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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.

I. Ben Jonson

§ 6. Eminence in letters

Even a brief summary of Jonson’s life indicates its importance in the history of literature. The forty years of his literary career were marked by varied and influential activity in both prose and verse, in other forms as well as the drama, and as a critic no less than as a creator. Four or five of his plays won immediate recognition as masterpieces of realistic comedy; his tragedies, also, were regarded as models; and his masques were not the least important source of his contemporary reputation. As a scholar, he was highly regarded; as a writer of occasional verse, he was the laureate of James and Charles and the leader of the younger poets of the early seventeenth century; as a critic, seeking the reform of abuses and the definition and maintenance of standards of literary art, he exercised an influence comparable to that of Dryden or Samuel Johnson on later generations. During the major part of his career, he was a sort of literary dictator, encouraging or restraining the literary endeavours of his fellow craftsmen, by means of his conversation as much as of his published writings. Though Jonson was often opposed to prevailing fashions, no other writer so comprehensively represents the course of English literature from the end of the sixteenth century to the outbreak of the civil war.

Of the significance of his criticism, we can now form an idea only through a study of the fragmentary comments in his Discoveries, Conversations with Drummond, prologues and prefaces, taken in connection with his actual poetic and dramatic practices. A reconstruction of that criticism, therefore, can be only hypothetical and partial, and must be concerned, mainly, with his own work in the drama. But it should be observed that, in the main, his career was a consistent application of certain fundamental views of literary art. These comprised a high estimation of the dignity and value of literature, a complete acceptance of classical authors as the great models and, also, a clear recognition of the high opportunity and great achievement of English poetry and drama. Further, Jonson believed in a painstaking, laborious and self-conscious art, dictated, in some measure, by standards and rules as well as by individual genius or caprice. He worked with the precepts and definitions of Poetics and Ars Poetica for guides, and he desired judgment and approval only from those acquainted with these standards. Hence, at times, he was rigid in adhering to rules, given overmuch to imitation of the classics and slow to accept modern achievement when it seemed foreign to ancient law and precedent. He demanded a workmanship that laboured over details, and he was suspicious of eccentricity, incongruity, or fantasy, whether in figure and rhythm, or in structure and treatment. In an age of romanticism, he was, in some degree, a classicist and a realist—the former, in his reverence for the masterpieces of Greece and Rome, in his view of art as imitating nature by means of fixed forms and regularised methods and in his insistence on restraints and proprieties; the latter, in his fidelity to details, and in his preference, whether in theme or expression, for the actual rather than the splendid, the usual rather than the adventurous and the general rather than the fantastic.

Jonson’s non-dramatic writings include two unfinished works in prose, both in the nature of compilations. His English Grammar has little interest for anyone to-day; Timber, or Discoveries, however, contains miscellaneous observations of striking pith and eloquence and the matter for an essay on style or literary art. Swinburne, in a successful effort to recall Discoveries to general appreciation, devoted the major part of his Ben Jonson (1889) to praise of this production, declaring, with characteristic extravagance, that it outweighs in value all the dramatic works, and is, in comparison with Bacon’s Essays, superior “in truth of insight, in breadth of view, in vigour of reflection and in concision of eloquence.” When the attention of scholars was directed to the book, the extent of its indebtedness to Latin writers became gradually apparent. Jonson’s sub-title, “made upon men and matter: as they have flow’d out of his daily Readings; or had their refluxe to his peculiar Notion of the Times,” had always been accepted as describing a sort of commonplace book, in which citations from his reading and original observations were mingled; but investigation has reduced the original element to a minimum. Schelling was the first to trace a large number of borrowings; Spingarn and others added to the list; which, recently, Maurice Castelain has so extended that it seems to include nearly everything in the book. A few observations on contemporaries remain wholly Jonson’s, and the impress of his individuality is apparent even in direct translation. The book also shows the opinions that he selected and shared, and the wide range of his reading, especially in later classical writers, such as Seneca, Pliny and Quintilian, and in renascence scholars, Erasmus, the Scaligers, Lipsius and Heinsius.