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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

§ 8. Underwoods

This description, in general, also applies to Underwoods, a much larger collection, not published until after Jonson’s death. Two groups begin the collection—the first of devotional pieces, and the second of love poems forming A Celebration of Charis. The miscellaneous poems that follow include the charming A Nymphs Passion, the graceful Dreame, a long series of eulogistic verses—the best and most famous of which is the poem to Shakespeare, a sonnet to lady Mary Wroth and several epistles, of which that entitled An Epistle to a Friend, to perswade him to the Warres (Master Colby) (xxxii), in terse, vigorous couplets, may be instanced as representative of Jonson’s satirical verse at its best. A series of four elegies (i, vii–ix) in regard to a lover’s quarrel is quite different from the rest of the poems, and quite in the manner of Donne. The second of these (1viii), indeed, appeared in the 1633 edition of Donne’s poems, and, doubtless, should be assigned to him. But if this be given to him, why not the other three? It is true that reminiscences of Donne are found elsewhere in Underwoods, and that Jonson may have been writing in direct imitation; but the four poems deal with the same subject and, apparently, express the feelings of the same lover. The remaining poems in Underwoods include An Execration upon Vulcan, one of the best of the occasional poems; the elaborate and regular Pindaric ode on the death of Sir H. Morison, which contains the beautiful strophe beginning

  • It is not growing like a tree
  • In bulke, doth make men better bee…,
  • and the curious Eupheme; or, the faire fame … of … Lady Venetia Digby, which begins with “the dedication of her cradle” and rises to its height in “the picture of the mind”:
  • Thou entertaining in thy brest
  • But such a Mind, mak’st God thy Guest.
  • The impression made by Jonson’s non-dramatic poetry, as a whole, falls far short of that produced by the half-dozen short lyrics which, alone, have survived in men’s memories. These have a unique and happy grace, a sure touch of immortality. And the two songs, To Celia (“Drink to me only with thine eyes”) and “Goddess excellently bright,” have the allurement of Elizabethan poetry at its best. On the other hand, the great majority of his poems are lacking in melody, charm, or distinction. They are the work of a forerunner of classicism, of one who departs from Spenser, and looks forward to Dryden. The frequent choice of occasional subjects, the restriction to definite forms, the prevalence of satire—all tend toward pseudoclassicism. Moreover, as Schelling has shown the character of the versification, the use of the rimed couplet, the prosaic vocabulary, the avoidance of enjambement, the fixed caesura, point the same way. That Jonson’s verse was very influential in advancing the change in poetic taste, can, however, hardly be maintained. Doubtless, his preaching and precepts had something to do with promoting a tendency toward classicism; but the tribe of Ben—Carew, Cartwright, Suckling, Herrick and others—did not profit largely from their master’s practice. Herrick, who most imitated him, greatly excelled him; and his general influence was not comparable to Spenser’s or to Donne’s.