who died in 1617), Sir Humphrey Winch (d. 1625), John Holles, later Earl of Clare (d. 1637) and Sir John Harington (d. 1612). The likelihood of Jonson's letter being inserted randomly in the wrong place with this other material at a later date must be viewed as improbable. Instead of Simpson's interpretation, what seems more likely is that Jonson meant, with wry humour, that he was recovering—he was 'infirme', no longer seriously ill.

The codicological evidence that this letter was written earlier rather than later in Jonson's life is corroborated by the paper and handwriting. The strongly cursive hand (which shows no sign of palsy) is also to be found in Jonson's copy of Selden's De Dijs Syris (London, 1617: figure 3), but it is unlike the marginalia found in books from his library printed towards the end


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FIGURE 3. John Selden, De Dijs Syris, London, 1617. Shelfmark STC 22167.2, front flyleaf. With the permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.

[Description: handwritten note on flyleaf]
of his life (i.e. those in which the evidence for his later hand is unquestionable), or his inscription in one of the Folger copies of Camden's Annales, written after 1627, but almost certainly in the 1630s (figure 4). Similarly, the watermark (though cropped) is clearly the double pennant flag with the initials 'G3' (figure 5). The principal difference between the watermarks found in the 1609 manuscripts and this one is that the bottom of the flagpole of the Cotton Manuscript has a double base and the initials are more distant from the flag. As has been shown, this is not surprising as there were literally dozens of variant marks and moulds. In fact, it is exactly the same watermark as that in Robert Cecil's letter to Sir John Peyton in March 1603 about Queen Elizabeth's final sickness.[30]

The disparity of thirty years between the date assigned by Simpson and Greg and the watermark evidence is certainly sufficient to make one pause. It would therefore help if what may seem to be an obscure letter could be connected to a passage in either a Jonson play, poem or masque. The places that Jonson mentions are all to be found on the coast to the north of Naples, and were fashionable resorts for Roman aristocrats. Cumae was the town furthest north, an ancient Greek settlement famous for the sibylline oracles. While none of the places mentioned in the letter occurs in Jonson's texts, the general area, 'Campania', was referred to twice, the first time in Poetaster and the second time in Sejanus. The passage in Sejanus indicates that the watermark


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FIGURE 4. William Camden, Annales, London 1615, 27. Shelfmark STC 4496 copy 1, recto of engraved portrait. With the permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.

[Description: recto of engraved portrait]


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FIGURE 5. Photograph. Ben Johnson to Sir Robert Cotton, [1603]. Cotton MS. Julius C. III, f. 222. With the permission of the British Library, London.

[Description: watermark in paper]
evidence is correct and that Simpson and Greg were wrong. At the end of Act Three, Tiberius informs Macro that he is leaving Rome:
We are in purpose, Macro, to depart
The Citty for a time, and see Campania;
Not for our pleasures, but to dedicate
A paire of Temples, one, to Iupiter
At Capua; Th'other at Nola, to Augustus.[31]

While the towns Jonson mentions are different, reference to a classical dictionary quickly confirms that the places he writes of in both Sejanus and the letter are in close proximity to one another. Jonson was clearly establishing the geography of the area as background to the play.

To summarise: the original order in which the letter was bound indicates a general date in the first decade of the seventeenth century, the cursiveness of the hand indicates that it was written earlier rather than later in Jonson's life, the watermark dates the letter to 1603, and the passage from Sejanus dates the letter to 1603. We also know that in 1603 Jonson was staying with Cotton in Conington when he had the dream of his son as the burning babe and news the following morning that he had died. The redating of the letter now means that it is possible that Jonson did not so much abandon his family in London, but rather that he retired to the country in order to protect his wife and son from an illness that had almost killed him. Perhaps Camden thought Jonson's dream was a hallucination from the fever. Perhaps the unstated reason for the emotional force of Jonson's famous epigram is the sense that (however unwittingly) he was directly responsible for his son's death.

The misdating of the letter has created two problems. First, this letter was apparently only one of two manuscripts that could be dated after Jonson's illness in 1628-29. We now know that dating to be wrong. As a consequence, the Cotton Manuscript cannot be securely reproduced as evidence for Jonson's handwriting in his final years. The other putative witness to Jonson's hand towards the end of his life, the Ellesmere Manuscript of 'The Expostu-


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FIGURE 6. Ben Johnson, 'An Expostulation with Inigo Jones' (scribal copy). MS. EL8729, f. 44r. With the permission of the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino.

[Description: handwritten page]
lation with Inigo Jones', has also never been reproduced, nor has any of Jonson's late marginalia. What can be stated for certain is that the Ellesmere Manuscript is not holograph (figure 6). It is a scribal copy.[32] The two other


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late examples of Jonson's hand are the inscription on the front fly-leaf of Marmora Arundelliana in pencil and ink (the pencil inscription showing no sign of illness), and the inscription in Camden's Annales. Of these two examples, that in the copy of Camden's Annales is almost certainly later.

Second, restoring the original date to the letter alters what is known about Jonson's biography. It is not only that Jonson nearly died in 1603 and that both Sejanus and the epitaph on his son must now be read with that knowledge. He would also appear to have been far more active in the 1630s than we have assumed. Simpson believed that the illness referred to as 'palsy' was the after-effect of a stroke and this has become the standard story. His partner, Charles Herford, had asserted that Jonson was 'struck down with paralysis in 1628', while David Riggs suggested that Jonson suffered a second stroke in 1626, adding that the stroke in 1628 rendered Jonson 'a paralytic invalid' and 'confined to his house for the rest of his life'.[33] It is possible, of course, that 'palsy' might equally refer to a condition such as Parkinson's Disease. More importantly, what neither Herford nor Riggs knew was that, on 3 May 1632, Jonson in his capacity as city chronologer was amongst the esquires who walked in the funeral procession of Sir John Lemmon, Lord Mayor,' from Grocers hall to St Michaells church in Crooke Lane'.[34] It is possible that he may have been helped, but there is no indication of this in the document, and unless further evidence can be produced it must be concluded that Jonson's physical disability late in his life has been substantially mis-represented.

Jonson may have left his house only rarely and occasionally spent some days in bed, though we do not know this for certain, but it would appear he could walk and it is quite possible that he attended the opening (and only) night of The New Inne on 19 January 1629 as his prefatory comments suggest.[35] It is, in fact, extremely unlikely that if Jonson had been seriously paralysed by two strokes within a short period, he would have lived for another eight years (particularly given the limitations of early modern medical care).[36] Perhaps the only other piece of information that now need be added is that another circumstantial witness adduced to substantiate the severity of Jonson's ill health in his later years is less than reliable. John Pory certainly knew both Cotton and Jonson and in his letters of 15 and 20 September 1632 reported that The Magnetic Lady had been advertised for performance. In the second letter, he also mentioned that he had thought Jonson to be dead. On another occasion, in June 1632, Pory had also reported the death of Hugh


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Holland, thirteen months before Holland's demise.[37] Though used uncritically by Jonson scholars, Pory's reliability as a witness has been viewed rather differently by historians: the letters were once described as concerned with 'the last new rumour' and 'unescapably trivial'.[38] Though they certainly knew each other, one must also wonder how much Pory really knew of Jonson's circumstances at all.

More generally, the point about the Cotton letter and Simpson's treatment of manuscript material is that our understanding of the literary evidence is predicated on the inferences we make about the origins of the material and the conditions of its production. D. F. McKenzie made this observation in these pages almost thirty years ago and it is worth repeating the passage he recalled (via Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery) from Black's Lectures on the Elements of Chemistry: 'A nice adaption of conditions will make almost any hypo thesis agree with the phenomena. This will please our imagination, but does not advance our knowledge'.[39]