Ben Jonson and the Loathèd Word
“THE PROFIT OF GRAMMAR, ” wrote Ben Jonson in his preface to The English Grammar, “is great to Strangers, who are to live in communion, and commerce with us; and, it is honourable to our selves. For, by it we communicate all our labours, studies, profits, without an Interpreter. ” 1 Jonson's dream of a language impervious to interpretation was at the heart of a lifelong and notorious quarrel with the stage. 2 With the exception, in our own era, of Samuel Beckett, 3 one can scarcely think of a playwright of comparable stature so driven by animus toward the very essence—the collaborative essence—of his craft. What I wish to argue in the present essay is that Jonson's quarrel, while trenchantly enacted in the playhouse and repeatedly rendered in the idioms of the stage, extended well beyond the theater to language itself. In the Jonsonian lyric as in the Jonsonian drama, the word is staged with profound ambivalence: it is the crown of labor and the servant of politics, an accessory to pleasure and an instrument of profit, a hedge against transience, a symptom of transience, the ground of self-sufficiency, the currency of subjection. Jonson's ambition was to craft a self-sufficient word, but the ambition is profoundly paradoxical, as much a death wish as a will to omnipotence. Governed by this paradox, the Jonsonian lyric is at once virtuosic and strangely, savagely vacated.
The seventeenth-century poems we read most easily today tend to be those in which are muted the dynamics of topicality, the circuits of pa