Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Jacobean and Caroline Criticism > The commendatory verses
  Jonson’s literary “portraits” The framework of Boccalini  

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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.

§ 12. The commendatory verses.


The first training in adequate characterisation of the poets seems, then, to have been given (however tentatively) by Jonson, and it was certainly among his own disciples that literary portraiture first began to flourish. Verse rather than prose was the surer vehicle, and the chief training ground seems to have been the commendatory verses prefixed to plays and poems. Those, for example, that appeared in Jonsonus Virbius (1638), or in the 1647 folio of Beaumont and Fletcher, contain some of the most acute criticism of the first half of the seventeenth century, amid much that is the merest distortion of ingenious eulogy. But what is new (and effective for criticism) in them is the complete realisation of a great literary background. Shakespeare, Fletcher, Jonson, Spenser, had imposed themselves on criticism; and criticism grew rich (as it always does) by accepting and passing these great poets as current coin of the realm. There was a more or less serious attempt to understand them, to appraise them, to express their significance; they jostled one another in every discussion; and it was the most natural thing in the world to compare and contrast them. It is this comparative criticism which is employed to good use in these commendatory verses. A few lines from Cartwright’s tribute to Fletcher will illustrate the acuteness of some of this criticism:
       
Jonson hath writ things lasting and divine,
Yet his love-scenes, Fletcher, compar’d to thine,
Are cold and frosty, and express love so,
As heat with ice, or warm fires mix’d with snow …
Shakespeare to thee was dull, whose best jest lies
I’ the ladies’ questions and the fools’ replies;
Old-fashion’d wit, which walk’d from town to town
In turn’d hose, which our fathers call’d the clown,
Whose wit our nice times would obsceneness call,
And which made bawdry pass for comical.
  23
  Yet, elsewhere, for the most part, critics continued to follow the roll-call; and even Jonson, here bookish rather than critical, uses it in a brief note on the chief writers of English prose (embedded in the borrowed material of Discoveries) and in other places. His curt dicta in conversation with Drummond seem almost typical of the method of contemporary criticism; and, despite all the changes of time, this method retained its vogue up to the middle of the century. Peacham, Bolton, Drayton, Alexander, Reynolds, Suckling, all employ it, though some of them have amplified its narrow scope of transformed it even in using it. Bolton, in Hypercritica (1618?), gives a catalogue of his favourite poets in crabbed prose; Drayton, in the Epistle to Henry Reynolds, of Poets and Poesy (1627), strings together a necklace of famous names on a silken thread of verse. Drayton’s comments are brief, but often singularly appropriate and just; some of them have remained memorable utterances of poetic criticism, as in the lines on the “fine madness” of Marlowe and the kinship of his genius with the “brave translunary things” of the first poets. But, after all, they retain the marks of the roll-call; singly, as it were, they are mere obiter dicta, like Jonson’s conversations with Drummond, utterances oracular and compact; together, they have no other framework than that furnished by the familiar epistle in verse. Neither singly nor jointly do they give any consistent criticism of poets or poetry.   24
  In Reynolds’s Mythomystes, there is a serious attempt to arrive at some consistency in the criticism of poetry by means of a systematic interpretation of its content. But the allegorical method, complicated here by an admixture of Neoplatonism and cabalism, though it may offer opportunities for subtle interpretation of mythological or mystical poetry, fails to explain most of the moderns; and in his brief introductory survey of modern poetry, Reynolds does not divest himself of the cataloguing spirit of his predecessors.   25
  Though efforts to enrich the content and amplify the scope of the roll-call failed, an attempt to bind its disjecta membra into some kind of unity may be said to have succeeded temporarily. As the Italians had bound their novelle together by an artificial framework, so critics adopted a device from classical mythology to perform a similar function. This new framework makes of the term roll-call no longer a metaphor but a poetic fact. In Suckling’s Session of the Poets (1637?), the poets of the time are represented as claimants for the laureateship at the court of Apollo; each argues his claims, and hears them discussed by his fellows; until, finally, Apollo decides in favour of a rich alderman whose money makes up for his lack of skill. The discussion is rather personal than literary, the talk of a coterie of artists and wits, and is interesting as indicating the flavour of literary discussion during the first Caroline period, much as the conversations of Jonson and Drummond shed light on Jacobean taste. Yet, even here, not much has been added since Jonson’s day, for lady Would-be, in the third act of Volpone, anticipates, by more than thirty years, the very note of Suckling’s criticism, in such lines as these:
       
Hee [Guarini] has so moderne and facile a veine,
Fitting the time, and catching the court-eare;
Your Petrarch is more passionate, yet hee
In dayes of sonnetting trusted ’hem [i. e. plagiarists] with much;
Dante is hard, and few can understand him;
But for a desperate wit, there ’s Aretine!
Only his pictures are a little obscene.
  26

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  Jonson’s literary “portraits” The framework of Boccalini  
 
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