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


No more let Greece her bolder fables tell
Of Hercules or Theseus going to hell,
Orpheus, Ulysses; or the Latin muse
With tales of Troy's just knight our faiths abuse:
We have a Sheldon and a Heydon got,
Had power to act what they to feign had not.
All that they boast of Styx, of Acheron,
Cocytus, Phlegethon, our have proved in one:
The filth, stench, noise; save only what was there
Subtly distinguished, was confused here.......................10
Their wherry had no sail, too; ours had none;
And in it two more horrid knaves than Charon.
Arses were heard to croak instead of frogs,
And for one Cerberus, the whole coast was dogs.
Furies there wanted not; each scold was ten;
And for the cries of ghosts, women and men
Laden with plague-sores and their sins were heard,
Lashed by their consciences; to die, afeard.
Then let the former age with this content her:
She brought the poets forth, but ours the adventer.

The Voyage Itself

I sing the brave adventure of two wights,
And pity 'tis I cannot call 'em knights:
One was; and he for brawn and brain right able
To have been styled of King Arthur's table.
The other was a squire of fair degree, .................... 25
But in the action greater man than he,
Who gave, to take at his return from hell,
His three for one. Now, lordings, listen well.
It was the day, what time the powerful moon
Makes the poor Bankside creature wet it' shoon ............ 30
In it' own hall, when these (in worthy scorn
Of those that put out moneys on return
From Venice, Paris, or some inland passage
Of six times to and fro without embassage,
Or him that backward went to Berwick, or which ......... 35
Did dance the famous morris unto Norwich)
At Bread Street's Mermaid having dined, and merry,
Proposed to go to Holborn in a wherry:
A harder task than either his to Bristo',
Or his to Antwerp. Therefore, once more, list ho! ......... 40
A dock there is that called is Avernus,
Of some, Bridewell, and may in time concern us
All that are readers; but methinks 'tis odd
That all this while I have forgot some god
Or goddess to invoke, to stuff my verse, ............... 45
And with both bombard-style and phrase rehearse
The many perils of this port, and how
Sans help of sibyl or a golden bough
Or magic sacrifice, they passed along.
Alcides, be thou succouring to my song! ................. 50
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 ............ 55
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. ..........60
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: ............65
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, ............. 70
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; .............. 75
But still their valour and their virtue fenced 'em,
And on they went, like Castor brave and Pollux,
Ploughing the main. When see (the worst of all lucks)
They met the second prodigy, would fear a
Man that had never heard of a Chimaera. .................. 80
One said it was bold Briareus, or the beadle
(Who bath the hundred hands when he doth meddle);
The other thought it Hydra, or the rock
Made of the trull that cut her father's lock; -
But coming near, they found it but a lighter, .............85
So huge, it seemed, they could by no means quite her.
Back, cried their brace of Charons; they cried, No,
No going back! On still, you rogues, and row.
How bight the place? A voice was heard: Cocytus.
Row close then, slaves! Alas, they will beshite us. ......... 90
No matter, stinkards, row! What croaking sound
Is this we hear? of frogs? No, guts wind-bound,
Over your heads; well, row. At this a loud
Crack did report itself, as if a cloud
Had burst with storm, and down fell ab excelsis ........95
Poor Mercury, crying out on Paracelsus
And all his followers, that had so abused him,
And in so shitten sort so long had used him;
For (where he was the god of eloquence,
And subtlety of metals) they dispense .............100
His spirits now in pills and eke in potions,
Suppositories, cataplasms and lotions.
But many moons there shall not wane, quoth he,
(In the, meantime, let 'em imprison me)
But I will speak-and know I shall be heard- ...........105
Touching this cause, where they will be afeard
To answer me. And sure, it was the intent
Of the grave fart, late let in parliament,
Had it been seconded, and not in fume
Vanished away: as you must all presume ............. 110
Their Mercury did now. By this, the stem
Of the hulk touched and, as by Polypheme
The sly Ulysses stole in a sheepskin,
The well-greased wherry now had got between,
And bade her farewell sough unto the lurden....... 115
Never did bottom more betray her burden:
The meat-boat of Bears' College, Paris Garden,
Stunk not so ill; nor, when she kissed, Kate Arden.
Yet one day in the year for sweet 'tis voiced,
And that is when it is the Lord Mayor's foist. .......120
By this time had they reached the Stygian pool
By which the masters swear when, on the stool
Of worship, they their nodding chins do hit
Against their breasts. Here several ghosts did flit
About the shore, of farts but late departed, ........... 125
White, black, blue, green, and in more forms out-started
Than all those atomi ridiculous
Whereof old Democrite and Hill Nicholas,
One said, the other swore, the world consists.
These be the cause of those thick frequent mists ...........130
Arising in that place, through which who goes
Must try the unused valour of a nose:
And that ours did. For yet no flare was tainted,
Nor thumb nor finger to the stop acquainted,
But open and unarmed encountered all. .........135
Whether it languishing stuck upon the wall
Or were precipitated down the jakes,
And after sworn abroad in ample flakes,
Or that it lay heaped like an usurer's mass,
All was to them the same: they were to pass, ........140
And so they did, from Styx to Acheron,
The ever-boiling flood; whose banks upon
Your Fleet Lane furies and hot cooks do dwell,
That with still-scalding steams make the place hell.
The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs, ........145
The heads, boughs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:
For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty
To put the skins and offal in a pasty?
Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted
And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted; ........150
Then selling not, a dish was ta'en to mince 'em,
But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince 'em
For here they were thrown in wi' the melted pewter,
Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.
But 'mongst these Tiberts, who d'you think there was?..... 155
Old Banks the juggler, our Pythagoras,
Grave tutor to the learned horse: both which
Being, beyond sea, burned for one witch,
Their spirits transmigrated to a cat;
And now, above the pool, a face right fat, ............160
With great grey eyes, are lifted up, and mewed;
Thrice did it spit, thrice dived. At last it viewed
Our brave heroes with a milder glare,
And in a piteous tune began: How dare
Your dainty nostrils (in so hot a season, .............165
When every clerk eats artichokes and peason,
Laxative lettuce, and such windy meat)
'Tempt such a passage? When each privy's seat
Is filled with buttock, and the walls do sweat
Urine and plasters? When the noise doth beat ........170
Upon your ears of discords so unsweet,
And outcries of the damned in the Fleet?
Cannot the plague-bill keep you back? nor bells
Of loud Sepulchre's, with their hourly knells,
But you will visit grisly Pluto's hall? .....................175
Behold where Cerberus, reared on the wall
Of Holborn (three sergeants' heads) looks o'er,
And stays but till you come unto the door!
Tempt not his fury; Pluto is away,
And Madam Caesar, great Proserpina,...................180
Is now from home. You lose your labours quite,
Were you Jove's sons, or had Alcides' might.
They cried out, Puss! He told them he was Banks,
That had so often showed 'em merry pranks.
They laughed at his laugh-worthy fate; and passed.............185
The triple head without a sop. At last,
Calling for Rhadamanthus, that dwelt by,
A soap-boiler, and Aeacus him nigh,
Who kept an ale-house, with my little Minos,
An ancient purblind fletcher with a high nose, .............190
They took 'em all to witness of their action,
And so went bravely back, without protraction.
In memory of which most liquid deed,
The city since bath raised a pyramid.
And I could wish for their eternized sakes, ...................195
My muse had ploughed with his that sung A-jax.


4 Troy's just knight: Aeneas.

5 Sheldon: usually identified as Sir Ralph Sheldon of Epig. 119; Heydon: probably Sir Christopher Heydon, knighted 1596, d. 1623, a writer on astrology.

7-8 Styx . . . Achcron . . . Cocytus, Phlegethon: four of the five rivers of Hades.

8 in one: the Fleet Ditch, a stream rising in the Highgate and Hampstead hills, and flowing into the Thames at Blackfriars. Once easily navigable as far as Holborn Bridge, it had become a common sewer by the sixteenth century, and was now choked with refuse.

11. wherry: light rowing boat.

12 Charon: god of hell, who ferried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Achcron.

13 frogs: who form a croaking chorus in Aristophancs' comedy of that name, in which Charon ferries Dionysus to Hades.

14 Cerberus: watchdog of Hades; he had three (or, according to some, fifty) heads.

20 adventer: adventure.

28 three for one: a form of wagering on one's chances of successful completion of travel; a wagerer stood to treble, or forfeit, his stake.

29 powerful moon: i.e. a spring tide.

34 without embassage: without being ambassadors.

35 backward went to Berwick: in 1589 Sir Robert Carey won £2,000 by walking from London to Berwick in 12 days. "Backward" may be simply a gibe, or may refer to an actual attempt to outdo this feat.

36 the famous morris: danced by the actor William Kemp in 1599.

39-40 Two of several daring small boat enterprises of the time. The wherry journey to Bristol was undertaken by Richard Ferris and two companions in 1590.

41 Avernus: sulphurous lake in Campania, thought to be the entrance to hell (see Aeneid, vi. 126 if.).

42 Bridewell: Bridewell dock, at the north end of what is now Blackfriars Bridge, was the outlet of the Fleet Ditch; Bridewell prison was situated here.

46 bombard-style: bombast.

48 sibyl or a golden bough: which assisted Aeneas in the underworld (Aeneid, vi).

50 Alcides: Hercules, whose twelfth labour was to bring Cerberus from hell.

55 Club-fist: Hercules inadvertently killed a man in Calydon with a blow of his fist.

57 adventry: adventure (a nonce-formation).

60 dock's no rose: punning on the name of the dock plant; a proverbial saying (Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs: cf. Tilley, D42o).

65 merd-urinous: of dung and urine.

67 scar: scare.

68 car-men: carriers, carters.

74 ox in Livy: see Livy, I. VU. 4-7, XXXV. xx. 4-5.

75 anenst: beside.

77 Castor brave and Pollux: who sailed with Jason in search of thc golden fleece, and later cleared the Hcllespant and neighbouring seas of pirates.

8o Chimaera: a monster which was lion in its foreparts, dragon aft, and goat amidships.

81 Briareus: a giant with 100 hands and 50 heads; encountered by Aeneas, Aeneid, vi. 287.

83 Hydra: a monster with 100 (or 50, or 9) heads; when one was cut off, two more would grow in its place.

84 the trull: Scylla, daughter of Typhon, was changed by the jealous Circe into a monster with barking nether parts, 12 feet, and 6 heads; dismayed, she threw herself into the sea, and was changed again, into rocks. Jonson, like several classical authors, confuses her with the Scylia who cut off the hair of her father, Nisus, king of Megara.

86 quite: avoid.

89 Cocytus: the unsavoury river 'of lamentation' in the classical underworld.

95 ab cxcelsis: from on high.

96 Parcelsus: Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenhcim (?1490-1 541), physician and alchemist, laid stress on the necessary balance of mercury, sulphur, and salt in the human constitution; he and his followers essayed 'strange cures with mineral physic' (Alch. 11. iii. 231).

108 the grave fart: 'The peculiar manner in which Henry Ludlow said "no,, to a message brought by the Serjeant from the Lords' in 1607 forms the subject of a poem published in Musarum Deliciae in 1656. (Cf. Alch. II. ii. 63.)

112 Polypheme: Odyssey, ix. 431-4.

115 sough: deep sigh.

115 lurden: sluggard, i.e. the slow-moving boat.

116 bottom: the lower hull of a boat; a pun.

117 Butchers' offal was taken by boat to Paris Garden on the Bankside, immediately opposite the outlet of Fleet Ditch; bull- and bear-baiting were held here. For 'Bear's College' cf. Pdet. Apol. Dial. 45, Gyp. Met. 1358 (Songs, 25. 30).

118 Kate Arden: whose charms are also remembered in Und. 43. 148-9.

120 foist: (i) barge; (ii) fart.

128 Democrite: Democritus, born c. 460 u.c., developed the theory of the atomic nature of the universe. Hill Nicholas: Nicholas Hill, fellow of St. John's, Oxford.

133 narr: nostril.

143 Fleet Lane: now Farringdon Street; then chiefly occupied by taverns and cookshops.

144 hell: the association of cooks with hell is traditional.

145 measled: spotty, infected.

152 Convince: convict, give away.

155 Taberts: cats; from the name of the cat in Reynard the Fox (trs. Caxton, 1481).

156 Banks:1588-1637, a showman, owner of the famous horse Morocco (or Marocco). The story of their both being burned by the Pope in Rome is probably untrue (see DNB).

162 Thrice . . . thrice: an expected number on epic (and mock-epic) occasions: cf. Virgil, Aeneid, ii. 792-4, VI. 700-2; Pope, The Rape of the Lock, iii. 137-8; The Dunciad (A), i. 203-4; etc.

166 peason: peas.

172 the damned in the Fleet: the prisoners in Fleet prison. New prisoners were taken by boat along Fleet Ditch, and entered the prison through a water-gate.

174 Sepulchre's: the bells of St. Sepulchre's tolled for criminals proceeding to execution, and also, with great frequency, for the dead in time of plague.

175 grisly Pluto's hall: probably Fleet prison. Pluto is king of the classical underworld.

176-7 The reference is obscure; but the 'sergeants' are sergeants-at-law in the near-by Inns of Court on Holborn Hill.

180 Madam Caesar: a brothel-keeper.

186 a sop: Aeneas pacified Cerberus with a drugged honey-cake, Aeneid, vi. 417-25. 187-9. Rhadamanthus ... Aeacus . . . Minos: the three judges of the classical underworld. Cf. Poet. III. i. 145 f.

190 fletcher: arrow-maker.

190 high: long.

193-4 Possibly referring to Sir Hugh Myddelton's New River scheme, begun in 1609 and ceremoniously opened in 1613; the 'pyramid' may be the water-house and tower at New River Head, Clerkenwell.

196 A-jax: Sir John Harington's treatise on the jakes (1596), A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. But the reference is also, perhaps, to Homer; there may be a further gibe at Harington's longwindedness as an epigrammatist.

(Text from http://www.ualr.edu/~rlknutson/Jonson.html)



Return to miscellaneous index


[ Home ] [ Time Lines ] [ Articles ] [ Photos/Graphics ] [ Display ] [ Bibliography ] [ Miscellaneous ] [ Links ] [ Search ]
Copyright © 2004 sewerhistory.org. All rights reserved.