On the Famous Voyage
by Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Called by Richard Helgerson "among the filthiest, the most deliberately and insistently disgusting poems in the language," On the Famous Voyage recounts the journey of two men in a boat down London's Fleet River, adrift in raw sewage, animal carcasses, and filth. It provides a vivid glimpse of the unsanitary waterways of London in the 1600s.

 

Excerpt:

Alcides*, be thou succouring to my song!
Thou hast seen hell, some say, and know'st all nooks there,
Canst tell me best how every fury looks there,
And art a god, if fame thee not abuses,
Always at hand to aid the merry muses.
Great Club-fist, though thy back and bones be sore
Still, with thy former labours, yet once more
Act a brave work, call it thy last adventry;
But hold my torch while I describe the entry
To this dire passage. Say thou stop thy nose:
'Tis but light pains: indeed this dock's no rose.
In the first jaws appeared that ugly monster
Ycleped Mud**, which when their oars did once stir,
Belched forth an air as hot as at the muster
Of all your night-tubs, when the carts do cluster,
Who shall discharge first his merd-urinous load:
Thorough her womb they make their famous road
Between two walls, where on one side, to scar men
Were seen your ugly centaurs ye call car-men,
Gorgonian scolds and harpies; on the other
Hung stench, diseases, and old filth, their mother,
With famine, wants and sorrows many a dozen,
The least of which was to the plague a cousin.
But they unfrighted pass, though many a privy
Spake to 'em louder than the ox in Livy,
And many a sink poured out her rage anenst 'em;
But still their valour and their virtue fenced 'em...

*Alcides: Hercules, whose twelfth labor was to bring Cerberus from Hell

**Ycleped Mud: called Mud. This refers to excrement discharged into the water and finally forming a thick sludge.

Links:

Complete text of "On the Famous Voyage" with notes

Jonson's World: A Study in Sewage by Kim MacQueen.

Ah, Renaissance London! Its science; its literature; its rapturous art; its truly breathtaking...stench.

"On the Famous Voyage": Ben Jonson and Civic Space
by Andrew McRae, University of Sydney
(andrew.mcrae@english.usyd.edu.au)

   


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