1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

Thomas Campbell, in "Essay on English Poetry" Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1841) lxiii-lxv.



The triumph of founding English classical comedy belonged exclusively to Jonson. In his tragedies it is remarkable that he freely dispenses with the unities, though in those tragedies he brings classical antiquity In the most distinct and learnedly authenticated traits before our eyes. The vindication of his great poetic memory forms an agreeable contrast in modern criticism with the bold bad things which used to be said of him in a former period; as when Young compared him to a blind Samson, who pulled down the ruins of antiquity on his head and buried his genius beneath them. Hurd, though he inveighed against the too abstract conception of his characters, pronouncing them rather personified humours than natural beings, did him, nevertheless, the justice to quote one short and lovely passage from one of his masques, and the beauty of that passage probably turned the attention of many readers to his then neglected compositions. It is indeed but one of the many beauties which justify all that has been said of Jonson's lyrical powers. In that fanciful region of the drama (the Masque) he stands as pre-eminent as in comedy; or if he can be said to be rivalled, it is only by Milton. And our surprise at the wildness and sweetness of his fancy in one walk of composition is increased by the stern and rigid (sometimes rugged) air of truth which he preserves in the other. In the regular drama he certainly holds up no romantic mirror to nature. His object was to exhibit human characters at once strongly comic and severely and instructively true; to nourish the understanding, while he feasted the sense of ridicule. He is more anxious for verisimilitude than even for comic effect. He understood the humours and peculiarities of his species scientifically, and brought them forward in their greatest contrasts and subtlest modifications. If Shakspeare carelessly scattered illusion, Jonson skilfully prepared it. This is speaking of Jonson in his happiest manner. There is a great deal of harsh and sour fruit in his miscellaneous poetry. It is acknowledged that in the drama he frequently overlabours his delineation of character, and wastes it tediously upon uninteresting humours and peculiarities. He is a moral painter, who delights over much to show his knowledge of moral anatomy. Beyond the pale of his three great dramas, "The Fox," "The Epicene, or Silent Woman," and "The Alchemist," it would not be difficult to find many striking exceptions to that love of truth and probability, which, in a general view, may be regarded as one of his best characteristics. Even within that pale, namely, in his masterly character of Volpone, one is struck with what, if it be not an absolute breach, is at least a very bold stretch, of probability. It is true that Volpone is altogether a being daringly conceived; and those who think that art spoiled the originality of Jonson, may well rectify their opinion by considering the force of imagination which it required to concentrate the traits of such a character as "The Fox;" not to speak of his Mosca, who is the phoenix of all parasites. Volpone himself is netlike the common misers of comedy, a mere money-loving dotard — a hard shrivelled old mummy, with no ether spice than his avarice to preserve him; he is a happy villain, a jolly misanthrope — a little god in his own selfishness, and Mosca is his priest and prophet. Vigorous and healthy, though past the prime of life, he hugs himself in his arch humour, his successful knavery and imposture, his sensuality and his wealth, with an unhallowed relish of selfish existence. His passion for wealth seems not to be so great as his delight in gulling the human "vultures and gorecrows" who flock round him at the imagined approach of his dissolution; the speculators who put their geld, as they conceive, into his dying gripe, to be returned to them a thousand-fold in his will. Yet still, after this exquisite rogue has stood his trial in a sweat of agony at the scrutineum, and blest his stars at having narrowly escaped being put to the torture, there is something (one would think) a little too strong for probability, in that mischievous mirth and love of tormenting his own dupes, which bring him, by his own folly, a second time within the fangs of justice. "The Fox" and "The Alchemist" seem to have divided Jonson's admirers as to which of them may be considered his masterpiece. In confessing my partiality to the prose comedy of "The Silent Woman," considered merely as a comedy, I am by no means forgetful of the rich eloquence which poetry imparts to the two others. But "The Epicene," in my humble apprehension, exhibits Jonson's humour in the most exhilarating perfection. With due admiration for "The Alchemist," I cannot help thinking the jargon of the chemical jugglers, though it displays the learning of the author, to be tediously profuse. "The Fox" rises to something higher than comic effect. It is morally impressive. It detains us at particular points in serious terror and suspense. But "The Epicene" is purely facetious. I knew not, indeed, why we should laugh more at the sufferings of Morose than at those of the sensualist Sir Epicure Mammon, who deserves his miseries much better than the rueful and pitiable Morose. Yet so it is, that, though the feelings of pathos and ridicule seem so widely different, a certain tincture of the pitiable makes comic distress more irresistible. Poor Morose suffers what the fancy of Dante could not have surpassed in description, if he had sketched out a ludicrous Purgatory. A lover of quiet — a man exquisitely impatient of rude sounds and loquacity, who lived in a retired street — who barricadoed his doors with mattresses to prevent disturbance to his ears, and who married a wife because he could with difficulty prevail upon her to speak to him — has hardly tied the fatal knot when his house is tempested by female eloquence, and the marriage of him who had pensioned the city-wakes to keep away from his neighbourhood, is celebrated by a concert of trumpets. He repairs to a court of justice to get his marriage if possible dissolved, but is driven back in despair by the intolerable noise of the court. For this marriage how exquisitely we are prepared by the scene of courtship! When Morose questions his intended bride about her likings and habits of life, she plays her part so hypocritically, that he seems for a moment impatient of her reserve, and with the most ludicrous cross feelings wishes her to speak more loudly, that he may have a proof of her taciturnity from her own lips; but, recollecting himself, he gives way to the rapturous satisfaction of having found a silent woman, and exclaims to Cutbeard, "Go thy ways and get me a clergyman presently, with a soft low voice, to marry us, and pray him he will not be impertinent, but brief as he can."

The art of Jonson was not confined to the cold observation of the unities of place and time, but appears in the whole adaptation of his incidents and characters to the support of each other. Beneath his learning and art he moves with an activity which may be compared to the strength of a man who can leap and bound under the heaviest armour.