Ben Jonson Jonson, Ben (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Ben Jonson 1572?–1637

English dramatist, poet, masque writer, and critic.

A prolific Elizabethan playwright and man of letters, Jonson is among the greatest writers and theorists of English literature. Highly learned in the classics, he profoundly influenced the coming Augustan age through his emphasis on the precepts of Horace, Aristotle, and other early thinkers. In his day, Jonson's professional reputation was often obscured by that of the man himself: bold, independent, aggressive, fashioning himself an image as the sole arbiter of taste, standing for erudition and the supremacy of classical models against what he perceived as the general populace's ignorant preference for the sensational. While he is now remembered primarily for his satirical comedies, he also distinguished himself as a seminal figure in English literary criticism, as a preeminent writer of courtly masques, and as a poet. Among his most enduring contributions to the latter form are the classically influenced lyrics of his Epigrams (1616) and the pastoral poem "To Penshurst" contained in his collection The Forest (1616).

Biographical Information

Jonson was born in London shortly after the death of his father, a minister who claimed descent from Scottish gentry. Despite a poor upbringing, he was educated at Westminster School under the renowned antiquary William Camden. He apparently left his schooling unwillingly to work with his stepfather as a bricklayer, and later served as a volunteer in the Low Countries during the Dutch war with Spain. Returning to England by 1592, Jonson married Anne Lewis about three years later. Although it appears that the union was unhappy, it produced several children, all of whom Jonson outlived. In the years following his marriage he became an actor, and wrote respected emendations and additions to Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1592). By 1597 he was writing for Philip Henslowe's theatrical company. That year, Henslowe employed Jonson to finish Thomas Nashe's satire The Isle of Dogs (now lost), but the play was suppressed for alleged seditious content and Jonson was jailed for a short time. In 1598 the earliest of his extant works, Every Man in His Humour, was produced by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. That same year he was again jailed for killing actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. In 1602 he separated from his wife and was imprisoned a third time in 1605 for his work with John Marston (a former rival playwright) and George Chapman on East-ward Hoe. He wrote all of his major comedies between 1606 and 1616, the later date marking the publication of

his Workes, which, in addition to the plays, included the poetic collections Epigrams and The Forest, as well as his early masques produced with the collaboration of designer/architect Inigo Jones. That same year he was also named Poet Laureate, and for the next decade focused his energies on the production of masques at the court of King James I. Fire destroyed his library in 1623, and when James I died in 1625, Jonson lost much of his influence at court. In 1628 he suffered the first of several strokes that would later incapacitate him. Jonson died in 1637 and was interred at Westminster Abbey. His third collection of poems, Underwood, appeared posthumously in the 1640 edition of his Workes.

Major Works

Jonson's major poetic works combine the classical forms of lyric, epistle, ode, elegy, and epithalamion with the native English sense of affect or feeling. Many of them are poems of praise and written within the obligatory confines of the patronage system. From Epigrams, the short poems influenced by the verse of the Roman poet Martial, "On My First Daughter" and "On My First Son" are personal lyric consolations. This collection also contains the tender "Epitaph on S. P., a Child of Q. Elizabeth's Chapel." The Forest includes the pastoral "To Penshurst," Jonson's country house poem celebrating the poetic and political largesse of the Sidney family; the work is regarded as a model of the topographical form. In The Forest are two versions of "Song: To Celia," one dramatizing the carpe diem sentiment expressed by Volpone in Jonson's play of the same name, the other known by its first line, "Drink to me only with thine eyes." Underwood contains "A Celebration of Charis in Ten Lyric Pieces," an experiment in voice and the transformative power of language, and the Pindaric Ode dedicated "To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of that Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Morison." The plays Sejanus His Fall (1603) and Catiline His Conspiracy (1611) established Jonson's reputation as a political tragedian; he is perhaps best known, however, for his satiric comedies Volpone (1606), Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fayre (1614), which are portraits of the greed and hypocrisy Jonson saw in contemporary London. His Timber; or, Discoveries (1641), is considered the first formulation of applied literary principles in English, and predates the critical works of John Dryden.

Critical Reception

Jonson's immediate poetic reputation is traceable to the highly imitative works of his literary followers, known as the "Sons" or "Tribe of Ben," which included Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, and the later Cavalier poets. His works were highly regarded during his lifetime, although his later plays, "dotages" as Dryden called them, were not well received. His controlled lines were models for the eighteenth century verse of writers such as Alexander Pope, who once observed that Jonson "brought critical learning into vogue." The nineteenth century Romantics decried his lack of passion and thought his comedies better than his tragedies. In the twentieth century the New Critical movement overlooked Jonson's poems in favor of the work of the Metaphysicals. His work, including his long neglected poetry, has, however, enjoyed a renaissance of critical attention in the late twentieth century from new historical theorists interested in the material issues of patronage and censorship that inform his poetics.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


*Epigrams 1616

*The Forest 1616

Underwood 1640

The Complete Poems of Ben Jonson 1975

Other Major Works

The Case Is Alterd (drama) 1598

Every Man in His Humour (drama) 1598

The Comicall Satyre of Every Man out of His Humour (drama) 1599

Cynthia's Revels; or, The Fountain of Self-Love (drama) 1601

Sejanus His Fall (drama) 1603

Eastward Hoe [with George Chapman and John Marston] (drama) 1605

Masque of Blacknesse (masque) 1605

Hymenai (masque) 1606

Volpone; or, The Foxe (drama) 1606

Masque of Beauty (masque) 1608

Epicœne; or, The Silent Woman (drama) 1609

Masque of Queenes (masque) 1609

The Alchemist (drama) 1610

Catiline His Conspiracy (drama) 1611

Oberon, the Fairy Prince (masque) 1611

Bartholomew Fayre (drama) 1614

The Divell is an Asse; or The Cheater Cheated (drama) 1616

The Golden Age Restored (masque) 1616

The Workes of Benjamin Jonson (dramas and poetry) 1616

Pleasure Reconcile to Vertue (masque) 1618

Informations by Ben Jonson to W. D. When He Came to Scotland upon Foot [also published as Ben Jonson's Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden, revised edition, 1976] (conversations) 1619

The Gypsies Metamorphosed (masque) 1621

The Fortunate Isles and Their Union (masque) 1625

The Staple of News (drama) 1626

The New Inne; or, The Light Heart (drama) 1629

The Magnetick Lady; or, Humors Reconciled (drama) 1632

A Tale of a Tub (drama) 1633

The Workes of Benjamin Jonson. 2 vols, (dramas, poetry, and prose) 1640-41

Timber; or, Discoveries, Made upon Men and Matter as They Have Flowed out of His Daily Reading, or Had Their Reflux to His Peculiar Notion of the Times (prose) 1641

Ben Jonson 11 vols, (dramas, poetry, and prose) 1925-52

The Complete Masques of Ben Jonson. (masques) 1969

The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson. 4 vols, (dramas) 1981-82

*Printed in the 1616 folio of Jonson's Workes.

† Printed in the posthumous two-volume 1640 edition of Jonson's Workes.

Hugh MacLean (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ben Jonson's Poems: Notes on the Ordered Society," in Essays in English Literature from the Renaissance to the Victorian Age, edited by Millar MacLure and F. W. Watt, University of Toronto Press, 1964, pp. 43-68.

[In the following essay, MacLean discusses Jonson 's poems as observations on civilized society, stressing friendship between good men, the ideal relationship between prince and poet, and the social actions befitting the ruling class.]

"The reputation of Jonson," Mr. Eliot once remarked, "has been of the most deadly kind that can becompelled upon the memory of a great poet. To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all...

(The entire section is 8566 words.)

G. A. E. Parfitt (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Ben Jonson" in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 18, No. 1, January, 1968, pp. 18-31.

[In the following essay, Parfitt interprets Jonson's poems in light of the chief functions of his best verse, "energy, assuredness, and rhythmical alertness, " contrasting their tendency to simplify and exaggerate.]

Although there is enough of it to occupy the bulk of a volume of the Oxford edition of his works, Ben Jonson's poetry does not receive much primarily critical attention. Part of this neglect comes from the fact that the plays are Jonson's main achievement (and even these live in the deep shadow of Shakespeare) but one must also take account of the doubts...

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Fred Inglis (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jonson the Master: Stones Well Squared," in The Elizabethan Poets: The Making of English Poetry from Wyatt to Ben Jonson, Evans Brothers Ltd., 1969, pp. 127-56.

[In the following essay, Inglis investigates Jonson's love, religious, and social poetry in relation to the facts of the poet's life.]

Given the eminence I ascribe to Jonson, it seems right that this [essay] should open with a brief biography. But the decision is not only a critical one; Jonson occupies a position of unusual historical importance, and since we lack so much of the biographical evidence for Shakespeare whose career would be important in similar ways, Jonson's life is one of the few of...

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J. B. Bamborough (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jonson's Poetry, Prose and Criticism," in Ben Jonson, Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., 1970, pp. 151-76.

[In the following excerpt, Bamborough examines the stylistic, thematic, and idiosyncratic qualities of Jonson's poetry.]


Considering that he wrote the best-known lyric in the English language, Jonson has had comparatively little attention as a poet. The reason for this is not hard to see. As with his plays, he had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do in poetry and what his principles were, and he remained largely independent of fashions and schools. In consequence his poetry does not quite fit into the usual categories of English...

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Arthur F. Marotti (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "All About Jonson's Poetry," in ELH, Vol. 39, No. 2, June, 1972, pp. 208-37.

[In the following essay, Marotti reads Jonson's dramatic verse and masques along with his non-dramatic poetry in order to demonstrate the poet's stylistic virtuosity and his range between the extremes of copiousness and restraint.]

When we say that Jonson requires study, we do not mean study of his classical scholarship or of seventeenth-century manners. We mean intelligent saturation in his work as a whole; we mean that, in order to enjoy him at all, we must get to the centre of his work and his temperament, and that we must see him unbiased by time, as a...

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Harris Friedberg (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ben Jonson's Poetry: Pastoral, Géorgie, Epigram," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 111–36.

[In the following essay, Friedberg analyzes Jonson's poems in terms of the classical literary tradition.]

Like Donne, Jonson began his poetic career with the epigram. For a man like Jonson who believed that "it is onely the disease of the vnskilfull, to thinke rude things greater then polish'd: or scatter'd more numerous then compos'd," the epigram remains the perfect form, one that convinces by its point rather than its logic, and Jonson's Epigrams contain some of his most "polish'd" and effective writing. Many of the...

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Geoffrey Walton (essay date 1955)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tone of Ben Jonson's Poetry," in Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets: Authoritative Texts, Criticism, edited by Hugh MacLean, W. W. Norton & Company, 1974, pp. 479–96.

[In the following essay, Walton characterizes Jonson's poetry as a model of civility, exhibiting both its intellectual and moral values.]

It is well known that Pope imitated the opening couplet of Jonson's "Elegie on the Lady Jane Pawlet, Marchion: of Winton":

What gentle ghost, besprent with April deaw,
Hayles me, so solemnly, to yonder Yewgh?

in his own opening couplet of the "Elegy to the Memory...

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Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to Classic and Cavalier: Celebrating Jonson and the Sons of Ben, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, pp. xi-xvii.

[In the following excerpt, Summers and Pebworth describe Jonson as a varied poet, viewing his idealism as the link between his neo-classical tendencies and his emotionalism.]

The recent quickening of critical interest in Ben Jonson's nondramatic poetry has led to a new appreciation of his "subtile sport" and to a new willingness to read him on his own terms. hisstatus as poet has risen steadily over the past two decades. After years of languishing in Donne's shadow, he is now recognized among the most important poets in the language....

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Robert C. Evans (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Literature as Equipment for Living: Ben Jonson and the Poetics of Patronage," in CLA Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3, March, 1987, pp. 379–94.

[In the following essay, Evans contends that the poetry Jonson wrote within the patronage system was as psychologically necessary as it was financially enabling.]

The impact of patronage on English Renaissance literature seems all the greater when one recognizes that literary patronage was only one aspect of a much larger, far more comprehensive system of patronage relationships. Patronage, broadly defined, was the central social system of the era. It dominated political life and permeated the structure of the church and...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Judkins, David C, ed. The Nondramatic Works of Ben Jonson: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1982, 260 p.

Contains a chronological listing of Jonson criticism from 1615 to 1978, including biographies, theses, dissertations, and manuscripts, with an introduction summarizing critical debates.


Burt, Richard. Licensed by Authority: Ben Jonson and the Discourses of Censorship. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993, 227 p.

A materialist study of Jonson's writings in relation to the working of seventeenth...

(The entire section is 777 words.)