I waking do find want the worst

In 1631 Ben Jonson sent the following letter to William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle – the ultimate in the art of witty begging:

I my self being no substance, am fain to trouble you with shadows; or (what is less) an apologue or fable in a dream. I being struck with the palsy in the year 1628, had by Sir Thomas Badger some few months since, a Fox sent me for a present; such creature, by handling, I endeavoured to make tame, as well for the abating of my disease, as the delight I took in speculation of his Nature. It happened this present year 1631, and this very week, being the week ushering Christmas, and this Tuesday morning in a dream (and morning dreams are truest) to have one of my servants come up to my Bedside, and tell me, Master, Master the Fox speaks. Whereat, (me thought) I started, and troubled, went down into the Yard, to witness the wonder; There I found my Reynard, in his tenement the Tub, I had hired for him, cynically expressing his own lot, to be condemned to the house of a poet, where nothing was to be seen but the bare walls, and not anything heard but the noise of a saw, dividing billets all the week long, more to keep the family in exercise, then to comfort any person there with fire, save the paralytic master; and went on in this way as the fox seemed the better fabler of the two. I, his master, began to give him good words, and stroke him: but Reynard barking, told me those would not do, I must give him meat; I angry, called him stinking vermin. He replied, “Look into your cellar, which is your larder too, you’ll find a worse vermin there.” When presently calling for a light, me thought, I went down, & found all the floor turned up, as if a colony of moles had been there, or an army of salt-peter men; Whereupon I sent presently into Tuttle Street, for the King’s most excellent mole-catcher to relieve me, & hunt them. But when he came and viewed the place, and had well marked the Earth turned up, took a handful, smelt to it, and said, “Master it is not in my power to destroy this vermin; the K. or some good man of Noble Nature must help you. This kind of mole is called a want, which will destroy you, and your family, if you prevent not the working of it in time, and therefore God keep you and send you health.”

The interpretation of both the fable and the dream is, that I waking do find want the worst, and most working vermin in a house, and therefore my noble lord, and next the King, my best Patron, I am necessitated to tell it you. I am not so impudent to borrow any sum of your Lordship, for I have no faculty to pay: but my needs are such, and so urging, as I do beg, what your bounty can give me, in the name of good letters, and the bond of an ever-grateful and acknowledging servant.

To your honor Westminster.20.Dec 1631 B.Jonson

Yesterday the barbarous Court of Aldermen
have withdrawn their Chanderly Pension,
for Verjuice, & Mustard.

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  • September 29, 2009 - 10:07 am | Permalink

    It’s very Jonson in my view. Long-winded, witty, & classical. What interested me about it is the obvious desperation to convey dire circumstances, without once resorting to wheedling. There is sadness too; Jonson had been bed-ridden for several years, and the Pension he lost was, I think, an annual payment for his role as a City Chronologer; one of only two annual incomes he received.

    Verjuice is, or was, a sour wine. Poor chap.

  • September 29, 2009 - 9:31 am | Permalink

    What a fantastic letter. I struggled horribly with Jonson, finding him convoluted and almost deliberately inaccessible at times, but this has made me laugh. Reynard is a saucy fox and the excellent poverty mole! I like the way he admits to having no resources, rather than grovelling for a loan. I suppose verjuice and mustard are spite and temper?

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