Jonson, Ben (Poetry Criticism)
Ben Jonson 1572?–1637
English dramatist, poet, masque writer, and critic.
A prolific Elizabethan playwright and man of letters, Jonson is among the greatest writers and theorists of English literature. Highly learned in the classics, he profoundly influenced the coming Augustan age through his emphasis on the precepts of Horace, Aristotle, and other early thinkers. In his day, Jonson's professional reputation was often obscured by that of the man himself: bold, independent, aggressive, fashioning himself an image as the sole arbiter of taste, standing for erudition and the supremacy of classical models against what he perceived as the general populace's ignorant preference for the sensational. While he is now remembered primarily for his satirical comedies, he also distinguished himself as a seminal figure in English literary criticism, as a preeminent writer of courtly masques, and as a poet. Among his most enduring contributions to the latter form are the classically influenced lyrics of his Epigrams (1616) and the pastoral poem "To Penshurst" contained in his collection The Forest (1616).
Jonson was born in London shortly after the death of his father, a minister who claimed descent from Scottish gentry. Despite a poor upbringing, he was educated at Westminster School under the renowned antiquary William Camden. He apparently left his schooling unwillingly to work with his stepfather as a bricklayer, and later served as a volunteer in the Low Countries during the Dutch war with Spain. Returning to England by 1592, Jonson married Anne Lewis about three years later. Although it appears that the union was unhappy, it produced several children, all of whom Jonson outlived. In the years following his marriage he became an actor, and wrote respected emendations and additions to Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1592). By 1597 he was writing for Philip Henslowe's theatrical company. That year, Henslowe employed Jonson to finish Thomas Nashe's satire The Isle of Dogs (now lost), but the play was suppressed for alleged seditious content and Jonson was jailed for a short time. In 1598 the earliest of his extant works, Every Man in His Humour, was produced by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. That same year he was again jailed for killing actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. In 1602 he separated from his wife and was imprisoned a third time in 1605 for his work with John Marston (a former rival playwright) and George Chapman on East-ward Hoe. He wrote all of his major comedies between 1606 and 1616, the later date marking the publication of
his Workes, which, in addition to the plays, included the poetic collections Epigrams and The Forest, as well as his early masques produced with the collaboration of designer/architect Inigo Jones. That same year he was also named Poet Laureate, and for the next decade focused his energies on the production of masques at the court of King James I. Fire destroyed his library in 1623, and when James I died in 1625, Jonson lost much of his influence at court. In 1628 he suffered the first of several strokes that would later incapacitate him. Jonson died in 1637 and was interred at Westminster Abbey. His third collection of poems, Underwood, appeared posthumously in the 1640 edition of his Workes.
Jonson's major poetic works combine the classical forms of lyric, epistle, ode, elegy, and epithalamion with the native English sense of affect or feeling. Many of them are poems of praise and written within the obligatory confines of the patronage system. From Epigrams, the short poems influenced by the verse of the Roman poet Martial, "On My First Daughter" and "On My First Son" are personal lyric consolations. This collection also contains the tender "Epitaph on S. P., a Child of Q. Elizabeth's Chapel." The Forest includes the pastoral "To Penshurst," Jonson's country house poem celebrating the poetic and political largesse of the Sidney family; the work is regarded as a model of the topographical form. In The Forest are two versions of "Song: To Celia," one dramatizing the carpe diem sentiment expressed by Volpone in Jonson's play of the same name, the other known by its first line, "Drink to me only with thine eyes." Underwood contains "A Celebration of Charis in Ten Lyric Pieces," an experiment in voice and the transformative power of language, and the Pindaric Ode dedicated "To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of that Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Morison." The plays Sejanus His Fall (1603) and Catiline His Conspiracy (1611) established Jonson's reputation as a political tragedian; he is perhaps best known, however, for his satiric comedies Volpone (1606), Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fayre (1614), which are portraits of the greed and hypocrisy Jonson saw in contemporary London. His Timber; or, Discoveries (1641), is considered the first formulation of applied literary principles in English, and predates the critical works of John Dryden.
Jonson's immediate poetic reputation is traceable to the highly imitative works of his literary followers, known as the "Sons" or "Tribe of Ben," which included Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, and the later Cavalier poets. His works were highly regarded during his lifetime, although his later plays, "dotages" as Dryden called them, were not well received. His controlled lines were models for the eighteenth century verse of writers such as Alexander Pope, who once observed that Jonson "brought critical learning into vogue." The nineteenth century Romantics decried his lack of passion and thought his comedies better than his tragedies. In the twentieth century the New Critical movement overlooked Jonson's poems in favor of the work of the Metaphysicals. His work, including his long neglected poetry, has, however, enjoyed a renaissance of critical attention in the late twentieth century from new historical theorists interested in the material issues of patronage and censorship that inform his poetics.
*The Forest 1616
The Complete Poems of Ben Jonson 1975
Other Major Works
The Case Is Alterd (drama) 1598
Every Man in His Humour (drama) 1598
The Comicall Satyre of Every Man out of His Humour (drama) 1599
Cynthia's Revels; or, The Fountain of Self-Love (drama) 1601
Sejanus His Fall (drama) 1603
Eastward Hoe [with George Chapman and John Marston] (drama) 1605
Masque of Blacknesse (masque) 1605
Hymenai (masque) 1606
Volpone; or, The Foxe (drama) 1606
Masque of Beauty (masque) 1608
Epicœne; or, The Silent Woman (drama) 1609
Masque of Queenes (masque) 1609
The Alchemist (drama) 1610
Catiline His Conspiracy (drama) 1611
Oberon, the Fairy Prince (masque) 1611
Bartholomew Fayre (drama) 1614
The Divell is an Asse; or The Cheater Cheated (drama) 1616
The Golden Age Restored (masque) 1616
The Workes of Benjamin Jonson (dramas...
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SOURCE: "Ben Jonson's Poems: Notes on the Ordered Society," in Essays in English Literature from the Renaissance to the Victorian Age, edited by Millar MacLure and F. W. Watt, University of Toronto Press, 1964, pp. 43-68.
[In the following essay, MacLean discusses Jonson 's poems as observations on civilized society, stressing friendship between good men, the ideal relationship between prince and poet, and the social actions befitting the ruling class.]
"The reputation of Jonson," Mr. Eliot once remarked, "has been of the most deadly kind that can becompelled upon the memory of a great poet. To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read the book; to be afflicted by the imputation of virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries—this is the most perfect conspiracy of approval" ["Ben Jonson," Selected Essays, 1913-1932, 1932]. Perhaps the prospect is not quite so gloomy now: "Jonson criticism has at last commenced to grow green," Jonas Barish observes, and the articles he has recently collected indicate, over a variety of critical approaches, some avenues that may be profitably explored [Ben Jonson: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1963]. But it is striking that no essay in his collection bears directly on the lyric and occasional verse. If the lawn of Jonson criticism is newly green, brown patches are...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Ben Jonson" in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 18, No. 1, January, 1968, pp. 18-31.
[In the following essay, Parfitt interprets Jonson's poems in light of the chief functions of his best verse, "energy, assuredness, and rhythmical alertness, " contrasting their tendency to simplify and exaggerate.]
Although there is enough of it to occupy the bulk of a volume of the Oxford edition of his works, Ben Jonson's poetry does not receive much primarily critical attention. Part of this neglect comes from the fact that the plays are Jonson's main achievement (and even these live in the deep shadow of Shakespeare) but one must also take account of the doubts critics have expressed concerning the intrinsic merits of the poetry. These doubts usually take the form of equating Jonson's 'classicism'—that most protean of qualities—with dulness and alienation from any English tradition of language and thought, or of the belief that he lacked inspiration and was, in Coleridge's sense, a poet of fancy. The first of these reservations has had some recent attention and I cannot now take the discussion further, except to remark in passing that there is little in Jonson's thought or use of language which lacks English antecedents and that where he is distinctively classical (mainly in the lack of supernatural emphasis in his ethical thought and in the non-resonance and unusual directness of his use of...
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SOURCE: "Jonson the Master: Stones Well Squared," in The Elizabethan Poets: The Making of English Poetry from Wyatt to Ben Jonson, Evans Brothers Ltd., 1969, pp. 127-56.
[In the following essay, Inglis investigates Jonson's love, religious, and social poetry in relation to the facts of the poet's life.]
Given the eminence I ascribe to Jonson, it seems right that this [essay] should open with a brief biography. But the decision is not only a critical one; Jonson occupies a position of unusual historical importance, and since we lack so much of the biographical evidence for Shakespeare whose career would be important in similar ways, Jonson's life is one of the few of which we can describe enough to know what life was like for a full-time professional in the world of letters. For Jonson, like Shakespeare, lacked Sidney's advantages of birth and ignored the particular aspirations of Ralegh or Donne. After his early years he was a full-time writer, and he was fiercely proud of it and censorious of amateurs; he was neither a churchman nor a politician (which is not to say he neglects political and theological action). He is an early representative of spectacular success in a new social group—the independent writers, though his independence, which was vigorously temperamental as well as social, was qualified by patronage, censorship, and the powers of the aristocracy.
The success he won...
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SOURCE: "Jonson's Poetry, Prose and Criticism," in Ben Jonson, Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., 1970, pp. 151-76.
[In the following excerpt, Bamborough examines the stylistic, thematic, and idiosyncratic qualities of Jonson's poetry.]
Considering that he wrote the best-known lyric in the English language, Jonson has had comparatively little attention as a poet. The reason for this is not hard to see. As with his plays, he had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do in poetry and what his principles were, and he remained largely independent of fashions and schools. In consequence his poetry does not quite fit into the usual categories of English literary history, and while its obvious qualities have always gained it respect, it has never been fully in accord with the taste of any period. Jonson yielded to no one in in the high value he placed on poetry, but he saw it as essentially an Art, rather than as the expression of personality or a way of conveying a unique perception of Truth. Skill was the quality most inescapably demanded of the poet. Certainly he had to be born a poet, and equally certainly he needed Inspiration, in some sense of that difficult word, but no man can rely on these alone and think
hee can leape forth suddainely a Poet, by dreaming hee hath been in Parnassus, or, having washed his lipps (as they say) in...
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SOURCE: "All About Jonson's Poetry," in ELH, Vol. 39, No. 2, June, 1972, pp. 208-37.
[In the following essay, Marotti reads Jonson's dramatic verse and masques along with his non-dramatic poetry in order to demonstrate the poet's stylistic virtuosity and his range between the extremes of copiousness and restraint.]
When we say that Jonson requires study, we do not mean study of his classical scholarship or of seventeenth-century manners. We mean intelligent saturation in his work as a whole; we mean that, in order to enjoy him at all, we must get to the centre of his work and his temperament, and that we must see him unbiased by time, as a contemporary.
[T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 3rd ed., 1958]
It is only recently that Ben Jonson's poetry has begun to receive the kind of attention it truly deserves. Yet critics have usually segregated the non-dramatic poetry from the rest of the verse to consider it as a separate body of work—as though Jonson the poet and Jonson the dramatist were different men. Whatever the virtues or conveniences of such a strategy, it is responsible, I think, for a critical strait-jacketing of Jonson's art—to the end, perhaps, of demonstrating his adherence to the plain style, a neoclassical aesthetic, or an ethical vision. Unfortunately (but thankfully), Jonson's poetry and imagination are...
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SOURCE: "Ben Jonson's Poetry: Pastoral, Géorgie, Epigram," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 111–36.
[In the following essay, Friedberg analyzes Jonson's poems in terms of the classical literary tradition.]
Like Donne, Jonson began his poetic career with the epigram. For a man like Jonson who believed that "it is onely the disease of the vnskilfull, to thinke rude things greater then polish'd: or scatter'd more numerous then compos'd," the epigram remains the perfect form, one that convinces by its point rather than its logic, and Jonson's Epigrams contain some of his most "polish'd" and effective writing. Many of the Epigrams provided subjects for his plays: there are epigrams "To Alchymists," "On Lieutenant Shift," "On Court-worme," "On Don Surly," "To Fine Lady Would-bee," poems which combine Jonson's considerable talent for lighting on the abuses of the town with a skeptical, almost metaphysical, wit. Yet mixed with these satires in miniature are commendatory poems, poems of public praise addressed to Jonson's friends at court and poems of private sorrow like those "On My First Daughter" and "On My First Sonne." The obverse to his satiric epigrams, these poems celebrate an ideal and redress the balance upset by the jaundiced eye of the satirist. Although they differ in tone, they conform to the same poetic and expound the same morality, the same...
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SOURCE: "The Tone of Ben Jonson's Poetry," in Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets: Authoritative Texts, Criticism, edited by Hugh MacLean, W. W. Norton & Company, 1974, pp. 479–96.
[In the following essay, Walton characterizes Jonson's poetry as a model of civility, exhibiting both its intellectual and moral values.]
It is well known that Pope imitated the opening couplet of Jonson's "Elegie on the Lady Jane Pawlet, Marchion: of Winton":
What gentle ghost, besprent with April deaw,
Hayles me, so solemnly, to yonder Yewgh?
in his own opening couplet of the "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady":
What beck'ning ghost, along the moonlight shade
Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade?
The similarity and the difference between the grand style of Pope and the slightly Spenserian language of Jonson on this occasion are obvious. I have chosen to begin with a reference to this piece of plagiarism, however, because these two poems may be taken to mark, in so far as there are any beginnings and ends in literature, the limits of my study, and because the debt draws pointed attention to the dignified and courteous tone of Jonson's poetry, especially in his occasional verses. Several lines of elegy, which often intersect and blend,...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Classic and Cavalier: Celebrating Jonson and the Sons of Ben, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, pp. xi-xvii.
[In the following excerpt, Summers and Pebworth describe Jonson as a varied poet, viewing his idealism as the link between his neo-classical tendencies and his emotionalism.]
The recent quickening of critical interest in Ben Jonson's nondramatic poetry has led to a new appreciation of his "subtile sport" and to a new willingness to read him on his own terms. hisstatus as poet has risen steadily over the past two decades. After years of languishing in Donne's shadow, he is now recognized among the most important poets in the language. He is justly celebrated as a selfnominated arbiter of civilized values, as a public poet who articulates the "mysteries of manners, armes, and arts" in weighty judgment and broad generality, as, in fact, a thoroughgoing neo-classicist. But such a view, accurate though it is in basic outline, is at best only partial, even when buttressed with timeworn and misleading contrasts of a laborious, frigid Jonson with a gentle Shakespeare and a fiery Donne. The unqualified view of Jonson as neoclassicist neglects his frequent indulgences in emotional excess and self-dramatization, and—more positively—his ability to create poetry of individual sensation. What needs emphasis is that Jonson's carefully fashioned poetic commonwealth includes space...
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SOURCE: "Literature as Equipment for Living: Ben Jonson and the Poetics of Patronage," in CLA Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3, March, 1987, pp. 379–94.
[In the following essay, Evans contends that the poetry Jonson wrote within the patronage system was as psychologically necessary as it was financially enabling.]
The impact of patronage on English Renaissance literature seems all the greater when one recognizes that literary patronage was only one aspect of a much larger, far more comprehensive system of patronage relationships. Patronage, broadly defined, was the central social system of the era. It dominated political life and permeated the structure of the church and universities. Its influence on the economy was enormous, and the assumptions behind it were reflected in religious thought, in cosmological speculation, and in the organization and daily detail of family life. Painting, architecture, music—in fact, all the arts and not just literature—were affected by a patronage culture so pervasive that no individual or sphere of life could entirely escape its effects. The connection between poetry and patronage, then, involved more than how writers were paid or how they made their livings. It involved, more fundamentally, how they lived their lives. The patronage system was more than simply a means of organizing the economy or of structuring politics, of arranging social life or of thinking about one's...
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Judkins, David C, ed. The Nondramatic Works of Ben Jonson: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1982, 260 p.
Contains a chronological listing of Jonson criticism from 1615 to 1978, including biographies, theses, dissertations, and manuscripts, with an introduction summarizing critical debates.
Burt, Richard. Licensed by Authority: Ben Jonson and the Discourses of Censorship. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993, 227 p.
A materialist study of Jonson's writings in relation to the working of seventeenth century censorship practices.
Dryden, John. "Essay of Dramatic Poesy." In John Dryden: Selected Criticism, edited by James Kinsley and George Parfitt, pp. 16–76. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.
Discusses Jonson in relation to Shakespeare, and examines Epicœne; or, the Silent Woman with regard to the French classical tradition.
Eliot, T. S. "Ben Jonson." In Ben Jonson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Jonas A. Barish, pp. 14–23. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1963.
Characterizes Jonson's poetry as superficial, yet with form and appealing to the mind....
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