Analysis of Ben Jonson’s Poems

Until the last few decades, attention to Ben Jonson’s (1572-1637) poetry focused largely on the famous songs and the moving epitaphs on children. Such choices were not ill-advised, but they are unrepresentative. The works in these modes certainly rank among Jonson’s most successful, but they differ in tone from Jonson’s norm.

Songs such as “Kiss me, sweet: the wary lover” and “Drink to me only with thine eyes” evoke emotions beyond the world of reason or fact, partly through reference to extravagant gestures and implausible experiences: hundreds and thousands of kisses, a wreath that will not die after the beloved has breathed on it. Through rhythms that are stronger and less interrupted than Jonson usually created, the songs activate the capacity to respond sensually and irrationally to language. Some of them create magical secret worlds where sense and emotion are to be experienced in disregard of troubling or qualifying context (the “silent summer nights/ When youths ply their stol’n delights” in “Kiss me, sweet: the wary lover”). Exactly such worlds are created, but also subjected to critique, in Volpone and The Alchemist.

The epitaphs, particularly those on Jonson’s own children (“On My First Son,” “On My First Daughter”) are so effective because in them subjective emotions strain against rational conviction. Jonson’s statement in each of these poems is doctrinal and exemplary, involving resignation to the will of God, but part of the power of the affirmation of belief arises from Jonson’s undertone of grief over which faith has won out. Regret and despair have not been reasoned away but are being rationally controlled; consolation is not easy.

Such richly concentrated poems obviously deserve attention; that they should have received exposure to the virtual exclusion of Jonson’s less lyrical or emotive verse, however, perhaps represents a holdover from Romantic or Victorian taste for rhapsodic expressions of feeling and imaginative vision in poetry. In fact, the renewal of contact with the Metaphysical sensibility achieved by T. S. Eliot and other critics in the 1920’sand 1930’s, which brought about the displacement of Victorian approaches to a number of seventeenth century writers, did not do so, immediately or directly, in the case of Jonson as a nondramatic poet. Some of Jonson’s works are recognizably close to the secular reaches of John Donne’s writing, but the speaker’s psychological self-discovery through metaphor, so often the business of a Donne poem, is only occasionally Jonson’s way. The contrast is especially clear between Jonson’s poetic range and the realm of the meditative, intense, often all but private Metaphysical religious lyric. Jonson wrote very few strictly devotional poems; the ode “To Heaven” is probably the only strikingly successful work that could bear that label. In poems such as the ode to Sir Lucius Caryand Sir Henry Morison and the funeral elegies, where the afterlife is mentioned, the relation of humanity as such to divinity is not the real focus of attention. The poems involve tensions mainly between diverse human levels, between more ordinary experience on one hand and, on the other, an excellence or superiority of nature that Cary, Morison, Lady Jane Pawlet, and the other exemplary figures achieve.

At most, only on the peripheries of Jonson’s nondramatic verse can it be seen to approximate pure emotive lyricism, or can it be cast in Metaphysical terms. Only in the late twentieth century did criticism achieve a modern reunderstanding of Jonson’s achievement, involving a strongly positive evaluation of his central, typical poetic work. Jonson emerges in this criticism as decisively a neoclassic artist, the intellectual background of whose poetry is Renaissance humanism.

ben jonson


Jonson appears as a humanistic thinker in Timber, and his career reflected humanistic motivations and aspirations. Fundamentally, Jonson conceived of learning, thought, and language as phases of people’s active life. Humanists conceived of education as the initiation of patterns of wise and effective behavior in the student’s life. Humanistic education was largely linguistic because of the traditional importance of the persuasive linguistic act, the centrality of oratory (or, for the Renaissance, the counseling of the prince and nobles) in the repertory of practical, political skills. Patterns both of moral behavior in general and of speech specifically were normally learned through imitation of the deeds and words of figures from the past; for most humanists, and very definitely for Jonson, this did not mean that modern men were supposed to become mere apes of their predecessors, but rather that, through first following models, men should exercise and organize their own capacities to a point where they could emulate and rival the ancients, becoming effective on their own terms as the ancients were on theirs.

As a nonaristocratic humanist in a stratified society, Jonson essentially followed a pattern marked out since the time of Thomas More and Thomas Elyot early in the preceding century when he attached himself to noble households and the court. Debarred by birth from directly wielding the largest measure of power in his society, he engaged in action obliquely by speaking to the powerful, counseling and offering praise to encourage the elite in the wise conduct of life and authority. This was the light in which Jonson saw his masques, not only as celebrations, but also as reminders of ideals, such as justice, which should inform the court’s activity. A great many of Jonson’s moralizing poems addressed to noblemen and others also clearly exhibited actual hortatory intent.

Jonson’s thought includes, as one might expect, special factors that set it off somewhat from humanism as it appears in other contexts. For one thing, while Jonson was not an unbeliever, it is certainly true that his humanism does not merge clearly and continuously into moralistic, pastoral Christianity, as had that of Desiderius Erasmus a hundred years before. The ethical universe of Timber is one of Roman, not obtrusively Christian, virtues; if anything, Jonson looks forward to later secular rationalism. Another characteristic of Jonson’s humanism is the trace of influence from Seneca and Roman Stoicism, apparent in his writing, as elsewhere in early seventeenth century English expression. A main effect of Senecan influence on Jonson seems to have been to encourage a concern with and regard for what can best be called integrity; that is, the correlation of an individual’s behavior with his inner nature rather than with outward circumstance. Such concern naturally belonged with the Senecan concept of specifically linguistic behavior that Timber expresses—a heightened awareness of style as emerging from and conveying an image of the “inmost” self.

Jonson’s neoclassic verse is the poetic cognate of his quite secular, somewhat Senecan version of humanism. Splitting the relation into separate aspects only for the sake of analysis, one can say that in form Jonson’s poems are above all linguistic acts, the talk of a persona to an implied (often, a designated) human audience. In content, the poems are orderings of levels or modes of human behavior.


Jonson’s “An Epistle answering to One that asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben” is identified by its title in terms of the act of communication that it imitates, the letter. Relatively few of Jonson’s titles actually include the word “epistle,” but many of them involve, or even simply consist of, the designation of an addressee—“To Katherine Lady Aubigny,” “To Sir Robert Wroth,” and so on. Thus the reader is asked to be aware of many of Jonson’s poems not primarily in terms of any myths they may relate or images they may invoke, but as linguistic action, the linguistic behavior of a human speaker toward a human audience.

The fiction of speaker and audience is not an inert element but has an impact on the poem’s other aspects. Many qualities of style are conditioned by the character of the addressee and his relation to the speaker. In the “Epistle to Master John Selden,” the speaker states that he feels free to use a curt, “obscure,” at times almost telegraphic style because “I know to whom I write”: He knows that Selden is not only intelligent but also at home with the speaker’s ways of thinking. Generally, the grandiloquence, expansiveness, and elaborate structure of public oratory will rarely be appropriate for an epistle or other poem addressed by one person to another.

Jonson’s style in “An Epistle answering to One that asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben” is fairly typical of that in a number of his poems. His diction is generally colloquial; Edmund Bolton’s characterization of Jonson’s “vital, judicious and practicable language” (in Edmund Bolton’s Hypercritica, c. 1618) is an excellent general description of the style. Syntactic units in Jonson’s poems are by and large brief and stopped abruptly so that one jumps (or stumbles) from clause to clause rather than making easy transitions. Units are typically not paired or otherwise arranged symmetrically in relation to one another. The effect in “An Epistle answering to One that asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben” is one of rather blurting, unpremeditated speech, propelled by some emotional pressure. Structurally, too, the poem seems unpremeditated, beginning with appropriate introductory comments to the wouldbe disciple to whom Ben is writing, then falling away into contemptuous griping about phony elements in Jonson’s society, circling down into what reads like underlying anxiety about Jonson’s personal situation—and coming through this human situation to a now almost heroic assertion of what it means to be Ben or one sealed of his tribe.

In other poems, the style varies, within a generally informal range. Jonson’s meaning can in fact be obscure when the syntax is very broken or a great deal of meaning is concentrated in one phrase; the effect is often that of a rather impatient intelligence, not using more words than it needs to communicate meaning to its immediate addressee. In extreme cases, the reader may feel like an outsider reading a communication not meant for him (see, for example, the “Epistle to Sir Edward Sackville”). Such privacy, immured by style, sets Jonson off somewhat from Augustan neoclassic writers such as Alexander Pope, who usually engage in smoother and more public address.

Titling the poem an epistle, besides drawing attention to its character as a linguistic act, also of course associates it with a generic tradition. Seneca was the most influential classical practitioner of the moral epistle as a prose form, Horace of the form in verse. Jonson’s epistles and many of his other poems evoke these authors’ works in content and style, sometimes through specific allusion. Clearly related to classical tradition, yet utterly topical and personal (with its references to the politics of “Spain or France” and to Jonson’s employment as a writer of masques), “An Epistle answering to One that asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben” is a successful act of humanistic imitation. Overt reference to tradition reveals the moral statement of Jonson’s poetry in relation to the whole body of classical moral wisdom—and implies that Jonson is not afraid of the juxtaposition.

The particular wisdom of this poem is conveyed most clearly in the description of the course of conduct Jonson has “decreed” for himself, which comes after the middle of the poem’s descriptions of a social environment of indulgence of appetite, empty talk, and illusory “Motions.” Jonson’s resolve is to “Live to that point . . . for which I am man/And dwell as in my Center as I can.” The image is one of withdrawal from concern for meaningless external situations; it is also a picture of a life standing in relation to some firm, definite principle, as opposed to the poem’s earlier images of unfounded judgments and groundless chatter.

The ideas of withdrawal and of a “Center” within the personality are clearly reminiscent of Seneca and Horace. The most characteristic aspect of the poem’s meaning is that it consists of definitions not so much of the ideal principle itself as of the behavior that is or is not oriented to it. Jonson is not much concerned with describing the Center except as such, as a point from which surrounding space takes orientation. He is concerned with describing centeredness, and distinguishing it from shapeless and unfocused conditions; or, to return from geometry to humanity, with describing what it is like to operate on a firm moral basis, and distinguishing this from the “wild Anarchy” in which those outside the Tribe of Ben live.

The focus on behavior that is or is not guided, rather than on the available guiding transcendent principle, corresponds to the specifically secular emphasis of Jonson’s humanism. There is an almost (though certainly not quite) agnostic quality in Jonson’s almost interchangeable references to the “point,” the “Center,” “heaven,” and “reason” as the source of his wisdom and strength. Clearly it is the exemplification of those qualities in life that interests him. Such an interest makes Jonson stand out as strikingly modern against the backdrop, for example, of the highly articulated ideal world of Edmund Spenser; it links Jonson forward to the essence of English neoclassicism, such as in Pope’s ethically oriented satires and moral essays.

It should be noted that the movement toward the Center involves choice and effort: Jonson must decree it to himself, and even those who have been once sealed to the tribe of Ben have still to fear the shame of possibly stumbling in reason’s sight. For good or evil, no destiny holds Jonson’s human beings in place. The ideal principle is only vaguely defined; it is merely an available, not a controlling, factor.


Like the epistles and other more or less epistolary longer poems, Jonson’s epigrams are, in form, primarily linguistic acts. They are comments “on” or “to” someone. They are self-consciously brief remarks, aiming to capture the essence of a character—sometimes, implicitly, to reduce an object to its true dimensions (many of Jonson’s epigrams are satirical).

The epigrammatic mode is closely related to the epistolary in Jonson’s practice and in the tradition out of which he writes. Martial, the Roman epigrammatist whom Jonson regularly imitated, conceived of his works as epistles in brief. Jonson’s style has the same constituents. The broken syntax sometimes seems part of epigrammatic compression; sometimes it promotes a casualness that is part of Jonson’s reduction and dismissal of a satirized personality, as in epigram 21 (“On Reformed Gamester”).

The pentameter couplets in which Jonson writes not only the epigrams but also the great bulk of his neoclassic verse are derived partly from normal English practice for non-lyric poetry going back through Geoffrey Chaucer. They are also, however, influenced by a classical form, the elegiac distich—a prosodic vehicle used by, among others, Martial. Readily recognizable and essentially symmetrical, the form tends to stand as a strong balancing, controlling, ordering presence in the poetry in which it appears. Part of its potential is as a structure for concentrated, gnomic, almost proverbial utterance, easy for the reader to carry away in his mind; this potential is best realized when the couplet is a tightly closed unit, as is normally the case in Pope.

Jonson uses the form in the several ways just mentioned. Couplet order underscores orderly, almost (for Jonson) patterned, praise of a firmly centered man in epigram 128 (“To William Roe”). Some epigrams consist of single gnomic couplets (epigram 34, “Of Death”), and others are memorable for neat, closed couplet wit (epigram 31, “On Banck the Usurer”). Both Jonson’s prestige and his virtuoso skill in testing the couplet’s range of uses were important in establishing it as the standard neoclassic prosodic structure. Jonson’s most characteristic way of exploiting the couplet, however, was not simply to employ, but simultaneously to violate, its order, to write across the prosodic structure as if in disregard of it. Actually, more often than not, in Jonson’s verse, syntactic and phrasal breaks do not come at such points within a line as to facilitate the prosodic caesura, nor are they matched with line endings or even the ends of the couplets themselves (see, for example, epigram 46, “To Sir Luckless Wooall”). The couplet may be opposed by meaning, along with grammar: Antitheses and other logical and rhetorical structures work at cross purposes with the prosody (epigram 11, “On Some-Thing, that Walks Some-Where”).

In such circumstances, the couplet does not cease to be an obtrusive form. Jonson maintains the reader’s awareness of it, precisely as a structure that is not managing to control or limit the autonomy of his grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The latter, of course, are the elements of the oratorical presence in the poetry—of Jonson’s voice or speech. The net effect is to enhance the sense of the independent liveliness of the speaking persona, his freedom to move about, to understand and to explain in his own way, on his own terms. Jonson’s handling of the couplet implies through form a quite radical version of secular humanism, a sense of the detachment of linguistic action (and of man the linguistic actor) from any containing structure.

Many of the same kinds of content are present in the epigrams as in the epistolary writings. The epigrammatic image of William Roe’s stable personality, mentioned earlier, is obviously cognate with Jonson’s self-image in “An Epistle answering to One that asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben,” as are such portrayals as those of Sir Henry Nevil (epigram 109), William, earl of Pembroke (102), and Sir Thomas Roe (98). (The latter contains one of Jonson’s more gnomic statements of the concept of the inner-directed and self-sufficient man: “Be always to thy gathered self the same/ And study conscience, more than thou would’st fame.”) Satire, often a phase in the epistles, can fill entire epigrams. Something, that Walks Somewhere, Sir Voluptuous Beast (epigrams 35and 36) and Don Surly (epigram 38) are incisively but fully realized satiric characters, clearly inhabitants of the same world as the “humour” characters Corbaccio and Epicure Mammon in Jonson’s plays. Something, that Walks Somewhere, the lord who walks in “clothes brave enough,” “buried in flesh, and blood,” unwilling to do and afraid to dare, is one of Jonson’s most powerful pictures of pointless, disorganized life—almost of disorganized protoplasm. Jonson suggested in many indirect ways that he regarded Horace as his mentor, and his work certainly has many Horatian traits, but his satire sometimes seems to belong less in the Horatian than in the harsher Juvenalian category.

To Penshurst

 “To Penshurst,” one of Jonson’s most famous poems, celebrates a different kind of relatedness from the internal centering discussed so far. Here human life is benign because it stands within what people have recently learned to call an ecosystem: a web of connections between elements that feed and feed off one another and through interaction perpetuate one another’s wellbeing. At Penshurst, the Sidney family’s country estate, nature freely delivers its supply into the Sidneys’ hands; fish and birds “officiously” serve themselves up; but here and even more in the very similar poem “To Sir Robert Wroth,” one feels that the humans could have a harvesting function, culling what sometimes seems almost like a glut of natural abundance. In any case, the human lords of Penshurst themselves stand as the basis of further relations, providing a social center to which neighbors from a whole community and guests from farther away “come in.” The neighbors bring even more food, and the “provisions” of Penshurst’s “liberal board” flow back to them. The system yields more than it can use, and the superflux passes to the unenvied guest and is there, ready to be offered to the king, the regulator of a larger system and community, when he happens into this particular sphere. The system, though nature flows through it, is not mindless. From Penshurst’s lady’s “huswifery” up through “The mysteries of manners, arms and arts” that the house’s children are learning, specifically human roles and human activities have their place in this strong and ample natural and human network; in fact, the sophisticated   culture of an ancestral figure of the house, Sir Philip Sidney, can be alluded to without seeming out of place here.

A close modern analog to “To Penshurst” is W. H. Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone,” where people also mesh with landscape in a perfect way; Auden’s description of the limestone system, however, is interrupted by accounts of less pleasing, more technological adjustments of the relation. In “To Penshurst,” on the other hand, contrasting satiric pictures or references have less share than in almost any of Jonson’s works. Only a few lines, mainly at the poem’s beginning and end, succinctly insert Jonson’s usual distinctions. Penshurst is Edenic. One is left with the uneasy feeling that the poem’s being so much anthologized may be bound up with its being, for Jonson, a typically untroubled.


Jonson’s ode “To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of that Noble Pair, Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Morison” stands near the beginning of the history of English efforts to imitate Pindar’s odes. It has a complex and stately stanzaic structure. Nevertheless, many traits are carried over from Jonson’s epigrammatic and epistolary style, in particular the tendency toward syntax that is at odds with prosodic divisions, of which the poem contains egregious examples: For instance, a stanza break comes in the middle of the name “Ben/ Jonson.” An epic, “Heroologia,” which Jonson planned, would probably have represented another extension to a new genre of his characteristic manner and ethical matter. The epic was to be in couplets and was to deal with “the Worthies of his country, roused by fame” (reports William Drummond). Like Pope, Jonson actually wrote a mock epic rather than the serious one; Jonson’s work is the “merdurinous” “On the Famous Voyage” (epigram 133).

The ode to Cary and Morison is extreme in imagery as well as in syntactic prosodic tension. It opens with a notorious image, that of the “infant of Saguntum” who retreated back to the womb before it was “half got out,” appalled by the horror and devastation of wartime scenes into which it was being born. Jonson goes on to surprise conventional taste even further by suggesting that this vaginal peripety represents a “summ’d” “circle…of deepest lore, could we the Center find.” References to circle and center of course bring along a whole train of important imagery and structure in Jonson, as well as alluding to the structure of the whole poem, with its repeated peripeteia of “Turn,” “Counter Turn,” and “Stand.”

The will to shock, or at least to write in uncompromisingly extraordinary ways, may indirectly express the speaker’s grief and sense of loss (the poem’s occasion is Morison’s death). It is certainly connected with a larger demand to see life in an unconventional way, which is the poem’s essential consoling strategy. (Jonson speaks of the “holy rage” with which Morison “leap’d the present age”; readers are asked to do the same thing, in the same mood.) The distinction that Jonson insists on is between visions of life as “space” and as “act.” In terms of the former—sheer duration—Morison’s life was indeed lamentably cut off: He lived barely into his twenties. In terms of “act,” Morison’s life was perfect:

A Soldier to the last right end
A perfect Patriot, and a noble friend,
But most a virtuous Son.
All Offices were done
By him, so ample, full and round,
In weight, in measure, number, sound
As, though his age imperfect might appear,
His life was of Humanity the Sphere.

This is, notably, purely secular consolation. There are later references to a “bright eternal day,” but it has less to do with Christian Paradise than with a pagan heaven of commemoration, in which Morison (and Cary) may persist as an “Asterism,” a constellation. The poem’s contrast with “Lycidas” marks the distance between John Milton’s more old-fashioned Christian humanism and Jonson’s secular mind.

Jubilation, rather than lamentation, over Morison’s perfection of “act” is, like most of Jonson’s higher choices, not easy to maintain. The speaker’s own “tongue” “falls” into mourning at one point. Cary, Morison’s great friend who survives him and to whom the poem is at least in part addressed, is exhorted to “call…for wine/And letthy looks with gladness shine”—and to maintain connection. Like the centered men of the epigrams and epistles, and like the Sidneys of Penshurst, Cary is to act in relation, to “shine” on earth inconjunction with Morison’s now heavenly light. The function of the poem visa vis Cary is to establish this relation for him, and the broken but single name of Ben Jonson bridges over the two stanzas in which the relation of the two friends is most fully discussed.

The poem includes a satirical picture. Contrasting with the vital life of act, the vacuous life of space is personified as a futile careerist, “buoy’d . . . up” in the end only by the “Cork of Title.” More than by alternation of satiric and positive images, however, the poem works by a tension constant throughout: the tension between the naturalistic sense of death as an end, which is never really lost, and the other vision on which Jonson is insisting. The poem is a celebration of secular heroism. It depicts that quality in its subjects (“Nothing perfect done/ But as a Cary, or a Morison”), enacts it in its language, and demands it of its readers. The tension and energy that the poem displays are the reasons for reading Jonson’s verse.

Major Works
Plays: The Case Is Altered, pr. 1597;The Isle of Dogs, pr. 1597 (with Thomas Nashe; no longer extant); Every Man in His Humour, pr. 1598, 1605; Hot Anger SoonCold, pr. 1598 (with Henry Chettle and Henry Porter; no longer extant); Every Man Out of His Humour, pr. 1599; The Page of Plymouth, pr. 1599 (with Thomas Dekker; no longer extant);Robert the Second, King of Scots, pr. 1599 (with Chettle and Dekker; no longer extant);Cynthia’s Revels: Or, The Fountain of Self Love, pr. c. 16001601; Poetaster: Or, His Arraignment, pr. 1601; Sejanus His Fall, pr. 1603 (commonly known as Sejanus);Eastward Ho!, pr., pb. 1605 (with George Chapman and John Marston); Volpone: Or, The Fox, pr. 1605; Epicœne: Or, The Silent Woman, pr. 1609; The Alchemist, pr. 1610; Catiline His Conspiracy, pr., pb. 1611 (commonly known as Catiline); Bartholomew Fair, pr. 1614; The Devil Is an Ass, pr. 1616; The Staple of News, pr.1626; The New Inn: Or, The Light Heart, pr. 1629; The Magnetic Lady: Or, Humours Reconciled, pr. 1632; A Tale of a Tub, pr. 1633; The Sad Shepherd: Or, A Tale of Robin Hood, pb. 1640 (fragment).
Nonfiction: The English Grammar, 1640;Timber: Or, Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter, 1641.
Translation: Horace His Art of Poetry, 1640 (of Horace’s Ars poetica).
Miscellaneous: The Magnificent Entertainment Given to King James, 1603 (with Dekker and Thomas Middleton); The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, 1616; The Works of Benjamin Jonson, 1640 1641 (2 volumes).

Bloom, Harold, ed.Ben Jonson. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House, 2001.
Booth, Stephen.Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonson’s “Epitaphson His Children,” and “Twelfth Night.”Berkeley: University of California Press,1998.
Cousins, A. D., and Alison V. Scott, eds.Ben Jonson and the Politics of Genre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Dutton, Richard, ed. Ben Jonson. Longman Critical Readers. Harlow, England: PearsonEducation, 2000.
Harp, Richard, and Stanley Stewart, eds.The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson.New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Loxley, James.The Complete Critical Guide to Ben Jonson. New York: Routledge, 2002. Miles, Rosalind. Ben Jonson: His Life and Work. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
Riggs, David. Ben Jonson: A Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Summers, Claude J., and Ted Larry Pebworth. Ben Jonson. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1999.
Watson, Robert N., ed.Critical Essays on Ben Jonson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997.

Categories: ELIZABEHAN POETRY AND PROSE, Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry

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