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A critical examination of the poetical genius
of Ben Jonson,



In representing beauty as an inhabitant of two worlds,
belonging to the one by birth, to the other by adoption, Schiller
justly points out a contrast in the idea of beauty, the absolute
union of which is accomplished in the really beautiful. To come
to the point at once, this contrast represents itself to us in the
abstract idea and its material appearance. Neither of these two
spheres is inferior to the other, each possessing within itself its
own peculiar life and existence; art however unites both momenta,
and showing forth the real and the ideal combined in one beautiful
object, thus reflects the infinite in the shape of a finite natural
object. For this same reason we may also call the beautiful an idea
appearing in a limited form. If w 7 e consider the above contrasts
as a balance, containing the tw r o momenta in different scales, we
say that, in representing the beautiful, both scales are in equi-
librium ; as soon however as either outweighs the other, another
contrast must needs ensue, known in aesthetics as the sublime
and the ridiculous, both deriving their origin from beauty. If
for instance the abstract idea was the one to acquire superiority,
thus producing a sublime of any kind, the other momentum w r ill
likewise aspire to its right, its sphere being equally privileged ;
this contrast, however, or rather this reaction, happens in so
sudden and unexpected a manner, that the sublime is annihilated,
i. e. the idea is exposed in its bare reality. This process is
easily explained, as it is well known that extremes are inclined
to meet, and that there is but one step from the sublime to
the ridiculous ; no poet can therefore be more easily ridiculed
than he who indulges in pathos. Thus the ludicrous has been
of old the deadly enemy of the sublime, and all the more
effective for not making ooen assaults from without like a
highwayman, but for springing from the very bosom of the
victim itself. The sublime can also be indicated as the objective
power of the beautiful, which pressing, upon the subjective power
with overwhelming force, strives to prevent the subject from
attaining its just claims, whilst the ridiculous, relying on the

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boundless liberty of the subject, and conscious of bearing the
presence of the idea within itself, is ready, whereever the su-
blime may show itself aspiring to objective rights, to dissolve it
into its own nothingness. For bear in mind , in dissolving the
sublime, the ridiculous does not create another sublime in its
stead, neither does it lead to any positive result, its aim being
merely to exercise its paralyzing influence upon a power which
strove to exceed its lawful bounds; it is therefore in a poetic
sense the continued negation. This preliminary definition which
allows us at least a glimpse into the nature of the ridiculous, is
not only confined to the ethic world we have here more espe-
cially before us, and it would undoubtedly be no uninteresting
task, to trace it under this point of view in the departments of
art also, such as painting, plastic, etc; all of which, although
allowing but a limited sphere to the comic, yet do contain such
elements. This inquiry, however, into the nature of that sublime
which on ethic ground may be ridiculed, corresponds precisely
to the one which indicates the boundary of the comic element,
i, e. the sphere within which the latter is entitled to live and
exist. The ideal momentum of beauty may be considered an
effort, something which, in assuming the appearance of pre-
eminence, strives to raise itself beyond the sphere of common
life; all ideals man may set before himself being only an aspiring
after some definite end. It ought not, however, at first sight to
be obvious to the spectator that this one momentum has for a
wiiile gained the preponderance; he ought not to see at once
that the sublime is the bearer of its own irony, but this should
suddenly appear forcing itself upon the attention, thus causing
the sublime to burst like a bubble. It is often not until this
contrast has become apparent, that we recognize the ^false su-
blimity and the morbid exaggeration, which otherwise might have
escaped us. The sudden appearance of the ridiculous, therefore,
which causes this reaction, proves that this process had its
origin in the sphere of beauty itself. Kant probably thought the
same in pronouncing the ridiculous to consist in our being sud-
denly disappointed in some highly- raised expectation. Jean
Paul also seems to be of this opinion when he asserts that the
humorous is the annihilation of a purpose. This remark leads
us on, allowing us a deeper look into the nature of the sublime
which may become the object of ridicule. Imagine a drunkard
firmly resolved to overcome his besetting sin, and strong enough
to pass by the dangerous tavern 'which formerly enticed him,
but afterwards turning back for a hearty draught as a due re-
compense for his newly acquired merit, this would, I believe,
fuinish an appropriate example of what I have been endea,-



vournig to explain. For here the ideal which the drunkard
purposed, is turned into the ridiculous by a sudden reaction,
thus proving at the same time that it is not the subject itself
which causes us to laugh, but the manner in which it is repre-
sented. Having above pronounced the sublime a momentum
of beauty, endowed with its own will and purpose, which however
by exceeding its lawful bounds and estranging itself from reality
becomes a prey to the ridiculous it logically follows that it
admits contradiction, not being possessed of absolute unity with
itself, but in danger of being wrecked by a mere bagatelle;
it, accordingly, ought to be considered a relative sublime.
The subject matter, therefore, which forms the basis of the ridi-
culous, belongs to the material visible world, simply because
the idea can only be produced in a limited form. This being
the case, it is all the more to be wondered at, what can have
induced great men, especially Theodor Vischer, to whom I own
to be indebted for some of the above remarks, to draw into the
circle of the ridiculous God and divine things, or any of those
immortal ideas which, lying beyond the visible w y orld, are not
possessed of an outward appearance, the most essential momen-
tum of beauty. It is perfectly horrifying to hear that same
writer say in his aesthetics ete: ,,The God of Theism who does
not consent to the wicked dealings in the tragedy of history and
who is nevertheless unable to prevent them, must surely be little
more than a nonentity; the world must be more than God, who
dares not touch it, no wonder then if the worshippers of
this God fear that the creature with all its foibles may some
day arise and smilingly say to its maker: Thou and I, we
cannot do without each other! The God of a speculative con-
templation of the world, (the God of Pantheism in fact,) * lays
claim on the ridiculous which he has no reason to fear, because he
bears the very elements of laughter within himself." If, accord-
ing!) 7 , analogous to the definition of the beautiful, we are compelled
to limit the ludicrous subjects to the bodily apparent world, when
representing itself to us in its deformity, it only remains to be
asKed, in what form the comic may find its most perfect ex-
pression, and what is its aesthetic value and legitimate existence.
To say it at once: it is in the Drama that the comical is most
perfectly represented, for in most effectually uniting the
subjective with the objective, it contains the fundamental
principle of all art: in all organic development of a nation,
therefore, the drama is the ripest fruit of poetical and
social pursuits; for dramatic poetry combines the contrast
of the epic and lyric elements to one organic whole. If it has
been asserted that the epic poem represents the objective truth

1*



of the past, that lyric poetry on the contrary, belongs to the
future, as expressing unlimited subjectiveness: the drama has
its place in the midst of the present. Both kinds of poetry,
however, when united to form the drama, have to undergo a
decided change; for the objective substance of the drama is no
longer an acting in the past, being reported by a third person
as a narrator, but the persons in consideration appear as acting
of their own accord with subjective spontaniousness, thus deve-
loping before our eyes an event, which by its being removed
into the present is turned into action. And moreover, the
persons , by their actions occasioning a change in the present,
their feelings can no longer be those of the lyric poet, who
depicts nothing but his own subjectiveness ; but the dramatist
has to endow his persons with consciousness of their actions,
which appears as free-will, the vital principle of every dramatic
art. This self-will must, independant of any fate, pervade the
drama from beginning to end, so as to limit the intensity of
the different actions, in order that a general idea may pass
through the whole, giving to the visible body of action an
invisible but everywhere transparent soul. It is false, therefore,
when instead of the natural unravelling of a plot, the knot^ is
cut asunder by a Deus ex machina, or if in a play of which
earth is the sole stage and undisputed soil, expectations are
raised of future rewards and punishments. We herein see" a
more forcible reason, why the drama must belong to the self-
reasoning mind of the modern ideal; for in the middle-ages the
subject was constantly restricted by certain bounds, its volition
being governed and regulated by a certain amount of objective
power, not acquired by the subject itself, but handed down to
it by tradition; a power, to which it strove to assimilate itself.
It was not until the right of private judgement established itself,
that the mind could attain its lawful position and that the total
development of a man's character and faculties was thus rendered
possible. It is then evident that the ridiculous, which, as we
have seen, relies on the unrestricted liberty of the subject must
in this form acquire its just and proper expression. Shakespeare
says in Hamlet ,,that the end of the drama, both at first and
now, was, and is to hold, as it were, the mirror up to nature,
to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image and the
very age and body of the time his form and pressure," which
defines in a comprehensive and summary manner the effect of
the drama in its principal features. This definition expresses
more, than is obvious at first sight, for if the drama is to hold
up the mirror to nature, this does not merely say, that it is
to copy nature, but that its purpose is to prove the close



connexion of human affairs and destinies, to bring man to a
clear understanding of himself, to teach him to appreciate the
intrinsic value of things, though concealed under a glittering sur-
face, and to allow him a glance into the laboratory of time, to
show its good and sublime features as well as its defects and
follies, thus creating before man an ideal, which, representing
itself to his mind, partly in a tragical, partly in a comical form,
becomes to him the cause of a clear, systematic tendency. But
tragedy and comedy are only momenta of the beautiful, nothing but
their union produces perfect beauty. If therefore the modern ideal
has ventured to introduce comedy into tragedy, thus fulfilling the
demand of Socrates in Symposion, that the true poet should
combine the tragic and comic elements in order to represent
life in all its aspects and in due form, it has taken the way
which will lead it 4;o its highest perfection. Attempts of the
same kind are found early in the annals of the English stage ;
in the midst of moral declamations on virtues and vices we find
the devil as the principle of malignity as well as buffoonry,
and the ,,jigs" interrupting the most serious scenes of tragedy.
Now, did these inconsistencies arise from the necessity only
which the writer felt to catch the applause of the public? or
was it not rather the ideal sublimity of these plays, which,
though unknown, perhaps, to the dramatist of those times,
suggested the necessity of a contrast which continued purifying
itself, until in Shakespeare's hands it appears a systematic and
organic principle of tragedy? And do we not find the same in
the classic drama which flowed from the same source as the
drama of the modern ideal?

After these general preliminary remarks, I will now pro-
ceed te expose to the judgement of my readers the character
of BenJonson, whose poetical genius is" to form the chief object
of the present treatise. Benjamin, or rather as it is abreviated,
Ben Jonson, was born on the 11 th of June in the jear 1573
about a month after the death of his father, a clergyman who
had been a sufferer on account of his religious opinions. The
career of this poet is indeed a singular one. He was placed at
a grammarschool in Westminster under the particular care of
Camclen, whose name bas become dear to literature and for
whom B. Jonson retained an extraordinary degree of respect
and attachment during his whole life. His mother having mar-
ried a bricklayer, however, somewhat less than two years after
the death of her first husband, Jonson was taken from school
by his stepfather to assist him in his humble vocation. For how
long he had to continue in this miserable condition is nowhere
mentioned ; Wood tells us that he was released from it by Sir



Walter Raleigh, who , having heard whith regret of a ,,lad of
genius" forced to practise such humble mechanical toil, evinced
great interest in him, and sent him to the continent as a com-
panion to his son. But this seems altogether impossible, young
Kaleigh not having been born at the time ; neither is the name of
Raleigh to be met with in any of the notes he has left behind,
respecting his personal concerns, which undoubtedly would have
been .the case, had he rendered him so eminent a service. If
there be any truth in the report of this event, it did not take
place until the year 1613. *) In the same way other details
that are reported from this period of his life, such as his wor-
king with a trowel in one hand, and a Horace in the other, or
that of Camden's sending him back to school, rest upon very
questionable authorities. It is therefore much more simple to
believe, as he informs us himself, that, being exceedingly mor-
tified at his calling which was alike repugnant to his taste and
feelings, he made a desperate effort to escape from it, not by
returning to school, but by entering the military service as a
volunteer, to fight against the Spaniards in the Netherlands.
He is said to have displayed great bravery during his brief mili-
tary career and on one occasion to have killed in a single com-
bat, in the presence of both armies, his adversary by whom he
had been challenged. At the close of the campaign he relin-
quished the military profession, and, returning to England, resolv-
ed to devote himself exclusively to literary pursuits. But his
means were soon exhausted; all that he brought from Flanders, as
Gifford says, being the reputation of a brave man, a smattering
of Dutch, and an empty purse. This latter circumstance seems
to have induced him to leave the university, to w 7 hich he had
gone to finish his classical studies, and to take refuge to the stage.
This was the usual way chosen by those who then cultivated
the English stage; they were, in a majority of cases, men of
academical education, who rushed up to the capital from their
retirements, hoping to find in the stage the means of rising to
a rapid glory with little or no exertion to themselves. Nearly
all of them began their career, not as authors but as actors,
and it is chiefly owing, we are persuaded, to this circumstance, that
all plays of this period were most distinguished for what is cal-
led ,,stage effect , a peculiar excellence, which they must be
allowed to possess, in spite of other great deficienies. Ben
Jonson seems at first to have had but little success an as actor.



*) Compare ,,Heads of conservation with Drummond of Hawthorndon
January 1517."



He occupied himself with the rearrangement of old plays , and
it was not before the year 1598, that he produced 'his first
original comedy: ,,Every man in his humour," which gave an un-
doubted proof of his endeavours, to cut out a new way to co-
medv, specifically different from the one that had hitherto been
pursued. The latter was indeed one of great defects and its
influence so powerful as to affect even Shakespeare's early
productions. Philip Sidney *) had in vain remonstrated against
the irregularity and excessive violation of the three unities; for
though all the different elements of the drama were existing,
yet the secret of its true form was unrevealed, a task, which,
according to Kant, is in all branches of science and art the high-
est degree of perfection the human mind may at all reach.
The intensity of action was in a very disordered state, and in
the severe scenes of tragidy, there were introduced scenes of
base humour and buffoonry without any organic connexion,
merely to gratify the appetite of the common people; even
Marlow, the immediate predecessor of Ben Jonson could not
dispense with them. Those jigs, as they were called, were first
entirely removed by Shakespeare, and in those tragedies into
which he has introduced them, they produce a true tragic effect,
and stand in organic connexion with the whole. His plays,
says Dr. Johnson, are not, in a rigorous sense, either tragedies
or comedies, but an interchange of seriousness and merriment.
They are indeed exhibiting the real state of sublimary nature
which partakes of the good and evil, of joy and sorrow, mingled
with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of
combination, and expressing the course of the world in which
the loss of the one is the gain of another; in which at the
same time the reveller is hastening to his wine and the mour-
ner to the burial of his friend; in which the malignity of the
one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another, and many
benefits are effected and hindered without design.

But Jonson powerfully raised his voice against such a view
of life and of the drama; he was deeply intrenched in the for-
tification of classical learning, and recognizing, in consequence,
in the classical models the only true form of the drama, he
undertook to introduce the classic drama in opposition to the
the romantic drama, quite mistaking the character of modern
times. Jonson's tendency is therefore chiefly a negative one.
It was he who endeavoured to put a stop to the national deve-
lopment of the English drama, and to force its free form into



*) defence of poetry, pag. 40.



the trammels of the three unities. Success accompanied his
efforts in so extraordinary a degree, as to make his fame ap-
pear in the eyes of his contemporaries even superior to that of
Shakespeare, a circumstance, which, as will be proved hereafter,
was chiefly owing to the nature of Jonson's dramas being the
true expression of the rational tendency, then prevailing among
the nation. His comedy : ,,Every man in his humour" has been
commonly assigned to the year 1598, the same which formed
the commencement of his intimacy with Shakespeare. Rowe,
in his ,,Life of Shakespeare" informs us in this respect as follows.
,,Shakespeare's acquaintance with Ben Jonson began with an
act of humanity and goodnature. Mr. Jonson who was at that
time altogether unknown to the world, had offered one of his
plays to the players to have it acted. The persons, into whose
hands it had been put, after having turned it carelessly and
superciliously over, were just on the point of returning it to
him, with the ill-natured answeiythat it w r ould be of no service
to their company, when Shakespeare luckily cast an eye upon
it and found something so well in it as to engage him first to
read it through and afterwards to recommend Mr. Jonson and his
writings to the public." The whole account is, as Gilford asserts,
without any foundation in truth, and merely invented to place
the ingratitude and baseness of his character into a stronger
light, ,/rhat he was altogether unknown to the world," remarks
the same author, ,,is a palpable untruth, as Jonson w r as at the
time as well known as Shakespeare," resting his incredulity on
the supposition that the comedy of Jonson was already acted in
the year 1597 at the Rose, a fact which he endeavoured to
prove by quoting a passage from Henslowe's memorandum book
which runs thus :

,,Maye 1597, II. It: at the comedy of Vmers."
and by which passage he tries most earnestly to persuade us,
that the word Vmers could mean nothing but Jonsons comedy
,,Every man in his humour." But with all deference for Mr.
Gitfords undisputed accuteness and general accuracy we may
doubt that Ben Jonson could be better known than Shakespeare,
who was already for more than 11 years connected with the
stage and had, at the lowest calculation, published twelve dra-
ma's, when the former offered his Virgin comedy. Moreover
there is all reason to believe that, as an actor, Jonson had
completely failed.

In the same way another circumstance of the life of Ben
Jonson, for which we are indebted to the careful inquiry of
Payne Collier, is apt to show the improbability of the assertion,
that Jonson began his career as a dramatic writer, previous to



the year 1598, for in this very year he had a quarrel with
one of Mr. Henslowe's principal actors, Gabriel Spencer
in consequence of which he was ,,appealed to a duel", slew
his antagonist and was himself severely wounded. He was im-
prisoned, and, according to his own assertion, but narrowly
escaped the gallows. Henslowe, *) writing to Alleyn on the sub-
ject, uses the following words: ,,Since you were with me, I
have lost one of my company, which hurteth me greatly; that
is Gabriel, for he is slain in Hoxton Fields by the hands of
Benjamin Jonson, bricklayer. 1 '' Now T , had Ben Jonson been
known as well as Shakespeare, had he already been a brother
performer of the one he slew, and, moreover, author of ,,Every
man" etc, it is impossible to admit, that Henslowe would have
styled him ,,bricklayer". Ben Jonson himself states in the edi-
tion of his works that the comedy just mentioned was first
acted in the year 1598. Why then are we for the sake of a
mere theory of Gilford's to disbelieve the positive assertions of
the author himself?

The result of this first comedy seems to have been extra-
ordinary ; it established his reputation as an author, he grew
into acquaintance and friendship with the principal leaders of the
stage, but could not fail to be regarded with an envious eye
on the part of those men, on whom the stage, conducted by
Henslowe and Alleyn, relied at this time.

Henslowe and Decker, having full cause to fear his su-
periority ,,provoked him on every stage wtth their petulant sty-
les." Besides we are readily inclined to believe that B. J. was
possessed of the usual amount of self-conceit w r hich is rarely
found wanting in self-taught scholars, and which brought him
into frequent collision w 7 ith his contemporaries , who loved to
mortify his pride and his deviating from the course the development
of the drama had hitherto pursued. It is true that he had
loftjr notions of himself, that ne was proud even to arrogance
in his defiance of censure, and that in the w T armth of this own
praise he was scarcely surpassed by his most zealous admirers ;
yet he possessed many redeeming qualities and a warmhearted
humanity. He w 7 as capable of displaying the most generous
friendship; indeed all the charges of malice and jealousy that
he is severely accused to have entertained against Shakespeare,
turn out to be without foundation. It is chiefly owing to the
extraordinary efforts and the disinterested protection of a God-
win and, above all, of a Gifford, that the name of Jonson which



*) See memoirs of Edward Alleyn pag. 5!



JO

Las for more than a century been overwhelmed by a cloud of


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Online LibraryViktor UellnerA critical examination of the poetic genius of Ben Jonson → online text (page 1 of 6)