The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)