Nonfiction > G. Gregory Smith, ed. > Elizabethan Critical Essays
G. Gregory Smith, ed.  Elizabethan Critical Essays.  1904.
Ben Jonson (1572–1637)
I. From Every Man in his Humour, Every Man out of his Humour and The Poetaster
[The following passages from Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour, Every Man out of his Humour, and the Poetaster contain his earlier critical dicta and more important references to contemporary literature.]

        From Every Man in his Humor, Quarto 1601, Act v, Scene 1. (Bodleian Library. Malone, 229.) Omitted from the Folio 1616. The play was first acted in 1598 (or 1597).

        Mat[heo].  Sir, heres the beginning of a sonnet I made to my mistresse.
Cle[ment].  That, that: who? To Maddona Hesperida? Is she your mistresse?
Pros[pero].  It pleaseth him to call her so, sir.
Clem.  ‘In Sommer time when Phœbus golden rayes.’ You translated this too, did you not?
Pros.  No, this is inuention; he found it in a ballad.
Mat.  Fayth, sir, I had most of the conceite of it out of a ballad indeede.
Clem.  Conceite: fetch me a couple of torches, sirha. I may see the conceite: quickly! its very darke!
Gui[lliano].  Call you this poetry?
Lo[renzo] iu[nior].  Poetry? nay, then call blasphemie religion;
  Call Diuels Angels; and Sinne pietie:
  Let all things be preposterously transchangd.
Lo[rezo] se[nior].  Why, how now, sonne? what! are you startled now?
  Hath the brize prickt you, ha? go to; you see
  How abiectly your Poetry is ranckt,
  In generall opinion.
Lo. iu.  Opinion! O God, let grosse opinion
  Sinck & be damnd as deepe as Barathrum.
  If it may stand with your most wisht content,
  I can refell opinion and approue
  The state of poesie, such as it is,
  Blessed, æternall, and most true deuine:
  Indeede, if you will looke on Poesie,
  As she appeares in many, poore and lame,
  Patcht vp in remnants and old worne ragges,
  Halfe starud for want of her peculiar foode,
  Sacred inuention, then I must conferme
  Both your conceite and censure of her merrite;
  But view her in her glorious ornaments,
  Attired in the maiestie of arte,
  Set high in spirite with the precious taste
  Of sweete philosophic and, which is most,
  Crownd with the rich traditions of a soule
  That hates to haue her dignitie prophand
  With any relish of an earthly thought—
  Oh then how proud a presence doth she beare!
  Then is she like her selfe, fit to be seene
  Of none but graue and consecrated eyes.
  Nor is it any blemish to her fame
  That such leane, ignorant, and blasted wits,
  Such brainlesse guls, should vtter their stolne wares
  With such aplauses in our vulgar eares;
  Or that their slubberd lines haue currant passe,
  From the fat iudgements of the multitude;
  But that this barren and infected age
  Should set no difference twixt these empty spirits
  And a true Poet; then which reuerend name
  None can more adorne humanitie.      Enter with torches.
Clem.  I, Lorenzo, but election is now gouernd altogether by the influence of humor, which, insteed of those holy flames that should direct and light the soule to eternitie, hurles foorth nothing but smooke and congested vapours, that stifle her vp, and bereaue her of al sight & motion. But she must haue store of Ellebore giuen her to purge these grosse obstructions. Oh, thats well sayd. Giue me thy torch; come lay this stuffe together. So, giue fire! there, see, see, how our Poets glory shines brighter, and brighter! still, still it increaseth! Oh, now its at the highest! and now it declines as fast! You may see, gallants, Sic transit gloria mundi
        From The Workes of Beniamin Ionson. Folio 1616. (Bodleian Library. Douce, I. 302.)
  This Prologue appears first in the Folio, but may be dated 1598. Gifford’s evidence for 1596 is inconclusive.

Though neede make many Poets, and some such
As art and nature haue not betterd much,
Yet ours, for want, hath not so lou’d the stage,
As he dare serue th’ ill customes of the age,
Or purchase your delight at such a rate,
As, for it, he himselfe must iustly hate:
To make a child, now swadled, to proceede
Man, and then shoote vp, in one beard and weede,
Past threescore yeeres; or, with three rustie swords,
And helpe of some few foot-and-halfe-foote words,
Fight ouer Yorke and Lancasters long iarres,
And in the tyring-house bring wounds to scarres.
He rather prayes you will be pleas’d to see
One such to day, as other playes should be;
Where neither Chorus wafts you ore the seas;
Nor creaking throne comes downe, the boyes to please;
Nor nimble squibbe is seene, to make afear’d
The gentlewomen; nor roul’d bullet heard,
To say it thunders; nor tempestuous drumme
Rumbles, to tell you when the storme doth come;
But deedes, and language, such as men doe vse,
And persons, such as Comœdie would chuse,
When she would shew an Image of the times,
And sport with humane follies, not with crimes,
Except we make ’hem such, by louing still
Our popular errors, when we know th’ are ill.
I meane such errors as you ’ll all confesse,
By laughing at them, they deserue no lesse:
Which when you heartily doe, there ’s hope left then,
You, that haue so grac’d monsters, may like men.
        From Every Man out of his Humor. Quarto, 1600. (Bodleian Library. Malone, 229.) The play was produced in 1599.

*        *        *        *        *
Mit[is].  In faith this Humor will come ill to some.
  You will be thought to be too peremptorie.
Asp[er].  This Humor? good; and why this Humor, Mitis?
  Nay, doe not turne, but answere.
Mit.  Answere? what?
Asp.  I will not stirre your patience: pardon me,
  I vrg’d it for some reasons, and the rather
  To giue these ignorant wel-spoken daies
  Some tast of their abuse of this word Humor.
Cor[datus].  O, doe not let your purpose fall, good Asper;
  It cannot but arriue most acceptable,
  Chiefely to such as haue the happinesse
  Daily to see how the poore innocent word
  Is rackt and tortur’d.
Mit.  I; I pray you proceed.
Asp.  Ha, what? what is ’t?
Cord.  For the abuse of Humor.
Asp.  O, I craue pardon, I had lost my thoughts.
  Why Humor, as ’tis ens, we thus define it
  To be a quality of aire or water,
  And in it selfe holds these two properties,
  Moisture and Fluxure: As, for demonstration,
  Poure water on this floore, ’twill wet and runne;
  Likewise the aire, forc’t through a home or trumpet,
  Flowes instantly away, and leaues behind
  A kinde of due; and hence we doe conclude,
  That what soe’re hath fluxure and humiditie,
  As wanting power to containe it selfe,
  Is Humor: so in euery humane bodie
  The choller, melancholy, flegme, and bloud,
  By reason that they flow continually
  In some one part, and are not continent,
  Receiue the name of Humors. Now thus farre
  It may, by Metaphore, apply it selfe
  Vnto the generall disposition,
  As when some one peculiar quality
  Doth so possesse a man, that it doth draw
  All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
  In their confluctions all to runne one way,
  This may be truly said to be a Humor.
  But that a Rooke in wearing a pide feather,
  The cable hatband, or the three-pild ruffe,
  A yard of shoe-tie, or the Switzers knot
  On his French garters, should affect a Humor,
  O, tis more than most ridiculous.
Cord.  He speakes pure truth: Now if an Ideot
  Haue but an Apish or Phantasticke straine,
  It is his Humor.
Asp.  Well, I will scourge those apes,
  And to these courteous eies oppose a mirror,
  As large as is the Stage whereon we act,
  Where they shall see the times deformity
  Anatomiz’d in euery Nerue and sinew,
  With constant courage and contempt of feare.
Mit. Asp.  (I vrge it as your friend) take heed;
  The daies are dangerous, full of exception,
  And men are growne impatient of reproofe.
Asp.  Ha, ha!
  You might as well haue told me, yond’ is heauen,
  This earth, these men, and all had mou’d alike.
  Doe not I know the times condition?
  Yes, Mitis; and their soules, and who they be
  That either will or can except against me:
  None but a sort of fooles, so sicke in tast,
  That they contemne all Physicke of the mind,
  And, like gald Camels, kicke at euery touch.
  Good men, and vertuous spirits, that loath their vices,
  Will cherish my free labours, loue my lines,
  And with the feruor of their shining grace
  Make my braine fruitfull to bring forth more obiects
  Worthy their serious and intentiue eies.
  But why enforce I this? as fainting? no.
  If any here chance to behold himselfe,
  Let him not dare to challenge me of wrong;
  For, if he shame to haue his follies knowne,
  First he should shame to act ’hem: my strict hand
  Was made to ceaze on vice, and with a gripe
  Crush out the Humor of such spongie soules,
  As licke vp euery idle vanity.
Cord.  Why, this is right Furor Poeticus.
  Kind gentlemen, we hope your patience
  Will yet conceiue the best, or entertaine
  This supposition, That a madman speakes.
*        *        *        *        *
Mit.  You haue seene his play, Cordatus? pray you, how is ’t?
Cord.  Faith sir, I must refraine to iudge, onely this I can say of it, ’tis strange, and of a perticular kind by it selfe, somewhat like Vetus Comœdia: a worke that hath bounteously pleased me: how it will answere the generall expectation, I know not.
Mit.  Does he obserue all the lawes of Comedie in it?
Cord.  What lawes meane you?
Mit.  Why, the equall diuision of it into Acts and Scenes, according to the Terentian manner; his true number of Actors; the furnishing of the Scene with Grex or Chorus; and that the whole Argument fall within compasse of a daies efficiencie.
Cord.  O no, these are too nice observations.
Mit.  They are such as must be receiued by your fauour, or it cannot be Authentique.
Cord.Troth, I can discerne no such necessitie.
Mit.  No?
Cord.  No, I assure you, signior: if those lawes you speake of had beene deliuered vs ab Initio, and in their present vertue and perfection, there had beene some reason of obeying their powers; but ’tis extant that that which we call Comœdia was at first nothing but a simple and continued Satyre, sung by one only person, till Susario inuented a second; after him, Epicharmus a third; Phormus and Chionides deuised to haue foure Actors, with a Prologue and Chorus; to which Cratinus (long after) added fift and sixt; Eupolis more; Aristophanes more than they: euery man in the dignity of his spirit and iudgement supplied something: and, though that in him this kind of Poeme appeared absolute, and fully perfected, yet how is the face of it chang’d since, in Menander, Philemon, Cecilius, Plautus, and the rest; who haue vtterly excluded the Chorus, altered the property of the persons, their names, and natures, and augmented it with all libertie, according to the elegancie and disposition of those times wherein they wrote. I see not then but wee should enioy the same Licentia or free power to illustrate and heighten our inuention as they did; and not bee tied to those strict and regular formes which the nicenesse of a fewe (who are nothing but Forme) would thrust vpon vs.
Mit.  Well, we will not dispute of this nowe: but what ’s his Scene?
Cor.  Mary, Insula fortunata, Sir.
Mit.  O, the fortunate Iland? masse, he [h]as bound himselfe to a strict law there.
Cor.  Why so?
Mit.  Hee cannot lightly a[l]ter the Scene, without crossing the seas.
Cor.  He needes not, hauing a whole Ilande to runne through, I thinke.
Mit.  No! howe comes it then, that in some one play wee see so manye Seas, Countries, and Kingdomes past ouer with such admirable dexteritie?
Cor.  O, that but shewes how wel the Authors can trauaile in their vocation, and out-run the apprehension of their Auditory. But leauing this, I would they would begin once: this protraction is able to sower the best-settled patience in the Theatre.
        From the Poetaster or The Arraignment, Quarto 1620. (Bodleian Library. Malone, 213.) The play was produced in 1601.

*        *        *        *        *
Ouid.  O sacred Poesy, thou spirit of Arts,
  The soule of Science, and the Queene of Soules,
  What prophane violence, almost sacriledge,
  Hath here beene offered thy Diuinities!
  Hmh! that thine owne guiltlesse Pouerty should arme
  Prodigious Ignorance to wound thee thus!
  For thence is all their force of Argument
  Drawne foorth against thee; or from the abuse
  Of thy great powers in Adultrate braines;
  When, would men learne but to distinguish spirits,
  And set true difference twixt those iaded wits
  That runne a broken pase for common hire,
  And the high Raptures of a happy soule,
  Borne on the winges of her immortall thought,
  That kickes at earth with a disdainefull heele,
  And beates at Heauen gates with her bright hooues;
  They would not then with such distorted faces,
  And dudgeon Censures, stab at Poesy:
  They would admire bright knowledge, and their minds
  Should nere descend on so vnworthy obiects
  As Gould or Titles; they would dread farre more
  To be thought ignorant then be knowne poore.
  The time was once, when wit drownd wealth: but now,
  Your onely Barbarism ’s to haue wit, and want.
  No matter now in vertue who excells,
  He that hath coyne hath all perfection else …
*        *        *        *        *
[Caesar.]  Say then, lou’d Horace, thy true thought of Virgill.
Hor[ace].  I iudge him of a rectified spirit,
  By many reuolutions of discourse
  (In his bright reasons influence) refin’d
  From all the tartarous Moodes of common Men;
  Bearing the Nature and similitude
  Of a right heauenly Bodie; most seuere
  In fashion and collection of himselfe;
  And, then, as cleare and confident as Ioue.
Gal[lus].  And yet so chast and tender is his Eare
  In suffering in any Syllable to passe,
  That he thinkes may become the honour’d name
  Of Issue to his so examin’d selfe,
  That all the lasting fruites of his full merit
  In his owne Poemes he doth still distaste;
  As if his mindes Peece, which he stroue to paint,
  Could not with fleshly Pensils haue her right.
Tibul[lus].  But, to approue his workes of Soueraigne worth,
  This Obseruation (me thinkes) more then serues,
  And is not vulgar. That which he hath writ
  Is with such iudgement labour’d, and distill’d
  Through all the needefull vses of our liues,
  That could a man remember but his Lines,
  He should not touch at any serious point,
  But he might breath his spirit out of him.
Cæsar.  You meane, he might repeat part of his workes,
  As fit for any conference he can vse?
Tib.  Trew, Royall Cæsar.
Cæsar.  ’Tis worthily obseru’d:
  And a most worthie vertue in his workes.
  What thinks Materiall Horace of his learning?
Hor.  His Learning labours not the Schoole-like Glosse,
  That most consists in Ecchoing Wordes and Termes,
  And soonest wins a man an Empty name;
  Nor any long or far-fetcht Circumstance,
  Wrapt in the curious General’ties of Artes;
  But a direct and Analyticke Summe
  Of all the worth and first effectes of Artes.
  And for his Poësie, ’tis so ramm’d with Life,
  That it shall gather strength of Life with being,
  And liue hereafter, more admir’d then now.
Cæsar.  This one consent in all your doomes of him,
  And mutuall Loues of all your seuerall merits,
  Argues a truth of merit in you all….
*        *        *        *        *
Virgill.  Before you goe together, worthy Romanes,
  We are to tender our Opinion,
  And giue you those Instructions that may adde
  Vnto your euen Iudgement in the Cause;
  Which thus we doe Commence. First, you must know
  That where there is a true and perfect Merit,
  There can be no Deiection; and the Scorne
  Of humble Basenesse oftentimes so workes
  In a high Soule vpon the grosser Spirit,
  That to his bleared and offended Sense
  There seemes a hideous Fault blaz’d in the Obiect,
  When only the Disease is in his Eyes.
  Here-hence it comes our Horace now stands taxt
  Of Impudence, Selfe-loue, and Arrogance,
  By these who share no merit in themselues,
  And therefore thinke his Portion is as small.
  For they, from their owne guilt, assure their Soules,
  If they should confidently praise their workes,
  In them it would appeare Inflation;
  Which, in a full and well-digested man,
  Cannot receiue that foule abusiue name,
  But the faire Title of Erection.
  And, for his trewe vse of translating Men,
  It still hath beene a worke of as much Palme
  In clearest Iudgements as t’inuent or make.
  His sharpnesse—that is most excusable;
  As being forc’t out of a suffering Vertue,
  Oppressed with the Licence of the Time;
  And howsoeuer Fooles, or Ierking Pedants,
  Players, or such like Buffonary wits,
  May with their beggerly and barren trash
  Tickle base vulgar eares, in their despight.
  This, like Ioues Thunder, shall their pride controule.
  ‘The honest Satyre hath the happiest Soule.’
  Now, Romanes, you haue heard our thoughts. Withdrawe, when you please.
[Demetrius and Crispinus having been placed on trial, the former confesses that mere envy had been his motive, and is forgiven by Horace. To the latter Horace’s pills ‘mixt with the whitest kind of hellebore’ are given to
His braine and stomach of those tumorous heats.’
The victim, like Lucian’s Lexiphanes, rids himself painfully of his rhetorical jargon (‘terrible windy words’), and the scene proceeds—]
Virgill.  These Pilles can but restore him for a Time;
  Not cure him quite of such a Malady,
  Caught by so many surfets, which haue fild
  His Blood and Braine thus full of Crudities:
  ’Tis necessary, therefore, he obserue
  A strict and holsome Diet. Looke you take
  Each morning of old Catoes Principles
  A good draught next your heart; that walke vpon,
  Till it be well digested: Then come home
  And taste a piece of Terence; sucke his Phrase
  In steede of Licorice; and, at any hand,
  Shun Plautus and old Ennius; they are meates
  Too harsh for a weake Stomacke. Vse to read
  (But not without a Tutor) the best Greekes,
  As Orpheus, Musæus, Pindarus,
  Hesiod, Callimachus, and Theocrite,
  High Homer; but beware of Lycophron;
  He is too darke and dangerous a Dish.
  You must not hunt for wild out-landish Termes,
  To stuffe out a peculiar Dialect;
  But let your Matter runne before your Words.
  And if, at any time, you chaunce to meete
  Some Gallo-Belgick Phrase, you shall not straight
  Racke your poor Verse to giue it entertainement,
  But let it passe: and doe not thinke your selfe
  Much damnified, if you doe leaue it out,
  When nor your Vnderstanding nor the Sense
  Could well receiue it. This faire Abstinence,
  In time, will render you more sound and Cleare.
  And thus haue I prescrib’d to you, in place
  Of a strict Sentence: which till he performe,
  Attire him in that Robe. And hence-forth learne
  To beare your selfe more humbly; not to swell,
  Or breath your insolent and idle Spight
  On him whose Laughter can your worst affright.

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