6. (Ben Jonson)

My first thought was: how odd for Eliot, poet-critic who railed against the dissociation of sensibility, to write: “The immediate appeal of Jonson is to the mind; his emotional tone is not in the verse, but in the design of the whole.”  He is not on the surface of things slighting that “poet of the surface,” and yet he seems to enjoin readers to labor harder with their minds, to approach a poetry that will not work with immediate vigor on the nerves–as if the cognitive and emotional were so easily divided. But what a gross misreading of Eliot this is; it’s so easy, at times, to accept Eliot’s praise as covert disapprobation, and it may be said to be a method of his criticism to turn appraisals of apparent limitations into revelations of strength. Hence with Jonson: Having listed Marlowe, Webster, Donne, Beaumont, and Fletcher: “He is no less a poet than these men, but his poetry is of the surface. Poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study; for to deal with the surface of life, as Jonson dealt with it, is to deal so deliberately that we too must be deliberate, in order to understand.”

John Hollander, in one of finest essays on Jonson’s poetry, “Ben Jonson and the Modality of Verse,” takes issue with Eliot, who, for Hollander, “could not praise Jonson without insisting that “His poetry is of the surface.”” But Eliot is classifying, and so offering a suggestion of what we should look to value in Jonson’s verse–an irony being that Hollander’s essay, on meter and form, classical borrowing and occasion, rarely plunges into what would be considered “depth” analysis of Jonson’s verse, seeking a clash of feelings or barrage of conflicts.  “Jonson insists on in theory, and demonstrates often enough in practice, a view of the nature of poetry depending on the notion of a “core” of prose sense or even moral purpose, surrounded by an exterior added by art, rather than secreted by a poem’s soul within…modern poetic theory requires of a poet a consistently recognizable language of his own, a characteristic voice sounding through any masks he may choose to wear, and overriding the accents of any style or manner he may elect to use…Jonson resists automatic commendation.”  To my mind, such eloquent defenses of Jonson confirm one sense of Eliot’s phrase, “poetry of the surface.”

But Eliot was not writing only about the “surface” of poetry, but instead the “surface” of life, those features of his poetry that might link him to nineteenth-century realist novelists–not so much Austen or James, or even Dickens at his metaphorically manic–but instead Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, and, going further afield, upping the claims, Flaubert and Tolstoy: those transparent, impersonal narrative voices that often quiver with feeling, even when they are not shot through with “character” or “charisma.” (Dickens is the ultimate charismatic novelist; an institution of himself). Hence Eliot worried that Jonson’s most assiduous readers were historians; that those who turned to poetry for a particular sort of emotional experience would find it absent in Jonson’s lyric style, and so turn away, and that those who read his poetry as documents of dryasdust scholarship would neglect the proper search after its emotional structures.

For what Eliot does when he writes that the “immediate appeal of Jonson is to the mind,” is not to juxtapose the mind to the feelings, but to offer what, for Eliot at that time, was tremendously high praise: that the cognitive and emotional are not naturally at odds, but can be made, and should be made, to blend, taking force from one another–that genuine poetry is, among other things, a reminder of their mutual accommodation, which is so often divided or denied in second-rate philosophy (see the first-rate work of Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art for a cool demolition of the division), and worse, which had, for Eliot, been split asunder by the practices and theories of Romantic poetry.  (Eliot is wrong, though; Empson offers a clue for how to read Wordsworth when he writes, in Some Versions of Pastoral, that Wordsworth “considered that the poet was essentially one who revived our sense of the original facts of nature, and should use scientific ideas where he could; poetry was the impassioned expression of the face of all science…” (265, the Alice chapter).)

Eliot diagnoses the modern reaction against Jonson similarly to Hollander: Jonson lacks the distinct personality, disappears into the form, into the details of the world, into the men and houses and food he praises–and even when he does emerge, in the various guises he could adopt, Ben the Guest, Ben the Father, Ben Jonson the Public Poet, he does so without affecting that sharp impingement against conventions of language that we notice and ascribe to personality. On occasions where Jonson speaks of the loss of his son, it is easy to feel, but not easy to feel the idiosyncratic terms or preoccupations of an idiosyncratic man. Even in Wordsworth’s “Surprized by Joy,” one of the poems where Wordsworth excels in the plain style, the presence of “Joy” cannot be bring us to consider that word in the poet’s work elsewhere–it has been loaded with a distinctly personal freight–whereas when Jonson writes, to know the freight of the words, it seems as if a good dictionary would be all that we need. Maybe this is what Donald Davie means by urbanity of language (Davie, oddly, does not discuss Jonson much in The Purity of Diction–though he praises him elsewhere as an ideal model for poets, as a good student of Pound should, Jonson and Pound alike dreaming, one less maniacally than the other, of a civilized class of poets in a civilized social order, and attempting to realize the dream by a tribe of student-followers).

The feeling of Jonson–the depths of feeling that are there in the poems (on this point, Eliot does not do him justice, though he might have, had he not turned away so suddenly to consider the plays; it is evident from the majority of Eliot’s essay that he may not have been thinking much of the lyric poetry at all when he writes that Jonson’s is a “poetry of surfaces”–but the phrase holds good still, I think; and some of Eliot’s objections to the plays, his sense of their limitations, would have to be rethought, and perhaps dismissed entirely, if he were writing about the lyric poetry)–is no less because the poetry does move on the surfaces, and so demand a different sort of attention, more akin to the attention we would devote to a painter of civic life, capable nonetheless of extraordinary private moments (who would that painter be? Rubens?  David?–both heirs to a classical tradition, both learned, both painters of surfaces, as, say, Rembrandt is usually not said to be). Feelings, at any rate, often work on, and are realized through the surfaces of formal rituals, of cherished objects, of propriety, of manners.

But as Eliot would have known, a poetry of surfaces is known only because of depths detected. Where Jonson’s poetry comes alive is not in the fact of the surfaces, but in the effort, the strain, at maintaining a poise, propriety and dignity for the world, among the world’s strangers and estranging and estranged matters and concerns–and in the effort, the strain towards the poise, not dramatized as a facile self-pitying failure, but usually achieved, albeit with sweat on the brow, we are made to intimate (the poetry conjures for us a flutter of) the clash of feelings beneath, and at times even the feeling that the effort at poise is exhausting and exasperating.

All poetry is a poetry of face-work (see the post on Henry James for Erving Goffman’s theory of ritual interaction and “face-work”); but not all poets seem to live in the same social order–some flee, some are exiled, and some blatantly ignore the preservation of dignity and poise; all of these are attitudes towards living in a particular civil society. Poise, or the effort at poise, may reflect a belief that it is worth doing better than the rest, to raise levels (as with Jonson), or else that it is hopeless and better not to try, or else that a proper civilization requires withdrawal and entirely new standards, or else that society is under siege and so old manners and forms of dignity and poise must be preserved… Jonson’s feelings are the feelings of a man struggling to raise the standards, but without abandoning fellow-feeling (raise the standards arbitrarily, or too high, and they do no good), and struggling also with how to feel, and what to feel, within the standards he has erected. The poetry moves because the voice–if not the voice of a recognizable personality–is nonetheless recognizably the voice of a person at work.

Some might think that this makes Jonson out to be stodgy, stuffy, a snob, a hypocrite, or worse.  But the poet who, in the twentieth-century, best exemplifies the virtues of Jonson–who consciously learned from his art–is none of these things. To see how Jonson’s fundamental techniques of metric and diction, his sense of propriety and poise and control, his realist-narrator lyric voice, can issue in a poem that takes as it matter and preoccupations not London in the early-seventeenth century, but instead San Francisco in another era of plague, read Thom Gunn’s astonishing poem, “Lament.”


Eliot wrote of Jonson: “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: a more difficult triumph of divination.” Not London, but a more difficult triumph of divination still, by Gunn, who must have read Jonson as a contemporary.

But to end not with Gunn, but with Jonson, in a poem where he insists upon poise and, that related social virtue (and vice), pride, as he is threatened by the loss of both–Ben Jonson, “To the World.” See especially lines 45-end.


No, I do know, that I was born

To age, misfortune, sickness, grief:

But I will bear these, with that scorn,

As shall not need thy false relief.

Nor for my peace will I go far,

As wanderers do, that still do roam,

But make my strengths, such as they are,

Here in my bosom, and at home.  (ll. 61-8)

Precluding self-pity with a wryness between playful grimace and sardonic grim–Frost is another great heir of Jonson, though more insistent on his ego–the lines abolish our unease, while still moving us to pity and reflect; it is an occasion where, for all of the virtues of embarrassment, there is something generous in Jonson’s having relieved the possibility of our feeling embarrassed (not that he does so everywhere), as we often do when confronted with an extended lament–not as in Gunn’s poem for another–on the poet’s own behalf. The resignation is itself dramatized, both granting that he must resign, but also granting that the show of stoic acceptance of life’s unravelling is itself a performance that is not entirely adequate, that is somewhat ridiculous–and comic. We are allowed to smile at the play.


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