Benjamin Jonson was born on this date in 1572 in Westminster, England. We are so fortunate to have had a new biography and a new edition of his complete works appear in the last year; perhaps at last he will have a place in the popular imagination equal, if not to Shakespeare’s, at least to his own deserving.
Legacy was all to Jonson. He was obsessed with how he would be remembered and read after he was gone – an unusual attitude for a poet in his time. Jonson was the first major author to self-publish his own collected works in 1616. It seems quite clear that Jonson’s Works were the impetus for Shakespeare’s colleagues to publish a compendium of his plays seven years later in 1623.
So why is it that Ben Jonson, a man who singlehandedly spawned a poetic industry, who was the anointed court poet for King James I, who was the most famous author of his age, is so little read today? Literary critics from the 18th century onward have contrasted Jonson and Shakespeare as the poets of intellect and emotion, respectively. John Dryden said of the two, “I admire Jonson, but I love Shakespeare.” In my experience as a teacher, this seems to be a common reaction on the part of students who read both authors. I had a similar outcome when I taught a seminar on Jonson and John Donne, a poet with whom Jonson had much more in common than with Shakespeare, including a birth year. My Jonson/Donne students, asked to write a short final essay on which of the two poets they would continue to read after the course was over and why, overwhelmingly chose Donne.
I can understand. The exuberant passion and playfulness that Shakespeare and Donne share in their poetic styles is muted and rigidly controlled in Jonson. Ben’s own contemporaries joked that “Shakespeare’s works are plays, but Jonson’s plays are work.” Not that Donne is easy to read – far from it. Even Jonson predicted, “Donne[‘s poems], for not being understood, would perish.” But perhaps it all comes down – as many things do – to sex.
Donne’s poems reward the attentive reader with provocative meditations on sexual passion and the mysteries of carnality. Shakespeare’s extravagant lovers have become the models for countless romantic tales. Jonson presents young lovers only as plot devices, reserving his detailed characterizations for conmen and witty manipulators.
I don’t think it was because Jonson was not interested in love, however. I think it was because he didn’t think poetry – a form he valued for its control and refinement – could represent something as messy and boundless as human love. Jonson, unlike Donne and Shakespeare, drew a clear boundary between the heart and the head. Not that he didn’t value the heart – in fact, he valued it so highly that he didn’t think poetry could capture it adequately.
In this, he expressed the values of his own age, but these values were supplanted in later years by the ideals of the Romantics, who passionately argued that the heart and the head were not and should not be separate from one another. They embraced Shakespeare as their patron saint at the same time that they created the English Literary Canon.
It’s too bad. What I love about Jonson’s works is exactly what makes them less successful on the stage – you can see Jonson in each of his characters, hear his own fierce intellect in each of his lines. To read Jonson is to know the man. Shakespeare, trained as actor, famously disappeared within his characters – there is no poetic personality, it seems, standing between us and Hamlet, Cleopatra, Macbeth, Lear, Juliet. Each character lives his or her own life. But Volpone, Face, Subtle, Adam Overdo, Pug the Devil – all these characters are aspects of Jonson himself, birthed whole from his forehead. You have to love Jonson himself to love his characters, and he was not an easy man to love. He was belligerent, adulterous, arrogant, insecure, self-destructive – “passionately kind and angry,” as his friend William Drummond put it, “a great lover and praiser of himself, a condemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the elements in which he liveth).” However, he never stopped trying to make himself and his world a better place. He also never hesitated to admit his own failures to do so. I love Shakespeare and Donne for their art, but I love Jonson, in all his messy humanity, for himself.
The poem that clinched it for me was this one, in which Jonson worries that the woman he met and fell for in Scotland found him too fat and ugly to love. He wishes that she could love him like she loves his words:
I now think, Love is rather deaf than blind,
For else it could not be,
Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
And cast my suit behind:
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence of as subtil feet,
As hath the youngest he
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.
Oh! but my conscious fears,
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs
Told seven and forty years,
Read so much waste as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face,
And all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.
These are the words of a man who knows himself, and his value, even when the rest of the world doesn’t.