Friday, March 15, 2013

Ben Jonson's Memory

Ben Jonson, as engraved by George Vertue, 1730

Cambridge University Press recently published a new edition of Ben Jonson's Works in seven volumes, and I recently ordered them ($990 for the set) and cataloged them for the library that employs me. In volume seven I discovered Ben Jonson's commonplace book, first published in 1641 (four years after the author's death) under the title Timber, or, Discoveries : made upon men and matter, as they have flow'd out of his daily Readings, or had their refluxe to his peculiar Notion of the Times.

Toward the end of the manuscript Jonson writes about a subject that everybody comes to recognize –

Memory, of all the powers of the mind, is the most delicate and frail; it is the first of our faculties that age invades. Seneca the father, the rhetorician, confesseth of himself he had a miraculous one, not only to receive, but to hold. I myself could in my youth have repeated all that ever I had made, and so continued till I was past forty; since, it is much decayed in me. Yet I can repeat whole books that I have read, and poems of some selected friends which I have liked to charge my memory with. It was wont to be faithful to me, but shaken with age now, and sloth (which weakens the strongest abilities), it may perform somewhat, but cannot promise much. By exercise it is to be made better and serviceable. Whatsoever I pawned with it while I was young and a boy, it offers me readily and without stops; but what I trust to it now, or have done of later years, it lays up more negligently, and oftentimes loses; so that I receive mine own (though frequently called for) as if it were new and borrowed. Nor do I always find presently from it, what I do seek; but while I am doing another thing, that I laboured for will come; and what I sought with trouble will offer itself when I am quiet.