V

Dryden concluded his famous comparison between Jonson and Shakespeare in his Essay of Dramatick Poesy by saying 'I admire him, but I love Shakespeare', and this has been the common response to Jonson. He certainly did not lack 'personality'--indeed he lives for us in his work as a singularly vivid, robust and even aggressive figure, but he did lack charm, and not many readers have taken him to their hearts. To the general public, in fact, he is known, if at all, as a literary figure rather similar to (and, one suspects, sometimes confused with) his namesake Samuel Johnson. Yet his best plays--Volpone, Epiœne, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair--are always successful whenever they are performed, and they would form an indispensable part of the repertory of an English National Theatre, if such a thing existed. No other playwright except Shakespeare and Shaw has added so many plays to the national repertory, and it is not irrelevant to wonder how many of Shaw's plays will still be holding the stage in three hundred years' time. If Jonson must be thought of as a considerable, rather than as a great poet, he did at least write one of the best-known lyrics in the English language, and he is a prose-writer of very great distinction--a fact which is not always recognized. His range as a master of prose is wide, from the racy, colloquial dialogue of the comedies to the grave, dignified, harmonious prose of some of his prefaces and of the descriptive passages in the masques, and just as his poetry had a profound influence on the development of much later seventeenth-century verse, he had a part to play in the reformation of English prose style. Without ever losing the vigour of Elizabethan language, that is, he looked forward to the clear, smooth, yet pointed English of the eighteenth century. He has considerable importance, too, as a critic. Much of his criticism is incidental to his plays, but he left behind a critical note-book--Timber, or Discoveries --in which he had set down from time to time his con-

-36-

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Ben Jonson
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Chapter I 5
  • Chapter II 9
  • Chapter III 16
  • Chapter IV 25
  • Chapter V 36
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