1619
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Heads of a Conversation betwixt the Famous Poet Ben Johnson, and William Drummond of Hawthornden.

The Works of William Drummond, of Hawthornden. Consisting of those which were Formerly Printed, and those which were Design'd for the Press. Now Published from the Author's Original Copies.

Ben Jonson


The Conversations, recorded in National LIbrary of Scotland Adv. MS. 33.3.19 fol. 25v-27, were first published in with William Drummond's works in 1711, though Jonson's remarks were attracting comments long before.

Edward Payson Morton: "Though there were many contemporary criticisms of Spenser's poetry, comments on his stanza are rare as uses of it. I have been able to find only two — one by Ben Jonson and the other by Gabriel Harvey. Drummond of Hawthornden reports that Jonson said of Spenser: 'his stanza pleased him not, nor his matter.' Harvey's comment is in his own handwriting in his copy of Gascoigne's Certain Notes of Instruction" "The Spenserian Stanza before 1700" (1907) 6.

Herbert E. Cory: "Even in the Age of Enthusiasm, Drayton and Hall have been seen to show some critical discrimination. But Ben Jonson's burly figure looms largest among the first English writers of critical works. Unfortunately lie gave us no well-rounded estimate of Spenser although he was liberal with tantalizing allusions. With Spenser's stanza and diction he was clearly out of tune. He told Drummond (Conversations, 1619), that 'Spenser's stanzaes pleased him not, nor his matter; the meaning of which Allegoric he had delivered in papers to Sir Walter Rauglie.' But Jonson was grumbling almost unintermittently at this famous symposium. And perhaps Drummond tinged his record more deeply with his own apparent impression of Ben's perennial surliness. Jonson, at all events, had some good words for Spenser's matter in his Discoveries (1625-35?). 'Spenser, in affecting the Ancients writ no Language. Yet I would have him read for his matter, but as Virgil rend Ennius.' The attack on Spenser's archaisms was promptly caught up by subsequent critics. In another part of the Discoveries Jonson says, somewhat inconsistently: 'Words borrow'd of Antiquity doe lend a kind of Majesty to style, and are not without their delight sometimes.' But, on the whole, he prefers the newest words. That Ben Jonson of the rocky face and mountain belly was not always impervious to Spenserian appeal is attested in Drummond's record that 'He hath by heart some verses of Spenser's Calender about wyne, between Coline and Percye'" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 98.

George Saintsbury: "there is nothing really shocking in any of these observations, nor anything really inconsistent. A true critic never holds the neat, positive, 'reduced-to-its-lowest-terms' estimate of authors, in which a criticaster delights. His view is always facetted, conditioned. But he may, in a friendly chat, or a conversation for victory, exaggerate this facet or condition, while altogether suppressing others; and this clearly is what Ben did" History of English Criticism (1911) 83.

'Wells records a remark not included in the 1711 printing: "He hath be heart some verses of Spensers Calender, about wyne, between Soline & percye" (Fol. 26v) — Wells, Spenser Allusions (1972) 154.

The notion that Jonson disliked Spenser is corrected by James A. Riddel and Stanley Stewart, beginning with the remarks recorded by Drummond: "Although Drummond's Conversations purports to record Jonson's comments, even if accurately represented, may not be very helpful in clarifying his reading of Spenser. Not only are specific remarks on Spenser ambiguous, but Jonson's tone is equivocal, and he seems to enjoy contradicting himself without worrying about whether or not Drummond will recognize lapses and reversals. It may be that Jonson even enjoyed the slow, perhaps sober, reactions of his host" Jonson's Spenser: Evidence and Historical Criticism (1995) 18.




His Censure of the English Poets was this: That Sidney did not keep a Decorum in making every one speak as well as himself. Spencer's Stanza's pleased him not, nor his Matter; the Meaning of the Allegory of his Fairy Queen he had delivered in Writing to Sir Walter Rawleigh, which was, That by the bleating Beast he understood the Puritans, and by the false Duessa the Queen of Scots. He told, That Spencer's Goods were robbed by the Irish, and his House and a little Child burnt, he and his Wife escaped, and after died for want of Bread in Kingstreet; he refused 20 Pieces sent him by my Lord Essex, and said he was sure he had no Time to spend them.


[Fols 25v, 26v-27; Works of Drummond (1711) 225]