Ben Jonson and the Traditio Basiorum: Catullan imitation in The Forrest 5 and 6

Ben Jonson and the Traditio Basiorum: Catullan imitation in The Forrest 5 and 6

Boehrer, Bruce

Ben Jonson’s first two lyrics to Celia (The Forrest 5, 6), among the most renowned and often-anthologized things he ever wrote, famously combine the classical tradition with the world of seventeenth-century England. As Sara van den Berg has noted, Jonson’s “polished redactions of Catullan lyric…often measure the world of love in terms of the actual English world” (43-44); as Alexander Leggatt has likewise argued, the Celia-poems combine “traditional motifs” 266) with emphasis upon a “surrounding reality” that is both “more factual and “simpler” (266); such readings tend to expand Wesley Trimpi’s claim that Jonson’s love-lyrics dramatize “real lovers…in a real world” (209). The present essay seeks to relate such observations to the patterns of “literary imperialism” (Watson 6) identified in Jonson’s writing by scholars like Robert Watson and George Rowe (passim); in effect, I will argue that insofar as the Celia-poems wed classical tradition to contemporary experience, they do so in a way that subordinates both tradition and contemporary milieu to the author’s sensibility. This subordination, which effectively proposes the authorial consciousness as a master-text encompassing and assimilating all others, comprises a typical Jonsonian literary gesture.

While developing this argument, I will concentrate upon one particular aspect of the Celia-lyrics: their investment in a literary traditio basiorum that extends from Catullus through Martial to the neo-Latin imitators of Catullus–among them Pontano, Marullus, and Johannes Secundus–recently examined by Julia Gaisser,(1) and thence to a wide range of English Catullan imitators such as those documented by Gordon Braden (204-224).As it relates to Jonson, this tradition has already been excavated in various pieces. The Celia-poems’ basis in Catullan lyric is no secret (Herford and Simpson 11:37-38); Jonson’s debt to Martial has been discussed at some length, although usually in connection with the Epigrammes;(2) and Stella Revard has recently published an important survey of Jonson’s borrowings from both classical and neo-Latin poets (esp. cf. Revard 155-160). I seek to extend this body of scholarship by assembling the various fields of influence upon the Celia-lyrics into a continuum that accounts for Jonson’s overall poetic strategies of borrowing and assimilation. In offering such an assemblage here, I wish not only to account for the various ways in which precursor-texts leave their mark on Jonson’s work, but also the ways in which Jonson seeks to subordinate those precursor-texts to his own achievement.

By revising and adapting Catullan lyric, Jonson entered into conversation with a wide range of other poets who had all read, absorbed, echoed and replied to Catullus’s verses. These various treatments of Catullan material naturally tend to emphasize different aspects of the Roman poet’s achievement, and to do so in ways that lead to different critical constructions of the poet himself. Consequently, more is at stake in the composition of neo-Catullan verse than simply the creation of a well-wrought lyric. The poem in question can itself put considerable interpretive pressure upon the precursor-materials from which it is drawn; it becomes, in effect, a literary-historical exercise that reconstructs the past in terms of the present. This characteristic of the operations of literary influence is fundamental to the Catullan tradition, as Julia Gaisser has recently shown (199-200); Martial, the neo-Latin authors who follow Secundus, and Jonson all respond to and celebrate Catullus, but it is also clear that they are all, in a sense, responding to and celebrating a different poet.

Martial offers the initial case in point. For him, the literary importance of Catullus is scarcely to be overestimated (Sullivan xxi, 74); there are few other poets to whom Martial pays more generous and repeated tribute. When, in his Apophoreta, Martial claims that great Verona owes as much to Catullus as little Mantua does to Virgil (“Tantum magna suo debet Verona Catullo, / quantum parva suo Mantua Vergilio”


), the evaluative hyperbole needs no comment. But the reasons behind the hyperbole do, for despite such expressions of enthusiasm, Martial seems to have valued certain aspects of Catullus’s work more than others. In fact, the Catullus who is familiar to generations of English and American schoolchildren–the tortured lover of Lesbia and author of witty occasional verse–bears relatively little resemblance to the one Martial seems to have admired so greatly. Martial’s work preserves certain Catullan qualities–an urbane matter-of-factness in tone, a satirical detachment, and a penchant for scurrilous invective–but it also jettisons certain others, most particularly the intense emotionalism and vulnerability of the Lesbia lyrics. Nor is this selective appreciation hard to understand, for the literary qualities Martial admires are always at least potentially at odds with those he discards.

In fact, Catullus is arguably at his most Martialic when he is least involved with Lesbia, insofar as his emotional investment in her compromises the ironic distance and mastery at satirical belittlement that the poet displays elsewhere in his work. As a result, the Catullus of the Lesbia-lyrics often enters Martial to be ridiculed. As Revard has observed, “throughout his poetry Martial takes a skeptical view of Catullus’s sublime “basiationes” (kissings), for when he uses this Catullan word it is to put it down” (156).(3) In like spirit, J. P. Sullivan has recently observed that Martial’s famous “Non amo te, Sabide” (1.32) operates as a parody of Catullus’s equally-famous “Odi et amo” (Catullus 85; cf. Sullivan 96 n. 32). The case is instructive: where Catullus confesses that he both loves and hates and cannot account for either emotion, Martial discards the love, reduces the hatred to extreme dislike, and dismisses his animus with a joke. Julia Gaisser has described Martial’s Catullan imitations as tending “to substitute the abstract and impersonal for the emotional and subjective” (210), and this procedure is fully in evidence in the later poet’s treatment of “Odi et amo.” Catullus’s lyric is an emotional pronouncement of Shelleyan proportions; it is also an embarrassing admission of personal suffering and lack of self-control (“fieri sentio et excrucior”). Martial’s parody imposes a snide coolness on this material; obnoxious as he may be, Sabidius does not even come close to ruffling the poet’s composure.

An even more pronounced tone of mockery invests Martial’s treatment of the basia-motif. Where Catullus’s verse thinks of the kiss as an erotic gesture, Martial’s epigrams construct it as a social one; the passionate basia bestowed by the republican poet upon his faithless lover are replaced in the Flavian epigrammatist by kisses of greeting that function as the semiotic equivalent of a handshake. Nor is Martial satisfied simply to trivialize the meaning of the kiss itself. The actual kisses of greeting exchanged in his poems are none too savory in character, often distinguished by a halitosis that the poet tends to associate with oral sexual activities (Sullivan 189; Richlin 26).

The results of this rearrangement can be highly indecorous. Thus–in a poem for which annotations survive in Jonson’s hand(4)–Martial can complain to one woman, “You sang badly, Aegle, in the days when you were fucked. Now you sing well, but you’re not to be kissed” (“Cantasti male, dum fututa es, Aegle./ iam cantas bene; basianda non es”


). Again, Martial advises a companion, “Whenever you encounter suckers’ kisses, just imagine, Flaccus, that you are plunging your head into a closestool” (“Incideris quotiens in basia fellatorum,/in solium puta te mergere, Flacce, caput”


). Similar treatments of this motif abound in Martial’s work; the most brutal of them, in terms of its Catullan overtones, is the following:

Rome gives you a quantity of kisses, now that you have returned after fifteen years, such as Lesbia never gave Catullus. The whole neighborhood is upon you. The hairy farmer crushes you with a kiss like a billy goat’s. The weaver is at you from one side, the fuller from another. Then there’s the cobbler who has just kissed his leather, and the owner of a dangerous chin, and the man with the gammy right leg, and he of the bleary eye, and the sucker and the licker fresh from his cunt. It really wasn’t worth your while to come home.

Tantum dat tibi Roma basiorum post annos modo quindecim reverso quantum Lesbia non dedit Catullo. te vicinia tota, te pilosus hircoso premit osculo colonus; hinc instat tibi textor, inde fullo, hinc sutor modo pelle basiata, hinc menti dominus periculosi, hinc dexiochols, inde lippus fellatorque recensque cunnilingus. iam tanti tibi non fuit redire. (12.59)

Moments like this, scabrous as they are, cannot simply be explained as mockery or rejection of Catullan literary conventions. Martial’s admiration for the Veronese poet is too great, and too much a matter of record, to admit such a simplistic interpretation. On the contrary, it would seem as if Martial were employing certain aspects of Catullus’s work, in particular his gift for invective and his sexual coarseness, to neutralize others, such as his extreme emotionalism and sexual vulnerability. The result is a selective reconstitution of Catullus in the image of Martialic literary ideals. More importantly, it is a reconstitution at odds with the way in which Catullus is received and celebrated when he is rediscovered by late medieval and early modern poets.

The paradigm-setter, in terms of neo-Latin re-readings of Catullus–and perhaps, as Gordon Braden has argued, in terms of English re-readings, too (213-214)–is Johannes Secundus. Secundus furthers the early-modern Catullan revival by composing an extremely influential collection of erotic verse inspired by Catullus’s basia-poems, and to this extent the Catullus favored by Secundus is clearly miles apart from the one honored by Martial. This distinction is taken still further, whether accidentally or not, by Secundus’s own biography. A precociously gifted Dutchman of sensitive constitution, he lived twenty-five years that were marked by illness, frustrated love, and a prolific output of neoLatin verse (Schoolfield 41-42, 68-71; Wedeck 400); to this extent, he epitomizes the mode of literary and amatory experience advertised in Catullus’s poems on Lesbia. Martial’s occasionally-complacent references to his own personal comfort and celebrity offer a marked contrast to the record of Secundus’s short life (see, e.g., Martial 9.97).

In terms of his writing, Secundus seems to have most valued the aspects of Catullan verse that Martial found most problematical. The Basia–Secundus’s most enduring achievement–are a sustained exercise in Catullan erotic sensitivity; in effect, they seek to rewrite the Lesbia-poems with a happy ending in united and consummated bliss. Catullus’s sexual simplicitas, much admired and imitated by Martial, is practically gone from Secundus’s work. The best Secundus can offer in that regard is a poem in which he insists he is not writing about penises (“Nulla hic carmina mentulata”

Basium 12, sig. N2r

), only to discover in mock-embarrassment that he has mentioned a penis when claiming not to mention one (“Ignarae…forte mentulatum/ Verbum diximus” 12, sig. N2r

). The principal Catullan quality Secundus seizes upon is the Roman poet’s sensuousness; Basium 2, for instance, offers a typical vision of lover and beloved tangled in an embrace whose interminglings are cleverly replicated by the syntax of the verse: As much as the nearby ivy luxuriates on the elm, and around the noble holm-oak the ivy-bunches twine their immense branches, so much, Neaera, if you could wind your plaited arms around my neck, so much, Neaera, if I were able forever to bind myself about your white neck, giving a perpetual kiss, then neither care of Ceres nor of amiable Lyaeus, nor of friendly sleep, my life, would remove me from your purple mouth.

Vicina quantum uitis lasciuit in vlmo, Et tortiles per ilicem

Brachia proceram stringunt immensa corymbi, Tantum Neaera si queas

In mea nexilibus proserpere colla lacertis, Tali Neaera si queam

Candida perpetuum nexu tua colla ligare, Iungens perenne basium:

Tunc me nec Cereris, nec amici cura Lyaei, Soporis aut amabilis,

Vita, tuo de purpureo diuelleret ore. (Basium 2, sigs. M4v-M5r)

As George Schoolfield has noted, this “is a vision of what might be, not of what is” (104). Such longings are consummated in the later poems of the Basia, such as Basium 13: “Languid with sweet struggle, my life, I lay lifeless, with my hand stretched upon your neck” (“Languidus e dulci certamine, uita, iaceba


/Exanimis, fusa per tua colla manu”

Basium 15, sig. N2v

). To this extent, Secundus reverses the order of consummation and separation that governs Catullus’s affair with Lesbia.

But if Secundus’s Basia try to improve Catullus by giving him a happy ending, they also do the same to a parallel literary tradition: that of Petrarchism and courtly love. As has been noted, the Neaera of the Basia is a “cruel beauty” whose principal qualities are reducible to “a single conceit of Petrarchism, the icy source of fire” (Schoolfield 60). In effect, the Basia seek to wed the satisfied and then frustrated sexual vulnerability of Catullus to the frustrated and never satisfied vulnerability of Petrarch etc.; the result is a reversal in the chronological order of Catullus’s affair such that the suffering, in good Petrarchan/ Capellanian fashion, comes first, but then yields to ecstasy. This must have been an extremely attractive fantasy to writers immersed in the conventions of courtly love; it borrows just enough sexuality from Catullus to replace courtly love’s discontents with the sweet fruition of an earthly bed.

In short, Secundus would seem to have understood that “Fieri sentio et excrucior” might as well be the motto of the Petrarchan tradition. Although Secundus’s life is largely consumed by the “excrucior,” his verse proclaims the “fieri sentio.” In line with this emphasis, Secundus pitches his vocabulary, too, in a distinctly Catullan register–although once more a register typical of Catullus’s amatory, rather than his satirical, poetry. As one early discussion of Secundus’s verse observes, “Ioannes… seems to revel in the lush use of endearing diminutives-labellum, basiolum, tremulus, candidulus, roscidulus, myrteolus, columbula and turturilla, puellula, mollicella, avidulus and umbraculus throng his verses” (Wedeck 402). The result is a poetry that could be characterized either as richly sensuous or as terminally cute. In any case, it serves a different Catullan ideal than the one appreciated by Martial.


Jonson’s reference to Catullus in the Celia-poems is thus a reference to an author whose own distinguishing qualities were in a sense under dispute, or at least subject to ongoing negotiation. (J. P. Sullivan has even posited a “contest between the supporters of Martial and the admirers of Catullus” as endemic to sixteenth-century continental humanism


;Julia Gaisser’s findings, while more complex, also tend to distinguish Secundus from the neo-Latin followers of Martial

see, e.g., 253

.) For his own part, Jonson was clearly aware both of Martial’s approach to Catullus and of Secundus’s. One of Jonson’s surviving copies of Martial contains various marginalia that deal with certain of the os impurum-epigrams and that also reply to censures of the Roman epigrammatist’s style by recent commentators. Among those censures are three passages in which scholars–Justus Lipsius, Paulus Jovius, and Marc Antoine Muret–insist that Martial is inferior to Catullus;(5) Jonson dismisses these remarks with contempt. By the same token, Secundus’s verse is represented twice in the remains of Jonson’s library (McPherson 94-95, 98-99); one of these volumes contains the Basia together with a selection of other poetry. Still other volumes include comparable verse on the basia-theme by such neo-Latin poets as Marullus and Pontano. This being the case, the Celia-poems necessarily situate themselves within a fairly complex network of Catullan appropriations, a network to which they contribute in their turn (Patrides 4-8; Braden 209-211). Revard, for instance, is surely right to obsee that “to Martial as a reviser of Catullus


owes the curt flippancy of his tone” in the Celia-poems (155); yet it is just as significant that Jonson does not follow Martial into the breathtaking obscenity of the Roman poet’s epigrams on the basia-theme. On the contrary: despite his own interest in classical sexual discourse–an interest aptly documented by surviving marginalia–Jonson was very careful to defend his own Epigrammes as free of “lewd, prophane, and beastly phrase” (Epigrammes 2.11).

Such a defense may be “disingenuous” (van den Berg 90), but it says a great deal about the political constraints to which Jonson had to accommodate his style. Those constraints impose upon him at least a certain measure of variance from the Martialic mode. By the same token, the opening couplet of the first “Song. To Celia” (The Forrest 5) does much to complicate the very element of Catullus’s verse that Secundus and his followers found most distinctive: its ecstatic and robust insistence upon the joys of lovemaking. “Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus” (Catullus 5.1) is replaced in Jonson by an almost legalistic series of attenuations. “Come my Celia, let vs proue, / While we may, the sports of loue” (The Forrest 5.1-2) replaces the direct hortatory subjunctive “amemus” with a verb, object, and prepositional phrase, this lengthier sequence being in turn disrupted by the intervening adverbial clause “While we may.” Moreover, the lexical value of the exhortation is profoundly complicated by the possible meanings both of “proue” and of “sports.” It is at least possible to take these words as self-referential; insofar as “sport” implies “diversion” (OD 1) or “play” (OED 2), and “prove” means to “go through” (OED 3), the proof of the sports of love–i.e., the process of loveplay that involves courtship and seduction–has already begun concomitantly with the invitation itself. In this sense, the invitation is superfluous, and Catullus’s hortatory subjunctive is transformed into a pleonasm.

So one could summarize as follows. When Catullus declares, “Let us love,” Martial responds with rude references to halitosis and fellatio; Secundus loses himself in ecstatic osculations; Jonson, diverging from both, replies, “What do you mean by ‘love’? And how do you know I’m not doing it already?”. This is perhaps a flippant summary of matters, but it is not wrong by much, nor is it in conflict with the “light” and “courtly” quality that some critics have discerned within the Celia-poems (Nichols 25). At any rate, the uncertainties and self-referentialities of Jonson’s verse are further reinforced, this time in answer to the exhortation “Vivamus.” The line “Time will not be ours, for euer” (3), with its crucially placed caesura after “ours,” calls in question the entire theme of carpe diem which is Jonson’s principal debt to Catullus in this poem; how, the verse asks, can time ever be ours? Rather than “revivif


a classical topos,” as Michael McCanles would have it (12), this line in effect uses the standard language of carpe diem to undercut the standard sense of carpe diem, thus in a way setting- the tradition at a distance from itself. Moreover, the ambiguous temporal adverb “for euer” is paralleled and reinforced by the further ambiguity of “He, at length, our good will seuer” (4). Here the reader is confronted by yet another lexical crux (what exactly is “our good,” and how can we know), preceded by the nagging phrase “at length,” which may of course refer either to the inception or to the duration of the severance in question. The result of Jonson’s wording is that the first lyric to Celia seems to argue for a transcendent physical consummation of the kind celebrated in the “Epithalamium” from Secundus’s Sylvaan hour’s pleasure that pulls against the inexorable flight of time: “Hora suauicula, & uoluptuosa, / Hora blanditiis, lepore, risu, / Hora delitiis, iocis, susurris” (sig. S4v). Yet this argument yields, upon closer reading, o a complicated series of linguistic adjustments that supersede any invitation to physical pleasure. To this extent, the pleasures celebrated by Jonson’s poem are specifically the pleasures of Jonson’s poem.

This extremely calculated–and calculating–approach to the composition oflove-verse is only intensified by the competing contexts within which the “Song. To Celia” first appeared. In fact, as Katharine Maus has noted, the significance of the Celia-lyrics in general depends not upon a particular biographical or historical relationship, but rather upon “the context in which they are articulated and the occasion they commemorate” ( 104).

When placed in The Forrest, for instance, these lyrics interfere prominently with the claim of the collection’s opening poem that “I Write Not of Love” (The Forrest 1.Title). This claim, of course, is initially rendered ambiguous by the subject of The Forrest 1 itself, in which the poet seeks unsuccessfully to bind Cupid in his verse; that ambiguity is then compounded by the Celia-poems, as well as by the problematical “Proludium” (The Forrest 10) in Which Jonson elaborately refuses to compose a “loose, and Cap’ring” elegy (2). Such disclaimers may well remind one of Secundus’s tongue-in-cheek “nulla hic carmina mentulata.” Catherine Bates, at least, has recently argued that the poems of The Forrest “convert…’nothing’…into a thing” (29), and this conversion clearly parallels Secundus’s denial of the prurience implicit in his verse. Nor is it, to my mind, beyond Jonson’s reach to have purposely given the “Proludium” a Latin title that means “foreplay”; “ludos” would be the obvious Latin translation for “sports” in the invitation “Come my Celia, let vs proue, / While we may, the sports of loue.” Taken in aggregate, the poems of The Forrest confer upon the Celia-lyrics a complexly shifting character, a character that places them beyond the amatory tradition of Secundus and yet, by virtue of their ability to absorb that tradition, apart from the sensibility of Martial as well. Robert Wiltenburg has identified “the play of the omnivorous egocentric imagination” as central to the Celia-poems (112), and this quality is clearly present in the multivalent gestures whereby Jonson’s poems, and the different contexts in which they appear, engulf the work of earlier writers. In addition, when the two songs to Celia reappear practically unchanged in Volpone,(6) their dramatic position offers even more situational complexity. The two lyrics, sung by Volpone as part of his great attempt to seduce Celia, frame a much lengthier catalogue of the “sports of loue”:

My dwarfe shall dance, My eunuch sing, my foole make vp the antique, Whil’st we, in changed shapes, act Ovids tales, Thou, like Evropa now, and I like love, Then I like Mars, and thou like Erycine, So, of the rest, till we haue quite run through, And weary’d all the fables of the gods.

We may, so, trans-fuse our wandring soules, Out at our lippes, and score vp summes of pleasures,

That the curious shall not know, How to tell them, as they flow; And the enuious, when they find What their number is, be pind. (3.7.219-239)

The aggressive metamorphic theme of these lines, indebted as it is to Ovid, also places Jonson’s Catullan imitation in an ambivalent light, for Secundus mockingly rejects this same kind of lecherous shape-shifting in his own verse:

Why do you remove your modest faces hence, chaste matrons and little girls? I do not sing here the furtive sports of the gods, or the monstrous shapes of lust, here are no poems with penises in them.

Qvid vultus remouetis hinc pudicos, Matronaeque, puellulaeque castae: Non hic furta deum iocosa canto, Monstrosasve libidinum figuras, Nulla hic carmina mentulata. (Basium 12, sig. N2r)

Secundus’s poetry entertains its ostensibly chaste and feminine readers by hinting toward metamorphic prurience in the very act of rejecting it; for Volpone, the hint has become a welter of sensuous imaginings next to which Secundus seems tame indeed. Yet by so elaborately doing what Secundus so elaborately avoids, Jonson does more than simply surpass the Dutch poet’s sensuousness; Jonson focusses upon Secundus’s mild prurience while divesting him of his tenderness together with the half-serious moral scruples through which he indulges his sexual humor. The result is something almost as gross and disturbing, in its way, as what Martial makes of the Catullan basia-motif. Moreover, the text of Jonson’s lyrics itself insists upon the intricacies of its contextualization. When, for instance, “Come my Celia” reworks Catullus’s invitation to lovemaking, it is in a way that unfixes the meaning of the invitation itself by introducing an unstable pronoun reference:

Why should we deferre our ioyes? Fame, and rumor are but toyes. Cannot we delude the eyes Of a few poore houshold spyes? Or his easier eares beguile, So remoued by our wile? ( The Forrest 5.10-15)

If read in the context of Volpone, the reference to “his easier ears” almost makes straightforward sense, for Celia is indeed wedded to Corvino, who has indeed been separated from his wife by wile; even so, the possessive “our” complicates matters, insofar as it invites Celia to view herself as a willing participant in the process of deception by which Corvino has been removed. In The Forrest, however, the referent of “his easier ears” becomes especially problematical, forcing the reader to manufacture a pronoun antecedent where the text itself conspicuously fails to supply one. This is a gambit to which the reader may respond in a variety of ways, ways that include 1.) ignoring the problem entirely and continuing to read; 2.) pausing over the problem long enough to supply the lost antecedent by registering a reference to the traditional theme of the cuckolded husband; and 3.) pausing still longer so as to contemplate the significance of a grammatical ploy that goads the reader into such interaction with the text. If one adopts this third strategy for dealing- with the matter, one has arguably achieved a kind of readerly self-consciousness or, to use David Riggs’s phrase, a “rational self-awareness” (236): a distance upon oneself and one’s own interconnection with literary conventions such as that of the cuckolded husband. That self-distancing arguably conforms to the manner whereby Jonson’s lyrics distance themselves from the themes and conventions of their own precursor-materials.

For one more example of this gesture, consider the very famous lines that constitute the heart of the second song to Celia:

Kisse, and score up wealthy summes On my lips,… Till you equall with the store, All the grasse that Rumney yeelds, Or the sands in Chelsey fields, Or the drops in siluer Thames, Or the stars, that guild his streames, In the silent sommer-nights, When youths ply their stolne delights. (The Forrest 6.6-18)

These lines clearly impose new terms upon the tally of kisses Jonson derives from Catullus 7, and the novelty of those terms derives in large part from their recontextualization of the foreign in the familiar: English grass, English sands, and English water (Leggatt 266-267; van den Berg 43-44; Revard 155-156; Braden 211). What might be added is that these lines also elaborate upon a favorite pattern of Secundus’s love-verse, a pattern that arguably derives from Catullus as well.

Secundus is much taken by the idea that lovemaking–and kissing in particular–can lead to something like an out-of-body experience. In Basium 7, for instance, he presents himself as so lost in his kisses that he can only be brought back to himself by the complaints of his eyes:

But while I entirely cleave like a shell to your rosy cheeks, like a shell to your red lips, and to your teeny-weeny talkative eyes, it is not allowed me to see your lips, nor your rosy cheeks, nor your teeny-weeny talkative eyes…Alas, what struggles are born between my eyes and my lips?

Sed dum tous inhaereo Conchatim roseis genis, Conchatim rutilis labris, Ocellisque loquaculis: Non datur tua cernere Labra, non roseas genas Ocellosque loquaculos.

Heu, quae sunt oculis meis Nata praelia cum labris? (Basium 7, sigs. M?r-i)

Again, in “Basium 11,” Secundus deals similarly with a Catullan theme that Jonson transforms into the line “Fame, and rumor are but toyes”:

When I caress your neck with desiring arms, my light, and die from your itt-bitty kisses, must I anxiously inquire what everyone is saying about me? It’s hardly possible to remember who or where I am myself.

Ego cum cupidis stringo tua colla lacertis, Lux mea, basiolis immoriorque tuis, Anxius exquira


quid de me quisq


loquatur? Ipse quis, aut vbi sim, vix meminisse vacat. (Basium 11, sig. N2r)

Moments like these clearly derive from Catullus’s own experience of osculatory ecstasy, as that experience is encoded in his most famous lines:

Quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis oraclum Iouis inter aestuosi et Batti ueteris sacrum sepulcrum; aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox, furtiuos hominum uident amores: tam te basia multa basiare uesano satis et super Catullo est. (Catullus 7.3-10)

Jonson, when he approaches these lines, not only replaces the exoticism of “Libyssae harenae” and “lasarpiciferis Cyrenis”; he also carefully preserves the ending of Catullus’s catalogue. The “sidera multa” that “furtiuos hominum uident amores” return, translated almost word for word, as “The stars that guild


streames, / In the silent sommer-nights, / When youths ply their stolne delights” (The Forrest 6.16-18). By modulating so smoothly from an anglicized adaptation of Catullus back into close translation, Jonson’s lyric draws the reader up short; where, and how, has the familiar blended into the foreign] The “multa sidera” of Catullus’s catalogue are the only term that catalogue shares with Jonson’s, just as they are the only items in either catalogue that both poets could hold in common; the same stars that shine on Catullus and Lesbia shine also on Jonson and Celia. Moreover, the stars in either case are not simply shining; for Catullus, they gaze directly upon the “furtivos amores” of men, while for Jonson, they “guild” the “streames” by which lovers ply their “stolne” delights. In either case–although perhaps more obliquely in Jonson’s–these stars do exactly what Secundus cannot do when lost in his kisses; they stand apart from the amatory spectacle, observing- and even embellishing it. They are, in this sense, distanced from the event in a way that Secundus, for all his out-of-body ecstasy, never is.

I do not think it wholly accidental that Jonson should have taken pains to preserve this aspect of Catullus’s verse while taking equal trouble to alter what goes before. The result is a version of Catullus that stands apart from the exercises of Secundus and other early-modern exponents of the traditio basiorum; we are left with a poem that looks down, as it were from a great height, upon the humid swoonings of furtive lovers, and that bathes the lovers’ antics with a cold, thin light. We are also left with a poem that, in terms of its appropriations and variations upon received precursor-material, can move almost imperceptibly from revision to repetition: a poem, that is, that exists simultaneously within and outside of the tradition that makes it possible. And finally, we are left with a poem that forces the reader into a kind of critical distance upon his/her own activity, if the work’s intricacies are to be fully understood and respected.


To end, it may be worth noting that the basia-theme reappears prominently in at least one other work of Jonson’s: Bartholomew Fair. If the Celia-poems seem primarily to distance themselves from the Catullan appropriations of Secundus and his followers, Bartholomew Fair does something similar with regard to Martial’s treatment of Catullus. When Jonson’s opportunistic protagonists, (Quarlous and Winwife, are introduced to Mistress Littlewit by her husband, they indulge in a marathon of (ostensibly) social kissing:

QVAR. Where’s your wife? come hither, Win. (He kisseth her.)

WIN. Why, Iohn] doe you see this, Iohn? looke you] helpe me, Iohn.

IOH. O Win, fie, what do you meane, Win] Be womanly, Win..; you must not quarrell with Master Quarlous, Win.

QUAR. No, we’ll kisse againe and fall in.

IOH. Yes, doe, good Win. (1.3.36-51)

As Richard Allen Cave has observed, “Kissing is relatively rare in Renaissance drama and an episode involving- a woman being ‘kissed in general’ like this has few counterparts. The most notable case…is Shakespeare’s scene showing Cressida’s arrival in the Greek camp where she is laughingly kissed by most of the Argive leaders in turn, which causes Ulysses to think her a ‘daughter of the game” (104). The parallel is instructive; both scenes involve the unseemly eroticization of social kissing. Social kissing, of course, is precisely what Martial makes of Catullus’s basia; by taking a social kiss and infusing it with sexual significance, Jonson here reverses the transformation Martial has imposed upon his predecessor’s work. This reversal is then underscored further–in a parodically classical context–when the puppet-play-within-a-play that concludes Bartholomew Fair dramatizes the passion of Hero and Leander. As the two lovers embrace and kiss, the choral puppets Damon and Pythias hold the following exchange with their puppet-master Leatherhead:

Leander and Hero are kissing.

PVP. P. What’s here? what’s here? kisse, kisse, upon kisse.

LAN. I, wherefore should they not? what harme is in this? ’tis Mistresse Hero.

PVP. D. Mistresse Hero’s a whore.

PVP. H. Kisse the whore o’ the arse. (5.4.326-339)

The superimposition of oral and anal functions here is another mainstay of Martial’s references to the basia-motif. As a loosely-related instance of this point, in one of Jonson’s surviving copies of Martial, the English poet has left a marginalium referring to epigram 3.17, in which Sabidius’s breath turns a hot tart into excrement; Jonson’s marginal note attributes this transformation to the fact that Sabidius is a fellator.(7) Within BartholomaLl Fair, Jonson has absorbed such material into the silliest and most diminutive of classical contexts. Hero and Leander are transformed into Punch and Judy, and Martial’s invective becomes part of the puppets’ inane banter. If, as Jonathan Haynes has argued, Bartholomau Fair sustains an “implied historical analysis of the disintegration of the festive marketplace” (129), that analysis is underscored by a concomitant trivialization of the classical within the festive.

At moments of the sort this essay surveys, Jonson seizes and colonizes the territory of precursor poets, subjugating their work to his own by sheer force of intellect. This tendency has been described at length in the work of Robert Watson, George Rowe, and Richard Peterson, all of whom characterize Jonson’s relations to other authors, both classical and contemporary, in terms of acquisition, transformation, conquest, and competition.(8) The consequences of such literary activity are far-re aching. Not only does this process of authorial colonization assert Jonson’s preeminence over a wide range of potential or actual literary rivals; it also aims to make those rivals virtually unreadable except in the terms imposed upon their work by Jonson himself. After the aloof modulations of “Come my Celia,” one may have trouble returning to Secundus’s Basia without a shade of Jonsonian detachment; after the silliness of social kissing in Bartholomev Fair, one may appreciate Martial from a slightly greater remove than before. But perhaps this essay should end by recalling the Vnder-wood’s “Fragment of Petronius Arbiter,” with its praise of the act upon which Jonson has elsewhere imposed such critical distance:

Let us together closely lie, and kisse, There is no labour, nor no shame in this; This hath pleas’d, doth please, and long will please; never Can this decay, but is beginning ever. (Vlzder-zoood 88.7-10) At times, even forJonson, a kiss is still a kiss.


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Braden, Gordon. “Viuamus, mea Lesbia in the English Renaissance.” English Literary Renaissance 9 (1979): 199-224.

Catullus. C. Valerii Catulli Carmina. Ed. R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon, 1958.

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–. Epigrams. Trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey. London: William Heinemann, 1993. 3 vols.

Maus, Katharine Eisaman. Ben Jonson and the Roman Frame of Mind. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984.

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Peterson, Richard. Imitation and Praise in the Poems of Ben Jonson. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.

Revard, Stella. “Classicism and Neo-Classicism in Jonson’s Epigrammes and The Forest. “Jennifer Brady and W. H. Herendeen, eds., Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1991. 138-167.

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1 Cf. especially Gaisser 211-254. Gaisser’s discussion of the neo-Latin imitators of Catullus is complex and nuanced, as befits any survey of such a wide body of verse. The present essay seeks to focus upon certain materials that have necessarily received peripheral attention in Gaisser: most particularly the translation of ned3atullan verse into Jonson’s English, but also the treatment of Catullus in Johannes Secundus’s Basia. This latter subject receives excellent but necessarily limited exploration in Gaisser’s work, which concentrates upon only one of Secundus’s Catullan poems (250-254).

2 T. K. Whipple’s chapter onJonson and the Martialic epigram (384-406) may still be the most sustained discussion of the Martialic influence upon Jonson’s verse; however, there are numerous briefer discussions. Perhaps the most important of these, for present purposes, are Revard’s treatment of Martial (139-151) in her examination of classical and neoclassical influences upon Jonson and Robert Wiltenburg’s discussion of the manner in which Jonson adapts the self-presentational strategies of Martial’s verse (48-56).

3 Also see Sullivan 96: “Not all of



to Catullus

are honorific. Martial is quite capable of parodng Catullus and using some of his most elevated thoughts and phrases in banal or comic contexts: his use of the basia theme is the most obvious instance of this.”

4 See McPherson 69. I have written a separate paper that discusses Jonson’s interest in classical representations of oral-sexual behavior; obviously, however, that interest impinses somewhat upon Martial’s treatment of the Catullan basia-motif.

Jonson’s copy of M. Val. Martialis Nova Editio. Ex Museo Petri Scriverii (Leyden, 1619), now in the Folger Library, pages 6 (sig. B3v), 7-8 (sigs. B4r-v), and 10 (sig. B5v). Lipsius’s comments include the flat declaration, “Nihil ad Catullam Martialis, scio,” to whichJonson has responded with the Martialic pbrase “polyposi erat, non nasuti.” Jovius’s claim-“Elocutioni casta tamen puritas ac in numero saepe duro lenitas defuit. qualis in Catullo praetenero poeta conspicitur: cum ingeniose mordaci & impuro Martiali persimilis esse mallet”-merits the response “nimis superciliose.” Muret’s comparison earns the rebuke “dure, dure, mi Murete, et false.” Also see McPherson 69.

6 See Dutton 109-110 for a brief discussion of the two minor textual variants in Volpone’s version of the first “Song. To Celia.”

7 See Jonson’s copv of the Scriverius Martial, sig. Dlr. Also see McPherson 11.

8 For Watson, the governing trope is that of “literarg imperialism” (6), furthered by a series of parodic imitations through which the poet “wrestles with the ambivalence of literary precedents” (11) and “fi%hts for artistic Lebensmum “(1); Rowe emphasizes the notion of”emulation” (10-19) as it leads from friendly imitation to parodic rivalry; for Peterson, the parallel motif is one of “appropriation and close translation” (5), whereby the poet turns the work of others into his own. Clearly all of these analyses are more or less germane to the present case.

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