Ben Jonson


Ben Jonson : biography

c. 11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637

The proliferation of new critical perspectives after mid-century touched on Jonson inconsistently. Jonas Barish was the leading figure among critics who appreciated Jonson’s artistry. On the other hand, Jonson received less attention from the new critics than did some other playwrights and his work was not of programmatic interest to psychoanalytic critics. But Jonson’s career eventually made him a focal point for the revived sociopolitical criticism. Jonson’s works, particularly his masques and pageants, offer significant information regarding the relations of literary production and political power, as do his contacts with and poems for aristocratic patrons; moreover, his career at the centre of London’s emerging literary world has been seen as exemplifying the development of a fully commodified literary culture. In this respect he is seen as a transitional figure, an author whose skills and ambition led him to a leading role both in the declining culture of patronage and in the rising culture of mass consumption.


Jonson has been called ‘the first poet laureate’.Schmidt, Michael, Lives of the Poets, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1998 ISBN 9780753807453 If Jonson’s reputation as a playwright has traditionally been linked to Shakespeare, his reputation as a poet has, since the early 20th century, been linked to that of John Donne. In this comparison, Jonson represents the cavalier strain of poetry, emphasising grace and clarity of expression; Donne, by contrast, epitomised the metaphysical school of poetry, with its reliance on strained, baroque metaphors and often vague phrasing. Since the critics who made this comparison (Herbert Grierson for example), were to varying extents rediscovering Donne, this comparison often worked to the detriment of Jonson’s reputation.

In his time Jonson was at least as influential as Donne. In 1623, historian Edmund Bolton named him the best and most polished English poet. That this judgment was widely shared is indicated by the admitted influence he had on younger poets. The grounds for describing Jonson as the "father" of cavalier poets are clear: many of the cavalier poets described themselves as his "sons" or his "tribe". For some of this tribe, the connection was as much social as poetic; Herrick described meetings at "the Sun, the Dog, the Triple Tunne". All of them, including those like Herrick whose accomplishments in verse are generally regarded as superior to Jonson’s, took inspiration from Jonson’s revival of classical forms and themes, his subtle melodies, and his disciplined use of wit. In these respects Jonson may be regarded as among the most important figures in the prehistory of English neoclassicism.

The best of Jonson’s lyrics have remained current since his time; periodically, they experience a brief vogue, as after the publication of Peter Whalley’s edition of 1756. Jonson’s poetry continues to interest scholars for the light which it sheds on English literary history, such as politics, systems of patronage, and intellectual attitudes. For the general reader, Jonson’s reputation rests on a few lyrics that, though brief, are surpassed for grace and precision by very few Renaissance poems: "On My First Sonne"; "To Celia"; "To Penshurst"; and the epitaph on boy player Solomon Pavy.

His work


Apart from two tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline, that largely failed to impress Renaissance audiences, Jonson’s work for the public theatres was in comedy. These plays vary in some respects. The minor early plays, particularly those written for boy players, present somewhat looser plots and less-developed characters than those written later, for adult companies. Already in the plays which were his salvos in the Poet’s War, he displays the keen eye for absurdity and hypocrisy that marks his best-known plays; in these early efforts, however, plot mostly takes second place to variety of incident and comic set-pieces. They are, also, notably ill-tempered. Thomas Davies called Poetaster "a contemptible mixture of the serio-comic, where the names of Augustus Caesar, Maecenas, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Tibullus, are all sacrificed upon the altar of private resentment." Another early comedy in a different vein, The Case is Altered, is markedly similar to Shakespeare’s romantic comedies in its foreign setting, emphasis on genial wit, and love-plot. Henslowe’s diary indicates that Jonson had a hand in numerous other plays, including many in genres such as English history with which he is not otherwise associated.