Ben Jonson was a masterful poet as well as a dramatist. His poetry, with some justification, has the reputation of being remote from modern readers. A dedicated classicist, Jonson emphasized clarity of form and phrase over expression of emotion, and many of his poems seem to be exercises in cleverness and wit rather than attempts to express an idea or image well. Others of his poems, however, retain their power and vision: “To Celia,” for example, has given the English language the phrase “Drink to me only with thine eyes.”
The difficulty of Jonson’s poetry originates in large part in his very mastery of poetic form. Jonson was a student of literature, and he was a man of letters with few equals in any era. He studied the poetic forms of classical Greek and Latin literature as well as those of later European literature, and he used what he learned in his own work. The result is a body of poetry that is very diverse, including salutations and love poems, homilies and satires, epigrams and lyrics. Much of the poetry appeals primarily to academics because of its experimental qualities and its displays of technical virtuosity. Yet those who allow themselves to be put off by Jonson’s prodigious intellectualism miss some of the finest verse in English.
Jonson was also a prodigious writer of masques—dramatic allegorical entertainments, usually prepared to celebrate special occasions and presented at court. Jonson’s masques have in common with his poetry technical achievement and, with much of his occasional verse, a focus on the virtues, real and reputed, of nobility and royalty. Although the emphasis was on spectacle and celebration of the aristocracy, Jonson tried to make his masques legitimate works of literature, and they have enjoyed increasing critical attention in recent years.