Ben Jonson by Abraham Blyenberch, c. 1617.
|Born||c. 11 June 1572
Westminster, London, England
|Died||6 August 1637
Westminster, London, England
|Occupation||Dramatist, poet and actor|
Benjamin Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637) was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays, particularly Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, which are considered his best, and his lyric poems. A man of vast reading and a seemingly insatiable appetite for controversy, Jonson had an unparalleled breadth of influence on Jacobean and Caroline playwrights and poets.
Although he was born in Westminster, London, Jonson claimed his family was of Scottish Border country descent, and this claim may have been supported by the fact that his coat of arms bears three spindles or rhombi, a device shared by a Borders family, the Johnstones of Annandale. His father died a month before Ben's birth, and his mother remarried two years later, to a master bricklayer. Jonson attended school in St. Martin's Lane, and was later sent to Westminster School, where one of his teachers was William Camden. Jonson remained friendly with Camden, whose broad scholarship evidently influenced his own style, until the latter's death in 1623. On leaving, Jonson was once thought to have gone on to the University of Cambridge; Jonson himself said that he did not go to university, but was put to a trade immediately: a legend recorded by Fuller indicates that he worked on a garden wall in Lincoln's Inn. He soon had enough of the trade, probably bricklaying, and spent some time in the Low Countries as a volunteer with the regiments of Francis Vere. In conversations with the poet William Drummond, subsequently published as the Hawthornden Manuscripts, Jonson reports that while in the Netherlands he killed an opponent in single combat and stripped him of his weapons.
Ben Jonson married, some time before 1594, a woman he described to Drummond as "a shrew, yet honest." His wife has not been definitively identified, but she is sometimes identified as the Ann Lewis who married a Benjamin Jonson at St Magnus-the-Martyr, near London Bridge. The registers of St. Martin's Church state that his eldest daughter Mary died in November, 1593, when she was only six months old. His eldest son Benjamin died of the plague ten years later (Jonson's epitaph to him On My First Sonne was written shortly after), and a second Benjamin died in 1635. For five years somewhere in this period, Jonson lived separately from his wife, enjoying instead the hospitality of Lord Aubigny.
By the summer of 1597, Jonson had a fixed engagement in the Admiral's Men, then performing under Philip Henslowe's management at The Rose. John Aubrey reports, on uncertain authority, that Jonson was not successful as an actor; whatever his skills as an actor, he was evidently more valuable to the company as a writer.
By this time, Jonson had begun to write original plays for the Lord Admiral's Men; in 1598, he was mentioned by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia as one of "the best for tragedy." None of his early tragedies survive, however. An undated comedy, The Case is Altered, may be his earliest surviving play.
In 1597, a play co-written with Thomas Nashe entitled The Isle of Dogs was suppressed after causing great offence. Arrest warrants for Jonson and Nashe were subsequently issued by Elizabeth's so-called interrogator, Richard Topcliffe. Jonson was jailed in Marshalsea Prison and famously charged with "Leude and mutynous behavior", while Nashe managed to escape to Great Yarmouth. A year later, Jonson was again briefly imprisoned, this time in Newgate Prison, for killing another man, an actor Gabriel Spenser, in a duel on 22 September 1598 in Hogsden Fields, (today part of Hoxton). Tried on a charge of manslaughter, Jonson pleaded guilty but was subsequently released by benefit of clergy, a legal ploy through which he gained leniency by reciting a brief bible verse in Latin, forfeiting his 'goods and chattels' and being branded on his left thumb.
In 1598, Jonson produced his first great success, Every Man in his Humour, capitalising on the vogue for humour plays that had been begun by George Chapman with An Humorous Day's Mirth. William Shakespeare was among the first cast. This play was followed the next year by Every Man Out of His Humour, a pedantic attempt to imitate Aristophanes. It is not known whether this was a success on stage, but when published, it proved popular and went through several editions.
Jonson's other work for the theater in the last years of Elizabeth I's reign was unsurprisingly marked by fighting and controversy. Cynthia's Revels was produced by the Children of the Chapel Royal at Blackfriars Theatre in 1600. It satirized both John Marston, who Jonson believed had accused him of lustfulness, probably in Histrio-Mastix, and Thomas Dekker, against whom Jonson's animus is not known. Jonson attacked the same two poets again in 1601's Poetaster. Dekker responded with Satiromastix, subtitled "the untrussing of the humorous poet". The final scene of this play, whilst certainly not to be taken at face value as a portrait of Jonson, offers a caricature that is recognisable from Drummond's report - boasting about himself and condemning other poets, criticising performances of his plays, and calling attention to himself in any available way.
This "War of the Theatres" appears to have been concluded with reconciliation on all sides. Jonson collaborated with Dekker on a pageant welcoming James I to England in 1603 although Drummond reports that Jonson called Dekker a rogue. Marston dedicated The Malcontent to Jonson and the two collaborated with Chapman on Eastward Ho, a 1605 play whose anti-Scottish sentiment landed both authors in jail for a brief time.
At the beginning of the reign of James I of England in 1603 Jonson joined other poets and playwrights in welcoming the reign of the new king. Jonson quickly adapted himself to the additional demand for masques and entertainments introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort Anne of Denmark.
Jonson flourished as a dramatist during the first decade or so of James's reign; by 1616, he had produced all the plays on which his reputation as a dramatist depends. These include the tragedy of Catiline (acted and printed 1611), which achieved only limited success, and the comedies Volpone, (acted 1605 and printed in 1607), Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair (1614) and The Devil is an Ass (1616). The Alchemist and Volpone appear to have been successful at once. Of Epicoene, Jonson told Drummond of a satirical verse which reported that the play's subtitle was appropriate, since its audience had refused to applaud the play (i.e., remained silent). Yet Epicoene, along with Bartholomew Fair and (to a lesser extent) The Devil is an Ass have in modern times achieved a certain degree of recognition. While his life during this period was apparently more settled than it had been in the 1590s, his financial security was still not assured. In 1603, Overbury reported that Jonson was living on Aurelian Townsend and "scorning the world."
His trouble with English authorities continued. In 1603, he was questioned by the Privy Council about Sejanus, a politically-themed play about corruption in the Roman Empire. He was again in trouble for topical allusions in a play, now lost, in which he took part. After the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, he appears to have been asked by the Privy Council to attempt to prevail on a certain priest to cooperate with the government; the priest he found was Father Thomas Wright, who heard Fawkes's confession (Teague, 249).
At the same time, Jonson pursued a more prestigious career as a writer of masques for James' court. The Satyr (1603) and The Masque of Blackness (1605) are but two of the some two dozen masques Jonson wrote for James or for Queen Anne; the latter was praised by Swinburne as the consummate example of this now-extinct genre, which mingled speech, dancing, and spectacle. On many of these projects he collaborated, not always peacefully, with designer Inigo Jones. Perhaps partly as a result of this new career, Jonson gave up writing plays for the public theaters for a decade. Jonson later told Drummond that he had made less than two hundred pounds on all his plays together.
1616 saw a pension of 100 marks (about £60) a year conferred upon him, leading some to identify him as England's first Poet Laureate. This sign of royal favour may have encouraged him to publish the first volume of the folio collected edition of his works that year. Other volumes followed in 1640–41 and 1692. [See: Ben Jonson folios.]
In 1618, Ben Jonson set out for his ancestral Scotland on foot. He spent over a year there, and the best-remembered hospitality which he enjoyed was that of the Scottish poet, Drummond of Hawthornden. Drummond undertook to record as much of Jonson's conversation as he could in his diary, and thus recorded aspects of Jonson's personality that would otherwise have been less clearly seen. Jonson delivers his opinions, in Drummond's terse reporting, in an expansive and even magisterial mood. In the postscript added by Drummond, he is described as "a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others".
The period between 1605 and 1620 may be viewed as Jonson's heyday. In addition to his popularity on the public stage and in the royal hall, he enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats such as Elizabeth Sidney (daughter of Sir Philip Sidney) and Lady Mary Wroth. This connection with the Sidney family provided the impetus for one of Jonson's most famous lyrics, the country house poem To Penshurst.
The 1620s began a lengthy and slow decline for Jonson. He was still well-known; from this time dates the prominence of the Sons of Ben or the "Tribe of Ben", those younger poets such as Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Sir John Suckling who took their bearing in verse from Jonson. However, a series of setbacks drained his strength and damaged his reputation.
Jonson returned to writing regular plays in the 1620s, but these are not considered among his best. They are of significant interest for the study of the culture of Charles I's England. The Staple of News, for example, offers a remarkable look at the earliest stage of English journalism. The lukewarm reception given that play was, however, nothing compared to the dismal failure of The New Inn; the cold reception given this play prompted Jonson to write a poem condemning his audience (the Ode to Myself), which in turn prompted Thomas Carew, one of the "Tribe of Ben," to respond in a poem that asks Jonson to recognize his own decline.
The principal factor in Jonson's partial eclipse was, however, the death of James and the accession of King Charles I in 1625. Justly or not, Jonson felt neglected by the new court. A decisive quarrel with Jones harmed his career as a writer of court masques, although he continued to entertain the court on an irregular basis. For his part, Charles displayed a certain degree of care for the great poet of his father's day: he increased Jonson's annual pension to £100 and included a tierce of wine.
Despite the strokes that he suffered in the 1620s, Jonson continued to write. At his death in 1637 he seems to have been working on another play, The Sad Shepherd. Though only two acts are extant, this represents a remarkable new direction for Jonson: a move into pastoral drama. During the early 1630s he also conducted a correspondence with James Howell, who warned him about disfavour at court in the wake of his dispute with Jones.
Jonson is buried at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, with the inscription "O Rare Ben Johnson" (sic) set in the slab over his grave. It has been suggested that this could be read "Orare Ben Jonson" (pray for Ben Jonson), which would indicate a deathbed return to Catholicism, but the carving shows a distinct space between "O" and "rare". Researchers suggest that the tribute came from William D’Avenant, Jonson’s successor as Poet Laureate, as the same phrase appears on his gravestone nearby. The fact that he was buried in an upright grave could be an indication of his reduced circumstances at the time of his death, although it has also been written that Jonson asked for a grave exactly 18 inches square from the monarch and received an upright grave to fit in the requested space. The same source claims that the epitaph came from the remark of a passerby to the grave.
Apart from two tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline, that largely failed to impress Renaissance audiences, Jonson's work for the public theatres was in comedy. These plays vary in some respects. The minor early plays, particularly those written for the boy players, present somewhat looser plots and less-developed characters than those written later, for adult companies. Already in the plays which were his salvos in the Poet's War, he displays the keen eye for absurdity and hypocrisy that marks his best-known plays; in these early efforts, however, plot mostly takes second place to variety of incident and comic set-pieces. They are, also, notably ill-tempered. Thomas Davies called Poetaster "a contemptible mixture of the serio-comic, where the names of Augustus Caesar, Maecenas, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Tibullus, are all sacrificed upon the altar of private resentment." Another early comedy in a different vein, The Case is Altered, is markedly similar to Shakespeare's romantic comedies in its foreign setting, emphasis on genial wit, and love-plot. Henslowe's diary indicates that Jonson had a hand in numerous other plays, including many in genres such as English history with which he is not otherwise associated.
The comedies of his middle career, from Eastward Ho to The Devil is an Ass are for the most part city comedy, with a London setting, themes of trickery and money, and a distinct moral ambiguity, despite Jonson's professed aim in the Prologue to Volpone to "mix profit with your pleasure". His late plays or "dotages," particularly The Magnetic Lady and The Sad Shepherd, exhibit some signs of an accommodation with the romantic tendencies of Elizabethan comedy.
Within this general progression, however, Jonson's comic style remained constant and easily recognizable. He announces his programme in the prologue to the folio version of Every Man in His Humour; he promises to represent "deeds, and language, such as men do use." He planned to write comedies that revived the classical premises of Elizabethan dramatic theory—or rather, since all but the loosest English comedies could claim some descent from Plautus and Terence, he intended to apply those premises with rigour. This commitment entailed negations: after The Case is Altered, Jonson eschewed distant locations, noble characters, romantic plots, and other staples of Elizabethan comedy. Jonson focused instead on the satiric and realistic inheritance of new comedy. He sets his plays in contemporary settings, peoples them with recognizable types, and sets them to actions that, if not strictly realistic, involve everyday motives such as greed and jealousy. In accordance with the temper of his age, he was often so broad in his characterisation that many of his most famous scenes border on the farcical (as Congreve, for example, judged Epicoene.) He was, moreover, more diligent in adhering to the classical unities than many of his peers—although as Margaret Cavendish noted, the unity of action in the major comedies was rather compromised by Jonson's abundance of incident. To this classical model Jonson applies the two features of his style which save his classical imitations from mere pedantry: the vividness with which he depicts the lives of his characters, and the intricacy of his plots. Coleridge, for instance, claimed that The Alchemist had one of the three most perfect plots in literature.
Jonson's poetry, like his drama, is informed by his classical learning. Some of his better-known poems are close translations of Greek or Roman models; all display the careful attention to form and style that often came naturally to those trained in classics in the humanist manner. Jonson, however, largely avoided the debates about rhyme and meter that had consumed Elizabethan classicists such as Campion and Harvey. Accepting both rhyme and stress, Jonson uses them to mimic the classical qualities of simplicity, restraint, and precision.
“Epigrams” (published in the 1616 folio) is an entry in a genre that was popular among late-Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, although Jonson was perhaps the only poet of his time to work in its full classical range. The epigrams explore various attitudes, most but not all of them from the satiric stock of the day: complaints against women, courtiers, and spies abound. The condemnatory poems are short and anonymous; Jonson’s epigrams of praise, including a famous poem to Camden and lines to Lucy Harington, are somewhat longer and mostly addressed to specific individuals. Although it is an epigram in the classical sense of the genre, "On My First Son" is neither satirical nor very short; the poem, and others like it, resemble what a later age sometimes called "lyric poetry." The poems of “The Forest” also appeared in the first folio. Most of the fifteen poems are addressed to Jonson’s aristocratic supporters, but the most famous are his country-house poem “To Penshurst” and the poem “To Celia” (“Come, my Celia, let us prove”) that appears also in ‘’Volpone.’’
‘’Underwood,’’ published in the expanded folio of 1640, is a larger and more heterogeneous group of poems. It contains ‘’A Celebration of Charis,’’ Jonson’s most extended effort at love poetry; various religious pieces; encomiastic poems including the poem to Shakespeare and a sonnet on Mary Wroth; the ‘’Execration against Vulcan” and others. The 1640 volume also contains three elegies which have often been ascribed to Donne (one of them appeared in Donne’s posthumous collected poems).
There are many legends about Jonson's rivalry with Shakespeare, some of which may be true. Drummond reports that during their conversation, Jonson scoffed at two apparent absurdities in Shakespeare's plays: a nonsensical line in Julius Caesar, and the setting of The Winter's Tale on the non-existent seacoast of Bohemia. Drummond also reports Jonson saying that Shakespeare "wanted art." Whether Drummond is viewed as accurate or not, the comments fit well with Jonson's well-known theories about literature.
In Timber, which was published posthumously and reflects his lifetime of practical experience, Jonson offers a fuller and more conciliatory comment. He recalls being told by certain actors that Shakespeare never blotted (i.e., crossed out) a line when he wrote. His own response, "Would he had blotted a thousand," was taken as malicious. However, Jonson explains, "He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature, had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped". Jonson concludes that "there was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned." Also when Shakespeare died he said "He was not of an age, but for all time."
Thomas Fuller relates stories of Jonson and Shakespeare engaging in debates in the Mermaid Tavern; Fuller imagines conversations in which Shakespeare would run rings around the more learned but more ponderous Jonson. That the two men knew each other personally is beyond doubt, not only because of the tone of Jonson's references to him but because Shakespeare's company produced a number of Jonson's plays, at least one of which (Every Man in his Humour) Shakespeare certainly acted in. However, it is now impossible to tell how much personal communication they had, and tales of their friendship cannot be substantiated in the present state of knowledge.
Jonson's most influential and revealing commentary on Shakespeare is the second of the two poems that he contributed to the prefatory verse that opens Shakespeare's First Folio. This poem, "To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR, Mr. William Shakespeare: And what he hath left us," did a good deal to create the traditional view of Shakespeare as a poet who, despite "small Latine, and lesse Greeke", had a natural genius. The poem has traditionally been thought to exemplify the contrast Jonson perceived between himself, the disciplined and erudite classicist, scornful of ignorance and skeptical of the masses, and Shakespeare, represented in the poem as a kind of natural wonder whose genius was not subject to any rules except those of the audiences for which he wrote. But the poem itself qualifies this view:
Some view this elegy as a conventional exercise, but a rising number of critics see it as a heartfelt tribute to the "Sweet Swan Of Avon," the "Soul of the Age!" It has been compellingly argued that Jonson helped to edit the First Folio, and he may have been inspired to write this poem, surely one of his greatest, by reading his fellow playwright's works, a number of which had been previously either unpublished or available in less satisfactory versions, in a relatively complete form.
During most of the seventeenth century Jonson was a towering literary figure, and his influence was enormous. Before the civil war The Tribe of Ben touted his importance, and during the Restoration Jonson's satirical comedies and his theory and practice of "humour characters" (which are often misunderstood; see William Congreve's letters for clarification) was extremely influential, providing the blueprint for many Restoration comedies. In the eighteenth century Jonson's status began to decline. In the Romantic era, Jonson suffered the fate of being unfairly compared and contrasted to Shakespeare, as the taste for Jonson's type of satirical comedy decreased. Jonson was at times greatly appreciated by the Romantics, but overall he was denigrated for not writing in a Shakespearean vein. In the twentieth century, Jonson's status rose significantly.
As G. E. Bentley notes in Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the Seventeenth Century Compared, Jonson's reputation was in some respects equal to Shakespeare's in the seventeenth century. After the English theatres were reopened on the Restoration of Charles II, Jonson's work, along with Shakespeare's and Fletcher's work, formed the initial core of the Restoration repertory. It was not until after 1710 that Shakespeare's plays (ordinarily in heavily revised forms) were more frequently performed than those of his Renaissance contemporaries. Many critics since the eighteenth century have ranked Jonson below only Shakespeare among English Renaissance dramatists. Critical judgment has tended to emphasize the very qualities that Jonson himself lauds in his prefaces, in Timber, and in his scattered prefaces and dedications: the realism and propriety of his language, the bite of his satire, and the care with which he plotted his comedies.
For some critics, the temptation to contrast Jonson (representing art or craft) with Shakespeare (representing nature, or untutored genius) has seemed natural; Jonson himself may be said to initiate this interpretation in his poem on Shakespeare. Leonard Digges echoed this line of thought in his verses affixed to the second folio, and Samuel Butler drew the same comparison in his commonplace book later in the century.
At the Restoration, this sensed difference became a kind of critical dogma. Saint-Évremond, indeed, placed Jonson's comedies above all else in English drama, and Charles Gildon called Jonson the father of English comedy. John Dryden offered a more common assessment in the Essay of Dramatic Poesie, in which his avatar Neander compares Shakespeare to Homer and Jonson to Virgil: the former represented profound creativity, the latter polished artifice. But "artifice" was in the seventeenth century almost synonymous with "art"; Jonson, for instance, used "artificer" as a synonym for "artist" (Discoveries, 33). For Lewis Theobald, too, Jonson “ow[ed] all his Excellence to his Art,” in contrast to Shakespeare, the natural genius. Rowe, to whom may be traced the legend that Jonson owed the production of Every Man in his Humour to Shakespeare's intercession, likewise attributed Jonson's excellence to learning, which did not raise him quite to the level of genius. A consensus formed: Jonson was the first English poet to understand classical precepts with any accuracy, and he was the first to apply those precepts successfully to contemporary life. But there were also more negative spins on Jonson's learned art; for instance, in the 1750s, Edward Young casually remarked on the way in which Jonson’s learning worked, like Samson’s strength, to his own detriment. Earlier, Aphra Behn, writing in defence of female playwrights, had pointed to Jonson as a writer whose learning did not make him popular; unsurprisingly, she compares him unfavorably to Shakespeare. Particularly in the tragedies, with their lengthy speeches abstracted from Sallust and Cicero, Augustan critics saw a writer whose learning had swamped his aesthetic judgment.
In this period, Alexander Pope is exceptional in that he noted the tendency to exaggeration in these competing critical portraits: "It is ever the nature of Parties to be in extremes; and nothing is so probable, as that because Ben Johnson had much the most learning, it was said on the one hand that Shakespear had none at all; and because Shakespear had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Johnson wanted both." For the most part, the eighteenth century consensus remained committed to the division that Pope doubted; as late as the 1750s, Sarah Fielding could put a brief recapitulation of this analysis in the mouth of a "man of sense" encountered by David Simple.
Though his stature declined during the eighteenth century, Jonson was still read and commented on throughout the century, generally in the kind of comparative and dismissive terms just described. Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg translated parts of Peter Whalley's edition into German in 1765. Shortly before the Romantic revolution, Edward Capell offered an almost unqualified rejection of Jonson as a dramatic poet, who (he writes) "has very poor pretensions to the high place he holds among the English Bards, as there is no original manner to distinguish him, and the tedious sameness visible in his plots indicates a defect of Genius." The disastrous failures of productions of Volpone and Epicoene in the early 1770s no doubt bolstered a widespread sense that Jonson had at last grown too antiquated for the contemporary public; if Jonson still attracted enthusiasts such as Earl Camden and William Gifford, he all but disappeared from the stage in the last quarter of the century.
The romantic revolution in criticism brought about an overall decline in the critical estimation of Jonson. Hazlitt refers dismissively to Jonson’s “laborious caution.” Coleridge, while more respectful, describes Jonson as psychologically superficial: “He was a very accurately observing man; but he cared only to observe what was open to, and likely to impress, the senses.” Coleridge placed Jonson second only to Shakespeare; other romantic critics were less approving. The early nineteenth century was the great age for recovering Renaissance drama. Jonson, whose reputation had survived, appears to have been less interesting to some readers than writers such as Thomas Middleton or John Heywood, who were in some senses “discoveries” of the nineteenth century. Moreover, the emphasis the romantic writers placed on imagination, and their concomitant tendency to distrust studied art, lowered Jonson's status, if it also sharpened their awareness of the difference traditionally noted between Jonson and Shakespeare. This trend was by no means universal, however; William Gifford, Jonson's first editor of the nineteenth century, did a great deal to defend Jonson's reputation during this period of general decline. In the next era, Swinburne, who was more interested in Jonson than most Victorians, wrote, “The flowers of his growing have every quality but one which belongs to the rarest and finest among flowers: they have colour, form, variety, fertility, vigour: the one thing they want is fragrance” — by “fragrance,” Swinburne means spontaneity.
In the twentieth century, Jonson’s body of work has been subject to a more varied set of analyses, broadly consistent with the interests and programmes of modern literary criticism. In an essay printed in The Sacred Wood T.S. Eliot attempts to repudiate the charge that Jonson was an arid classicist by analysing the role of imagination in his dialogue. Eliot was appreciative of Jonson's overall conception and his "surface," a view consonant with the modernist reaction against Romantic criticism, which tended to denigrate playwrights who did not concentrate on representations of psychological depth. Around mid-century, a number of critics and scholars followed Eliot’s lead, producing detailed studies of Jonson’s verbal style. At the same time, study of Elizabethan themes and conventions, such as those by E. E. Stoll and M. C. Bradbrook, provided a more vivid sense of how Jonson’s work was shaped by the expectations of his time.
The proliferation of new critical perspectives after mid-century touched on Jonson inconsistently. Jonas Barish was the leading figure in a group of critics that was appreciative of Jonson's artistry. On the other hand, Jonson received less attention from the new critics than did some other playwrights and his work was not of programmatic interest to psychoanalytic critics. But Jonson’s career eventually made him a focal point for the revived sociopolitical criticism. Jonson’s work, particularly his masques and pageants, offers significant information regarding the relations of literary production and political power, as do his contacts with and poems for aristocratic patrons; moreover, his career at the centre of London’s emerging literary world has been seen as exemplifying the development of a fully commodified literary culture. In this respect, Jonson has been seen as a transitional figure, an author whose skills and ambition led him to a leading role both in the declining culture of patronage and in the rising culture of mass consumption.
If Jonson's reputation as a playwright has traditionally been linked to Shakespeare, his reputation as a poet has, since the early twentieth century, been linked to that of John Donne. In this comparison, Jonson represents the cavalier strain of poetry, which emphasized grace and clarity of expression; Donne, by contrast, epitomized the metaphysical school of poetry, with its reliance on strained, baroque metaphors and often vague phrasing. Since the critics who made this comparison (Herbert Grierson for example), were to varying extents rediscovering Donne, this comparison often worked to the detriment of Jonson's reputation.
In his time, though, Jonson was at least as influential as Donne. In 1623, historian Edmund Bolton named him the best and most polished English poet. That this judgment was widely shared is indicated by the admitted influence he had on younger poets. The grounds for describing Jonson as the "father" of cavalier poets are clear: many of the cavalier poets described themselves as his "sons" or his "tribe." For some of this tribe, the connection was as much social as poetic; Herrick describes meetings at "the Sun, the Dog, the Triple Tunne." All of them, including those like Herrick whose accomplishments in verse are generally regarded as superior to Jonson's, took inspiration from Jonson's revival of classical forms and themes, his subtle melodies, and his disciplined use of wit. In all of these respects, Jonson may be regarded as among the most important figures in the prehistory of English neoclassicism.
The best of Jonson's lyrics have remained current since his time; periodically, they experience a brief vogue, as after the publication of Peter Whalley's edition of 1756. Jonson's poetry continues to interest scholars for the light it sheds on English literary history, particularly as regards politics, systems of patronage, and intellectual attitudes. For the general reader, Jonson's reputation rests on a few lyrics that, though brief, are surpassed for grace and precision by very few Renaissance poems: "On My First Sonne"; "To Celia"; "To Penshurst"; and the epitaph on boy player Solomon Pavy.
Timber, or Discoveries, a commonplace book.
As with other English Renaissance dramatists, a portion of Ben Jonson's literary output has not survived. In addition to The Isle of Dogs (1597), the records suggest these lost plays as wholly or partially Jonson's work: Richard Crookback (1602); Hot Anger Soon Cold (1598), with Porter and Henry Chettle; Page of Plymouth (1599), with Dekker; and Robert II, King of Scots (1599), with Chettle and Dekker. Several of Jonson's masques and entertainments also are not extant: The Entertainment at Merchant Taylors (1607); The Entertainment at Salisbury House for James I (1608); The Entertainment at Britain's Burse for James I (1609); and The May Lord (1613–19).
Finally, there are questionable or borderline attributions. Jonson may have had a hand in Rollo, Duke of Normandy, or The Bloody Brother, a play in the canon of John Fletcher and his collaborators. The comedy The Widow was printed in 1652 as the work of Thomas Middleton, Fletcher and Jonson, though scholars have been intensely skeptical about Jonson's presence in the play. A few attributions of anonymous plays, like The London Prodigal, have been ventured by individual researchers, but have met with cool responses.
|British Poet Laureate
Benjamin Jonson (11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637) was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. He is best known for his plays Volpone and The Alchemist, his lyrics, his influence on Jacobean and Caroline poets, his theory of humours, his contentious personality, and his friendship and rivalry with William Shakespeare.
That verses stood by sense without either colours or accent; which yet other times he denied.
[Jonson] calling his cook, asked if he had ever heard of her, who answering "No," demonstrate to him
Lo, there the man that never yet did hear
Of fair Penelope, Ulysses' queen.
|←Hamlet and His Problems||The Sacred
|First published 1919.|
THE reputation of Jonson has been of the most deadly kind that can be compelled upon the memory of a great poet. To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read the book; to be afflicted by the imputation of the virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries—this is the most perfect conspiracy of approval. For some generations the reputation of Jonson has been carried rather as a liability than as an asset in the balance-sheet of English literature. No critic has succeeded in making him appear pleasurable or even interesting. Swinburne's book on Jonson satisfies no curiosity and stimulates no thought. For the critical study in the "Men of Letters Series" by Mr. Gregory Smith there is a place; it satisfies curiosity, it supplies many just observations, it provides valuable matter on the neglected masques; it only fails to remodel the image of Jonson which is settled in our minds. Probably the fault lies with several generations of our poets. It is not that the value of poetry is only its value to living poets for their own work; but appreciation is akin to creation, and true enjoyment of poetry is related to the stirring of suggestion, the stimulus that a poet feels in his enjoyment of other poetry. Jonson has provided no creative stimulus for a very long time; consequently we must look back as far as Dryden—precisely, a poetic practitioner who learned from Jonson—before we find a living criticism of Jonson's work.
Yet there are possibilities for Jonson even now. We have no difficulty in seeing what brought him to this pass; how, in contrast, not with Shakespeare, but with Marlowe, Webster, Donne, Beaumont, and Fletcher, he has been paid out with reputation instead of enjoyment. He is no less a poet than these men, but his poetry is of the surface. Poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study; for to deal with the surface of life, as Jonson dealt with it, is to deal so deliberately that we too must be deliberate, in order to understand. Shakespeare, and smaller men also, are in the end more difficult, but they offer something at the start to encourage the student or to satisfy those who want nothing more; they are suggestive, evocative, a phrase, a voice; they offer poetry in detail as well as in design. So does Dante offer something, a phrase everywhere (tu se' ombra ed ombra vedi) even to readers who have no Italian; and Dante and Shakespeare have poetry of design as well as of detail. But the polished veneer of Jonson reflects only the lazy reader's fatuity; unconscious does not respond to unconscious; no swarms of inarticulate feelings are aroused. The immediate appeal of Jonson is to the mind; his emotional tone is not in the single verse, but in the design of the whole. But not many people are capable of discovering for themselves the beauty which is only found after labour; and Jonson's industrious readers have been those whose interest was historical and curious, and those who have thought that in discovering the historical and curious interest they had discovered the artistic value as well. 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 contemporary. And to see him as a contemporary does not so much require the power of putting ourselves into seventeenth-century London as it requires the power of setting Jonson in our London: a more difficult triumph of divination.
It is generally conceded that Jonson failed as a tragic dramatist; and it is usually agreed that he failed because his genius was for satiric comedy and because of the weight of pedantic learning with which he burdened his two tragic failures. The second point marks an obvious error of detail; the first is too crude a statement to be accepted; to say that he failed because his genius was unsuited to tragedy is to tell us nothing at all. Jonson did not write a good tragedy, but we can see no reason why he should not have written one. If two plays so different as The Tempest and The Silent Woman are both comedies, surely the category of tragedy could be made wide enough to include something possible for Jonson to have done. But the classification of tragedy and comedy, while it may be sufficient to mark the distinction in a dramatic literature of more rigid form and treatment—it may distinguish Aristophanes from Euripides—is not adequate to a drama of such variations as the Elizabethans. Tragedy is a crude classification for plays so different in their tone as Macbeth, The Jew of Malta, and The Witch of Edmonton; and it does not help us much to say that The Merchant of Venice and The Alchemist are comedies. Jonson had his own scale, his own instrument. The merit which Catiline possesses is the same merit that is exhibited more triumphantly in Volpone; Catiline fails, not because it is too laboured and conscious, but because it is not conscious enough; because Jonson in this play was not alert to his own idiom, not clear in his mind as to what his temperament wanted him to do. In Catiline Jonson conforms, or attempts to conform, to conventions; not to the conventions of antiquity, which he had exquisitely under control, but to the conventions of tragico-historical drama of his time. It is not the Latin erudition that sinks Catiline, but the application of that erudition to a form which was not the proper vehicle for the mind which had amassed the erudition.
If you look at Catiline—that dreary Pyrrhic victory of tragedy—you find two passages to be successful: Act ii. scene I, the dialogue of the political ladies, and the Prologue of Sylla's ghost. These two passages are genial. The soliloquy of the ghost is a characteristic Jonson success in content and in versification—
Dost thou not feel me, Rome? not yet! is night So heavy on thee, and my weight so light? Can Sylla's ghost arise within thy walls, Less threatening than an earthquake, the quick falls Of thee and thine? Shake not the frighted heads Of thy steep towers, or shrink to their first beds? Or as their ruin the large Tyber fills, Make that swell up, and drown thy seven proud hills?...
This is the learned, but also the creative, Jonson. Without concerning himself with the character of Sulla, and in lines of invective, Jonson makes Sylla's ghost, while the words are spoken, a living and terrible force. The words fall with as determined beat as if they were the will of the morose Dictator himself. You may say: merely invective; but mere invective, even if as superior to the clumsy fisticuffs of Marston and Hall as Jonson's verse is superior to theirs, would not create a living figure as Jonson has done in this long tirade. And you may say; rhetoric; but if we are to call it "rhetoric" we must subject that term to a closer dissection than any to which it is accustomed. What Jonson has done here is not merely a fine speech. It is the careful, precise filling in of a strong and simple outline, and at no point does it overflow the outline; it is far more careful and precise in its obedience to this outline than are many of the speeches in Tamburlaine. The outline is not Sulla, for Sulla has nothing to do with it, but "Sylla's ghost." The words may not be suitable to an historical Sulla, or to anybody in history, but they are a perfect expression for "Sylla's ghost." You cannot say they are rhetorical "because people do not talk like that," you cannot call them "verbiage"; they do not exhibit prolixity or redundancy or the other vices in the rhetoric books; there is a definite artistic emotion which demands expression at that length. The words themselves are mostly simple words, the syntax is natural, the language austere rather than adorned. Turning then to the induction of The Poetaster, we find another success of the same kind—
Light, I salute thee, but with wounded nerves...
Men may not talk in that way, but the spirit of envy does, and in the words of Jonson envy is a real and living person. It is not human life that informs envy and Sylla's ghost, but it is energy of which human life is only another variety.
Returning to Catiline, we find that the best scene in the body of the play is one which cannot be squeezed into a tragic frame, and which appears to belong to satiric comedy. The scene between Fulvia and Galla and Sempronia is a living scene in a wilderness of oratory. And as it recalls other scenes—there is a suggestion of the college of ladies in The Silent Woman—it looks like a comedy scene. And it appears to be satire.
They shall all give and pay well, that come here, If they will have it; and that, jewels, pearl, Plate, or round sums to buy these. I'm not taken With a cob-swan or a high-mounting bull, As foolish Leda and Europa were; But the bright gold, with Danaë. For such price I would endure a rough, harsh Jupiter, Or ten such thundering gamesters, and refrain To laugh at 'em, till they are gone, with my much suffering.
This scene is no more comedy than it is tragedy, and the "satire" is merely a medium for the essential emotion. Jonson's drama is only incidentally satire, because it is only incidentally a criticism upon the actual world. It is not satire in the way in which the work of Swift or the work of Molière may be called satire: that is, it does not find its source in any precise emotional attitude or precise intellectual criticism of the actual world. It is satire perhaps as the work of Rabelais is satire; certainly not more so. The important thing is that if fiction can be divided into creative fiction and critical fiction, Jonson's is creative. That he was a great critic, our first great critic, does not affect this assertion. Every creator is also a critic; Jonson was a conscious critic, but he was also conscious in his creations. Certainly, one sense in which the term "critical" may be applied to fiction is a sense in which the term might be used of a method antithetical to Jonson's. It is the method of Education Sentimentale. The characters of Jonson, of Shakespeare, perhaps of all the greatest drama, are drawn in positive and simple outlines. They may be filled in, and by Shakespeare they are filled in, by much detail or many shifting aspects; but a clear and sharp and simple form remains through these—though it would be hard to say in what the clarity and sharpness and simplicity of Hamlet consists. But Frédéric Moreau is not made in that way. He is constructed partly by negative definition, built up by a great number of observations. We cannot isolate him from the environment in which we find him; it may be an environment which is or can be much universalized; nevertheless it, and the figure in it, consist of very many observed particular facts, the actual world. Without this world the figure dissolves. The ruling faculty is a critical perception, a commentary upon experienced feeling and sensation. If this is true of Flaubert, it is true in a higher degree of Molière than of Jonson. The broad farcical lines of Molière may seem to be the same drawing as Jonson's. But Molière—say in Alceste or Monsieur Jourdain—is criticizing the actual; the reference to the actual world is more direct. And having a more tenuous reference, the work of Jonson is much less directly satirical.
This leads us to the question of Humours. Largely on the evidence of the two Humour plays, it is sometimes assumed that Jonson is occupied with types; typical exaggerations, or exaggerations of type. The Humour definition, the expressed intention of Jonson, may be satisfactory for these two plays. Every Man in his Humour is the first mature work of Jonson, and the student of Jonson must study it; but it is not the play in which Jonson found his genius: it is the last of his plays to read first. If one reads Volpone, and after that re-reads the Jew of Malta; then returns to Jonson and reads Bartholomew Fair, The Alchemist, Epicoe<! oelig>ne and The Devil is an Ass, and finally Catiline, it is possible to arrive at a fair opinion of the poet and the dramatist.
The Humour, even at the beginning, is not a type, as in Marston's satire, but a simplified and somewhat distorted individual with a typical mania. In the later work, the Humour definition quite fails to account for the total effect produced. The characters of Shakespeare are such as might exist in different circumstances than those in which Shakespeare sets them. The latter appear to be those which extract from the characters the most intense and interesting realization; but that realization has not exhausted their possibilities. Volpone's life, on the other hand, is bounded by the scene in which it is played; in fact, the life is the life of the scene and is derivatively the life of Volpone; the life of the character is inseparable from the life of the drama. This is not dependence upon a background, or upon a substratum of fact. The emotional effect is single and simple. Whereas in Shakespeare the effect is due to the way in which the characters act upon one another, in Jonson it is given by the way in which the characters fit in with each other. The artistic result of Volpone is not due to any effect that Volpone, Mosca, Corvino, Corbaccio, Voltore have upon each other, but simply to their combination into a whole. And these figures are not personifications of passions; separately, they have not even that reality, they are constituents. It is a similar indication of Jonson's method that you can hardly pick out a line of Jonson's and say confidently that it is great poetry; but there are many extended passages to which you cannot deny that honour.
I will have all my beds blown up, not stuft; Down is too hard; and then, mine oval room Fill'd with such pictures as Tiberius took From Elephantis, and dull Aretine But coldly imitated. Then, my glasses Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse And multiply the figures, as I walk....
Jonson is the legitimate heir of Marlowe. The man who wrote, in Volpone:
for thy love, In varying figures, I would have contended With the blue Proteus, or the hornèd flood....
See, a carbuncle May put out both the eyes of our Saint Mark; A diamond would have bought Lollia Paulina, When she came in like star-light, hid with jewels....
is related to Marlowe as a poet; and if Marlowe is a poet, Jonson is also. And, if Jonson's comedy is a comedy of humours, then Marlowe's tragedy, a large part of it, is a tragedy of humours. But Jonson has too exclusively been considered as the typical representative of a point of view toward comedy. He has suffered from his great reputation as a critic and theorist, from the effects of his intelligence. We have been taught to think of him as the man, the dictator (confusedly in our minds with his later namesake), as the literary politician impressing his views upon a generation; we are offended by the constant reminder of his scholarship. We forget the comedy in the humours, and the serious artist in the scholar. Jonson has suffered in public opinion, as anyone must suffer who is forced to talk about his art.
If you examine the first hundred lines or more of Volpone the verse appears to be in the manner of Marlowe, more deliberate, more mature, but without Marlowe's inspiration. It looks like mere "rhetoric," certainly not "deeds and language such as men do use"! It appears to us, in fact, forced and flagitious bombast. That it is not "rhetoric," or at least not vicious rhetoric, we do not know until we are able to review the whole play. For the consistent maintenance of this manner conveys in the end an effect not of verbosity, but of bold, even shocking and terrifying directness. We have difficulty in saying exactly what produces this simple and single effect. It is not in any ordinary way due to management of intrigue. Jonson employs immense dramatic constructive skill: it is not so much skill in plot as skill in doing without a plot. He never manipulates as complicated a plot as that of The Merchant of Venice; he has in his best plays nothing like the intrigue of Restoration comedy. In Bartholomew Fair it is hardly a plot at all; the marvel of the play is the bewildering rapid chaotic action of the fair; it is the fair itself, not anything that happens to take place in the fair. In Volpone, or The Alchemist, or The Silent Woman, the plot is enough to keep the players in motion; it is rather an "action" than a plot. The plot does not hold the play together; what holds the play together is a unity of inspiration that radiates into plot and personages alike.
We have attempted to make more precise the sense in which it was said that Jonson's work is "of the surface"; carefully avoiding the word "superficial." For there is work contemporary with Jonson's which is superficial in a pejorative sense in which the word cannot be applied to Jonson—the work of Beaumont and Fletcher. If we look at the work of Jonson's great contemporaries, Shakespeare, and also Donne and Webster and Tourneur (and sometimes Middleton), have a depth, a third dimension, as Mr. Gregory Smith rightly calls it, which Jonson's work has not. Their words have often a network of tentacular roots reaching down to the deepest terrors and desires. Jonson's most certainly have not; but in Beaumont and Fletcher we may think that at times we find it. Looking closer, we discover that the blossoms of Beaumont and Fletcher's imagination draw no sustenance from the soil, but are cut and slightly withered flowers stuck into sand.
Wilt thou, hereafter, when they talk of me, As thou shalt hear nothing but infamy, Remember some of these things?... I pray thee, do; for thou shalt never see me so again. Hair woven in many a curious warp, Able in endless error to enfold The wandering soul;...
Detached from its context, this looks like the verse of the greater poets; just as lines of Jonson, detached from their context, look like inflated or empty fustian. But the evocative quality of the verse of Beaumont and Fletcher depends upon a clever appeal to emotions and associations which they have not themselves grasped; it is hollow. It is superficial with a vacuum behind it; the superficies of Jonson is solid. It is what it is; it does not pretend to be another thing. But it is so very conscious and deliberate that we must look with eyes alert to the whole before we apprehend the significance of any part. We cannot call a man's work superficial when it is the creation of a world; a man cannot be accused of dealing superficially with the world which he himself has created; the superficies is the world. Jonson's characters conform to the logic of the emotions of their world. It is a world like Lobatchevsky's; the worlds created by artists like Jonson are like systems of non-Euclidean geometry. They are not fancy, because they have a logic of their own; and this logic illuminates the actual world, because it gives us a new point of view from which to inspect it.
A writer of power and intelligence, Jonson endeavoured to promulgate, as a formula and programme of reform, what he chose to do himself; and he not unnaturally laid down in abstract theory what is in reality a personal point of view. And it is in the end of no value to discuss Jonson's theory and practice unless we recognize and seize this point of view, which escapes the formulæ, and which is what makes his plays worth reading. Jonson behaved as the great creative mind that he was: he created his own world, a world from which his followers, as well as the dramatists who were trying to do something wholly different, are excluded. Remembering this, we turn to Mr. Gregory Smith's objection—that Jonson's characters lack the third dimension, have no life out of the theatrical existence in which they appear—and demand an inquest. The objection implies that the characters are purely the work of intellect, or the result of superficial observation of a world which is faded or mildewed. It implies that the characters are lifeless. But if we dig beneath the theory, beneath the observation, beneath the deliberate drawing and the theatrical and dramatic elaboration, there is discovered a kind of power, animating Volpone, Busy, Fitzdottrel, the literary ladies of Epicoe<! oelig>ne, even Bobadil, which comes from below the intellect, and for which no theory of humours will account. And it is the same kind of power which vivifies Trimalchio, and Panurge, and some but not all of the "comic" characters of Dickens. The fictive life of this kind is not to be circumscribed by a reference to "comedy" or to "farce"; it is not exactly the kind of life which informs the characters of Molière or that which informs those of Marivaux—two writers who were, besides, doing something quite different the one from the other. But it is something which distinguishes Barabas from Shylock, Epicure Mammon from Falstaff, Faustus from—if you will—Macbeth; Marlowe and Jonson from Shakespeare and the Shakespearians, Webster, and Tourneur. It is not merely Humours: for neither Volpone nor Mosca is a humour. No theory of humours could account for Jonson's best plays or the best characters in them. We want to know at what point the comedy of humours passes into a work of art, and why Jonson is not Brome.
The creation of a work of art, we will say the creation of a character in a drama, consists in the process of transfusion of the personality, or, in a deeper sense, the life, of the author into the character. This is a very different matter from the orthodox creation in one's own image. The ways in which the passions and desires of the creator may be satisfied in the work of art are complex and devious. In a painter they may take the form of a predilection for certain colours, tones, or lightings; in a writer the original impulse may be even more strangely transmuted. Now, we may say with Mr. Gregory Smith that Falstaff or a score of Shakespeare's characters have a "third dimension" that Jonson's have not. This will mean, not that Shakespeare's spring from the feelings or imagination and Jonson's from the intellect or invention; they have equally an emotional source; but that Shakespeare's represent a more complex tissue of feelings and desires, as well as a more supple, a more susceptible temperament. Falstaff is not only the roast Malmesbury ox with the pudding in his belly; he also "grows old," and, finally, his nose is as sharp as a pen. He was perhaps the satisfaction of more, and of more complicated feelings; and perhaps he was, as the great tragic characters must have been, the offspring of deeper, less apprehensible feelings: deeper, but not necessarily stronger or more intense, than those of Jonson. It is obvious that the spring of the difference is not the difference between feeling and thought, or superior insight, superior perception, on the part of Shakespeare, but his susceptibility to a greater range of emotion, and emotion deeper and more obscure. But his characters are no more "alive" than are the characters of Jonson.
The world they live in is a larger one. But small worlds—the worlds which artists create—do not differ only in magnitude; if they are complete worlds, drawn to scale in every part, they differ in kind also. And Jonson's world has this scale. His type of personality found its relief in something falling under the category of burlesque or farce—though when you are dealing with a unique world, like his, these terms fail to appease the desire for definition. It is not, at all events, the farce of Molière: the latter is more analytic, more an intellectual redistribution. It is not defined by the word "satire." Jonson poses as a satirist. But satire like Jonson's is great in the end not by hitting off its object, but by creating it; the satire is merely the means which leads to the æsthetic result, the impulse which projects a new world into a new orbit. In Every Man in his Humour there is a neat, a very neat, comedy of humours. In discovering and proclaiming in this play the new genre Jonson was simply recognizing, unconsciously, the route which opened out in the proper direction for his instincts. His characters are and remain, like Marlowe's, simplified characters; but the simplification does not consist in the dominance of a particular humour or monomania. That is a very superficial account of it. The simplification consists largely in reduction of detail, in the seizing of aspects relevant to the relief of an emotional impulse which remains the same for that character, in making the character conform to a particular setting. This stripping is essential to the art, to which is also essential a flat distortion in the drawing; it is an art of caricature, of great caricature, like Marlowe's. It is a great caricature, which is beautiful; and a great humour, which is serious. The "world" of Jonson is sufficiently large; it is a world of poetic imagination; it is sombre. He did not get the third dimension, but he was not trying to get it.
If we approach Jonson with less frozen awe of his learning, with a clearer understanding of his "rhetoric" and its applications, if we grasp the fact that the knowledge required of the reader is not archæology but knowledge of Jonson, we can derive not only instruction in non-Euclidean humanity—but enjoyment. We can even apply him, be aware of him as a part of our literary inheritance craving further expression. Of all the dramatists of his time, Jonson is probably the one whom the present age would find the most sympathetic, if it knew him. There is a brutality, a lack of sentiment, a polished surface, a handling of large bold designs in brilliant colours, which ought to attract about three thousand people in London and elsewhere. At least, if we had a contemporary Shakespeare and a contemporary Jonson, it would be the Jonson who would arouse the enthusiasm of the intelligentsia! Though he is saturated in literature, he never sacrifices the theatrical qualities—theatrical in the most favourable sense—to literature or to the study of character. His work is a titanic show. But Jonson's masques, an important part of his work, are neglected; our flaccid culture lets shows and literature fade, but prefers faded literature to faded shows. There are hundreds of people who have read Comus to ten who have read the Masque of Blackness. Comus contains fine poetry, and poetry exemplifying some merits to which Jonson's masque poetry cannot pretend. Nevertheless, Comus is the death of the masque; it is the transition of a form of art—even of a form which existed for but a short generation—into "literature," literature cast in a form which has lost its application. Even though Comus was a masque at Ludlow Castle, Jonson had, what Milton came perhaps too late to have, a sense for living art; his art was applied. The masques can still be read, and with pleasure, by anyone who will take the trouble—a trouble which in this part of Jonson is, indeed, a study of antiquities—to imagine them in action, displayed with the music, costumes, dances, and the scenery of Inigo Jones. They are additional evidence that Jonson had a fine sense of form, of the purpose for which a particular form is intended; evidence that he was a literary artist even more than he was a man of letters.
BEN JONSON' (1573-1637), English dramatist, was born, probably in Westminster, in the beginning of the year 1573 (or possibly, if he reckoned by the unadopted modern calendar, 1572; see Castelain, p. 4, note 1). By the poet's account his grandfather had been a gentleman who " came from" Carlisle, and originally, the grandson 'thought, from Annandale. His arms, " three spindles or rhombi," are the family device of the Johnstones of Annandale, a, fact which confirms his assertion of Border descent. Ben Jonson further related that he was born a month after the death of his father, who, after suffering in estate and person under Queen Mary, had in the end " turned minister." Two years after the birth of her son the widow married again; she may be supposed to have loved him in a passionate way peculiar to herself, since on one occasion we find her revealing an almost ferocious determination to save his honour at the cost of both his life and her own. Jonson's stepfather was a master bricklayer, living in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross, who provided his stepson with the foundations of a good education. After attending a private school in St Martin's Lane, the boy was sent to Westminster School at the expense, it is said, of William Camden. Jonson's gratitude for an education to which in truth he owed an almost inestimable debt concentrated itself upon the " most reverend head " of his benefactor, then second and afterwards head master of the famous school, and the firm friend of his pupil in later life.
After reaching the highest form at Westminster, Jonson is stated, but on unsatisfactory evidence, to have proceeded to Cambridge - according to Fuller, to St John's College. (For reasons in support of the tradition that he was a member of St John's College, see J. B. Mullinger, the Eagle, No. xxv.) He says, however, himself that he studied at neither university, but was put to a trade immediately on leaving school. He soon had enough of the trade, which was no doubt his father's bricklaying, for Henslowe in writing to Edward Alleyne of his affair with Gabriel Spenser calls him " bergemen [sic] Jonson, bricklayer." Either before or after his marriage - more probably before, as Sir Francis Vere's three English regiments were not removed from the Low Countries till 1592 - he spent some time in that country soldiering, much to his own subsequent satisfaction when the days of self-conscious retrospect arrived, but to no further purpose beyond that of seeing something of the world.
Ben Jonson married not later than 1592. The registers of St Martin's Church state that his eldest daughter Maria died in November 1593 when she was, Jonson tells us (epigram 22), only six months old. His eldest son Benjamin died of the plague 1 His Christian name of Benjamin was usually abbreviated by himself and his contemporaries; and thus, in accordance with his famous epitaph, it will always continue to be abbreviated.
ten years later (epigram 45). (A younger Benjamin died in 1635.) His wife Jonson characterized to Drummond as " a shrew, but honest "; and for a period (undated) of five years he preferred to live without her, enjoying the hospitality of Lord Aubigny (afterwards duke of Lennox). Long burnings of oil among his books, and long spells of recreation at the tavern, such as Jonson loved, are not the most favoured accompaniments of family life. But Jonson was no stranger to the tenderest of affections: two at least of the several children whom his wife bore to him he commemorated in touching little tributes of verse; nor in speaking of his lost eldest daughter did he forget " her mother's tears." By the middle of 1597 we come across further documentary evidence of him at home in London in the shape of an entry in Philip Henslowe's diary (July 28) of 3s. 6d. " received of Bengemenes Johnsones share." He was therefore by this time - when Shakespeare, his senior by nearly nine years, was already in prosperous circumstances and good esteem - at least a regular member of the acting profession, with a fixed engagement in the lord admiral's company, then performing under Henslowe's management at the Rose. Perhaps he had previously acted at the Curtain (a former house of the lord admiral's men), and " taken mad Jeronimo's part " on a play-wagon in the highway. This latter appearance, if it ever took place, would, as was pointed out by Gifford, probably have been in Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, since in The First Part of Jeronimo Jonson would have had, most inappropriately, to dwell on the " smallness " of his " bulk." He was at a subsequent date (1601) employed by Henslowe to write up The Spanish Tragedy, and this fact may have given rise to Wood's story of his performance as a stroller (see, however, Fleay, The English Drama, ii. 29, 30). Jonson's additions, which were not the first changes made in the play, are usually supposed to be those printed with The Spanish Tragedy in the edition of 1602; Charles Lamb's doubts on the subject, which were shared by Coleridge, seem an instance of that subjective kind of criticism which it is unsafe to follow when the external evidence to the contrary is so strong.
According to Aubrey, whose statement must be taken for what it is worth, " Jonson was never a good actor, but an excellent instructor." His physique was certainly not well adapted to the histrionic conditions of his - perhaps of any - day; but, in any case, it was not long before he found his place in the organism of his company. In 1597, as we know from Henslowe, Jonson undertook to write a play for the lord admiral's men; and in the following year he was mentioned by Meres in his Palladis Tamia as one of " the best for tragedy," without any reference to a connexion on his part with the other branch of the drama. Whether this was a criticism based on material evidence or an unconscious slip, Ben Jonson in the same year 1598 produced one of the most famous of English comedies, Every Man in his Humour, which was first acted - probably in the earlier part of September - by the lord chamberlain's company at the Curtain. Shakespeare was one of the actors in Jonson's comedy, and it is in the character of Old Knowell in this very play that, according to a bold but ingenious guess, he is represented in the half-length portrait of him in the folio of 1623, beneath which were printed Jonson's lines concerning the picture. Every Man in his Humour was published in 1601; the critical prologue first appears in the folio of 1616, and there are other divergences (see Castelain, appendix A). After the Restoration the play was revived in 1751 by Garrick (who acted Kitely) with alterations, and long continued to be known on the stage. It was followed in the same year by The Case is Altered, acted by the children of the queen's revels, which contains a satirical attack upon the pageant poet, Anthony Munday. This comedy, which was not included in the folio editions, is one of intrigue rather than of character; it contains obvious reminiscences of Shylock and his daughter. The earlier of these two comedies was indisputably successful.
Before the year 1598 was out, however, Jonson found himself in prison and in danger of the gallows. In a duel, fought on the 22nd of September in Hogsden Fields, he had killed an actor of Henslowe's company named Gabriel Spenser. The quarrel with Henslowe consequent on this event may account for the production of Every Man in his Humour by the rival company. In prison Jonson was visited by a Roman Catholic priest, and the result (certainly strange, if Jonson's parentage is considered) was his conversion to the Church of Rome, to which he adhered for twelve years. Jonson was afterwards a diligent student of divinity; but, though his mind was religious, it is not probable that its natural bias much inclined it to dwell upon creeds and their controversies. He pleaded guilty to the charge brought against him, as the rolls of Middlesex sessions show; but, after a short imprisonment, he was released by benefit of clergy, forfeiting his " goods and chattels," and being branded on his left thumb. The affair does not seem to have affected his reputation; in '599 he is found back again at work for Henslowe, receiving together with Dekker, Chettle and " another gentleman," earnestmoney for a tragedy (undiscovered) called Robert II., King of Scots. In the same year he brought out through the lord chamberlain's company (possibly already at the Globe, then newly built or building) the elaborate comedy of Every Man out of his Humour (quarto 1600; fol. 1616) - a play subsequently presented before Queen Elizabeth. The sunshine of court favour, rarely diffused during her reign in rays otherwise than figuratively golden, was not to bring any material comfort to the most learned of her dramatists, before there was laid upon her the inevitable hand of which his courtly epilogue had besought death to forget the use. Indeed, of his Cynthia's Revels, performed by the chapel children in 1600 and printed with the first title of The Fountain of Self-Love in 1601, though it was no doubt primarily designed as a compliment to the queen, the most marked result had been to offend two playwrights of note - Dekker, with whom he had formerly worked in company, and who had a healthy if rough grip of his own; and Marston, who was perhaps less dangerous by his strength than by his versatility. According to Jonson, his quarrel with Marston had begun by the latter attacking his morals, and in the course of it they came to blows, and might have come to worse. In Cynthia's Revels, Dekker is generally held to be satirized as Hedon, and Marston as Anaides (Fleay, however, thinks Anaides is Dekker, and Hedon Daniel), while the character of Crites most assuredly has some features of Jonson himself. Learning the intention of the two writers whom he had satirized, or at all events of Dekker, to wreak literary vengeance upon him, he anticipated them in The Poetaster (1601), again played by the children of the queen's chapel at the Blackfriars and printed in 1602; Marston and Dekker are here ridiculed respectively as the aristocratic Crispinus and the vulgar Demetrius. The play was completed fifteen weeks after its plot was first conceived. It is not certain to what the proceedings against author and play before the lord chief justice, referred to in the dedication of the edition of 1616, had reference, or when they were instituted. Fleay's supposition that the " purge," said in the Returne from Parnassus (Pt. II. act iv. sc. iii.) to have been administered by Shakespeare to Jonson in return for Horace's " pill to the poets " in this piece, consisted of Troilus and Cressida is supremely ingenious, but cannot be examined here. As for Dekker, he retaliated on The Poetaster by the Satiromastix, or The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet (1602). Some more last words were indeed attempted on Jonson's part, but in the Apologetic Dialogue added to The Poetaster in the edition of 1616, though excluded from that of 1602, he says he intends to turn his attention to tragedy. This intention he apparently carried out immediately, for in 1602 he received Rio from Henslowe for a play, entitled Richard Crookbacke, now lost - unfortunately so, for purposes of comparison in particular, even if it was only, as Fleay conjectures, " an alteration of Marlowe's play." According to a statement by Overbury, early in 1603, " Ben Johnson, the poet, now lives upon one Townesend," supposed to have been the poet and masque-writer Aurelian Townshend, at one time steward to the 1st earl of Salisbury, " and scornes the world. " To his other early patron, Lord Aubigny, Jonson dedicated the first of his two extant tragedies, Sejanus, produced by the king's servants at the Globe late in 1603, Shakespeare once more taking a part in the performance.
Either on its performance or on its appearing in print in 1605, Jonson was called before the privy council by the Earl of Northampton. But it is open to question whether this was the occasion on which, according to Jonson's statement to Drummond, Northampton " accused him both of popery and treason " (see Castelain, Appendix C). Though, for one reason or another, unsuccessful at first, the endurance of its reputation is attested by its performance, in a German version by an Englishman, John Michael Girish, at the court of the grandson of James I. at Heidelberg.
When the reign of James I. opened in England and an adulatory loyalty seemed intent on showing that it had not exhausted itself at the feet of Gloriana, Jonson's well-stored brain and ready pen had their share in devising and executing ingenious variations on the theme " Welcome - since we cannot do without thee!" With extraordinary promptitude his genius,which, far from being " ponderous " in its operations, was singularly swift and flexible in adapting itself to the demands made upon it, met the new taste for masques and entertainments - new of course in degree rather than in kind - introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort. The pageant which on the 7th of May 1603 bade the king welcome to a capital dissolved in joy was partly of Jonson's, partly of Dekker's, devising; and he was able to deepen and diversify the impression by the composition of masques presented to James I. when entertained at houses of the nobility. The Satyr (1603) was produced on one of these occasions, Queen Anne's sojourn at Althorpe, the seat of Sir Robert Spencer, afterwards Lord Althorpe, who seems to have previously bestowed some patronage upon him. The Penates followed on May-day 1604 at the house of Sir William Cornwallis at Highgate, and the queen herself with her ladies played his Masque of Blackness at Whitehall in 1605. He was soon occasionally employed by the court itself - already in 1606 in conjunction with Inigo Jones, as responsible for the "painting and carpentry " - and thus speedily showed himself master in a species of composition for which, more than any other English poet before Milton, he secured an enduring place in the national poetic literature. Personally, no doubt, he derived considerable material benefit from the new fashion - more especially if his statement to Drummond was anything like correct, that out of his plays (which may be presumed to mean his original plays) he had never gained a couple of hundred pounds.
Good humour seems to have come back with good fortune. Joint employment in The King's Entertainment (1604) had reconciled him with Dekker; and with Marston also, who in 1604 dedicated to him his Malcontent, he was again on pleasant terms. When, therefore, in 1604 Marston and Chapman (who, Jonson told Drummond, was loved of him, and whom he had probably honoured as " Virgil " in The Poetaster, and who has, though on doubtful grounds, been supposed to have collaborated in the original Sejanus) produced the excellent comedy of Eastward Ho, it appears to have contained some contributions by Jonson. At all events, when the authors were arrested on account of one or more passages in the play which were deemed insulting to the Scots, he " voluntarily imprisoned himself " with them. They were soon released, and a banquet at his expense, attended by Camden and Selden, terminated the incident. If Jonson is to be believed, there had been a report that the prisoners were to have their ears and noses cut, and, with reference apparently to this peril, " at the midst of the feast his old mother drank to him, and showed him a paper which she had intended (if the sentence had taken execution) to have mixed in the prison among his drink, which was full of lusty strong poison; and that she was no churl, she told him, she minded first to have drunk of it herself." Strange to say, in 1605 Jonson and Chapman, though the former, as he averred, had so "attempered " his style as to have " given no cause to any good man of grief," were again in prison on account of " a play "; but they appear to have been once more speedily set free, in consequence of a very manly and dignified letter addressed by Jonson to the Earl of Salisbury. As to the relations between Chapman and Jonson, illustrated by newly discovered letters, see Bertram Dobell in the Athenaeum No. 3831 (March 30, 1901), and the comments of Castelain. He thinks that the play in question, in which both Chapman and Jonson took part, was Sir Gyles Goosecappe, and that the last imprisonment of the two poets was shortly after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. In the mysterious history of the Gunpowder Plot Jonson certainly had some obscure part. On the 7th of November, very soon after the discovery of the conspiracy, the council appears to have sent for him and to have asked him, as a loyal Roman Catholic, to use his good offices in inducing the priests to do something required by the council - one hardly likes to conjecture it to have been some tampering with the secrets of confession. In any case, the negotiations fell through, because the priests declined to come forth out of their hidingplaces to be negotiated with - greatly to the wrath of Ben Jonson, who declares in a letter to Lord Salisbury that " they are all so enweaved in it that it will make Soo gentlemen less of the religion within this week, if they carry their understanding about them." Jonson himself, however, did not declare his separation from the Church of Rome for five years longer, however much it might have been to his advantage to do so.
His powers as a dramatist were at their height during the earlier half of the reign of James I.; and by the year 1616 he had produced nearly all the plays which are worthy of his genius. They include the tragedy of Catiline (acted and printed 1611), which achieved only a doubtful success, and the comedies of Volpone, or the Fox (acted 1605 and printed in 1607 with a dedication " from my house in the Blackfriars "), Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609; entered in the Stationers' Register 1610), the Alchemist(1610; printed in 1610), Bartholomew Fair and The Devil is an Ass (acted respectively in 1614 and 1616). During the same period he produced several masques, usually in connexion with Inigo Jones, with whom, however, he seems to have quarrelled already in this reign, though it is very doubtful whether the architect is really intended to be ridiculed in Bartholomew Fair under the character of Lanthorn Leatherhead. Littlewit, according to Fleay, is Daniel. Among the most attractive of his masques may be mentioned the Masque of Blackness (1606), the Masque of Beauty (1608), and the Masque of Queens (1609), described by Swinburne as " the most splendid of all masques " and as " one of the typically splendid monuments or trophies of English literature." In 1616 a modest pension of ioo marks a year was conferred upon him; and possibly this sign of royal favour may have encouraged him to the publication of the first volume of the folio collected edition of his works (1616), though there are indications that he had contemplated its production, an exceptional task for a playwright of his times to take in hand, as early as 1612.
He had other patrons more bountiful than the Crown, and for a brief space of time (in 1613) had travelled to France as governor (without apparently much moral authority) to the eldest son of Sir Walter Raleigh, then a state prisoner in the Tower, for whose society Jonson may have gained a liking at the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside, but for whose personal character he, like so many of his contemporaries, seems to have had but small esteem. By the year 1616 Jonson seems to have made up his mind to cease writing for the stage, where neither his success nor his profits had equalled his merits and expectations. He continued to produce masques and entertainments when called upon; but he was attracted by many other literary pursuits, and had already accomplished enough to furnish plentiful materials for retrospective discourse over pipe or cup. He was already entitled to lord it at the Mermaid, where his quick antagonist in earlier wit-combats (if Fuller's famous description be authentic) no longer appeared even on a visit from his comfortable retreat at Stratford. That on the other hand Ben carried his wicked town habits into Warwickshire, and there, together with Drayton, made Shakespeare drink so hard with them as to bring upon himself the fatal fever which ended his days, is a scandal with which we may fairly refuse to load Jonson's memory. That he had a share in the preparing for the press of the first folio of Shakespeare, or in the composition of itspreface, is of course a mere conjecture.
It was in the year 1618 that, like Dr Samuel Johnson a century and a half afterwards, Ben resolved to have a real holiday for once, and about midsummer started for his ancestral country, Scotland. He had (very heroically for a man of his habits) determined to make the journey on foot; and he was speedily followed by John Taylor, the water-poet, who still further handicapped himself by the condition that he would accomplish the pilgrimage without a penny in his pocket. Jonson, who put money in his good friend's purse when he came up with him at Leith, spent more than a year and a half in the hospitable Lowlands, being solemnly elected a burgess of Edinburgh, and on another occasion entertained at a public banquet there. But the best-remembered hospitality which he enjoyed was that of the learned Scottish poet, William Drummond of Hawthornden, to which we owe the so-called Conversations. In these famous jottings, the work of no extenuating hand, Jonson lives for us to this day, delivering his censures, terse as they are, in an expansive mood whether of praise or of blame; nor is he at all generously described in the postscript added by his fatigued and at times irritated host as " a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others." A poetical account of this journey, " with all the adventures," was burnt with Jonson's library.
After his return to England Jonson appears to have resumed his former course of life. Among his noble patrons and patronesses were the countess of Rutland (Sidney's daughter) and her cousin Lady Wroth; and in 1619 his visits to the country seats of the nobility were varied by a sojourn at Oxford with Richard Corbet, the poet, at Christ Church, on which occasion he took up the master's degree granted to him by the university; whether he actually proceeded to the same degree granted to him at Cambridge seems unknown. He confessed about this time that he was or seemed growing " restive," i.e. lazy, though it was not long before he returned to the occasional composition of masques. The extremely spirited Gipsies Metamorphosed (1621) was thrice presented before the king, who was so pleased with it as to grant to the poet the reversion of the office of master of the revels, besides proposing to confer upon him the honour of knighthood. This honour Jonson (hardly in deference to the memory of Sir Petronel Flash) declined; but there was no reason why he should not gratefully accept the increase of his pension in the same year (1621) to £too - a temporary increase only, inasmuch as it still stood at ioo marks when afterwards augmented by Charles I.
The close of King James I.'s reign found the foremost of its poets in anything but a prosperous condition. It would be unjust to hold the Sun, the Dog, the Triple Tun, or the Old Devil with its Apollo club-room, where Ben's supremacy must by this time have become established, responsible for this result; taverns were the clubs of that day, and a man of letters is not considered lost in our own because he haunts a smoking-room in Pall Mall. Disease had weakened the poet's strength, and the burning of his library, as his Execration upon Vulcan sufficiently shows, must have been no mere transitory trouble to a poor poet and scholar. Moreover he cannot but have felt, from the time of the accession of Charles I. early in 1625 onwards, that the royal patronage would no longer be due in part to anything like intellectual sympathy. He thus thought it best to recur to the surer way of writing for the stage, and in 1625 produced, with no faint heart, but with a very clear anticipation of the comments which would be made upon the reappearance of the " huge, overgrown play-maker," The Staple of News, a comedy excellent in some respects, but little calculated to become popular. It was not printed till 1631. Jonson, whose habit of body was not more conducive than were his ways of life to a healthy old age, had a paralytic stroke in 1626, and a second in 1628. In the latter year, on the death of Middleton, the appointment of city chronologer, with a salary of ioo nobles a year, was bestowed upon him. He appears to have considered the duties of this office as purely ornamental; but in 1631 his salary was suspended until he should have presented some fruits of his labours in his place, or - as he more succinctly phrased it - " yesterday the barbarous court of aldermen have withdrawn their chandlerly pension for verjuice and mustard, L33, 6s. 8d." After being in 1628 arrested by mistake on the utterly false charge of having written certain verses in approval of the assassination of Buckingham, he was soon allowed to return to Westminster, where it would appear from a letter of his " son and contiguous neighbour," James Howell, he was living in 1629, and about this time narrowly escaped another conflagra- tion. In the same year (1629) he once more essayed the stage with the comedy of The New Inn, which was actually, and on its own merits not unjustly, damned on the first performance. It was printed in 1631, " as it was never acted but most negligently played "; and Jonson defended himself against his critics in his spirited Ode to Himself. The epilogue to The New Inn having dwelt not without dignity upon the neglect which the poet had experienced at the hands of " king and queen," King Charles immediately sent the unlucky author a gift of £100, and in response to a further appeal increased his standing salary to the same sum, with the addition of an annual tierce of canary - the poet-laureate's customary royal gift, though this designation of an office, of which Jonson discharged some of what became the ordinary functions, is not mentioned in the warrant dated the 26th of March 1630. In 1634, by the king's desire, Jonson's salary as chronologer to the city was again paid. To his later years belong the comedies, The Magnetic Lady (1632) and The Tale of a Tub (1633), both printed in 1640, and some masques, none of which met with great success. The patronage of liberal-minded men, such as the earl, afterwards duke, of Newcastle - by whom he must have been commissioned to write his last two masques Love's Welcome at Welbeck (1633) and Love's Welcome at Bolsover (1634) - and Viscount Falkland, was not wanting, and his was hardly an instance in which the fickleness of time and taste could have allowed a literary veteran to end his career in neglect. He was the acknowledged chief of the English world of letters, both at the festive meetings where he ruled the roast among the younger authors whose pride it was to be " sealed of the tribe of Ben, " and by the avowal of grave writers, old or young, not one of whom would have ventured to dispute his titular pre-eminence. Nor was he to the last unconscious of the claims upon him which his position brought with it. When, nearly two years after he had lost his surviving son, death came upon the sick old man on the 6th of August 1637, he left behind him an unfinished work of great beauty, the pastoral drama of The Sad Shepherd (printed in 1641). For forty years, he said in the prologue, he had feasted the public; at first he could scarce hit its taste, but patience had at last enabled it to identify itself with the working of his pen.
We are so accustomed to think of Ben Jonson presiding, attentive to his own applause, over a circle of younger followers and admirers that we are apt to forget the hard struggle which he had passed through before gaining the crown now universally acknowledged to be his. Howell records, in the year before Ben's death, that a solemn supper at the poet's own house, where the host had almost spoiled the relish of the feast by vilifying others and magnifying himself, " T. Ca. "(Thomas Carew) buzzed in the writer's ear " that, though Ben had barrelled up a great deal of knowledge, yet it seemed he had not read the Ethics,which, among other precepts of morality, forbid self-commendation." Selfreliance is but too frequently coupled with self-consciousness, and for good and for evil self-confidence was no doubt the most prominent feature in the character of Ben Jonson. Hence the combativeness which involved him in so many quarrels in his earlier days, and which jarred so harshly upon the less militant and in some respects more pedantic nature of Drummond. But his quarrels do not appear to have entered deeply into his soul, or indeed usually to have lasted long.' He was too exuberant in his vituperations to be bitter, and too outspoken to be malicious. ° He loved of all things to be called " honest," and there is every reason to suppose that he deserved the epithet. The old super ' With Inigo Jones, however, in quarrelling with whom, as Howell reminds Jonson, the poet was virtually quarrelling with his bread and butter, he seems to have found it impossible to live permanently at peace; his satirical Expostulation against the architect was published as late as 1635. Chapman's satire against his old associate, perhaps due to this quarrel, was left unfinished and unpublished.
stition that Jonson was filled with malignant envy of the greatest of his fellow-dramatists, and lost no opportunity of giving expression to it, hardly needs notice. Those who consider that Shakespeare was beyond criticism may find blasphemy in the saying of Jonson that Shakespeare " wanted art." Occasional jesting allusions to particular plays of Shakespeare may be found in Jonson, among which should hardly be included the sneer at " mouldy " Pericles in his Ode to Himself. But these amount to nothing collectively, and to very little individually; and against them have to be set, not only the many pleasant traditions concerning the long intimacy between the pair, but also the lines, prefixed to the first Shakespeare folio, as noble as they are judicious, dedicated by the survivor to " the star of poets," and the adaptation, clearly sympathetic notwithstanding all its buts, de Shakespeare nostrat. in the Discoveries. But if Gifford had rendered no other service to Jonson's fame he must be allowed to have once for all vindicated it from the cruellest aspersion which has ever been cast upon it. That in general Ben Jonson was a man of strong likes and dislikes, and was wont to manifest the latter as vehemently as the former, it would be idle to deny. He was at least impartial in his censures, dealing them out freely to Puritan poets like Wither and (supposing him not to have exaggerated his free-spokenness) to princes of his church like Cardinal du Perron. And, if sensitive to attack, he seems to have been impervious to flattery - to judge from the candour with which he condemned the foibles even of so enthusiastic an admirer as Beaumont. The personage that he disliked the most, and openly abused in the roundest terms, was unfortunately one with many heads and a tongue to hiss in each - no other than that " general public " which it was the fundamental mistake of his life to fancy he could " rail into approbation " before he had effectively secured its goodwill. And upon the whole it may be said that the admiration of the few, rather than the favour of the many, has kept green the fame of the most independent among all the masters of an art which, in more senses than one, must please to live.
Jonson's learning and industry, which were alike exceptional, by no means exhausted themselves in furnishing and elaborating the materials of his dramatic works. His enemies sneered at him as a translator - a title which the preceding generation was inclined to esteem the most honourable in literature. But his classical scholarship shows itself in other directions besides his translations from the Latin poets (the Ars poetica in particular), in addition to which he appears to have written a version of Barclay's Argenis; it was likewise the basis of his English Grammar, of which nothing but the rough draft remains (the MS. itself having perished in the fire in his library), and in connexion with the subject of which he appears to have pursued other linguistic studies (Howell in 1629 was trying to procure him a Welsh grammar). And its effects are very visible in some of the most pleasing of his non-dramatic poems, which often display that combination of polish and simplicity hardly to be reached - or even to be appreciated - without some measure of classical training.
Exclusively of the few lyrics in Jonson's dramas (which, with the exception of the stately choruses in Catiline, charm, and perhaps may surprise, by their lightness of touch), his nondramatic works are comprised in the following collections. The book of Epigrams (published in the first folio of 1616) contained, in the poet's own words, the "ripest of his studies." His notion of an epigram was the ancient, not the restricted modern one - still less that of the critic (R. C., the author of The Times' Whistle) in whose language, according to Jonson, "witty " was " obscene." On the whole, these epigrams excel more in encomiastic than in satiric touches, while the pathos of one or two epitaphs in the collection is of the truest kind. In the lyrics and epistles contained in the Forest (also in the first folio), Jonson shows greater variety in the poetic styles adopted by him; but the subject of love, which Dryden considered conspicuous by its absence in the author's dramas, is similarly eschewed here. The Underwoods (not published collectively till the second and surreptitious folio) are a miscellaneous series, comprising, together with a few religious and a few amatory poems, a large number of epigrams, epitaphs, elegies and " odes," including both the tributes to Shakespeare and several to royal and other patrons and friends, besides the Execration upon Vulcan, and the characteristic ode addressed by the poet to himself. To these pieces in verse should be added the Discoveries - Timber, or Discoveries made upon Men and Matters, avowedly a commonplace book of aphorisms noted by the poet in his daily readings - thoughts adopted and adapted in more tranquil and perhaps more sober moods than those which gave rise to the outpourings of the Conversations at Hawthornden. As to the critical value of these Conversations it is far from being only negative; he knew how to admire as well as how to disdain. For these thoughts, though abounding with biographical as well as general interest, Jonson was almost entirely indebted to ancient writers, or (as has been shown by Professor Spingarn and by Percy Simpson) indebted to the humanists of the Renaissance (see Modern Language Review, ii. 3, April 1907).
The extant dramatic works of Ben Jonson fall into three or, if his fragmentary pastoral drama be considered to stand by itself, into four distinct divisions. The tragedies are only two in number - Sejanus his Fall and Catiline his Conspiracy.' Of these the earlier, as is worth noting, was produced at Shakespeare's theatre, in all probability before the first of Shakespeare's Roman dramas, and still contains a considerable admixture of rhyme in the dialogue. Though perhaps less carefully elaborated in diction than its successor, Sejanus is at least equally impressive as a highly wrought dramatic treatment of a complex historic theme. The character of Tiberius adds an element of curious psychological interest on which speculation has never quite exhausted itself and which, in Jonson's day at least, was wanting to the figures of Catiline and his associates. But in both plays the action is powerfully conducted, and the care bestowed by the dramatist upon the great variety of characters introduced cannot, as in some of his comedies, be said to distract the interest of the reader. Both these tragedies are noble works, though the relative popularity of the subject (for conspiracies are in the long run more interesting than camarillas) has perhaps secured the preference to Catiline. Yet this play and its predecessor were alike too manifestly intended by their author to court the goodwill of what he calls the " extraordinary " reader. It is difficult to imagine that (with the aid of judicious shortenings) either could altogether miss its effect on the stage; but, while Shakespeare causes us to forget, Jonson seems to wish us to remember, his authorities. The half is often greater than the whole; and Jonson, like all dramatists and, it might be added, all novelists in similar cases, has had to pay the penalty incurred by too obvious a desire to underline the learning of the author.
or would-be originality - alone could declare Jonson's tragedy preferable to his comedy. Even if the revolution which he created in the comic branch of the drama had been mistaken in its principles or unsatisfactory in its results, it would be clear that the strength of his dramatic genius lay in the power of depicting a great variety of characters, and that in comedy alone he succeeded in finding a wide field for the exercise of this power. There may have been no very original or very profound discovery in the idea which he illustrated in Every Man in his Humour, and, as it were, technically elaborated in Every Man out of his Humour - that in many men one quality is observable which so possesses them as to draw the whole of their individualities one way, and that this phenomenon " may be truly said to be a humour." The idea of the master quality or tendency was, as has been well observed, a very considerable one for dramatist or novelist. Nor did Jonson (happily) attempt to work out this idea with any excessive scientific consistency as a comic dramatist. But, by refusing to apply the term " humour " to a mere peculiarity or affectation of manners, and restricting its use to actual or implied differences or distinctions of character, he broadened the whole basis of English comedy after his fashion, as Moliere at a 'Of The Fall of Mortimer Jonson left only a few lines behind him; but, as he also left the argument of the play, factious ingenuity contrived to furbish up the relic into a libel against Queen Caroline and Sir Robert Walpole in 1731, and to revive the contrivance by way of an insult to the princess dowager of Wales and Lord Bute in 1762.
later date, keeping in closer touch with the common experience of human life, with a lighter hand broadened the basis of French and of modern Western comedy at large. It does not of course follow that Jonson's disciples, the Bromes and the Cartwrights, always adequately reproduced the master's conception of " humorous " comedy. Jonson's wide and various reading helped him to diversify the application of his theory, while perhaps at times it led him into too remote illustrations of it. Still, Captain Bobadil and Captain Tucca, Macilente and Fungoso, Volpone and Mosca, and a goodly number of other characters impress themselves permanently upon the memory of those whose attention they have as a matter of course commanded. It is a very futile criticism to condemn Jonson's characters as a mere series of types of general ideas; on the other hand, it is a very sound criticism to object, with Barry Cornwall, to the "multitude of characters who throw no light upon the story, and lend no interest to it, occupying space that had better have been bestowed upon the principal agents of the plot." In the construction of plots, as in most other respects, Jonson's at once conscientious and vigorous mind led him in the direction of originality; he depended to a far less degree than the greater part of his contemporaries (Shakespeare with the rest) upon borrowed plots. But either his inventive character was occasionally at fault in this respect, or his devotion to his characters often diverted his attention from a brisk conduct of his plot. Barry Cornwall has directed attention to the essential likeness in the plot of two of Jonson's best comedies, Volpone and The Alchemist; and another critic, W. Bodham Donne, has dwelt on the difficulty which, in The Poetaster and elsewhere, Ben Jonson seems to experience in sustaining the promise of his actions. The Poetaster is, however, a play sui generis, in which the real business can hardly be said to begin till the last act.
Dryden, when criticizing Ben Jonson's comedies, thought fit, while allowing the old master humour and incontestable " pleasantness," to deny him wit and those ornaments thereof which Quintilian reckons up under the terms urbana, salsa, faceta and so forth. Such wit as Dryden has in view is the mere outward fashion or style of the day, the euphuism or " sheerwit " or chic which is the creed of Fastidious Brisks and of their astute purveyors at any given moment. In this Ben Jonson was no doubt defective; but it would be an error to suppose him, as a comic dramatist, to have maintained towards the world around him the attitude of a philosopher, careless of mere transient externalisms. It is said that the scene of his Every Man in his Humour was originally laid near Florence; and his Volpone, which is perhaps the darkest social picture ever drawn by him, plays at Venice. Neither locality was ill-chosen, but the real atmosphere of his comedies is that of the native surroundings amidst which they were produced; and Ben Jonson's times live for us in his men and women, his country gulls and town gulls, his alchemists and exorcists, his " skeldring " captains and whining Puritans, and the whole ragamuffin rout of his Bartholomew Fair, the comedy par excellence of Elizabethan low life. After he had described the pastimes, fashionable and unfashionable, of his age, its feeble superstitions and its flaunting naughtinesses, its vapouring affectations and its lying effronteries, with an odour as of " divine tabacco " pervading the whole, little might seem to be left to describe for his " sons " and successors. Enough, however, remained; only that his followers speedily again threw manners and "humours" into an undistinguishable medley.
The gift which both in his art and in his life Jonson lacked was that of exercising the influence or creating the effects which he wished to exercise or create without the appearance of consciousness. Concealment never crept over his efforts, and he scorned insinuation. Instead of this, influenced no doubt by the example of the free relations between author and public permitted by Attic comedy, he resorted again and again, from Every Man out of his Humour to The Magnetic Lady, to inductions and commentatory intermezzos and appendices, which, though occasionally effective by the excellence of their execution, are to be regretted as introducing into his dramas an exotic and often vexatious element. A man of letters to the very core, he never quite understood that there is and ought to be a wide difference of methods between the world of letters and the world of the theatre.
The richness and versatility of Jonson's genius will never be fully appreciated by those who fail to acquaint themselves with what is preserved to us of his " masques " and cognate entertainments. He was conscious enough of his success in this direction - " next himself," he said, " only Fletcher and Chapman could write a masque." He introduced, or at least established, the ingenious innovation of the anti-masque, which Schlegel has described, as a species of " parody added by the poet to his device, and usually prefixed to the serious entry," and which accordingly supplies a grotesque antidote to the often extravagantly imaginative main conception. Jonson's learning, creative power and humorous ingenuity - combined, it should not be forgotten, with a genuine lyrical gift - all found abundant opportunities for displaying themselves in these productions. Though a growth of foreign origin, the masque was by him thoroughly domesticated in the high places of English literature. He lived long enough to see the species produce its poetic masterpiece in Coypus. The Sad Shepherd, of which Jonson left behind him three acts and a prologue, is distinguished among English pastoral dramas by its freshness of tone; it breathes something of the spirit of the greenwood, and is not unnatural even in its supernatural element. While this piece, with its charming love-scenes between Robin Hood and Maid Marion, remains a fragment, another pastoral by Jonson, the May Lord (which F. G. Fleay and J. A. Symonds sought to identify with The Sad Shepherd; see, however, W. W. Greg in introduction to the Louvain reprint), has been lost, and a third, of which Loch Lomond was intended to be the scene, probably remained unwritten.
Though Ben Jonson never altogether recognized the truth of the maxim that the dramatic art has properly speaking no didactic purpose, his long and laborious life was not wasted upon a barren endeavour. In tragedy he added two works of uncommon merit to our dramatic literature. In comedy his aim was higher, his effort more sustained, and his success more solid than were those of any of his fellows. In the subsidiary and hybrid species of the masque, he helped to open a new and attractive though undoubtedly devious path in the field of dramatic literature. His intellectual endowments surpassed those of most of the great English dramatists in richness and breadth; and in energy of application he probably left them all behind. Inferior to more than one of his fellow-dramatists in the power of imaginative sympathy, he was first among the Elizabethans in the power of observation; and there is point in Barrett Wendell's paradox, that as a dramatist he was not really a poet but a painter. Yet it is less by these gifts, or even by his unexcelled capacity for hard work, than by the true ring of manliness that he will always remain distinguished among his peers.
Jonson was buried on the north side of the nave in Westminster Abbey, and the inscription, " 0 Rare Ben Jonson," was cut in the slab over his grave. In the beginning of the 18th century a portrait bust was put up to his memory in the Poets' Corner by Harley, earl of Oxford. Of Honthorst's portrait of Jonson at Knole Park there is a copy in the National Portrait Gallery; another was engraved by W. Marshall for the 1640 edition of his Poems. Bibliography. - The date of the first folio volume of Jonson's Works (of which title his novel but characteristic use in applying it to plays was at the time much ridiculed) has already been mentioned as 1616; the second, professedly published in 1640, is described by Gifford as " a wretched continuation of the first, printed from MSS. surreptitiously obtained during his life, or ignorantly hurried through the press after his death, and bearing a variety of dates from 1631 to 1641 inclusive." The works were reprinted in a single folio volume in 1692, in which The New Inn and The Case is Altered were included for the first time, and again in 6 vols 8vo in 1715. Peter Whalley's edition in 7 vols., with a life, appeared in 1756, but was superseded in 1816 by William Gifford's, in 9 vols. (of which the first includes a biographical memoir, and the famous essay on the " Proofs of Ben Jonson's Malignity, from the Commentators on Shakespeare "). A new edition of Gifford's was published in 9 vols. in 1875 by Colonel F. Cunningham, as well as a cheap reprint in 3 vols. in 1870. Both contain the Conversations with Drummond, which were first printed in full by David Laing in the Shakespeare Society's Publications (1842) and the Jonsonus Virbius, a collection (unparalleled in number and variety of authors) of poetical tributes, published about six months after Jonson's death by his friends and admirers. There is also a single-volume edition, with a very readable memoir, by Barry Cornwall (1838). An edition of Ben Jonson's works from the original texts 'was recently undertaken by C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson. A selection from his plays, edited for the " Mermaid " series in 1893-1895 by B. Nicholson, with an introduction by C. H. Herford, was reissued in 1904. W. W. Bang in his Materialien zur Kunde des alten englischen Dramas has reprinted from the folio of 1616 those of Ben Jonson's plays which are contained in it (Louvain, 1905-1906). Every Man in his Humour and Every Man out of his Humour have been edited for the same series (16 and 17, 1905 and 1907) by W. W. Bang and W. W. Greg. Every Man in his Humour has also been edited, with a brief biographical as well as special introduction, to which the present sketch owes some details, by H. B. Wheatley (1877). Some valuable editions of plays by Ben Jonson have been recently published by American scholars in the Yale Studies in English, edited by A. S. Cook - The Poetaster, ed. H. S. Mallory (1905); The Alchemist, ed. C. M. Hathaway (1903); The Devil is an Ass, ed. W. S. Johnson (1905); The Staple of News, ed. De Winter (1905); The New Inn, ed. by G. Bremner (1908); The Sad Shepherd (with Waldron's continuation) has been edited by W. W. Greg for Bang's Materialien zur Kunde des alten englischen Dramas (Louvain, 1905).
The criticisms of Ben Jonson are too numerous for cataloguing here; among those by eminent Englishmen should be specially mentioned John Dryden's, particularly those in his Essay on Dramatic Poesy (1667-1668; revised 1684), and in the preface to An Evening's Love, or the Mock Astrologer (1668), and A. C. Swinburne's Study of Ben Jonson (1889), in which, however, the significance of the Discoveries is misapprehended. See also F. G. Fleay, Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama (1891), i. 311-387, ii. 1-18; C. H. Herford, Ben Jonson " (art. in Dict. Nat. Biog., vol. xxx., 1802); A. W. Ward, History of English Dramatic Literature, 2nd ed. (1899), ii. 296407; and for a list of early impressions, W. W. Greg, List of English Plays written before 1643 and printed before 1700 (Bibliographical Society, 1900), pp. 55-58 and supplement 11-15. An important French work on Ben Jonson, both biographical and critical, and containing, besides many translations of scenes and passages, some valuable appendices, to more than one of which reference has been made above, is Maurice Castelain's Ben Jonson, l'homme et l'ceuvre (1907). Among treatises or essays on particular aspects of his literary work may be mentioned Emil Koeppel's Quellenstudien zu den Dramen Ben Jonson's, &c. (1895); the same writer's " Ben Jonson's Wirkung auf zeitgenossische Dramatiker," &c., in Anglicistische Forschungen, 20 (1906); F. E. Schelling's Ben Jonson and the Classical School (1898); and as to his masques, A. Soergel, Die englischen Maskenspiele (1882) and J. Schmidt, " eber Ben Jonson's Maskenspiele," in Herrig's Archiv, &c., xxvii. 51-91. See also H. Reinsch, " Ben Jonson's Poetik and seine Beziehungen zu Horaz," in Miinchener Beitreige, 16 (1899). (A. W. W.)
Ben Jonson (11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637) was a major poet and playwright in English Renaissance drama. Many critics consider Jonson to be among the best playwrights of his time, when William Shakespeare also lived. He is perhaps best known for two comedies, his plays Volpone and The Alchemist.
Jonson is buried in Westminster Abbey.