Ben Johnson and the Cavalier Poets

The Times (of London) has an article on Ben Johnson, "one of our greatest poets – I know not how good a one[.]"
In his turbulent career Jonson had many scrapes with the law, including prosecution for manslaughter, having killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel in Hoxton Fields. Jonson escaped the gallows thanks to the old law excusing those who could read the so-called “neck-verse” from Psalm 51 as a test of literacy. In several plays, Jonson echoes his own experience with allusions to characters being “saved by the book”.
The Cavalier Poets were a really interesting group, sadly not as well known these days.   They favored a life of courage and boldness, humane and even bawdy:  one of my favorite of their poems is built around a dream in which the poet imagined himself as a vine twining about his lady love, but found when he awoke that he was "more like a stock than like a vine."  The allusion to the thick root stock, contrasted with the qualities of the vines that grow from it, would have been obvious enough in a more agricultural age.

One of the reasons I like the Cavalier Poets so well is that they often force us to rethink whose 'side' we are on in reading history.  It is very common for Americans to take the side of revolution against the kings to be the side of progress, and to see in Oliver Cromwell a kind of predecessor.  For part of the country, that's even somewhat true -- the Roundheads were the ancestors of the Puritans of Boston.  Yet the attitudes of modern Boston have nothing to do with the Puritan ones, and will find very much more to recognize in the rowdy, bawdy Cavaliers.

There is an ironic reversal here in the South, for whom the Cavaliers make up many of our proper ancestors.  In Theodore Roosevelt's day it was a commonplace of historians to divide the nation into the Roundhead Yankees and the Cavalier Southerners; Roosevelt does it himself in The Winning of the West.  Yet of course, today the South is the Bible Belt, and far more likely to exhibit something like Puritanism than anywhere settled by the Puritans.  On the other hand, the South is also the home of Outlaw Country Music -- and David Allen Coe would find much to recognize in Ben Johnson, as might Willie Nelson, or Johnny Cash, or Johnny Paycheck.

In any case, it turns out that Ben Johnson was buried in Westminster Abbey -- head first.

(H/t:  Arts & Letters Daily)


Texan99 said...

"Albion's Seed" traces four major Anglo strains in the U.S.: Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Border-Countrymen. The South was dominated by Cavaliers (rich, episcopalian gentleman-farmer types - Ashley Wilkes) and Border-Country semi-outlaws (rednecks and hillbillies -- Rhett Butler). Families like mine that spread west across the South following King Cotton were predominantly Border Country. Up East you see more Puritan and Quaker influence, which strikes people like me as quite an alien culture. No matter what good things it produces, I find that my heart always is with the rednecks even when my head tells me the Puritans and Quakers have come up with better solutions.

Grim said...

I used to call the distinction between Cavalier-based culture and what they are calling Border Country culture "Lowland Southern" versus "Highland Southern." This is because of the influence of the Cavaliers on the lowland South, with its relative fertility that made it subject to cotton farming; versus the Highlands, which were mostly left to the folk from Northumbria and Scotland.

However, you might be interested to know that the distinction is actually quite old. In Bloodfeud, Richard Fletcher points out that the Anglo-Saxon kings sat most firmly in Wessex and the south, and had to be on very good behavior when they traveled into Northumbria even at the height of their power. This was before the Norman conquest, before Canute and the Danelaw, and before the Scots were fully in power in the further north.

The Danelaw cut Northumbria off from the Anglo-Saxon kings, and further differenced the people; and of course the coming of the Scots down into the old North kingdoms meant that there was some additional new influence in Northumbria. So it probably is right to read a "Border Country" civilization that is distinct either from what we would normally think of as "English" or "Scottish."

Grim said...

On the other hand, it's kind of interesting to ask what sort of a civilization it would be. It was border country even for the Romans, who built both Hadrian's wall and Antonine Wall to try to put a double frontier on the Picts to the north. In the wake of the fall of Rome, a Celtic kingdom sprung up there that was the very last to fall to the Angles (not until St. Edwin of Northumbria). The Angles held uneasy rulership over the population until the Danes, but it was (as mentioned above) the least governable and most dangerous part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. (Although the Church did not have the same trouble: Lindisfarne was here.) Then the Danes cut it off, altering its laws and demographic makeup somewhat.

The Normans established Newcastle to try to ride herd on the place, but it remained a hotbed of rebellion until Tudor times (especially because of a strong Catholic loyalty following the Reformation). The only thing that probably held it to England at all was the constant war with Scotland from 1286-1330s, which kept English forces and Norman strength concentrated there to a degree that troubled them throughout much of the Hundred Years War.

This is where my father's people come from, apparently.

Grim said...

And my mother's people? Mostly from the other side of that border.

Anonymous said...

My mother's people got tossed out of the Borders for cattle theft, then got tossed out of Ulster (ditto) and kept moving west through Virginia, Tennessee and into Texas. And then there's the Cajun branch, which is Franco-German and semi-Jewish . . . Dad's people are English with a dash of Scottish lowlanders for spice (McKay). No cavaliers but a lot of hard-shell Baptists and Borderers.


Texan99 said...

LittleRed, we might as well be cousins: same family history on my father's side. (But my mother's people came from Germany through Kansas instead of being Cajuns.)

Grim, if you look up "Border Country" culture in the dictionary, there's a picture of you.

Joel Leggett said...

My Ulster-Scot family is from Southern Mississippi, as fertile a cotton growing area as you will find. Far from being a culture dominated by tidewater cavaliers it was the heart of Jacksonian America. It is no small amount of pride in my family that our Ulster-Scot ancestors (mostly from the Lowlands and Border areas of Scotland) fought for the Patriot cause in the American War of Independence against the Highland Scots that primarily supported the crown. My kin, and the people from which we come are all dedicated small r republicans. We hate kings, aristocrats, and tyrants with equal vigor. And we have always hated busy body Eastern elites that look down their noses at us while they expect us to defend them, either as a frontier buffer or currently in the military.

Grim said...

Roger that, Joel. I said I "used to call" it Highland/Lowland for that very reason; there was a time when the Cavalier culture dominated the Lowlands -- say from about 1850 until the boll wevil epidemic in the 1920s broke the hold of cotton on the South.

There remains some use in the distinction; it lets us distinguish between those areas in which high Southern culture flourished, and those areas in which something more backwoods predominated. Still, what I have come to realize is that the spread of these different cultures overlaps much more than the distinction usefully describes.