Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines Jonson's craftsmanship and the way he reworked borrowed material in the poem.
In "Jonson's Poetry, Prose and Criticism," J. B. Bamborough writes that while Jonson placed a high value on poetry, he regarded 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." Bamborough says that Jonson makes this point when he writes "For to Nature, Exercise. Imitation, and Studie, Art must be added, to make all these perfect." Jonson's neoclassical position states that writing well necessitates first mastering the subject and then examining how other writers have expressed it. Thus, according to Bamborough, "Originality and Inspiration, as the Romantics understood them, do not, or need not, enter into this."
Jonson's policy of studying other writers' work led him to incorporate some of that work into his own. G. A. E. Parfitt, in "The Nature of Translation in Ben Jonson's Poetry," notes that Jonson's practice of borrowing material from other sources and incorporating it into his own work was "not theoretically a departure from ordinary renaissance principles: it conformed to standard educational doctrine and, viewed broadly, it is an activity similar to that of many other authors of the period." Parfitt states that "only in Jonson does the use of classical material seem a natural and essential aspect of the poet's creativity." He adds that this use appears "to have become a central habit of his mind when that mind was at its most creative." Jonson's creative reworking of borrowed materials is well illustrated in the evolution of his poem "Song: To Celia."
In his study of Jonson, John Addington Symonds comments that Jonson's "wholesale and indiscriminate translation[s]" of other writers' work was "managed with admirable freedom" as Jonson made the work his own. Symonds notes, "This kind of looting from classical treasuries of wit and wisdom was accounted no robbery in that age" and was, in fact, praised by Jonson's contemporaries. Symonds quotes John Dryden, who, while admitting that there were "few serious thoughts which are new" in Jonson's poetry, praises the poet's willingness "to give place to the classics in all things." Dryden claims that Jonson "invades authors like a monarch; and what would be theft in other poets is only victory in him."
Bamborough quotes Jonson's comments on the assimilation process: those who study "the best authors" will discover "somewhat of them in themselves, and in the expression of their minds, even when they feele it not, be able to utter something like theirs, which hath an Authoritie above their owne." Parfitt concludes that Jonson's "familiarity with 'the best authors' made the dividing line between original and borrowed material disappear stylistically." In "Song: To Celia," Jonson crafts a poem that "utter[s] something" from one of these authors, but he makes it uniquely his own.
Scholars have agreed that Jonson used certain letters of Philostratos, a philosopher of the third century A.D., as the source material for "Song: To Celia." Parfitt argues that in the poem, Jonson "takes over the bantering tone of the original and something of Philostratos's ingenuity but shows no sign of subservience to his material." Jonson retains but fine-tunes the classical style of the original, as expressed in the poem's economy, carefully structured statement, and sense of harmony.
J. Gwyn Griffiths, in her article on Philostratos's letters, cites translations from the excerpts that Jonson borrowed for "Song: To Celia." The...
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