1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

Nathan Drake, in Shakespeare and His Time (1817, 1832) 306, 611-15.



Of this celebrated poet, the friend and companion of Shakspeare, a very brief notice, and limited to his minor pieces, will here be necessary, as his dramatic works and some circumstances of his life will hereafter occupy their due share of attention. His poems were divided by himself into Epigrams, The Forest, Under-woods, and a translation of Horace's Art of Poetrie; to which his late editors have added, Miscellaneous Pieces. The general cast of these poems is not such as will recommend them to a modern ear; they are but too often cold and affected; but occasionally, instances of a description the very reverse of these epithets are to be found, where simplicity and beauty of expression constitute the prominent features. It is chiefly, if not altogether, among his minor pieces in the lyric measure that we meet with this peculiar neatness and concinnity of diction: thus, in The Forest, the lines from Catullus, beginning "Come, my Celia, let us prove," and the well-known song "Drink to me only with thine eyes;" in the Underwoods, the stanzas commencing "For Love's sake kisse me once again;" "Or scorne, or pittie on me take;" and, among his "Songs," these with the initial lines "Queene and huntresse, chaste and faire;" "Still to be neat, still to be drest;" are striking proofs of these excellencies.

We must also remark that, among his Epistles and Miscellaneous Pieces, there are discoverable a few very conspicuous examples of the union of correct and nervous sentiment with singular force and dignity of elocution. Of this happy combination, the lines to the Memory of Shakspeare, an eulogium which will claim our attention in a future page, may be quoted as a brilliant model....

The fair fame of Jonson which, both in a moral and dramatic light, has, for more than a century, been overwhelmed by a cloud of ignorance and prejudice, now brightens with more than pristine lustre, through the liberal and generous efforts of some accomplished scholars of the present day; and if ever it be permitted to departed spirits to witness the transactions of this sublunary sphere, with what delight and gratitude must the spirit of the injured bard look down upon the labours of his learned friends, upon the noble and disinterested protection of a Gilchrist, a Godwin, and a Gifford!

Under such circumstances, and with such a triumvirate in his support, it were needless, and, indeed, it were unjust, to do more than repeat in this place their own summary of his merit as a comic poet, to which we will now add, once for all, however unimportant it may be, the expression of our conviction of the general justness of their sentiments with regard to his writings, and of the unanswerable nature of their defence with regard to his moral character; a tribute which we are, beyond measure, gratified in paying, as whilst they have impartially brought forward the great talents of Jonson, they have paid a full and frank acknowledgment to the superior comprehensiveness of the genius of Shakspeare; and have, at the same time, placed in a striking point of view the steady friendship which subsisted between these two luminaries of the dramatic world.

It is, however, only with the literary character of Jonson that we are now occupied; and on the topic immediately before us, the consideration of his comic powers, Mr. Godwin has cursorily, but very justly, remarked, that

"These, perhaps, compose his strongest claim to the admiration or all posterity. He excels every writer that ever existed, in the article of humour; and it is a sort of identical proposition to say, that humour is the soul of comedy. Even the caustic severity of his turn of wind aided him in this. He seized with the utmost precision the weaknesses of human character, and painted them with a truth that is altogether irresistible. Shakspeare has some characters of humour marvellously felicitous. But the difference between these two great supporters of the English drama, in the point of view we are considering, lies here. Humour is not Shakspeare's mansion, the palace wherein he dwells; there are many of his comedies, where the humorous characters rather form the episode of the piece; poetry, the manifestation of that lovely medium through which all creation appeared to his eye, and the quick sallies of repartee, are the objects with which his comic muse more usually delights herself. But Ben Jonson is all humour; and the fertility of his muse, in characters of this sort, is wholly inexhaustible."

With a fuller elucidation of the subject, which laid more directly before him, Mr. Gifford, after commenting on the inutility of the common practice of contrasting the two poets, and after observing that "Shakspeare wants no light but his own; for as he never has been equalled, and in all human probability never will be equalled, it seems an invidious employ, at best, to speculate minutely on the precise degree in which others fell short of him," proceeds to state, that "the judgment of Jonson was correct and severe, and his knowledge of human nature extensive and profound. He was familiar with the various combinations of the humours and affections, and with the nice and evanescent tints by which the extremes of opposing qualities melt into one another, and are lost to the vulgar eye: but the art which he possessed in perfection, was that of marking in the happiest manner the different shades of the same quality, in different minds, so as to discriminate the voluptuous from the voluptuous, the covetous from the covetous, etc.

"In what Hurd calls 'picturing,' he was excellent. His characters are delineated with a breadth and vigour, as well as a truth, that display a master hand; his figures stand prominent on the canvas, hold and muscular, though not elegant; his attitudes, though sometimes ungraceful, are always just; while his strict observation of proportion (in which he was eminently skilled,) occasionally mellowed the hard and rigid tone of his colouring, and by the mere force of symmetry, gave a warmth to the whole, as pleasing as it was unexpected. Such, in a word, was his success, that it may be doubted whether he has been surpassed, or even equalled, by any of those who have attempted to tread in his steps.

"In the plots or his comedies, which were constructed from his own materials, he is deserving of undisputed praise. Without violence; without, indeed, any visible effort, the various events of the story are so linked together, that they have the appearance of accidental Introduction; yet they all contribute to the main design, and support that just harmony which alone constitutes a perfect fable. Such, in fact, is the rigid accuracy or his plans, that it requires a constant, and almost painful attention, to trace out their various bearings and dependencies. Nothing is left to chance: before he sat down to write, he had evidently arranged every circumstance in his mind; preparations are made for incidents which do not immediately occur, and hints are dropped, which can only be comprehended at the unravelling of the piece. The play does not end with Jonson, because the fifth act is come to a conclusion; nor are the most important events precipitated, and the most violent revolutions or character suddenly effected, because the progress of the story has involved the poet in difficulties from which he cannot otherwise extricate himself. This praise, whatever be its worth, is enhanced by the rigid attention paid to the unities; to say nothing or those of place and character, that of time is so well observed in most of his comedies, that the representation occupies scarcely an hour more on the stage, than the action would require in real life."

Mr. Gifford then goes on to explain, why Jonson, "with such extraordinary requisites for the stage, joined to a strain of poetry always manly, frequently lofty, and sometimes sublime," should not have retained his popularity; accounting for this result by the assignment of three causes, of which the first was, his dismissing "the grace and urbanity which mark his lighter pieces whenever he approached the stage, putting on the censor with the sock;" the second sprung from the circumstance, that "Jonson was the painter of humours, not of passions," and aiming less to excite laughter in his hearers, "than to feast their understanding, and minister to their rational improvement," he frequently brought forward unamiable and uninteresting characters, pests which he wished to extirpate from society, not only by rendering them ridiculous, but by exhibiting them in an odious and disgusting light; and the third was, "a want of just discrimination. He seems to have been deficient," observes Mr. Gifford, "in that true tact or feeling of propriety which Shakspeare possessed in full excellence. He appears to have had an equal value for all his characters, and he labours upon the most unimportant, and even disagreeable of them, with the same fond and paternal assiduity which accompanies his happiest efforts." This laboured and indiscriminate finishing may be termed, indeed, one of the prominent characteristics of Jonson's composition; and has, perhaps, more than any thing else, contributed to obscure his reputation.

The genius of Jonson seems to have forsaken him, when he touched the tragic chords. Neither pity nor terror answered to his call, and Sejanus and Catiline are valuable, principally, for their correct, though cold and hard, delineations of Roman character and costume. It is remarkable, that, in the construction of these tragedies, Jonson has deserted his Athenian masters, and, adopting the license of the Romantic school, he has laid aside the unities of time and place; but without acquiring that breadth and freedom in the execution of his subjects, with which such deviations ought to have been accompanied.

The devotion of the poet to this high department of his art was not confined, however, to these two Roman dramas; he had planned a tragedy on the Fall of Mortimer, of which only a small fragment remains; and we find, from the Dulwich Manuscripts, that, the year preceding the first performance of Sejanus, he had actually been engaged in writing a play on the subject of Richard the Third: — "Lent unto Benjemy Johstone," says Henslowe's memorandum, "at the appoyntment of E. Alleyn and Win. Birde the 22 June, 1602, in earnest of a boocke called Richard Crook-back, and for new adycions for Jeronymo, the some of xib." The Richard of Jonson, and the Macbeth of Milton! — would that time had spared the one and witnessed the execution of the other! How delightful, how interesting might have been the labour of comparison!

If Jonson failed, as he must be allowed to have done, in communicating pathos and interest to his tragic productions, he has made us ample amends by the unrivalled excellence of his numerous Masques, a species of dramatic poetry, to which he, and he alone, put the seal of perfection. Here his imagination, which, in the peculiar line of comedy he cultivated, had but little scope for expansion, and was, in his tragedies, altogether repressed, by an undeviating adhesion to the letter of history, expatiated as in its native element. "No sooner," remarks Mr. Gifford, "has he taken down his lyre, no sooner touched on his lighter pieces, than all is changed as if by magic, and he seems a new person. His genius awakes at once, his imagination becomes fertile, ardent, versatile, and excursive; his taste pure and elegant; and all his faculties attuned to sprightliness and pleasure."

No greater honour, however, has been paid to the memory of Jonson, than the proof which Mr. Godwin has brought forward of his being the favourite author of Milton, "the predecessor that he chiefly had in his eye, and whom he seems principally to resemble in his style of composition." Among the numerous passages by which he has substantiated this fact, none are more conspicuous than those that breathe the spirit of the lyrical portion of the Masques; for "Milton," as he observes, "will certainly be found to have studied his compositions in this kind more assiduously than those of any of his contemporaries. — It would be strange indeed, if the poet, who in early youth composed the Mask of Comus, had not diligently studied the writings of Ben Jonson." Can there be a test of merit more indisputable than this? for Comus, though by no means faultless as a Masque, has to boast of a poetry more rich and imaginative than is to be found in any other composition, save The Tempest of Shakspeare.

"It is not, however," proceeds Mr. Godwin, "in lighter and incidental matters only, that Milton studied the great model afforded him by Jonson: we may find in him much that would almost tempt us to hold opinion with Pythagoras, and to believe that the very spirit and souls of some men became transfused into their poetical successors. The address of our earlier poet to the two universities, prefixed to his most consummate performance, the comedy of The Fox, will strike every reader familiar with the happiest passages of Milton's prose, with its wonderful resemblance. — They were both or them emphatically poets who had sounded the depths, and formed themselves in the school, of classic lore.

"The difference between them may perhaps best be illustrated from the topic or religion. They had neither of them one spark of libertine and latitudinarian unbelief. But Jonson was not, like Milton, penetrated with his religion. It is to him a sort of servitude — it is not the principle that actuates, but the cheek that controls him. But in Milton, it is the element in which he breathes, a part of his nature. He acts, 'as ever in his Great Task-master's eye': and this is not his misfortune; but he rejoices in his condition, that he has so great, so wise, and so sublime a Being, to whom to render his audit."

The labours of Jonson closed with a species of dramatic poetry in which he had made no previous attempt, and we have only to regret that it was left in an unfinished state; for had the Sad Shepherd been completed in the style of excellence in which it was commenced, it would have been superior not only to the Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher, but perhaps to any thing which he himself had written.

When Jonson, in his noble and generous eulogium on Shakspeare, tells us, that "He was not of an age, but for all time," he seized a characteristic of which the reverse, in some degree, applies to himself, for had he paid less attention to the minutiae of his own age, and dedicated himself more to universal habits and feelings, his popularity would have nearly equalled that of the poet whom he loved and praised. Yet his fame rests on a broad and durable foundation, and we point, with pride and triumph, to that matchless constellation of dramatic merit, where burn, with inextinguishable glory, the mighty names of SHAKSPEARE, JONSON, FLETCHER, MASSINGER.