Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4307
Until the last few decades, attention to Ben Jonson’s poetry focused largely on the famous songs and the moving epitaphs on children. Such choices were not ill-advised, but they are unrepresentative. The works in these modes certainly rank among Jonson’s most successful, but they differ in tone from Jonson’s norm.
Songs such as “Kiss me, sweet: the wary lover” and “Drink to me only with thine eyes” evoke emotions beyond the world of reason or fact, partly through reference to extravagant gestures and implausible experiences: hundreds and thousands of kisses, a wreath that will not die after the beloved has breathed on it. Through rhythms that are stronger and less interrupted than Jonson usually created, the songs activate the capacity to respond sensually and irrationally to language. Some of them create magical secret worlds where sense and emotion are to be experienced in disregard of troubling or qualifying context (the “silent summer nights/ When youths ply their stol’n delights” in “Kiss me, sweet: the wary lover”). Exactly such worlds are created, but also subjected to critique, in Volpone and The Alchemist.
The epitaphs, particularly those on Jonson’s own children (“On My First Son,” “On My First Daughter”) are so effective because in them subjective emotions strain against rational conviction. Jonson’s statement in each of these poems is doctrinal and exemplary, involving resignation to the will of God, but part of the power of the affirmation of belief arises from Jonson’s undertone of grief over which faith has won out. Regret and despair have not been reasoned away but are being rationally controlled; consolation is not easy.
Such richly concentrated poems obviously deserve attention; that they should have received exposure to the virtual exclusion of Jonson’s less lyrical or emotive verse, however, perhaps represents a holdover from Romantic or Victorian taste for rhapsodic expressions of feeling and imaginative vision in poetry. In fact, the renewal of contact with the Metaphysical sensibility achieved by T. S. Eliot and other critics in the 1920’s and 1930’s, which brought about the displacement of Victorian approaches to a number of seventeenth century writers, did not do so, immediately or directly, in the case of Jonson as a nondramatic poet. Some of Jonson’s works are recognizably close to the secular reaches of John Donne’s writing, but the speaker’s psychological self-discovery through metaphor, so often the business of a Donne poem, is only occasionally Jonson’s way. The contrast is especially clear between Jonson’s poetic range and the realm of the meditative, intense, often all-but-private Metaphysical religious lyric. Jonson wrote very few strictly devotional poems; the ode “To Heaven” is probably the only strikingly successful work that could bear that label. In poems such as the ode to Sir Lucius Cary and Sir Henry Morison and the funeral elegies, where the afterlife is mentioned, the relation of humanity as such to divinity is not the real focus of attention. The poems involve tensions mainly between diverse human levels, between more ordinary experience on one hand and, on the other, an excellence or superiority of nature that Cary, Morison, Lady Jane Pawlet, and the other exemplary figures achieve.
At most, only on the peripheries of Jonson’s nondramatic verse can it be seen to approximate pure emotive lyricism, or can it be cast in Metaphysical terms. Only in the late twentieth century did criticism achieve a modern reunderstanding of Jonson’s achievement, involving a strongly positive evaluation of his central, typical poetic work. Jonson emerges in this criticism as decisively a neoclassic artist, the intellectual background of whose poetry is Renaissance...
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