Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 7. Epigrams; The Forest

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

I. Ben Jonson

§ 7. Epigrams; The Forest

In his non-dramatic poetry, Jonson rarely attains high excellence. A large portion belongs to the class headed “miscellaneous” in collected editions, and is of interest rather for the information which it supplies as to his friends and patrons, and for its satirical pictures of contemporary life, than for any charm of verse. Few of the odes, epistles and epigrams show aught but careful writing, but there are also few that can be praised unreservedly or read with delight. The Epigrams (1616) are characteristically coarse; and some of the satirical sort recall the persons of his comedies; as those on alchemists, Lieutenant Shift, Court Worm, Sir Voluptuous Beast, or Lady Would Be. Others are laudatory in praise of Camden, Donne or Sylvester, or the poet’s noble patrons, or the king. Perhaps the best of these is that on Lucy countess of Bedford. But the only epigram that has been widely remembered is the beautiful epitaph on the child actor, Salathiel Pavy. The fifteen poems that compose The Forest, taken as a whole, are of a higher order than the Epigrams; but, except the immortal “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” none, to-day, has much interest beyond what is historical. In spite of occasional fine lines, their style is fatally marred by that stiffness with which Swinburne justly charges Jonson’s verse. To Penshurst, written in heroic couplets, is one of the best—sober, dignified, adequate. The lyric note is absolutely wanting in most. A vocabulary that seems purposely prosaic and realistic, an absence of figures, correctness and sanity of expression—these are the qualities of Dryden’s verse; but Jonson’s has neither Dryden’s animation nor his melody.