An Execration upon Vulcan

by Ben Jonson

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

The poem explores the contrast between the ideal world of intellectual and artistic pursuit, and the contingent world of human history and objects. This dichotomy is clear from the nature of Jonson’s regrets about the fire. The only personal losses he details are manuscripts and books, the physical embodiment of intellectual endeavor. Such endeavor survives the destruction of the physical. This poem itself is a phoenix of the fire, a Rome to replace the Troy that Vulcan has destroyed. It is also, with its dense allusion, a small library of history and culture to replace the one burnt in the house.

On a less elevated level, the dichotomy between the ideal and the actual is present in the distance between Jonson’s own literary output and the fashionable writings that seem to dominate his culture. Certain works deserve destruction because they are outdated, derivative, or faddish. Jonson’s work is classical (this poem is dependent upon a knowledge of Roman mythology), and therefore timeless. It, like Troy and Rome, will be remembered even after physical destruction. Jonson’s juxtaposition of the faddish with his own works gives the poem the feeling of a poetic manifesto; writers who do not follow his plain style and classicism are doomed to be forgotten.

While other writers may be pursuing insignificant forms, they have garnered a substantial audience. Jonson is quick to point out that this is proof of another insidious, and torturously slow, form of destruction at work against art: ignorant public opinion. Jonson aligns Vulcan with this process, and his desire to ban Vulcan from England is, therefore, also a cry for greater artistic appreciation from his audience.

Destruction and public opinion are also yoked together in the burning of the Globe theater, the historical event that receives the longest meditation in the poem. The Globe theater was important to Jonson’s career as a playwright and was the theatrical home of Jonson’s friend William Shakespeare. Jonson puns on the word “globe” to see the destroyed theater as “the world’s ruins,” and he condemns the vulgar accounts of the fire that sprang up in its wake. The public, it seems, often takes a mindless delight in Vulcan’s destructive ways.

Finally, the historical perspective of the poem, which sweeps from the fall of Troy to the destruction of Jonson’s house, presents a vision of destruction and contingency that stands in contrast to the poem itself and, by implication, to all great art.

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