The Fury of Men's Gullets: Ben Jonson and the Digestive Canal

The Fury of Men's Gullets: Ben Jonson and the Digestive Canal

The Fury of Men's Gullets: Ben Jonson and the Digestive Canal

The Fury of Men's Gullets: Ben Jonson and the Digestive Canal

Synopsis

In The Fury of Men's Gullets, Bruce Boehrer explores the poet's fascination with alimentary matters and the ways in which such references describe Jonson's personal and cultural transformation. In his wide-ranging examination of Jonson's plays, prose, and nondramatic verse, Boehrer discusses the sociohistorical significance of food, the politics of conspicuous consumption, the infrastructure of Jacobean London, and pertinent aspects of Renaissance medical practice and physiological theory. The Fury of Men's Gullets uniquely interprets Jonson's construction of early modern English literary sensibility.

Excerpt

Ben jonson knew the fate of failed books as well as anyone. At the start of his Epigrams (1612-1613), he advises his bookseller to send remaindered copies of his verse to the London grocers’ district, where they will be popular as wrapping paper: “If… [my book] will not sell, / Send it to Bucklersbury, there ‘twill, well” (Epigrams 3.11-12). In the Staple of News (1626), on the other hand, Jonson envisions a different but parallel end for the author’s labor. There he describes the Spanish ambassador, Count Gondomar, conjuring up a peculiar employment for Middleton’s famous satire of him, A Game at Chess:

LIC[KFINGER]. What news of Gundomar?
THO[MAS BARBER].      A second Fistula,
  Or an excoriation (at the least)
  For putting the poore English-play, was writ of him,
  To such a sordid vse, as (is said) he did,
  Of cleansing his posterior’s.

(3.2.207–211)

Again and again, Jonson conceives of books as having this sort of alimentary character, subject to processes of selection, preparation, ingestion, digestion, and excretion that mimic—and ultimately merge with—the literal functions of the digestive tract. This view of literature is not unique to Jonson, but in Jonson’s hands it becomes a particularly flexible instrument of professional and social self-construct ion. To this extent, he is one of its outstanding modern exponents.

In fact, Jonson knew that books could literally be of culinary value. When he describes his ideal supper in Epigram 101, he promises his prospective guests that they will not have to endure bad poetry, but his promise is a slyly qualified one:

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