Ben Jonson was an overpowering individual. People who knew him were rarely neutral: they liked him, some almost to idolatry, or they disliked him with an intensity that vibrates through the centuries. His vigorous personality intrudes and makes dispassionate appraisal of his poetry difficult. A second factor which interferes with cool judgment of his work is the time-hallowed tradition of contrasting portraits of Shakespeare and Jonson. In these conventional portraits, Shakespeare stands for genius, humanity, and native woodnotes; Jonson for labor, bookish pedantry, and classical imitation. It is ironic that one of Jonson’s two most popular poems is the noble tribute to his supposed bitter rival.
Unlike Shakespeare—who may or may not have unlocked his heart with his sonnets, but certainly left posterity little personal allusion in his other writings—Jonson wrote to and about many people who had a share in his life. He had been classified as primarily an occasional poet, except in his dramatic works. Perhaps his earliest extant poem is a brief lament on the death of his six-month-old daughter Mary:
Whose soule heavens Queene, (whosename shee beares)In comfort of her mothers teares,Hath plac’d amongst her virgin-traine. . . .
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