1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ben Jonson

Anonymous, in "Ben Jonson's Works" Southern Review [Charleston] 6 (August 1830) 113-14.



It is with no affected humility, that we proceed to speak of Jonson's intellectual character. He has so long stood as a great landmark in our literature, his merits have been so thoroughly canvassed, and that by men of the first abilities — by Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Schlegel, Gifford, and in our own country, by Sanford, that the field is completely pre-occupied, and we are oppressed by the conviction, that we can offer nothing worthy of the reader's attention, which has not been anticipated. Setting out of view, however, as far as it is possible, every thing that we have taken on the authority of others, we shall endeavour, briefly, to convey to the reader, the impression of him, which the study of his works has left upon our own mind. The first thing that strikes us, is the wonderful learning of the man; a knowledge of the Greek and Roman classics, perfectly unmatched even in his own cage; a knowledge, at once various, minute, profound, comprehensive and philosophical. This peculiarity, too, he possessed in an eminent degree, that he could not only translate, with a power never exceeded, these masterpieces of antiquity, but, transfuse them, as it were, into his works, where they mingled so harmoniously that, to one ignorant of the originals, they would appear the most natural and unborrowed beauties they contained. Nor was he less skilled in what constituted the literature of the day; in theology, in metaphysics, and in alchemy, which, though openly contemned, received in that credulous age a secret reverence from the many. With all this wealth of ancient and modern learning, he seems to have possessed a memory, at once tenacious and prompt, a caustic wit, an industry that did not easily tire, and a constitution capable of intense application. He likewise possessed, in an eminent degree, the talent for observation; and his works are a living proof how readily he could seize, and how graphically expose the crowd of ridiculous and contemptible characters that infested the age, thronging, as we are told, "the middle aisle of St. Paul's," and swarming in every street and tavern of the metropolis. This mass of learning, this insight into the secret springs of action, this caustic wit, and power of vivid characterization, were directed, under the guidance of a sound judgment and masculine morality, to dramatic composition.

Why then, it may be asked, have these plays ceased to keep possession of the stage? Why have they fallen into neglect? There are several causes which have conspired to produce this result. The first is, that Jonson belonged to a school of poetry, distinguished as the "metaphysical," the school of Donne, and afterwards of Cowley — a school which delighted in all manner of far-fetched and learned conceits, which sought perpetually after novelties, which rendered to wit the homage which was due to nature, and which, by necessary consequence, paid forfeit to posterity, in winning the approbation of its own age. Judging of his works by the standard of that more natural taste which now prevails, we find much in them to condemn. After the expression of some judicious sentiment, we are annoyed by the intrusion of some other idea, which, though not nonsense, has yet no needful connexion with what had gone before. We wonder why it stands there, and that it does excite this wonder, is, perhaps, the true reason of its insertion. In composing "Volpone," our author seems to have listened to the suggestions of his better genius. It seems to us that he has stricken out these ambitious passages, and retained little but what is pertinent to the matter. We are conscious of a brisker movement in the action, and our attention is less solicited by thoughts that are collateral merely, or extrinsic. Another cause of the unpopularity of these plays, is the extreme ruggedness and harshness of the versification. We speak not, of course, in reference to the versification of our own day; to institute such a comparison, were to do Jonson gross injustice, for we must remember that when he wrote, it was still rude and imperfect; that neither Denham nor Waller, Milton, Dryden, nor Pope, had lent his contribution, and brought it to that point of touching melody or varied harmony, which it is now, perhaps, impossible to exceed. But we would measure Jonson's verses by the standard of his own times, and if we compare his best lines with those of Marlowe, who was his predecessor, or Shakspeare, his contemporary, we shall perceive his decided inferiority in his susceptibility of rhythmical modulation. Can he furnish any such glowing verses as these of Marlowe?