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Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonson's Epitaphs on His Children, and Twelfth Night.

Stephen Booth. Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonson's Epitaphs on His Children, and Twelfth Night.

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Xii + 218 pp. $35. ISBN: 0-520-21288-6.

By his own admission, Stephen Booth's new project of close reading brings together a group of "ill-sorted" texts (ix), including Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address and early modern works in disparate genres by Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. His critical introduction which, Booth announces, attentive readers can "profitably skip" (1) because it simply replicates the kind of readings offered in his book, explores the "buried nuggets of unreason" (11) in various nursery rhymes, proverbs, jingles, and popular songs (such as "Home on the Range"), not to mention Prince's Purple Rain, and a brief comparison of two versions of The Maltese Falcon. Not surprisingly, Precious Nonsense lacks focus, given its author's remarkably indulgent parameters. Booth's procedure is to offer his readers a blend of New Critical and reader response approaches to these texts, spotlighting the unobtrusive illogic of their assertions through a strenuous analysis of individual phrases, words, and even syllables. While this focus generates som e fascinating readings, most notably of the nonsense logic of Feste's song ending Twelfth Night, the value of Booth's criticism to his peers is vitiated by his assumption that he need not engage with the extraordinary body of scholarship on Jonson or Shakespeare published over the past two decades. In a footnote to his study of Twelfth Night, Booth acknowledges -- but fails to defuse -- this issue: "Readers surprised that the following pages take no notice of [essays on the play by eminent Shakespeare scholars in the 1980s]... must understand that I ignore them here only because my concerns in thinking about Twelfth Night are essentially foreign to [their] ... concerns" (122). This footnote could scarcely be more revealing of the intellectual solipsism at the heart of Booth's non-interactive formal criticism.

In his section on Ben Jonson's elegies for his children, Stephen Booth champions "On My First Daughter," a poem he imagines is "relatively unknown" (ix), at the expense of Jonson's epitaph "On My First Son." Some thirty-five pages are devoted to disparaging Epigram 45 as a product of "slick, determinedly detached intellectuality" (77) on Jonson's part, whose etymological play on his son's name in the opening lines Booth views as a pedantic riddle that provides the poem's readers with a "satisfying diversion" (66). By contrast, Booth vastly prefers Epigram 22, "On My First Daughter," despite describing it as the "humble sibling [that]... invites us to dismiss it as dowdy, casual, and ineffectual" (101). His comparison refashions Jonson's moving and allied poems on the deaths of his children into a distasteful parlor game, a version of Sophie's choice, if you will. This advocacy of "On My First Daughter" is a vehicle for foregrounding Booth's critical ego. It also satisfies his penchant for decontextualizing the texts he teaches and writes about; he admits to being miffed when he had "to contend with helpful teaching assistants who ran off copies of 'On My First Son' for the students" in his introductory classes at Berkeley, "to get ... us off colorless little 'On My First Daughter' and onto its more demanding and critically rewarding brother" (67). Jonsonians have not felt required to choose between the two poems. The now-classic studies by W. David Kay, Sara van den Berg, Judith Kronenfeld, and William Cain, among others who have elucidated these elegies, were apparently not consulted before Booth embarked on this study.

The reading of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night centers on the "syntactic illogic" (142) of the first scene, the "unfunny comedy" (156) of Toby Belch's misfiring lines and the spectator's suppressed identification with Malvolia's resistance to the festive spirit advocated in the play, and, finally, Feste's song. Booth's attentive reading of Feste's song may be the high point of his book, the point at which his riddling title, Precious Nonsense, seems most earned.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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