Ben Johnson

Submitted by on Oct 10, 2015

Ben Jonson 11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637

Benjamin Jonson 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.

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).

Relationship with Shakespeare

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 reported Jonson as saying that Shakespeare “wanted [i.e. lacked] 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.

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 which Jonson perceived between himself, the disciplined and erudite classicist, scornful of ignorance and sceptical 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:

Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,

My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.

Some view this elegy as a conventional exercise, but others see it as a heartfelt tribute to the “Sweet Swan Of Avon,”the”Soul of the Age!” It has been argued that Jonson helped to edit the First Folio, and he may have been inspired to write this poem 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.

Reception and influence

During most of the 17th century Jonson was a towering literary figure, and his influence was enormous. Before the English 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” was extremely influential, providing the blueprint for many Restoration comedies. In the 18th 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 20th century, Jonson’s status rose significantly.

f Jonson’s reputation as a playwright has traditionally been linked to Shakespeare, his reputation as a poet has, since the early 20th century, been linked to that of John Donne. In this comparison, Jonson represents the cavalier strain of poetry, emphasising grace and clarity of expression; Donne, by contrast, epitomised 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 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 described 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 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 which it sheds on English literary history, such as 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.

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