1635 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Timber, or Discoveries.

The Workes of Benjamin Jonson. The Second Volume.

Ben Jonson


Commenting on Spenser's diction, Ben Jonson makes one of the best-known remarks in the tradition: "Spencer, in affecting the Ancients writ no language" p. 116. This comment, coming from Jonson, bore considerable authority and was regularly cited by critics taking a dim view of Spenser, archaisms, and antiquarian tastes in literature.

Thomas Warton: "The censure of B. Johnson, upon our author's style, is perhaps unreasonable, 'Spenser, in affecting the antients, writ no language.' The ground-work and substance of his style, is the language of the age in which he lived; this indeed is season'd with various expressions, deduced from a remote age, but in such a manner, that the language of his age was rather strengthened and dignified than debas'd or disguis'd by such a practice. In truth, the affectation of Spenser in this point, is by no means so striking and visible as Johnson has insinuated; nor is our author so obsolete in his style, as he is generally thought, or represented to be. For many stanzas together we may frequently read him with as much facility, as we can the same number of lines in Shakespere. But tho' I cannot subscribe to the opinion of the last-quoted critic, concerning our author's recourse to the antients, yet I must confess, that the following sentiments, relating to the same subject, are admirable. 'Words borrow'd of antiquity do lend a kind of majesty to style, and are not without their delight sometimes. For they have the authority of yeares, and out of their intermission do lend a kind of grace-like newnesse. BUT THE ELDEST OF THE PRESENT, AND NEWNESSE OF THE PAST LANGUAGE IS THE BEST'" Observations on the Faerie Queene (1754) 98-99.

Joseph Warton: "The Observations of Ben Jonson have all that closeness and precision of style, weight of sentiment, and accuracy of classical learning, for which he is so justly celebrated" preface to Jonson, Discoveries (1787) in Nichols, Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 6:173.

Edmond Malone: "Because Ben Jonson, in his DISCOVERIES, objected to Spencer's obsolete language, with a reference undoubtedly to his PASTORALS, an indiscriminate charge, on this ground, has been brought against all his works; for which I conceive there is very little foundation. What Jonson has said of him, that, 'in affecting the ancients, he wrote no language,' may be applied with much more truth to Jonson's own compositions, than to those of Spencer" Critical Essays of John Dryden (1800) 3:94n.

John Aikin concurs with Jonson: "In aiming at an antique diction, he will never do more than make a heterogeneous mixture, which is the real language of no one period, and must often appear quaint and affected, rather than simple and nervous.... the intermingled threads of Chaucer show like spots and stains, rather than agreeable variegations" Works of Spenser (1802) 1:xlii-iii.

George Saintsbury: "They were, as has been said, never issued by the author himself, and we do not know whether he ever would have issued them in their present form. On the one hand, they are very carefully written, and not mere jottings. In form (though more modern in style) they resemble the earlier essays of that Bacon whom they so magnificently celebrate, in their deliberate conciseness and pregnancy. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to doubt that some at least were intended for expansion; it is difficult not to think that there was plenty more stuff of the same kind in the solidly constructed and well-stored treasuries of Ben's intelligence and erudition. It is most difficult of all not to see that, in some cases, the thoughts are coordinated into regular tractates, in others left loose, as if for future treatment of the same kind" History of English Criticism (1911) 86-87.

Harko Gerrit De Maar: "Yet in the same work he has a good word to say for archaisms: 'Words borrow'd of Antiquity doe lend a kind of Majesty to style, and are not without their delight sometimes'" History of Modern English Romanticism (1924) 48.

Anne Barton: "It is possible that Drummond misrepresented the latter part of what Jonson said when he recorded that 'Spencers stanzaes pleased him not, nor his matter' (ed. 1925-52, 1:132). More probably, Jonson had softened his earlier judgment when, in his prose work Timber, or Discoveries some years later, he advised young men to read Spenser precisely 'for his matter' (8:618). But he seems never to have reconciled himself to Spenser's stanza" Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 412.

James A. Riddell and Stanley Stewart: "We must remember the rhetorical situation of the work itself. Since the question under consideration at this moment in Discoveries is how to teach young people to communicate, Spenser's diction, presumably an imaginary amalgam of contemporary and Chaucerian English (hence, 'no [spoken] language') might present a problem, at least for younger pupils. At the same time, Jonson recalls, there is a tradition of employing the diction of precursor poets, and as Jonson would have known, Virgil was well read in Ennius. But in his use of Ennius, Virgil is worthy of study by more advanced students who have gone beyond the difficulties of learning a new language" Jonson's Spenser (1995) 33.

Compare Thomas Purney's remark about the artificial language of pastoral: "'Tis not enough therefore, for the forming a Pastoral Language to use Old-Words; a Writer must set down, and by true Pains and Industry constitute a Language entirely of a piece and consistant; in performing which the choicest Old-Words will be of some little Assistance" Enquiry into the True Nature of Pastoral (1717) 84.




I take this labour in teaching others, that they should not be alwayes to bee taught; and I would bring my Precepts into practice. For rules are ever of lesse force, and valew, then experiments. Yet with this purpose, rather to shew the right way to those that come after, then to detect any that have slipt before by errour, and I hope it will bee more profitable. For men doe more willingly listen, and with more favour to precept, then reprehension. Among diverse opinions of an Art, and most of them contrary in themselves, it is hard to make election; and therefore, though a man cannot invent new things after so many, he may doe a welcome worke yet to helpe posterity to judge rightly of the old. But Arts and Precepts availe nothing, except nature be beneficiall, and ayding. And therefore these things are no more written to a dull disposition, then rules of husbandry to a barren Soyle. No precepts will profit a Foole; no more then beauty will the blind, or musicke the deafe. As wee should take care, that our style in writing, be neither dry, nor empty: wee should looke againe it be not winding, or wanton with far-fetcht descriptions; Either is a vice. But that is worse which proceeds out of want, then what riots out of plenty. The remedy of fruitfulnesse is easie, but no labour will helpe the contrary; I will like, and praise some things in a young Writer; which yet if hee continue in, I cannot, but justly hate him for the same. There is a time to bee given all things for maturity; and that even your Countrey-husband-man can teach; who to a young plant will not put the proyning knife, because it seemes to feare the iron, as not able to admit the scarre. No more would I tell a greene Writer all his faults, lest I should make him grieve and faint, and at last despaire. For nothing doth more hurt, then to make him so afraid of all things, as hee can endeavour nothing. Therefore youth ought to be instructed betimes, and in the best things: for we hold those longest, wee take soonest. As the first sent of a Vessell lasts: and that tinct the wooll first receives. Therefore a Master should temper his owne powers, and descend to the others infirmity. If you powre a glut of water upon a Bottle, it receives little of it, but with a Funnell, and by degrees, you shall fill many of them, and spill little of your owne; to their capacity they will all receive, and be full. As it is fit to read the best Authors to youth first, so let them be of the openest, and clearest. As Livy before Sallust, Sydney before Donne: and beware of letting them taste Gower, or Chaucer at first, lest falling too much in love with Antiquity, and not apprehending the weight, they grow rough and barren in language onely. When their judgements are firme, and out of danger, let them read both, the old and the new: but no lesse take heed, that their new flowers, and sweetnesse doe not as much corrupt, as the others drinesse, and squalor, if they choose not carefully. Spencer, in affecting the Ancients writ no language: Yet I would have him read for his matter; but as Virgil read Ennius. The reading of Homer and Virgil is counsell'd by Quintillian, as the best way of informing youth, and confirming man. For besides that, the mind is rais'd with the height, and sublimity of such a verse, it takes spirit from the greatnesse of the matter, and is tincted with the best things. Tragicke, and Liricke Poetry is good too: and Comick with the best, if the manners of the Reader be once in safety. In the Greeke Poets, as also in Plautus, wee shall see the Oeconomy, and disposition of Poems, better observered then in Terence, and the later: who thought the sole grace, and vertue of their Fable, the sticking in of sentences, as ours doe the forcing in of jests....

Custome is the most certaine Mistresse of Language, as the publicke stampe makes the current money. But wee must not be frequent with the mint, every day coyning. Nor fetch words from the extreme and utmost ages; since the chiefe vertue of a style is perspicuitie, and nothing so vitious in it, as to need an Interpreter. Words borrow'd of Antiquity, doe lend a kind of Majesty to style, and are not without their delight sometimes. For they have the Authority of yeares, and out of their intermission doe win to themselves a kind of grace-like newnesse. But the eldest of the present, and newnesse of the past Language is the best. For what was the ancient Language, which some men so doate upon, but the ancient Custome? Yet when I name Custome, I understand not the vulgar Custome: For that were a precept no lesse dangerous to Language, then life, if wee should speake or live after the manners of the vulgar: But that I call Custome of speech, which is the consent of the Learned; as Custome of life, which is the consent of the good. Virgill was most loving of Antiquity; yet how rarely does hee insert "aquai," and "pictai"! Lucretius is scabrous and rough in these; hee seekes 'hem: As some doe Chaucerisms with us, which were better expung'd and banish'd. Some words are to be cull'd out for ornament and colour, as wee gather flowers to straw houses, or make Garlands; but they are better when they grow to our style; as in a Meadow, where though the meere grasse and greennesse delights; yet the variety of flowers doth heighten and beautifie....


[pp. 116-17, 118-19]