The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

This 216-line poem of heroic couplets was written on the occasion of a fire that destroyed Ben Jonson’s house and—most important—his books, in November of 1623. It derives its form from an attack on the Roman god Vulcan (Hephaestus in Greek myth), the god of fire and metalworking. A denigrated and crippled god, rejected by his mother, Juno, thrown from heaven by his father, Jupiter, Vulcan was married to, and cuckolded by, Venus, the goddess of love.

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The poem starts with Jonson protesting his innocence. He has never ridiculed Vulcan or courted his wife. It was Jupiter who threw him from the heavens and denied him his first choice of a wife, Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. Jonson speculates that it was the failure of this courtship that has made Vulcan inimical to intellectual pursuits.

Jonson declares that he has not been writing seditious or scurrilous materials that deserved to be burned. Neither has he been indulging in the literary fashions of the day: compilations from romances, or word games like acrostics and palindromes. The only Jonson papers worth burning were some lesser writings and part of a play, but these should have been judged by the public before being condemned to the flames. If Vulcan wanted to emulate public judgment, he should have drawn out the torture and condemned Jonson bit by bit.

Had Jonson known beforehand of the coming fire, he could have provided “many a ream/ To redeem mine.” Likely substitutes include non-Christian holy books, medieval compilations, romances, Rosicrucian and alchemical books and devices, popular pamphlets, and newspapers. Instead, Vulcan ate what Jonson had, and here Jonson provides a list of his works in progress, works that, it is implied by the juxtaposition with the ephemera just mentioned, were of lasting value.

The remembrance of what was lost launches Jonson into an ad hominem attack on Vulcan. The pairing with Minerva could never have taken place, Jonson claims, as Vulcan is a god fit only for clowns and alchemists. Jonson takes delight in the Thames river pilots who call their torches “Vulcans” and so burn the god in effigy.

The river and reeds remind Jonson of the fire that burned down the Globe theater in 1613. He recounts the popular stories, transmitted in pamphlets, that sprang up around that event and lists other London fires: the Fortune theater, which burned down in 1621, and the banquet hall Whitehall, which burned in 1618.

These disasters lead Jonson to speculate on the history of Vulcan and his influence. Vulcan burned Troy even though his wife supported the Trojans, but his victory was short-lived, for the Trojan Aeneas went on to found Rome. Vulcan burned down a London records house, called Six Clerks, in 1621. For this, a law should have been passed condemning Vulcan to inglorious confinement in a shop, kiln, or tavern fire.

The poem winds to an end with a “civil curse.” If Vulcan has been as fatal to everyone else as he has been to Jonson and such famous structures as St. Paul’s (partially burned in 1561), the Temple of Diana (burned in 350 b.c.e.), and the library at Alexandria (burned in 640 c.e.), then Jonson wishes him confined back to the forge to make swords and guns for the ongoing war with Spain over the Netherlands.

Jonson concludes by wishing Vulcan’s absence from peace-loving England and calling a pox upon the god: all the evils of Pandora’s box (which Vulcan himself crafted) and the plagues and venereal diseases of both Venus and London’s famous courtesan Bess Broughtan.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348

A typical example of Jonson’s plain style, this poem contains little in the way of poetic devices. It derives the bulk of its poetic power through the sustained metaphor of Vulcan, through allusion, and through the list.

Vulcan is a symbol not just of fire but of destruction in general. In particular, he is those forces marshaled against the endeavors of the human mind, especially art. Jonson specifically aligns him with war and public opinion but also alludes to a malevolent, capricious fate. The burning of Jonson’s house, then, becomes a symbol of all thwarted human activities and a reminder of the necessity for perseverance.

Jonson emphasizes the universality of Vulcan’s destructiveness through allusion. The poem is centered on a classical allusion—to the Roman myths surrounding the story of Vulcan—but there is also reference to the Trojan War and the Greek and Roman empires. This pattern of learned reference is not mere pedantry or antiquarian nostalgia. Rather, Jonson is suggesting that throughout history there have been forces of destruction and peace, and that culture worth saving has transcended its physical embodiment to remain intellectually vital.

Mixed with the classical allusions are allusions to English history, contemporary London, and Jonson’s own life and works. This makes the forces of destruction more immediate and relevant. At the same time, the classical and the contemporary blend, often through direct juxtaposition, to suggest a timeless web of culture constantly under threat from Vulcan.

Another device is the list. The most obvious lists in the poem are those of places destroyed by fire. These are, for the most part, edifices of culture: theaters, libraries, temples. The combined force of these lists, and their regular placement throughout the poem, emphasizes Vulcan’s ubiquity. Two other types of list are important: lists of the literary and cultural ephemera of Jonson’s age, and a list of his own literary output. Jonson is underscoring the irony of Vulcan’s choice: He chose to burn Jonson’s work, which is learned and classical, while allowing the faddish and inane to flourish.

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