Ben Jonson and the Roman Frame of Mind

Ben Jonson and the Roman Frame of Mind

by Katharine Eisaman Maus

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Katharine Maus explores the biographical reasons for Jonson's preference for particular Latin authors; the effects of Roman moral and psychological paradigms on his methods of characterization and generic choices; the connection between his critical theory and artistic practice; and the impact of Roman social theory on his portrayal of communities and on his


Katharine Maus explores the biographical reasons for Jonson's preference for particular Latin authors; the effects of Roman moral and psychological paradigms on his methods of characterization and generic choices; the connection between his critical theory and artistic practice; and the impact of Roman social theory on his portrayal of communities and on his peculiar relationship with his audiences.

Originally published in 1985.

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Ben Jonson and the Roman Frame of Mind

By Katharine Eisaman Maus


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-691-06629-5


Introduction: Jonson's Classics

Ben Jonson is a "classical" artist: "not onely a professed Imitator of Horace," as Dryden says, "but a learned Plagiary of all the others; you track him every where in their Snow." "All the others" is really an overstatement; for while Jonson's reading in Greek and Latin literature is remarkably varied and wide-ranging, certain texts inevitably attract him more than others. His favorite authors are Latin ones, and a select group of Latin ones at that: Seneca, Horace, Tacitus, Cicero, Juvenal, Quintilian, and a few others. These are the writers he continually quotes and paraphrases, recommends to friends and readers, cites as authorities or precedents, and in a couple of cases portrays on the stage. This book will explore some of the consequences of such preferences — of this particular brand of classicism — upon Jonson's art, and upon his conception of himself as an artist.

Jonson's tastes are not unorthodox. "His" classics are central to Renaissance European humanist culture, and in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England they form the basis of the curriculum for grammar-school children as well as for university students. From such humanist forebears and contemporaries as Petrarch, Erasmus, Juan Luis Vives, Justus Lipsius, William Camden, Daniel Heinsius, Isaac Casaubon — the learned men Jonson considers his intellectual compeers — he inherits not only a regard for particular Latin texts, but more important, examples of serious lifelong engagement with classical literature. Naturally the way Jonson reads and responds to the classics is conditioned by the way these great editors, commentators, and educators have approached and defined them. He shares that distinctive, complex humanist view of the classics, contradictory in theory but powerful in practice, which acknowledges the historical and cultural remoteness of ancient writers, even while insisting upon their extraordinary relevance for the contemporary world. He boasts, for instance, of his scrupulous adherence to Roman sources in Poetaster, Sejanus, and Catiline; of the care he has taken to avoid anachronism and to depict accurately an alien culture. But this conscious antiquarianism coincides, in Poetaster, with a polemic against the enemy playwrights, Thomas Dekker and John Marston; in Sejanus, with political commentary pointed enough to get Jonson in trouble with the authorities; in Catiline, with what are probably reflections on the Gunpowder Plot. Jonson derives from his humanist intellectual milieu, then, the crucial assumption upon which his classicism depends — the conviction that thorough immersion in a lost culture is a prerequisite for comprehension of, and contribution to, one's own culture.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to suppose that Jonson's literary biases are inevitable ones for an educated person in his time and place. His tastes, though unexceptionable, do not simply duplicate those of his contemporaries. He fails to share, for example, the enthusiasm for Ovid which so marks the work of Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and John Donne. While his estimation of Virgil is conventionally high, the Georgics and the Aeneid do not excite his imagination as they excite Spenser's or Milton's. Nor does Jonson's friendship with George Chapman kindle a serious interest in Homer, or in Platonic philosophy.

What are the principles governing Jonson's selectivity? His favorite authors practice a wide variety of literary modes: satire, ode, epistle, history. Stylistically, too, they are very diverse. Cicero, with his flowing periods and smooth transitions, in some ways seems to occupy the opposite end of the prose spectrum from the abrupt, aphoristic Seneca; and certainly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries some authorities insisted upon the exclusive propriety of one or the other as models for Latin prose. The humanists Jonson finds most congenial, however — such writers as Erasmus and Vives — polemicize not for "Ciceronianism" or for "Senecanism," but for a catholicity which, they point out, Cicero and Seneca themselves recommended. For in fact, as many of the humanists realize, the dispute over style can obscure the very considerable similarities of doctrinal emphasis among the Latin writers they value most.

The writers that constitute the core of the Jonsonian canon, in other words, share a general philosophical outlook, sometimes elaborately articulated, sometimes only implied. Typically they are, or at least claim to be, ethically serious writers. The virtues they most appreciate are often austere ones: temperance, self-reliance, fortitude, altruistic self-sacrifice. Their commitment to community life is strong, and their sense of Roman history lively and patriotic. These "Roman moralists" are philosophically well-educated, but eclectic on principle. They assimilate what seems true or useful from the major philosophical schools of the day — Stoic, Epicurean, Peripatetic, Skeptic. Meanwhile they ignore, discard, or ridicule the sometimes extreme and improbable conclusions that their more rigorously logical Greek forebears had shown to follow from apparently innocuous premises.

The mainly ethical nature of the Roman moralists' philosophical interests considerably simplifies their synthetic endeavor. Even for writers like Cicero and Seneca, certain important issues seem peripheral — the epistemological quarrels between the Stoics and the skeptical New Academy, for instance, or the metaphysical disagreements between the Peripatetics and the Epicureans. The less deliberately "philosophical" among the Roman moralists, like Horace and Juvenal, ignore such problems altogether. Moreover, even when the Roman moralists deal with the relatively narrow range of philosophical issues they consider significant, they are remarkably undogmatic. The nature of divinity, the immortality of the soul, the value of asceticism, the relation of political expediency to virtuous action, the desirability of popular acclaim — the Roman moralists disagree among themselves about such matters, and the same author may resolve them in different ways at different times. Nonetheless, the Roman moralists' eclecticism follows certain distinctive patterns. They are eager to apply their intellect and sensibility in practical ways, to put the contemplative faculties at the service of the active life. They want to weld philosophy and forensics, literature and pedagogy, integrity and urbanity.

These Roman ideals appeal strongly to many Renaissance humanists. The humanists' ethical emphasis, their preference for rhetorical effectiveness and formal beauty over logical rigor, their responsiveness to the educational, literary, and political needs of a secular governing class — all receive reinforcement from the Roman moralist example. Moreover, the circumstances of Jonson's career render him sensitive not merely to Roman ideals in the abstract, but to the ways in which his favorite classical authors have realized those ideals in their own lives. His particular literary preferences are understandable in biographical as well as intellectual terms.

For Jonson as for most of his English and Continental contemporaries, a successful literary career depends upon the generosity of patrons. But Jonson, former bricklayer's apprentice and convicted murderer, has reason to feel particularly keenly the anomalous character of his intimacy with wealth and power. He lives with Lord Aubigny and at Penshurst; he is awarded pensions from King James and the Earl of Pembroke; he becomes friendly with the Countesses of Bedford and Rutland. His social triumphs, however, do not translate into economic security. "Sundry times," William Drummond informs us in the Conversations, "he heth devoured his books [and] sold them all for Necessity" (328-329). Unlike Shakespeare, whose prudent investments make him a wealthy gentleman in his own right, or Donne, who eventually accepts ecclesiastical preferment, Jonson never acquires an extrahterary source of income or prestige. "He dissuaded me from Poetne," Djummond reports, "for that she had beggered him, when he might have been a rich lawyer, Physitian, or Marchant" (615-616). In the Discoveries, Jonson bitterly personifies Poetry as

but a meane Mistresse, to such as have wholly addicted themselves to her, or given their names up to her family. They who have but saluted her on the by, and now and then tendred their visits, shee hath done much for, and advanced in the way of their owne professions (both the Law, and the Gospel) beyond all they could have hoped, or done for themselves, without her favour Wherein she doth emulate the judicious, but preposterous bounty of the times Grandes who accumulate all they can upon the Parasite, or Fresh-man in their friendship; but thinke an old Client, or honest servant, bound by his place to write, and starve.

Poetry, with her ambiguous charity to those who "have but saluted her on the by, and now and then tendred their visits," seems a mistress both in the social and the sexual sense, who supports and advances those who know how to satisfy her own dubious inclinations Given the economic realities of authorship in the Renaissance, the connection between the artist and the servant or client seems a natural one. Elsewhere, too, Jonson associates inventiveness with dependency, and with the subordination of one's own desires to another's. The highly charged economic and psychological intimacy between a creative servant and his patron dominates the action of plays otherwise as diverse as Every Man in His Humour, Cynthia's Revels, Poetaster, Sejanus, Volpone, and The Alchemist. In every case, though the master needs the servant's executive talents, the servant can never obtain real power of his own Sejanus and Mosca fail when they forget the actual terms of the relationship, Brainworm and Jeremy succeed by remaining aware of its limitations and appealing to their masters' interests

Not all economic dependency, of course, need seem merely arbitrary or unfair In the Discoveries Jonson finds it possible to imagine an ideal reciprocity of benefits between the poet or scholar and the wealthy, powerful people who support him.

Learning needs rest. Soveraignty gives it. Soveraignty needs counsell: Learning affords it There is such a Consociation of offices, between the Prince, and whom his favour breeds, that they may helpe to sustaine his power, as hee their knowledge (65-69)

Sometimes Jonson seems to have thought of his "consociation" with James I in these terms; and his relations with his less exalted patrons can appear even more rewarding In "To Penshurst" Jonson celebrates the household of Sir Robert Sidney, brother of the late poet. Sir Robert, himself undistinguished, maintains the Sidney connection with the arts by supporting Ben Jonson, the best poet he can find What Philip Sidney could do alone — combine in himself the advantages of literary genius and aristocratic status — Robert Sidney and Jonson can achieve together through a version of the alliance Jonson describes between "Soveraignty" and "Learning."

Yet the equality Jonson implies, in the carefully balanced clauses of the Discoveries passage, seems unstable even in "To Penshurst." Jonson pictures the centripetal energies of Sidney's estate converging upon the manor house — partridges, fish, fruit, and other delicacies virtually thrust themselves upon their master; farmers laden with agricultural bounty troop in to "salute / [Their] lord, and lady, though they have no sute." Once inside the great house, however, we confront not the aristocratic proprietors, as we expect, but Jonson himself, gorging himself at table "As if thou, then, wert mine, or I raign'd here." It is an ambiguous moment, because Sidney's superlative hospitality constitutes both a favor and a temptation for his dependent. Jonson would be ungrateful if he failed to appreciate Sidney's gracious reversal of social roles. But he would also be ungrateful if he took the reversal at face value, forgetting the derivative and provisional character of those privileges. So while acknowledging the attractions of mastery, Jonson phrases his displacement of his host in carefully conditional form. He usurps the center stage, and then turns his usurpation into a compliment to his patron's generosity. Of course Jonson's motives differ from Mosca's or Jeremy's; but he shares their talent for adroitly managing his own repressed competitiveness, for making gestures that covertly challenge the powerful, even while they gratify them.

Given Jonson's acute consciousness of his peculiar social position, it is surely significant that the Latin authors he translates, adapts, and imitates are men whose careers roughly resemble his own. Formative for all the Roman moralists is a movement in boyhood or young manhood from provincial towns to Rome, where they become intimate with members of powerful elites. Seneca and Quintilian hail from Spain, Cicero from Arpinum, Juvenal from Aquinum, Horace from Venusia. In some cases social disabilities compound the original geographical marginality; Horace is the son of a former slave, and Cicero is the first of his family to achieve consular rank.

You will say of me that, born of a freedman father and
in mean circumstances,
I extended wings greater than the nest

That I pleased the most important people in the state
Both in war and in peace.

Horace, describing his flight from narrow circumstances into privileged eminence, charts the typical Roman moralist trajectory. At some point in their lives almost all these Latin writers are among the foremost men of their age. In the course of a brilliant career as a lawyer and politician, Cicero is elected to the consulship, the highest republican office. Horace becomes the protégé of the emperor Augustus and Augustus' minister Maecenas. Quintilian, the head of Rome's principal school of oratory, is granted pensions by the emperors Galba and Vespasian, and instructs Domitian's nephews. Seneca, an eminent lawyer, becomes tutor of the young Nero, and during his pupil's minority one of the two most powerful administrators in the empire. Tacitus, another highly successful lawyer, holds numerous important political offices.

This shared experience stamps the Roman moralists' work indelibly even when they suffer reverses later in life. Though they by no means subscribe to identical political, social, or artistic principles, and though the actual circumstances under which they compose their works are often inauspicious, their hard-won success uniquely qualifies them in their own eyes as spokesmen for the best aspects of Roman culture. Cicero makes the analogy between his political role and his cultural role explicit in De finibus: "Just as I do not seem to myself to have shirked labors, dangers, or public service in the position in which I was placed by the Roman people, so I surely ought to strive as zealously as 1 can to make my fellow-citizens more learned." This distinctive self-conception separates the Roman writers Jonson favors from those who, like Ovid, cultivate the sensibilities of exile, the voice of exclusion.

For Renaissance men of letters, and particularly for those of undistinguished birth, the Roman moralists' upward mobility and politico-cultural centrality seem potently attractive precedents. "Neither are the truly valorous or any way virtuous ashamed of their so mean parentage," writes Henry Peacham, Jonson's contemporary,

but rather glory in themselves that their merit hath advanced them above so many thousands far better descended. ... Cicero was born and brought up at Arpinum, a poor and obscure village; Virgil, the son of a potter; Horace, of a trumpeter; Theophrastus, of a botcher; with infinite others I might allege as well of ancient as of modern times.


Excerpted from Ben Jonson and the Roman Frame of Mind by Katharine Eisaman Maus. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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