Ben Jonson and the 'Traditio Basiorum': Catullan Imitation in 'The Forrest' 5 and 6

By Boehrer, Bruce | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Ben Jonson and the 'Traditio Basiorum': Catullan Imitation in 'The Forrest' 5 and 6


Boehrer, Bruce, Papers on Language & Literature


Ben Jonson's first two lyrics to Celia (The Forrest 5, 6), among the most renowned and often-anthologized things he ever wrote, famously combine the classical tradition with the world of seventeenth-century England. As Sara van den Berg has noted, Jonson's "polished redactions of Catullan lyric . . . often measure the world of love in terms of the actual English world" (43-44); as Alexander Leggatt has likewise argued, the Celia-poems combine "traditional motifs" (266) with emphasis upon a "surrounding reality" that is both "more factual" and "simpler" (266); such readings tend to expand Wesley Trimpi's claim that Jonson's love-lyrics dramatize "real lovers . . . in a real world" (209). The present essay seeks to relate such observations to the patterns of "literary imperialism" (Watson 6) identified in Jonson's writing by scholars like Robert Watson and George Rowe (passim); in effect, I will argue that insofar as the Celia-poems wed classical tradition to contemporary experience, they do so in a way that subordinates both tradition and contemporary milieu to the author's sensibility. This subordination, which effectively proposes the authorial consciousness as a master-text encompassing and assimilating all others, comprises a typical Jonsonian literary gesture.

While developing this argument, I will concentrate upon one particular aspect of the Celia-lyrics: their investment in a literary traditio basiorum that extends from Catullus through Martial to the neo-Latin imitators of Catullus - among them Pontano, Marullus, and Johannes Secundus - recently examined by Julia Gaisser,(1) and thence to a wide range of English Catullan imitators such as those documented by Gordon Braden (204-224). As it relates to Jonson, this tradition has already been excavated in various pieces. The Celia-poems' basis in Catullan lyric is no secret (Herford and Simpson 11:37-38); Jonson's debt to Martial has been discussed at some length, although usually in connection with the Epigrammes;(2) and Stella Revard has recently published an important survey of Jonson's borrowings from both classical and neo-Latin poets (esp. cf. Revard 155-160). I seek to extend this body of scholarship by assembling the various fields of influence upon the Celia-lyrics into a continuum that accounts for Jonson's overall poetic strategies of borrowing and assimilation. In offering such an assemblage here, I wish not only to account for the various ways in which precursor-texts leave their mark on Jonson's work, but also the ways in which Jonson seeks to subordinate those precursor-texts to his own achievement.

I

By revising and adapting Catullan lyric, Jonson entered into conversation with a wide range of other poets who had all read, absorbed, echoed and replied to Catullus's verses. These various treatments of Catullan material naturally tend to emphasize different aspects of the Roman poet's achievement, and to do so in ways that lead to different critical constructions of the poet himself. Consequently, more is at stake in the composition of neo-Catullan verse than simply the creation of a well-wrought lyric. The poem in question can itself put considerable interpretive pressure upon the precursor-materials from which it is drawn; it becomes, in effect, a literary-historical exercise that reconstructs the past in terms of the present. This characteristic of the operations of literary influence is fundamental to the Catullan tradition, as Julia Gaisser has recently shown (199-200); Martial, the neo-Latin authors who follow Secundus, and Jonson all respond to and celebrate Catullus, but it is also clear that they are all, in a sense, responding to and celebrating a different poet.

Martial offers the initial case in point. For him, the literary importance of Catullus is scarcely to be overestimated (Sullivan xxi, 74); there are few other poets to whom Martial pays more generous and repeated tribute. When, in his Apophoreta, Martial claims that great Verona owes as much to Catullus as little Mantua does to Virgil ("Tantum magna suo debet Verona Catullo, / quantum parva suo Mantua Vergilio" [14. …

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