Ben Jonson – Biography| Literary Life

Author Feature: Ben Jonson

Of the new doctrine of drama after Elizabeth I’s death, the great apostle was Ben Jonson. Burly, big-featured, out of sturdy common stock of the Scotch border, once a bricklayer, through solid literary achievement and force of personality he rose, still in his thirties, to be a favorite of King and Court, and made warm friends and furious enemies on every hand. Within him still burned the Renaissance passions, and he had enormous capacity for both love and hate. Twice he killed his man in single combat.

He had the mental capacity and memory of a great scholar as well as the prolific genius of a poet, but his creations reflect a twofold power. His great works are caricatures of the literal life of London, high and low, vigorous and satirical, yet he made out of old myths and legends many a masque most exquisitely wrought and finished.

He was born about 1573, nine years Shakespeare’s junior, and got formal education at Westminster; he missed the University, but being a genius he doubtless owed much of his erudition to himself and to one who believed in him, William Camden, learned friend of Spenser, master in Westminster,

Camden! most reverend head, to whom I owe
All that I am in arts, all that I know.

King James, himself a pedant, loved a learned man, and though he could not wholly appreciate the best of Jonson, welcomed him in the Court. There he had many friends, including the lamented Prince Henry of Wales, and in the ten years or so after 1604 turned out one successful comedy after another, and was in constant demand for masques and entertainments to celebrate progresses, visits, weddings, and feasts of the great. He was England’s first poet-laureate.

The last twelve years of his life, when his royal patron was dead, and Charles I reigned, for whom perhaps Jonson’s product was too robust, were a pitiful season of failing health and powers, poverty, and seeing himself out of date. His great library, one of the finest collections in England, was burned, and about him like an old dog at bay came snarling younger and more prosperous enemies. Yet he had also a strong and devoted following of young literary disciples whom he called “the tribe of Ben,” and when he died he may have been aware of having established a great literary tradition, which was to prevail for a century and more after him.

It was an ancient and medieval theory of physiology that man is made of four humors or liquids, and that if these are tempered in equal parts, he is of even temperament; but if one exceeds the others, it makes him peculiar; if his sanguis or blood prevails, he is sanguine; if phlegm, he is phlegmatic; if melancholy, or black bile, he is melancholy; if chole, or bile, he is choleric. Thus “humor” came to mean eccentricity.

In the comedy of “humors” a single character stands for some eccentricity, like the grump, the big bluff, the dandy, the cheerful liar, and such; the humor still reappears on occasion to enliven a musical extravaganza. Before Jonson, in Shakespeare and Chapman, one finds traces of humors; but Jonson professed the humors as his special doctrine, and went back to Latin comedy for his originals. The name of a person indicates his humor, and in the play the character lives up, or down, to his name. Fastidious Brisk, in Every Man Out of His Humor, is, as one might guess, “a neat, spruce, affecting courtier.” Sir Politick Would-be, in Volpone, Morose, in The Silent Woman, “a gentleman that loves no noise,” Sir Epicure Mammon, in The Alchemist, and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, a hypocritical Puritan in Bartholomew Fair, are “humorous.” It is but a step from such fun to allegorical satire, and Jonson, with his belief in the moral value of poetry, made lively use of this terrible instrument to satirize the fools and knaves on every hand, especially in the Court, and to carry on his invidious war with the other poets and playwrights, Dekker, Marston, and Daniel; though both parties surely realized the advertising value of the quarrel, and were glad to keep it up in the interests of good business more than spite. Every Man Out of His Humor, Cynthia’s Revels, and The Poetaster are scathing.

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The scene of Jonson’s comedies is never Illyria or the seacoast of Bohemia; it is London. The street-cries, the shops, the scamps, the hurlyburly, households of gentry or of solid, trading middle class, fairs and freaks, pedants–all mingle to make Jonson’s teeming, restless, smelly, noisy London. No glamorous half light of romance, but brutal broad daylight floods his stage with reality.

His greatest comedies are Volpone (The Fox), in which a rich old rascal swindles his expectant flatterers, and is brought to justice; The Alchemist, a grand exhibit of imposture on all hands; and Bartholomew Fair, showing the amenities of low life, and certain curious “respectables” getting their fingers burnt thereby. They are full of noisy fools and knaves, but not handled by a hopeless cynic.

The fun of these plays is no longer appreciated, but it is there; and intelligent, resourceful acting will reveal it. The lines abound in opportunity for the actor, and are racy with the strong, pungent flavor of Jonson’s Elizabethan English. Often they glow with the deep fire of his poetry. They are the work of a practical stage artist who knew his audience and his business; and though their contemporaneous satire and slang and allusion have faded with time, and they may seem dull to the reader, acting brightens their colors and sets them in motion again.

Jonson also attempted two Roman tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline, doubtless encouraged by the success of Julius Caesar. A certain oratorical grandeur they have, and are carefully based on ancient histories; but mere learning does not insure dramatic Success.

The charm of Jonson is in his masques and entertainments, of which he devised more than thirty.

The English masque was a court entertainment of both native and foreign stock. The old Christmas “mummings” and “disguisings” at Court went back to Chaucer’s time, but in the days of Henry VIII they met the Italian masque imported from France, and the French masque originally Italian. Henceforth the masque became essentially a grand entry of courtiers masked and costumed, who at the end of their little action chose partners from the audience for the dance to follow. Through Elizabeth’s time, as wealth increased, the masque developed, always in mutually helpful relation to other literature–the allegory of the morality, the pageantry of Spenser’s Faery Oueen. the plays of Lyly, Peele, and Shakespeare. Its heyday was the reigns of James I and Charles I, the first forty years of the seventeenth century, and its high priest was Jonson.

Architects, designers, professional dancers and singers, composers of music and words all worked together, until, in the days of Charles and the architect Inigo Jones, the masques became unwieldy with extravagance and an easy mark of Puritan disapproval. Yet no doubt the arts of stage-setting and of the opera owe much to the development of the masque.

Jonson’s masques are masterly ingenious miniatures made of bits of old myth, allegory, quaint or recondite lore, highly flavored with learning for the royal palate – a bit too highly for ours.

His Oberon in honor of his friend Prince Henry opens in pitch darkness. A rising moon shows a wild rocky place in the woods, satyrs peep forth one by one, and with grotesque but exquisite dance, song, and dialogue search for their adored Oberon. The forest dissolves into a gorgeous palace ablaze and a whirl with dancing and singing fays, beyond and above whom are grouped the court ladies and gentlemen as maskers, and in apotheosis the Prince as Oberon. He descends in a bear-drawn chariot among the fays and satyrs, amid songs, fine speeches, and ballet, in which he and the maskers mingle in “measures, corantos, galliards, etc.,” until the morning star and the dawn (probably real) break the spell, and they separate with a last song. With modern equipment what might not such a show have been!

This grotesque and burlesque element of the satyrs was a device of Jonson’s own. It is known as the antimasque, and serves as foil and racy Jonsonian antidote to mere airy-fairyness, into which the masque might easily have evaporated.

But Jonson is never more the poet than in his songs. Most of them are incidental to masques and plays, and are mainly in the tradition of full-throated Elizabethan lyric.

Elizabethan poetry of any sort could never have been the glorious thing it was, had not the loveliest music of modern times been continuously ringing in the poet’s and the people’s ear. There were no music machines, and no highly artificialized professionals; everyone did his own singing and revelled in the wealth of song written for parts, madrigals, canzonets, motets –some of it most intricate, wherein words and music perfectly agreed

In notes with many a winding bout
Of linked sweetness long drawn out
With wanton heed and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running,
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony.

No man was a gentleman who could not “sing his part sure and at first sight withall.” England was vibrant too with “airs,” single melodies for songs. Dowland, Weelkes, Byrd, Gibbons, Ferrabosco, were among the great composers, but much of the melody was anonymous and traditional. So too were many of the lyrics. It need surprise no one that, however mediocre a poet might be in other respects, the language and music of the times enabled him to write a first-rate song.

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Thomas Campion wrote both words and music, meanwhile practising physic, and published them in several books of “airs.” He is a major songster in all the anthologies, where one is sure to find his “When to her lute Corinna sings” and “The man of life upright.”

But Jonson with his learning subtly modified the artless Elizabethan lyric. Imbued as he was in the Greek and Latin anthologies, in the epigram of Martial and the ode of Horace, his songs, while not less singable, show art of arrangement, sense, and order. Nothing can outdo the cleverness with which he turned an old Latin epigram, “Semper munditias,” “Still to be neat, still to be drest,” into a song for The Silent IVoman; or fishing up some obscure passages out of certain unfamiliar Greek prose letters, made the immortal “Drink to me only with thine eyes” for its inseparable tune, probably revamped by Colonel Mellish out of an old melody. In such rare combination of learned art with native English song he unawares taught the lyric poets of the seventeenth century to sing, and founded “the tribe of Ben.”

In comedy and in song English Literature learned from him. But his “school” ‘,vent further. He set the illustrious precedent for that “art” form, the Pindaric ode, a tradition descending through no less than Cowley, Dryden, Gray, Wordsworth, and Shelley.

In his vigorous epigrams, epistles, satires, and elegies we meet the first expert use of the “heroic” couplet as the instrument of which Pope was to become the supreme master. Jonson, disciple of Horace, and satirist, knows how to fit his sententious meaning into its neat and even mould, has discovered its deep and measured music, its balance and symmetry. He may be accepted as the inventor of the metrical mouthpiece for the coming Age of Sense.

The dimensions of this burly poet are somewhat lost in the spreading shadow of Shakespeare, and in his preoccupation with matters peculiar to his times. His defects are only too easy to see. That is why so many dilate on his overweight of learning, his want of sympathy and charm, and are hardly aware of his fire, his vigor, his virile actuality, his delicate artistry, and his fertile originality as shown in his powerful shaping of literary traditions.

Live to that point I will, for which I am man,
And dwell as in my centre, as I can,
Still looking to, and ever loving heaven;
With reverence using all the gifts thence given:
‘Mongst which, if I have any friendships sent,
Such as are square, well-tagged, and permanent,
Not built with canvas, paper, and false lights,
As are the glorious scenes at the great sights: . . .
But all so clear, and led by Reason’s flame,
As but to stumble in her sight were shame;
These I will honour, love, embrace, and serve,
And free it from all question to preserve ….
First give me faith, who know
Myself a little; I will take you so,
As you have writ yourself: now stand, and then,
Sir, you are Sealed of the Tribe of Ben.