Ben Jonson: Poet

By Pritchard, William H. | The Hudson Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Ben Jonson: Poet

Pritchard, William H., The Hudson Review

Perhaps the best opening to one of T. S. Eliot's essays occurs in "Ben Jonson," a writer, Eliot says, "whose reputation 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.

Six years after Eliot's essay, the great Oxford edition of Jonson's works, edited by Charles Herford and Percy Simpson, began to appear: it would be completed only in 1952. Meanwhile, over the second half of the last century, many books on Jonson's poems, plays, and masques were published, often ones of high quality, including a substantial biography by David Riggs in 1989. Yet even today one would not expect a well-read non-specialist in English literature to be familiar with very much of Jonson's writings: Volpone and The Alchemist, certainly; die poem to Shakespeare and die matchless one on die death of Jonson's first son; a number of songs such as the one that begins "Drink to me only with thine eyes." Harold Bloom's recent large anthology of the best English poems includes the Shakespeare tribute, plus diree songs, and Bloom calls Jonson a poet's poet, read by scholars only. He notes that the fate Jonson predicted for Donne's poems - that they would perish "for not being understood" - has turned out not to be the case; instead, Jonson's very understandability seems to have worked against him, perhaps by not giving teachers and explicators much to "do" compared with die metaphysical poems of Donne, Herbert, and Marvell. It was not ever thus, and in the seventeenth century Jonson was revered as a dramatist, with Dryden putting him next though slightly subordinate to Shakespeare ("I admire [him] but I love Shakespeare"). Herrick and the Cavalier poets (Carew, Lovelace, Suckling) paid him homage, and he was acknowledged, if not always explicitly, to be the first significant critic of English literature. But who would believe that his tragedy, Catiline, His Conspiracy, was referred to during the seventeenth century more often than any play of Shakespeare's?

This astonishing fact is one of many to be found in Ian Donaldson's superb new biography of Jonson.1 Donaldson's career as a scholar and critic of the writer is more than impressive: he has edited a large selection of Jonson's works for The Oxford Authors series (Volpone, The Alchemist and the nondramatic poems) , with notes that are extremely helpful, never intrusive or pedantic. In 1997 he published a collection of essays about Jonson (Jonson's Magic Houses), and in perhaps the most important of diem, "Garnering and Losing die Self: Jonson and Biography," he juxtaposed, as did Jonson in his own life and many of his poems, a "collected, consistent, contained, morally stalwart self" of Classical tradition and Christian humanism, with what Donaldson terms "the loose self." This second self, "duplicitous and mercurial," is demonstrated in the contradictory nature of Jonson's character and life, which Donaldson sums up in a useful, if partial, list:

He zigzagged his way up through the social registers from labourer to soldier to actor to playwright to court poet, became sufficiently intimate with James I to risk, in work written for him, both jokes and stern advice, clung anxiously and precariously to royal favour under Charles I while simultaneously professing to disdain the court. He repeatedly scorned and threatened to leave the public theatre for which he nevertheless continued to write. He changed his religion, and changed it again. He wrote repeatedly of the virtues of a settled life, of dwelling contentedly at home, but left his wife and his home, and during the years of his maturity shifted from house to house, living under the protection of patrons.

Living in such instabilities, it is understandable, writes Donaldson, that Jonson should have aspired to the "gathered self as most firmly and resonantly suggested by the final four lines of "To the World":

Nor for my peace shall I go far

As wanderers do that still do roam,

But make my strengths, such as they are,

Here in my bosom and at home. …

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