An Execration upon Vulcan Analysis

Ben Jonson

The Poem

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.

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...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Forms and Devices

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.