Ben Jonson in the Romantic Age.
According to the standard accounts, the Romantic age seems to have been both friend and foe to Jonson: it managed to see Jonson anew and, most would agree, better; but it also, and rather ironically, managed
to lose sight of him. As often, Shakespeare was Jonson's problem. Having previously been forced to play the role of dull foil in arguments on behalf of Shakespeare's bright genius, once Shakespeare's greatness was agreed, Jonson was allowed to be himself again. Yet, as Jonson had largely been seen to be of interest just because of his role as Shakespeare's envious antithesis, a friendly Jonson was left to wander quietly in the cultural margins.
As Ben Jonson in the Romantic Age shows, the standard accounts need revision. Jonson's influence, while not growing, continues to be significant throughout the years from 1776 to 1850. Lockwood characterizes that influence with an understated theoretical sophistication as he examines, in successive chapters, Jonson's theatrical, critical, editorial, and literary afterlives. These chapters offer a wealth of new information and correctives to previous accounts. The retrieval of the detail of Jonson's afterlives is, however, only half of Lockwood's story; he is equally interested in seeing how Jonson's presence can enrich our understanding of the Romantic age. Following D. F. McKenzie and Jerome J. McGann, Lockwood considers the cultural networks within which the period's engagements with Jonson occurred and which gave those engagements their historically specific meaning. The point made repeatedly and well is that who Jonson was seen to be and what his works were seen to represent were questions both contestable and contested; Jonson was, in other words, a lively cultural presence.
How important, then, was Jonson to the Romantic age? Taking Coleridge as his key figure, Lockwood argues that Jonson is central to the age's understanding of the nature of imitation and allusion. In a deft and historically nuanced analysis, Coleridge's understanding of literary relationships is seen to be a product both of his thinking about the nature of Milton's relationship with Jonson and also of his thinking about the then topical 'bullion debate', which concerned the nature of the relationship between paper money and gold and silver. Lockwood suggests that Coleridge saw his and others' poems as the equivalent of a paper currency, as the promissory notes that might substitute for, or replace entirely, Jonsonian and other literary bullion.
Jonson's creative influence, then, was clearly significant, but Lockwood does not try to suggest that it was anywhere near the equal of Shakespeare's or Milton's influence. Francis Waldron's edition and continuation of Jonson's The Sad Shepherd (1783) seems exemplary here. Lockwood makes good use of this play to show the variety and interrelated nature of the audiences to whom Jonson was of interest. What one might also note is the way in which Waldron's able and sensible continuation gradually loses its Jonsonian voice. Acts I and II show Jonson, unusually, engaging on a large scale and positively with Spenser, and particularly with The Faerie Queene. However, in the following three acts, which were written by Waldron, Jonson's presence fades as the influence of Spenser recedes, to be replaced by that of Shakespeare and, in particular, The Tempest. Even for Jonson's greatest admirers, it seems it was impossible to imagine his plays in any but Shakespearean terms.
University of Bristol
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|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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