Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Jacobean and Caroline Criticism > Ben Jonson
  Bacon Minor forms of criticism  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XI. Jacobean and Caroline Criticism.

§ 2. Ben Jonson.


It was his contemporary Jonson, in fact, who first made this conception of “rule” native to English thought. In the prologue of Volpone, he boasts that he has followed all the laws of refined comedy,
       
As best Criticks have designed;
The lawes of time, place, persons he observeth,
From no needfull rule he swerveth;
and it was his critical function throughout his life to make Englishmen realise that literary creation is not determined by individual whim, but by an external and ideal order given by literary tradition, and not to be swerved from without the sacrifice of art. This was the chief influence which he exerted on his younger contemporaries; and, in Jonsonus Virbius, the monument of verse reared to his memory, John Cleiveland could say that it was Jonson
       
Who first reform’d our Stage with justest Lawes,
And was the first best Judge in your own Cause;
Who, when his Actors trembled for Applause,
Could with a noble Confidence preferre
His own, by right, to a whole Theater,
From Principles which he knew could not erre.
“Laws” and “principles which could not err” first entered English criticism through the agency of Jonson. It is true that Sidney, in his Defence of Poesie, had espoused the three unities, on the authority both of Aristotle and of “common reason,” and it was from Sidney that Jonson may have derived his original impetus toward the acceptance of the classical tradition. Sidney’s conception of the high dignity of poetry, of dramatic form and of humours in comedy are all to be found in the early writings of Jonson; and, though this early glow of Elizabethan fervour cooled with age, in the prefaces, prologues and epilogues of his plays, in epigrams and poems, he continued to expound the message of order in literature, of classical form, of the tempered spirit as opposed to boisterous energy and emphasis. He took counsel with the Latin rhetoricians, with Cicero, Quintilian, Seneca, Pliny, Petronius and, later, with the humanists of the continent, Erasmus, Daniel Heinsius, Justus Lipsius and Julius Caesar Scaliger. The star of scholarship in criticism was passing northward from Italy to Holland; and the deliberate and moderate classicism of the Dutch Latinists, their reasonableness and common sense, made a deep appeal to Jonson. Though his own classicism became more and more rigid, he never failed to echo their assertion of the “liberty of poets” and their conception of the classics as “guides, not commanders.”
  4
  The chief result of these studies, and the chief monument of Jonson as a critic, is to be found in his Timber or Discoveries, published, posthumously, in 1641. It is a commonplace book, certainly not intended for publication in its present form, and, possibly, never intended for publication at all. Certainly, not one of the utterances which it contains in respect to poetry and poetic criticism is the result of Jonson’s own thought. Recent scholarship has been able to trace nearly every one of its famous passages to some contemporary or classical origin, and it is fair to assume that the slight remnant is equally unoriginal. 1    5
  If it were our purpose to judge Jonson as a literary artist, this would be of slight consequence, for the artist may consider the world as all before him where to choose, and may demand that we consider not whence he has borrowed his materials but what he has done with them. The critic’s case is different. We have a right to expect of him that he shall have reflected on literature; that, out of the ideas of others, he shall mould ideas which shall seem as if they were his own. Jonson has translated his originals verbatim, and has not added a single idea that was not already full-grown in them. If we were merely studying the taste of the dramatist Jonson, all this would have high interest for us; but it would be idle to dispute that Jonson the critic suffers from the discovery. The “constant good sense, occasional felicity of expression, conscientious and logical intensity of application or devotion to every point of the subject handled or attempted,” which Swinburne found in the critical portions of Discoveries, are virtues that must be credited to Jonson’s originals rather than to Jonson himself.   6
  Yet, though Dryden’s statement that “there are few serious thoughts which are new” in Jonson has proved truer with time, this did not affect the influence of his selective translation on the age that was to follow; and Dryden himself could say that, in Discoveries, “we have as many and profitable rules for perfecting the stage as any wherewith the French can furnish us.” As an influence, Jonson remains what he was; as an original critic, he indubitably loses in prestige. His influence was immediately exerted on the younger men about him; some of its results may be observed, for example, in the comments on poets and prosemen in Bolton’s Hypercritica; and, even now the tremendous effects of this influence on restoration poetry and criticism are only partly comprehended. It was due to him that the pregnant utterances of post-classic rhetoricians and the lucid and rational classicism of Dutch scholars became part and parcel of English thought.   7

Note 1. See ante, Vols. IV., pp. 398, 594, and VI., pp. 9, 10. [ back ]

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