Archive for November, 2017


The writer Ted Hughes had a long engagement with Shakespeare.
Story goes, in the early 1950s, just as he was to go up to Cambridge – working-class boy makes good – he was called-up, as all were in those days, to do his National Service. He said he spent those two years in various look-out posts, reading all of Shakespeare’s works. It went on from there.

The culmination of this long engagement came first in his 1971 book, A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, published by Faber and Faber. His argument there was – ever the controversialist –  that we can appreciate Shakespeare’s poetic art as well in excerpts from the plays, as in sticking solely with the published poems.
His argument is more than borne out by the samples he gives. This is indeed an excellent book.

The part relevant to my argument here, is the postscript. This is a long essay on what Ted Hughes saw as the evolution of Shakespeare’s craft, and forms the heart of what became his next big attempt on Shakespeare: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. He came to blame the writing of this as a betrayal of his/the muse, and resulting in his last illness.

In these works he came up with what he called ‘the tragic equation ’ of Shakespeare’s writing. This was all to do with the evolution of Shakespeare’s craft, its psychic properties, and engagement with history.

For this blog I am just looking at a detail of that postscript, beguilingly called ‘Note,’ in A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse.

In the ‘Note’ he discusses how Shakespeare’s craft and art underwent a ‘quantum leap.’ It was a ‘quantum’ leap because it worked on the level of a new weighting of language and language use rather than big themes. He writes of how Shakespeare’s mature style used a ‘high’ word ie a usage from a lexicon outside the normal language of the audience, that was paired with a ‘low’ word, to qualify a third. He writes ‘… the new, unfamiliar, word from the ‘high’ language is balanced, interpreted and translated by an old word (or words, or image made up of old words) from then ‘low.’ In practice, this becomes usually a combination of one word of classical derivation with another of native… derivation.

He goes on to call this a ‘masterful democritisation’ of language, for ‘welding the audience into a single thing.’ He dates this change in resource of language from All’s Well That Ends Well onwards.

Here he brings in another conceptual avenue: ‘If other evidence is valid and he used a Brunoesque mnemonic system…’ Ted Hughes was hedging his bets with that  ‘If’, but it is evident he has been reading A study of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1936), Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966) by Frances Yates. All, but certainly one or two of the above.

What is it about this causes Ted Hughes to make this claim? How, he seems to ask, could Shakespeare have memorised all these new words? His answer, by using a memory system, a mnemonic. And then tying this in with the newly available books by Frances Yates on The School of Night, Giordano Bruno et al. He ties this to Shakespeares’ quoted use of tables: ‘set it down in ‘…‘tables’, or notebook…’. (p187, 1991 edition). There are a number of such references to ‘tables’ used in this way.

He gives the example from All’s Well That End Well of a line from a speech:
On the catastrophe and heel of pastime
He reads the use of catastrophe as one of Shakespeare’s new words; how is it used with the term heel, then? By reading catastrophe as  down-turn… heel then becomes, of the foot, but more, it becomes in context the image of Achilles’ heel.
Ted Hughes writes:
‘By regarding the line as a slightly modified ‘New Word’ entry in his ‘tables’, where the word to be mastered is matched with its translation and ‘fixed’ with its mnemonic image….
(page 186/7).

What do you think?

There is, of course, another explanation for that word ‘tables’, other than implying a mnemonic system of tables.

Roger Chartier, in Inscription and Erasure, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), writes of how between 1577 and 1628 a certain London bookbinders sold what were called Tables. Many examples survive, complete with bookbinder’s name and London address.
A direct reference to these can be found in Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5, lines 107-11.
They are notebooks with the added ability of being able to be wiped clean.
In effect they were the wax tablets as used in medieval times. As we see from Roger Chartier, they were still in use in Shakespeare’s time. He describes them as part of the materiality of the text.
They were small: hand-sized, and rectangular: wooden trays, usually in pairs, strapped together with leather, so they could be closed face to face to save what had been imprinted from smudging. These trays were filled with bees wax, to be marked on, written on, with a metal stylus. They could be erased with a wet cloth, allowed to dry, and used again.
Roger Chartier writes how an eleventh-century priest-poet, Baudri de Bourgueil, wrote in detail about his tablets/tables. The wax in time would become old, blackened, full of grit.
Being wax, they would also be vulnerable to temperature: cold, draughty cloisters and scriptoria  probably held ideal conditions.

By Shakespeare’s time, we read, the medium had been changed from wax to a mixture of plaster, glue and varnish (page 23, Inscription and Erasure). The ‘tables’ of this period also included in their package printed almanacs, tables, weights and measures, calendars… much like our own notebooks.

So what, then, of memory systems? You need to go back to the Hamlet reference, above. Just before that speech, comes the phrase, table of my memory.
We read in Roger Chartier, how many such Tables could be collected, and stored. Their contents were not erased, but kept for transcription onto parchment, vellum in the future. They were, in effect, stored writings: libraries.

Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium was one of the main sources for describing a memory system (though many found the descriptions confusing, incomplete). By Chaucer’s time Geoffrey de Vinsauf had dispensed with this as far too outlandish.
By Shakespeare’s time the Tables would be used for storing quotations, improving phrases, then jottings, recipes, tittle-tattle. They became known as ‘writing tables,’ or ‘table books.’
And memory systems, as part of what might be considered ‘occult’, were very much forced underground after the fall from favour of Dr John Dee, and especially in Jacobean times.

We have here, though,  the act of writing as an act of memorising. Any student will know this: the physical act of writing notes on paper aids to remembering in revision.
And yes, I did keep a straight face when I wrote that – though only just.

Behind this memory–writing equation is maybe an episode from Plato’s Phaedrus. Here, Theuth (Thoth), the Egyptian god, had invented the art of writing: using visual, drawn, images, to convey spoken words. He presented his invention to the king of all Egypt, Thamus. He refused the gift, on the grounds that it would make people lazy, not having to remember everything.

I do not know the book by Plato, and cannot tell what was made of this anecdote by Socrates. It certainly would not be left to stand alone, that is for certain.
Topic for another day.

Roger Chartier is one of the chief writers of the histoire des mentalities school of cultural history.
He writes in French, but many of his books are available in translation.
Inscription and Erasure is a book full of riches. I would recommend it very highly.




The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe, by Richard Scholar, Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 9780199274406

Richard Scholar is Fellow and Tutor in French, at Oriel College, Oxford.

The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe : Richard ...

In the realm of Philosophy ours has been called the age of the method. That is, method as the chosen vehicle with which we locate and explore our understanding of our position in the world.

What is the je ne sais quois? It is the inexpressible, the ‘I do not know what’ of a situation, event, and even, as Richard Scholar shows with Montaigne, of a relationship. Or, if you prefer, it is the ‘I know not what.’ In English there is the phrase he uses as subtitle of the book: a certain something – The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi – Encounters with a Certain Something. This phrase pales against the French, though.

How can we know the je ne sais quoi? We can hunt out its provenance… this, after all, is accepted method. The phrase can be traced back to origins in the Cicero’s example of his use of the expression nescio quid: I do not know what. Richard Scholar qualifies, however: It owns its literary prestige partly to its Latin ancestor and its Romance cousins, but, unlike them, it goes on to establish itself as a vogue-word and an organising topic. (Page 25)

And there we have the tone and tenor of the book. We can trace the literary prestige of the phrase more easily than the vernacular usage. How prevalent was the phrase in ordinary/everyday usage? We would need to see how and if it was used in each and every instance in context, time, speech, manuscript, and print. And so he restricts his search to early modern Europe, examining its use in Montaigne, Corneille, Moliere, Descartes, Pascal, even Shakespeare.

Take those Englishings, above: the ‘I do not know what…’, and the ‘I know not what.’ The second is more succinct, comfortable; is more self-contained-seeming through its use of form. To our ears it has a sound-bite quality to it. The first seems more exploratory, more open, questing. The first expresses a vulnerability towards knowledge, self-knowledge – therefore a vulnerability before a greater, omniscient knowledge. In this way can we extrapolate therefore, a more theistic quality to it, whereas the latter has a more renaissance quality: more au-fait with classical rhetorical forms?
For me this gets to the heart of the question. I use the phrase ‘sound-bite’ etc – it is a contemporary journalistic phrase. Hopefully it will not be known in ten year’s time, as it was not say, twenty years’ ago. It limits. My worry is: do we limit our thinking to what we can only express in words, language? That would be a grievous error. I posit thought as experienced event, full of multiplying connections, and not as ordered and expressible formulation of the event.

Read the excerpt I gave above again; take, for instance, the need of the super-defining Latin writers of the phrase, nescio quid. Something even escapes their forensic practice. In fact, quite a lot did, And this is the fate of so much of our, Europe’s, early heritage, circumscribed by Latin thought, expression, and the vicissitudes of transmission.

In the sixteenth century France, Richard Scholar comments, the phrase became vogue; as with the later vogue for conversatione (see Peter Burke, The Art of Conversation, Cornell University paperbacks,1993:
it spread throughout Western Europe. It changed costume, definition, commercial value, as it crossed cultures.

David M Possner, Chicago University:, writes: The first part of the book presents itself as a word history: using Starobinski’s notion of the tripartite life cycle of a word — from its emergence as a lexical entity, through a period of currency, to its demise in what Merleau-Ponty calls sedimentation….

And so we have the burgeoning of the great dictionaries at the turn of the seventeenth century. The phrase cannot be so restricted, we find: it retains its ability to disturb, disrupt, by remaining indefinable. And so ‘society’ fights back. We have what is called a parlour game of polite conversation, where the new philosophical writing becomes a polite topic. The game is of nescioquiddity, of applying the phrase to ‘cultured’ phenomena, the world of gentility.

The move from ‘I know not what’, to ‘a certain something’ is a very definite, provocative one. Kant and the Age of Reason are taken wholesale, you might say, and produce their own particular paradigms for conceptualising the essence of the relationship of self and the world.

The phrase throws into relief our relationship with knowledge of the world, of self knowledge, and the relationship between: our basic epistemology.

With this book, and his next, Montaigne and the Art of Free-Thinking (Past in the Present):
Scholar enrolled himself in the realm of histoire des mentalites,
of cultural history’s  investigations.

In the early 1970s, like many, I was restless, on the look out for something… something…. As the song says: There’s more to life than this – better ways of living.
I had been keeping an eye on the Commune movement in Britain through the magazine, imaginatively titled Commune, the Journal of the Commune Movement.
This, and many other underground publications, were available from Mike Don, at The Magic Village:,and later through the early version of the shop, On The Eighth Day. All based in Manchester.

The magazine gave regular updates of experiments in living, from their place in South Wales.
Why I followed this, I don’t know – I would have hated to have lived like that. What was it Roy Harper had written/sung: To think of us all under the same roof/ with one common destination/when all we do is remain aloof/like we have no close relation – ?

One variation of this, was for small groups to build their own places – from scraps scavenged from public dumps, or just dumped. A few things always puzzled me about this. One was, the land – unlike America, every scrap of land in Britain is fiercely owned. And Public dumps – well, now, if you try to remove one single item you’d be grabbed, accused of theft and all the rest of the palaver. You can only think that the Councils who own the dumps make a reasonable profit from selling-on the many serviceable items left – and don’t want no competition, no sir.

I saw examples of these new places: not architecturally permitted, and built any-old-how. Builders dumped remnants of renovated buildings, and these groups re-used them. They favoured south-facing bedroom walls made out of windows, or west-facing to catch glorious sunsets: all glass. East-facing bedroom window walls to catch brilliant dawns for the fabled ‘new days.’
This was the tail-end of the hippie movement, before it collapsed and they, in turn, collapsed in on themselves, splintered into isolated groups smashed into oblivion on drugs, weird religions, increasingly vicious politics.

These alternative living experiements tended to be out in the countryside where open land was, ie not built-up. How’d they keep them warm in winter? Burn wood, of course. Ahem.
They used waste-recycle systems: including human waste. They utilised natural springs, streams, creating oudoor showers (in Britain, anytime of year – brrr).

Parallel to all these were/are the urban communes. The current form is that of communal houses, or properties that house many families who, although, family units, merge child-rearing, and domestic duties. A kibbutzim principle; it has always attracted, but I have also feared its short-comings.
The 1985 Amos Oz novel, A PERFECT PEACE, Fontana Paperbacks, gives a rivetting depiction of the at times stifling and uncreative Kibbutzim atmosphere.
Where does one fit into such a scheme when one does not know/have definable parameters of ability? Of course the circumstances described in the book are vastly different: the impact of living surrounded by increasingly mortal enemies.

It was all about that thought of not being part of ‘the system’ with its housing , estates, house-buying-shenanigans – of being able to take control of our own lives.
Of course, like the communistas, money has to come from somewhere: from working, in ‘the system.’

One example that particularly caught my attention was a house built inside a hill. There was the entrance of course, and just big sun-facing windows visible. All the rest was underground. First of all there must be problems with getting enough light throughout. Most such houses used light-wells in the centre that diffused the light through the arranged rooms. Maybe something of the Roman example, here: the peristylium effect.
I can’t tell you how many years I have tried to work out how the walls could be kept moisture-free.

So, where are we now? I came across Cobtun, recently.

Cobtun is a made from the old Anglo-Saxon ‘cob’ materials: straw, water, earth.

– My older brother had a hand in constructing the neolithic huts at the Stonehenge site, in Wiltshire. They are round structures, with a central hearth, and thatch roofs. A wall was built before the doorway in some examples,  to cut off wind’s direct access. It is presumed cloths and skins would be strung across the doorways also. They had no windows. These were temporary shelters.

– A childhood memory is that of the hut circles on Holyhead Mountain, in North Wales:
The views must have been spectacular, but winters horrendous.

Back to Cobtun: Cobtun was built in 2001. It is advertised as: 25 sides… only one 90-degree angle in the whole house.
It is not aesthetic to look at, and owners do not tend to stay long. But as an example of a self-sustaining eco house, that is almost wholly eco-powered… it would seem churlish to moan.
I suspect the quick change-over of tenancy is due to cost of buying the place: only for the wealthy, which means older people who have accrued sufficient funds. Being older, however, they would tend to be less adaptable to radical change – and the house would require radical changes in living patterns and behaviour.
The write-up goes on: the cob walls are 2ft thick by 15ft high – so, not as high as a conventional house. One of the bedrooms has an earth wall… surprisingly nice… hard… tactile. It also has lots of oak-clad timbers .

Cobtun house won the 2005 Riba sustainability award.
The roof, though – we have not mentioned the roof. That is because it is of corrugated aluminium. It is lined with solar tubes for water heating – which explains the choice of corrugation. The house also has lots of dark concrete surfaces – these, the article claims, store heat from the sun, and act like radiators. A utility room absorbs moisture from drying clothes etc.

There is much here to commend it, and some to make you pause (concrete?).
Cobtun house marks the point where flaky lefties, tree-huggy-thinking’s aims and ideals have become mainstream – that is, commercial, exploitable, to be profited-from.

It was the summer of 1618, and the poet and, yes, dramatist, Ben Jonson, was at the height of his fame and powers.
I emphasise dramatist, because shortly before this date Ben Jonson had published his Works, in which he included his dramatic works. This was not done – at that time dramatic scripts were not considered ‘works’ but throw-away pieces. He received a lot of criticism for this; he was by then inured to the extremes that criticism could reach, his part in the ‘War of the Theatres’ had been bloody, hard, and he had had to concede defeat. For Ben Jonson’s character, defeat was not easily admitted, or lived with, and yet he had swallowed it the best he could.

So, in 1618, July 8th, Ben Jonson set out on an epic journey; it was well-advertised to interested parties.

He was to walk from London to Edinburgh. 450 miles.

He took the Great North Road out of London, up country, meeting the coast near Alnwick, Northumberland, whereon he followed the coast road right around to Edinburgh, coming in from Leith, on September 6th.

– A friend of my son’s walked to London from Cambridge one day: it took a punishing 12 hours. Ben Jonson’s walk took him 60 days.
The friend was fit and young; Ben Jonson had acquired his legendary girth of 20 stone in weight. He was also 46 years old, rather older than middle-age, for those times.
At the beginning of his career Ben Jonson was nick-named ‘the anatomy,’ due to his lean-ness: tall and thin.
How time was to change him.

What was the purpose of this walk? It can be considered a huge publicity stunt: he was, as all were, constantly on the look out for patronage, and Royal patronage was the best paid. He was, in effect, purposely celebrating the journey made by King James I/VI of Scotland – in reverse. The name Jonson, was also, through his father’s side, a Scottish Border name, from Johnstone, of Annandale. By acknowledging the Scottish name, he was therefore cementing his link, and also his credentials, to further a further suit with King James.

He stayed there six months, and then undertook the return journey, following the same route.

His journey has been tracked, and meticulously noted: see the map:

It was thought for a long time he undertook the journey alone. Rather recently, though, papers have been unearthed in the Cheshire Archives, which give detailed notes on the journey, in another’s hand.
The paper was not signed, and describes the walk as a Foot Voyage.

For much of the way, then, he had a travelling companion, a member of the Alder(s)ley  (sic) Family perhaps, among whose effects the notes were found. Was this a relative of the 1st Baronet, John Thomas Stanley, 1597–1672? The family are connected to the Earl of Derby, and the Baron Sheffield.
The Stanleys came in for some criticism in Alan Garners’ 1976 novella, The Stone Book.

The Alderleys, called, confusingly, the Stanley Family, are connected with what is now the affluent dormitory town of Alderley, properly known as Alderley Edge, and a place well known the readers of young adult fiction, and general fiction writer, Alan Garner. His earliest, and latest book are set there: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and the latest, Boneland, (2012).


Ben Jonson noted that his shoes gave out by the time he had reached Darlington, near Newcastle. That was not bad going, actually. He had another pair made, and suffered them for the next few days, until he wore them in.

What we know of Jacobean male footwear is scanty, and restricted to court fashions, and further, to what was depicted in portraits from the period.
During the late Elizabethan era, however,  pamphletting was taking off. One such practitioner was Philip Stubbes, a puritan. He inveighed against  ‘unchristian’ workplace practices. We have to thank him for the details he provides of such practices of the time. One of which was, shoe making.

He tells us the leather was soaked in liquor for hardening, then well greased. The fraudulence was in the use of, for example, the more thinner, fragile, calf for cow hide and, controversially, horse skin for ox-hides. They were always, he insisted, cat-skin lined.
The sewing was done with hot needles and twine. He says the shoes were then heated by the fire to harden them. We can only presume this was a fraudulent practice.

What of the soles? He does not mention soles. Heeled boots for men became fashionable in the late Elizabethan  period; the heels were of wood. Would workmen’s – brick-layers, as with Ben Jonson – also use wooden soles? Wooden pattens were still in use in the period.


Ben Jonson’s stay in Edinburgh reached its summit in his long sojourn with William Drummond, of Hawthornden Castle. This lasted from December, 1618, until early Spring, 1619, and his return journey. What eased the familiarity of their company was that William Drummond owned, and continually added to, one of the best libraries in Britain, at that time. Both were avid bibliophiles.
We also have William Drummonds’ notes on the sojourn: a commentary on Ben Jonson’s conversation, but without his own input.

One incident particularly spoiled Ben Jonson’s epic of his walk and sojourn in Scotland. That was the arrival, a few week’s after himself, of ‘self-styled… poet’ (Ben Jonson, His Life and Work, by Rosalind Miles, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), John Taylor, the ‘sculler’, or water poet. The name derives from his previous occupation as a Thames waterman. He was born in Gloucestershire, and became a boatman/ferryman in Kent – the Sheppey region.
I am always surprised at the mobility of people then: Shakespeare from Warwickshire to London was seen as no big step.

King James applauded John Taylor’s writing, preferring him above Sir Philip Sidney (perhaps out of a sense of mischief?). Ben Jonson was indeed put out by his arrival, having walked all the way, the same route, as he himself had. He became convinced his London rivals had put John Taylor up to this, to mock his own feat. It was vigorously denied, and to a believable extent. Although John Taylor did indulge later in spectacular stunts, such as manning and sailing a real paper boat into London.
also see

Ah, but John Taylor had not the high connections of Ben Jonson, in Edinburgh; nor was he made Freeman of the City, as Jonson was.

On his return to London he found several things had changed. For one, the Queen had died. This was soon followed by the death of Richard Burbage. A national loss, and a more localised one; but the public stage had lost two important players.
The Queen’s death put his own suit with King James on a back burner.

If any reader is looking for an introduction, way in, to Ben Jonson’s poetic works, I would heartily recommend the Thom Gunn selection, on Penguin:

Ben Jonson: