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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XIII. Masque and Pastoral

§ 11. Jonson’s later work in this field

A break now occurs in Jonson’s masque writing. His journey to Scotland took place in 1618, and Jonson was not in London again till about May, 1619. The new banqueting house at Whitehall was burnt down on 12 January, 1619. Queen Anne died in March. Jonson’s quarrel with Inigo Jones was in progress. He produced no more masques till 6 January, 1621, when the court called upon him again, and the admirable News from the New World discovered in the Moone was the first of a series of eight masques, containing some of his best work and ending in 1625 before his paralytic stroke. Every one of these, except the imperfectly reported Masque of Owls, contains dramatic work that brings before us contemporary London life and manners, with a lighter and easier touch than Jonson uses in his plays. In Newes from the New World, the printer, the chronicler and the factor allow us a glance, tantalisingly brief, at the lower walks of literature in London and the beginnings of the London press; Neptune’s Triumph, in a witty dialogue between a cook and a poet, magnifies the art of Jacobean cookery; the Fencer, in Pan’s Anniversarie, is an amalgamation of all the old gamesters who swaggered in the Elizabethan fencing ring; A Masque of the Metamorphos’d Gypsies, Jonson’s longest masque, “thrice presented to King James,” is an exhaustive study of gipsy manners and gipsy language, wonderful for scope and minuteness. It contains the ribald song of Cocklorrel, another song of the street, almost Aristophanic in lusty vigour. The ballad of the bearward, John Urson, in the excellent Masque of Augures, is another lyric of the same quality. This lyric of the gutter is found cheek by jowl with the solemn Latin notes about augurs as if to reveal to us the two sides of Jonson—the schoolmaster and the street arab. Both characters in Elizabethan London were endowed with a fuller humanity than their modern representatives. There is no failure of poetical power in these later masques. Pan’s Anniversarie and The Fortunate Isles contain exquisite lyrical work, and there is hardly anywhere in the masques a finer song than the last “hunting chorus” of Time Vindicated, with its characteristic ending

  • Man should not hunt mankind to death,
  • But strike the enemies of man;
  • Kill vices if you can:
  • They are your wildest beasts,
  • And when they thickest fall, you make the gods true feasts.
  • Two masques, in 1631, conclude his series. It would seem as if Jonson’s experience in 1618 convinced him that he could not rely upon the contrast between the fantastic and poetic to hold the attention of his audiences. Popular taste began to ask for sensational antimasque, and the multiplication of these threatened to reduce the masque to chaos. Jonson fell back upon the dramatic scene as a means of compelling the interest of his audiences, and, either by the wit of his comic invention or the truth of his comic characterisation, succeeded nearly always in rising above mere farce.

    Jonson has been called a prose Aristophanes. In his masques, taken as a whole, he may be recognised as more truly Aristophanic than any other English writer. His serious lyrics are Horatian in their restraint and classic dignity and have none of the splendour of the imaginative choruses of Aristophanes. Nevertheless, in the lyrical and descriptive parts of the masques, Jonson’s fancy, elevated as it is by his moral intensity and his sense of the poet’s dignity, continually produces a total result which is more than fanciful—which, in a high sense, is imaginative. But, on the side of full-blooded humanity, of intense appreciation of the joy of life in the coarsest and commonest types, of wonderful knowledge of contemporary men and manners, Jonson matches even Aristophanes. Moreover, in the rollicking energy of his lyrics of the gutter and his long prose harangues, the challenging insolence and swagger of the Aristophanic parabasis is more than suggested. Jonson’s gusto, his vigour and virility, are the most natural and unforced part of his genius. They were cramped in the masque. They were cramped even on the Elizabethan stage. An Athenian Dionysiac festival might have given them scope. Jonson, therefore, expresses this side of himself in his masques only in fragments, and cannot be called Aristophanic unless his masques are taken as a whole.

    Jonson, as a masque writer, had no successor. The two great sensations of Charles’s reign, Shirley’s Triumph of Peace and Carew’s Coleum Britannicum, both produced in 1634, are aptly characterised by Schelling: “as to form, Shirley’s masque is chaos in activity, Carew’s chaos inert.” D’Avenant’s Salmacida Spolia, in which the king and queen took part in 1640, has so large a number of successive “entries” in the antimasque as to make it very like modern pantomime.