The Poetry of Jonson Critical Essays

Ben Jonson

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Ben Jonson was an overpowering individual. People who knew him were rarely neutral: they liked him, some almost to idolatry, or they disliked him with an intensity that vibrates through the centuries. His vigorous personality intrudes and makes dispassionate appraisal of his poetry difficult. A second factor which interferes with cool judgment of his work is the time-hallowed tradition of contrasting portraits of Shakespeare and Jonson. In these conventional portraits, Shakespeare stands for genius, humanity, and native woodnotes; Jonson for labor, bookish pedantry, and classical imitation. It is ironic that one of Jonson’s two most popular poems is the noble tribute to his supposed bitter rival.

Unlike Shakespeare—who may or may not have unlocked his heart with his sonnets, but certainly left posterity little personal allusion in his other writings—Jonson wrote to and about many people who had a share in his life. He had been classified as primarily an occasional poet, except in his dramatic works. Perhaps his earliest extant poem is a brief lament on the death of his six-month-old daughter Mary:

Whose soule heavens Queene, (whosename shee beares)In comfort of her mothers teares,Hath plac’d amongst her virgin-traine. . . .

The distinguished scholar C. H. Herford pointed out the poem’s indebtedness to Martial, who wrote an epigram on the death of a small slave girl, Erotion; however, it is more deeply indebted to medieval Christian tradition than to the classics.

Jonson left two other moving poems on the deaths of children: “On my first Sonne,” which contains the couplet:

Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say heredoth lyeBen. Jonson his best piece of poetrie . . .

and the “Epitaph on S. P.,” which tells of the death of a boy actor who acted old men so well that he deceived the Fates. Though prematurely and mistakenly carried away from earth, Heaven has vowed to keep him. The personal note is also sounded in the epigram “To William Camden,” the poet’s former schoolmaster:

Camden, most reverend head, to whomI oweAll that I am in arts, all that I know,(How nothing’s that?) to whom mycountrey owesThe great renowne, and name wherewithshee goes,Then thee the age sees not that thingmore grave,More high, more holy, that shee morewould crave. . . .

This high praise is less extravagant than the uninitiated might think, for Camden, formerly a promising fellow student of Sir Philip Sidney, was a poet, an antiquarian praised by Edmund Spenser, and a leading historian and geographer of his country. His works are still mined by scholars. Several of his pupils became important and influential men. He fired Jonson with enthusiasm for scholarship and poetry.

One of Jonson’s fairly early poems was an “Ode ALLEGORIKE” prefixed to Hugh Holland’s PANCHARIS. This poem pays a tribute to a former fellow student under Camden. It portrays Holland as a black swan and foreshadows the more famous poem on the Swan of Avon. It also points the way to passages in Milton’s “Lycidas” and John Dryden’s odes. Jonson’s fondness for the ode as a literary type began early in his career and continued into his old age; one of his most ambitious poetic efforts is a Pindaric ode in memory of Sir Henry Morrison, friend of Lord Falkland, noblest of the Sons of Ben. Sir Henry was killed in 1629, eight years before Jonson’s death. This impressive ode is best remembered for a single strophe, often quoted out of context as a separate lyric:

It is not growing like a treeIn bulke, doth make man better bee;Or standing long an Oake, three hun-dred yeare,To fall a logge, at last, dry, bald, andseare:A Lillie of a Day,Is fairer farre, in May,Although it fall, and die that night;It was the Plant, and flowre of light.In small proportions, we just beautiessee:And in short measures, life may perfectbee.

THE FORREST in the 1616 Folio of Jonson’s works contains fifteen poems, three of which are connected with the Sidney family. Like his master Camden, Jonson obviously had great admiration for Sir Philip Sidney as author and man. One of the poems is a somewhat playful birthday ode written to Sir William Sidney, the youthful nephew of Sir Philip and son of Sir Robert, who became Earl of Leicester. Another is an “Epistle to Elizabeth Countesse of Rutland,” the daughter of Sir Philip; and the third is “To Penshurst,” a favorite of many Jonsonians....

(The entire section is 2289 words.)