1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

John Hamilton Reynolds, in "Ben Jonson" The Champion (4 May 1817) 142.



There are few writers of whom men are more accustomed to talk by rote than Ben Jonson: but as the hardiest and most determined enemies of his fame, neither ventured to deny the extent or profundity of his learning, the richness of his imagination, the racyness of his humour, his truth and wonderful discrimination of character, the strength and masculine vigour of his language: — when these excellencies were beyond the cavelling of "the hounds and hunt," it only remained for those "that follow and make the cry" to pull about a want of judgment, taste, and elegance.

The judgment of any man is of all others the point on which there will be, most probably, the greatest difference of opinion. It is difficult of positive and full illustration, in a work much less voluminous than the subject of the controversy. But we incline to believe that Jonson's defects, such as they are, arose rather from a severity of judgment than a want of it. He would touch and retouch to work up to the niceties of his own discriminative taste, until, as Cartwright has observed, "the file would not make smooth but near." We have indeed sometimes to regret that what is bold and vigorous is also bare and naked: but this originated in the school in which he had studied, and the object he ever proposed to himself in his dramatic writings, to better and instruct, as well as to delight mankind. Still the subject is open to reasonable discussion: but when we look into the Minor Pieces of our poet we cannot but wonder at the blind infatuation of those men who have ventured their authority to abuse his taste and elegance.