The Magazine

In Shakespeare’s Shadow

A splendid life of rare Ben Jonson.

Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Sometime after his return to London in 1592, Jonson entered the theater, where he would write Every Man in His Humour (1598), Every Man out of His Humour (1599), Sejanus (1603), Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610), The Devil Is an Ass (1616), and Staple of News (1626), among others which have not survived. The last is a satire on the first stirrings of what would become journalism, which Jonson assessed with prescient wit, speaking of it as “the House of Fame”:

Where both the curious and the negligent,

The scrupulous and careless, wild and staid,

The idle and laborious, all do meet

To taste the cornupcopiae of her rumours

Which she, the mother of sport, pleaseth to scatter

Among the vulgar. Baits, sir, for the people!

And they will bite like fishes.

As a result of his lost play, The Isle of Dogs (1597), Jonson was imprisoned. A year later, he was nearly sent to the gallows for killing a man. In jail, he converted to Roman Catholicism after meeting with a Jesuit. In 1610, after 12 years as a papist, he rejoined the Church of England, though Drummond characterized his friend as “For any religion, as being versed in both.”

In 1594, Jonson married Anne Lewis, whom he described to Drummond with acerb succinctness as “a shrew yet honest.” In 1603, Jonson lost his son Benjamin, which inspired some of his most moving lines: Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry. In 1633, when his good friend and patroness Venetia Digby was found dead of a cerebral hemorrhage, Jonson confessed, Twere time that I died too now that she is dead / Who was my muse, and life of all I said. Here is his usual eloquent economy combined with deep personal feeling that made Jonson so beloved of later poets, from Herrick and Dryden to Coleridge and Swinburne.

Then, again, no other English poet mines classical models as sedulously or as inventively. Tradition was never a set of oppressive precedents for him but a summons to rethink the past in terms of the present, and vice versa. This was the aspect of Jonson that made him so congenial not only to Eliot but Joyce, who read Jonson very closely. The author of Ulysses (1922), after all, used classical scaffolding to rear his vision of Edwardian Dublin in much the same way that Jonson used such scaffolding to rear his vision of Jacobean London, especially in Sejanus.

Eliot saw this before Joyce published Ulysses when he observed how “in order to enjoy [Jonson] at all, we must get to the centre of his work and .  .  . see him unbiased by time, as a contemporary. And to see him as a contemporary does not so much require the power of putting ourselves into seventeenth-century London as it requires the power of setting Jonson in our London”—or our Washington, as the case may be. Certainly, when we read Volpone in light of the dishonor that characterizes so much of our own age, it is not difficult to see the playwright as a very trenchant contemporary indeed, especially when he has Corvino exclaim, Honour? tut, a breath / There’s no such thing in nature; a mere term / Invented to awe fools.

Speaking of Jonson’s career as a whole, Swinburne was full of admiration: “There is something heroic and magnificent in his lifelong dedication of all his gifts and all his powers to the service of the art he had elected as the business of all his life and the aim of all his aspiration.” Proof of this is in the work itself. However, despite its range and power, it has not always been given the due it deserves.

Indeed, if after the death of Shakespeare, whom Jonson confessed to admiring “this side idolatry,” there was no poet in England who enjoyed greater esteem than Jonson, after his own death in 1637 his reputation began to decline. The 18th century found Jonson a sort of bungling Waller and the 19th only read him to compare him unfavorably with Shakespeare. It was not until Yeats, Pound, and Eliot paid him mind that he and his work began to receive renewed critical attention. Hugh Kenner added to this belated acclaim when he wrote of how Jonson

attached himself to a company of actors, began writing plays, got into trouble more than once with the law, even carried to his grave the hangman’s brand on his thumb; but never amid the twistings and turnings of a merely picturesque existence lost sight of his self-imposed obligation to reform the English stage according to the best models, and simultaneously to establish in his own person, the dignity of the profession of letters.