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The poet of labor: authorship and property in the work of Ben Jonson.


I want to start by revisiting a traditional distinction between Shakespeare, the poet of nature who never blotted a line, and Jonson, who blotted so many that he became famous for slow and laborious composition. I would rediscover this distinction in the briefest work that either poet ever produced: their names.

To put things as simply as possible, Shakespeare never bothered to regularize the spelling of his name, either in his personal practice or in the practice of others; Jonson, on the other hand, did. The evidence on both sides is extensive. In Shakespeare's case, the surviving signatures point in various different orthographic directions; he is "William Shakspere," "William Shakspeare," "Willm Shaksp," etc. (1) Quarto title-pages offer further variants, including "Shakespeare," "Shake-speare," and "Shak-speare," (2) while the whimsy of the poet's contemporaries produces spellings as remarkable as "Shaxpere" and "Shakspeer." (3) It would remain for later figures, arguably beginning with Edmond Malone, to try and impose some uniformity on this wilderness. (4)

For Jonson, the case is largely reversed. His name--as commonplace in the sixteenth century as in the twentieth--had already acquired something like a de facto orthographic regularity, and as a result Jonson seems to have sought to personalize it by deleting the usual "h." In David Riggs's words, Jonson "changed the spelling of his own last name" so as to "proclaim ... his uniqueness"; (5) yet Marchette Chute notes that

It was a policy to which his contemporaries paid no attention. His friends and his enemies went on spelling his name with an h, and even the printers stopped co-operating as soon as Jonson was no longer there to watch them. (6)

Chute may overstate the bibliographical record here, but the general point holds. Quarto title-pages call the poet "Iohnson" until 1605; then his mature Horatian persona asserts itself in Sejanus, Volpone, Epicoene, The Alchemist, and the 1616 folio; (7) thereafter, "Iohnson" creeps back into the printings of 1631 and 1640, resurfaces in advertisements for the folio of 1692, and reappears on the title-pages of the 1710, 1716, 1729, 1732, and 1738 editions. (8) Meanwhile, Jonson's contemporaries displayed a perverse consistency in the spelling of his name; among the sixteen legal documents that Herford and Simpson reprint in their edition of Jonson's work, the "h" is virtually everywhere-except in Jonson's own signatures on two depositions. (9) Moreover, the poet's surviving autographs tell much the same story; he drops the "h" from his name in 1605, apparently just after his imprisonment for Eastward Ho. (10)

This pattern is hard to ignore. It conveys the overall impression of an author finding himself, in part, through literary revision of his own name--revision that he then sought, with uneven success, to impose upon printers and colleagues. Furthermore, this point may be urged as a commonplace of Shakespeare/Jonson scholarship, distinguishing the poet of nature from his pedantic, obstreperous colleague, and making Jonson the forebear of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary scholarship, with its rage for order. Where Shakespeare appears to have been genuinely indifferent to the alienating capacities of print, Jonson spent considerable time and energy trying to govern them; it is hardly surprising, therefore, that his efforts to do so should begin with the two most intimate--and arguably the two most important--words in his vocabulary.

Of course, it is suspiciously easy to draw such distinctions between Shakespeare and Jonson, and the present essay seeks in part to explain why. In fact, matters are a good deal more complicated than the preceding contrast implies, for Jonson's progressive tendencies are confused and qualified by various circumstances. First of all, he is no paragon of neoclassical regularity; he takes an unprecedented first step toward the neoclassical ideal, but his practice is not always consistent with his theory. Moreover, his irregularity is sometimes the most forward-looking thing about him; thus A. C. Partridge's old-style philological study of Jonson's accidence has noted the extent to which the poet's use of the possessive genitive introduces new forms while clinging to old ones at the same time. (11) In such cases (and the genitive of ownership is important for this essay), Jonson's tendency to re-think and re-systematize the structures of grammar generates considerable initial confusion. And further, such rethinking is done in the name of fundamentally reactionary goals, commensurate with a revival of Horatian classicism. To this extent, the novelty of Jonson's work derives not from his own determination to move in new directions, but rather from his inability to move in old ones; (12) his classicism falls victim to the discouraging fact that he does not live in Augustan Rome. Any effort to characterize Jonson as an avatar of the neoclassical literary dispensation must take all these facts into account.

Still, Jonson's concern with his name remains. It is thoroughly conventional in exploiting the literary valences of the author's subjectivity ("John Donne, Ann Donne, undone"); however, it also marks an attempt to restrict the scope of such exploitation by denying others the right to participate in it. Jonson's name is to be Jonson's alone, not clapper-clawed by the multitude. By way of contrast, the paronomasial quality of Shakespeare's nameplay in sonnets 135 and 136 (to take two obvious instances) tends to problematize the self, rather than to assert or define it; lines like "Think all but one, and me in that one Will" serve to elide the poet with the surrounding world--to make him individually unthinkable, or at least indistinct. Compare Jonson's warning, in Timber, or Discoveries, that "we must not play, or riot too much with [words], as in Paranomasies"; (13) from this standpoint, names become first and foremost something one works with: a product of labor, and of individual labor at that. As such, moreover, they begin to acquire the legal character of other such products; they become personal property. And as product and property-indeed, as that unique property that serves to denominate its own owner--one's name also comprises a primary and crucial marker of personal identity. For Jonson, thus, one's linguistic work and possessions define one's nature in a fundamental way.

That, briefly, is the position that grounds this essay, and the essay itself aims to trace the development of Jonson's attitudes toward literary work while delineating the difficulties attendant upon them. As for the attitudes themselves: although Jonson generally presents them as a return to Horatian classicism, they derive a novel character from the emergent dynamics of the early modern literary marketplace. Horace's emphasis upon the enclosed authorial sensibility--integer vitae scelerisque purus--gains unexpected resonance from Renaissance Europe's new capacities for turning authorship into profit; likewise, Horace's celebration of authorial control demands reevaluation in light of Renaissance conflicts between patriarchal absolutism (manifested on the literary level via patronage relations) and early capitalism (as represented by Jonson's various popular audiences). Thus Jonson's views on authorship become surprisingly revolutionary in their social deployment, and I believe this fact accounts for much of the acrimony that surrounds Jonson's career and cult of individual personality. Moreover, the very terms in which Jonson promotes himself and his work are ironically rendered innocuous by virtue of their eventual acceptance, and this fact helps account for Jonson's perpetual status as second-best in the world of Renaissance English letters.

To pursue this argument, I will proceed through a brief reading of Timber, or Discoveries--the prose work in which Jonson states most clearly what he thinks an author should be and do, and in which Jonson's emphasis on authorial labor most clearly and problematically emerges; to a survey of the general strategies whereby Jonson seeks to implement his philosophy of authorship within his career at large; and then to a brief summary of contemporary reactions to the idea of Jonsonian authorship. Most immediately, this procedure serves a traditional view of Jonson and Shakespeare as antitheses in the realm of literary-historical discourse: Jonson with his formidable learned sock, Shakespeare warbling his native wood-notes. This oppositional construction was certainly available in the seventeenth century. Jonson himself, when in the mood, pointed to Shakespeare's lack of "art"; (14) for his part, Shakespeare seems to have sought (for instance in the War of the Theaters) to distance himself from Jonson's pedantry; and Heminges and Condell insisted that Shakespeare was "a happie imitator of Nature," and that "what he thought, he vttered with that easinesse, that we haue scarse receiued from him a blot in his papers." (15) Yet if Shakespeare has been designated the poet of nature, slow-labored Jonson also makes his claim to the same distinction, repeatedly and with vigor. The problem for Jonson, however, is that his vision of nature is itself so obviously and (given its novelty) so necessarily factitious; through its emphasis upon the artifice in literary art, Jonson's writing repeatedly suggests that nature itself is a product of work and not a preexistent essence. To this extent, Jonson's essays in literary essentialism are inevitably self-discrediting, whereas Shakespeare coincidentally has little self left to discredit at all. His work thus becomes a much more congenial vehicle for critical pronouncements upon the nature of nature.


Jonson clearly and consistently regards words as an index of human nature. In a famous passage from Timber he thus declares that

Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind. No glasse renders a mans forme, or likenesse, so true as his speech. (8:625)

For Jonson, one's words surpass one's external image because they represent the inner person--the real thing, the mind, which otherwise passeth show. As Jonas Barish comments of this passage, "speech [for Jonson] provides the truest index to [one's] disposition and moral health"; (16) indeed, it seems to be an index of one's mental health, too. Thus Jonson insists that literary study is

in vaine, without a naturall wit, and a Poeticall nature in chiefe. For, no man, so so one as he knowes this, or reades it, shall be able to write the better; bur as he is adapted to it by Nature, he shall grow the perfecter Writer. (8:640)

This argument tends to represent the articulate citizen as essentially superior to others; to this extent, it supports what Arthur Ferguson has called an "emerging ideal" of Renaissance citizenship "founded upon a regard for the written--and published--word" and diverging from classical models of civic and military virtue. (17) Moreover, the most superior of all superior citizens is apparently the poet. As Jonson explains, the poet "is the neerest Borderer upon the Orator, and expresseth all his vertues, though he be tyed more to numbers; is his equall in ornament, and above him in his strengths" (8:640). Given such excellence, poets transcend the law; they are not to be restricted by external standards of linguistic usage, for they serve a higher authority:

I am not of the opinion to conclude a Poets liberty within the narrowe limits of lawes, which either the Grammarians, or Philosophers prescribe. For, before they found out those Lawes, there were many excellent Poets, that fulfill'd them ... Which of the Greekelings durst ever give precepts to Demosthenes? or to Pericles ... ? or to Alcibiades, who had rather Nature for his guide, then Art for his master? (8:641)

Yet in making such capacious claims for poetry, Jonson simultaneously violates the categories of sense that he himself has established. Poets should not be bound to laws because, apparently, they "fulfill" those laws anyway and in fact define the law for others; to this extent, the poetic freedom that Jonson advocates turns out to be servitude writ large. Moreover, not only is poetic freedom not free; poetry apparently is not poetry, either. Exploiting a philological slippage noted very long ago by Burckhardt, (18) Jonson conflates the disciplines of verse and oratory (disciplines he had carefully distinguished and hierarchized only one page earlier) when he praises the poetic faculties of Demosthenes, Pericles, and Alcibiades. As a result of such equivocations, the passage's concluding distinction between "Nature" (the unfree freedom of the [un]poet) and "Art" (whatever that is) is left gutted and for most practical purposes useless.

Such confusion is not accidental. It arises because Jonson's poetics emphasize art as well as nature, and Jonson therefore needs a formula to reconcile the conflicting claims of these two terms. His standard way of making them agree is to inflect and qualify his distinctions until they no longer remain distinct at all; as Richard Peterson has observed, "Nature and Art are ... so closely related [in Jonson's work] as to be almost indistinguishable in their effects." (19) Peterson points out that this fact lends Jonson's work a distinctive balance and flexibility; yet at the same time, as the present essay would add, it tends to make that work seem disturbingly glib, built on contradictions dignified by the title of paradox. Immediately after his equivocai paean to Demosthenes and Alcibiades, for instance, Jonson pays tribute to Aristotle--who, we learn, does not really differ from the others at all in terms of practice:

Whatsoever Nature at any time dictated to the most happie, or long exercise to the most laborious; that the wisdome, and Learning of Aristotle, hath brought into an Art: because, ... what other men did by chance or custome, he doth by reason. (8:641)

In other words, Aristotle's art is natural; Demosthenes' nature is artful; and the former differs from the latter only insofar as it evolves from reason rather than "chance or custome." (Indeed this distinction, too, could prove suspect if investigated, implying, as it does, that Demosthenes composed at random.) The means vary, but the end remains the same, and thus Jonson's discrimination between art and nature becomes virtually inapplicable to individual works by individual authors; it remains a product of critical fiat rather than of stably observable literary effects.

To "speake that I may see thee": if this is the end of language, then one's linguistic labor arguably affects and helps comprise one's individual essence. There is a constant danger, in other words, that one's identity will turn out to be inseparable from one's literary deeds--that, far from expressing "the most retired, and inmost parts of us," language will prove repeatedly and incontestably that those parts just do not exist except on the page. Thus Jonson's remarks on the discipline of writing tend to unsettle the idea of personal nature in the very act of confirming it. For example, he exhorts his readers to revise and perfect their individuality through the medium of print: "To [the] perfection of Nature in our Poet, wee require Exercise of those parts, and frequent" (8:637). But the principal such exercise is imitation, and imitation aims to make the poet over in the image of others:

If his wit will not arrive soddainly at the dignitie of the Ancients, let him not yet fall out with it, ... but come to it againe upon better cogitation; try ah other time, with labour. If then it succeed not, cast not away the Quills, yet: nor scratch the Wainescott, beate not the poore Desk; but bring all to the forge, and file, againe; tourne it a new. (8:637-38)

It is interesting in itself to see Jonson, with his proverbial antagonism for the working classes, (20) casting the writer in the Horatian role of blacksmith; more interesting still is the effect of such metaphorization. For the manual labor of literary exercise ultimately changes the laborer; as Jonson explains, "Imitation" allows the scholar

to convert the substance, or Riches of an other Poet, to his owne use. To make choice of one excellent man above the rest, and so to follow him, 611 he grow very Hee: or so like him, as the Copie may be mistaken for the Principall. (8:638)

This leaves the reader, and the writer, at an impasse. If one's literary work expresses one's inward nature, that nature itself becomes articulable only through the internalization of another writer's sensibility. And despite Richard Peterson's insistence that this internalization is supposed to be partial and discriminating, (21) passages like the foregoing suggest exactly the contrary. One is to become a kind of literary tapeworm, inhabiting the corpus of a classical author so as "to concoct, divide, and turne all into nourishment" (8:638; my italics). This process, pursued consciously over a prolonged period, will lead to the absolute assimilation of the host by the parasite--consummated in a triumphant and epiphanic moment when "the Copie may be mistaken for the Principall." Then, and only then, may one's "retired" and "inward" parts emerge fully and perfectly to view: when the author has effectively become someone else.


If parasitism supplies one possible metaphor for this process of literary assimilation, theft constitutes another. Indeed, just as the social parasitism of a Mosca ora Brainworm (whose names, of course, are carefully concocted to signal their natures) involves usurping the property of others, so the pursuit of Jonsonian imitation leads to what we could now call borderline plagiarism and misrepresentation. This fact derives in part from Jonson's classicism, and thus Jonathan Bate has noted that "what we might condemn as plagiarism, classical culture would have praised as imitation." (22) But Bate's remark unfortunately implies that the opposition between plagiarism and imitation was a settled one for the seventeenth century. It clearly was not, either in theory or (especially) in practice, (23) and thus Jonson's efforts to promote himself through this opposition plunge him into an abyss of controversy. As John Dryden observed in the Essay of Dramatick Poesy--nicely betraying the flimsiness of distinctions between imitation and theft--Jonson "was not onely a professed Imitator of Horace, but a learned Plagiary of all the other [classical poets]." (24) Indeed, Jonson's tendency to lift whole passages out of ancient sources was famous even in his own day, and given the legal and practical economy of late medieval textual transmission, such thefts would be largely unremarkable. But with Jonson they become remarkable, for Jonson is virtually unparalleled among Jacobean poets in the intense proprietary interest he exerts over the products of his own literary labor. He voraciously consumes others' texts in the process of producing his own; then he jealously insists that what he has produced belongs to him and to no one else.

This jealousy asserts itself in various ways. The gradually ripening dispute with Inigo Jones, for instance, presupposes a deep division between the two men on the question of who really creates (and therefore owns) their masques; in Joseph Loewenstein's words, the Jonson-Jones dispute "is a quarrel about the very ontology of the work of art." (25) Moreover, it is a quarrel in which Jonson seeks systematically to muscle his colleagues out of the sphere of authorship; as early as The Masque of Blackness Jonson carefully asserts-despite passing credits to his colleagues--that the work's "inuention was deriued by me" (7:169); moreover, his growing tendency to slight his collaborators culminates with the notorious second-billing of Jones in the 1631 quarto of Love's Triumph through Callipolis. To this extent, Jonson establishes his authorship/ownership of the masques by displacing and disparaging his co-authors--by presenting their errors as theirs ("The Painters ... lent small colour to any". [The Masque of Beauty 273-74]), while absorbing their successes into his own. Indeed, the 1631 text of Love's Triumph is itself an act of the purest Jonsonian imitation: a literary re-creation of a prior event (performance) that was itself an assimilation of still other prior events in the spheres of literary composition, musical composition, choreography, design, etc. The effect of such imitation is literally to urge that "the Copie" be (mis)taken--at least as far as questions of authorship go--"for the Principall," and that the masque therefore be translated into a specifically literary genre. As Stephen Orgel has pointed out, "if it were not for Ben Jonson, the court masque would hardly find a place in the history of literature"; (26) the fact that it does so is testimony both to Jonson's determination and to his insecurity. Almost single-handedly, he seeks to spirit the masque out of competing disciplinary circles and transform it into his personal literary property.

So Jonson's audiences are left with a curious and unresolved tension. On one hand, the poet seems to regard others' texts (and not just literary ones) as an open invitation to copy, imitate, and assimilate; on the other hand, he expends great effort to protect the boundaries of his own work--to render it inimitable and unassimilable. As Timothy Murray has observed, "Jonson's plays, poems, and prose berate the gleanings and pickings of the Renaissance playwright--actions of which he too was guilty--for the degradation of poetry and authors." (27) One of the first writers to introduce the term "plagiarism" into the English language,2s Jonson clearly worries that others may re-animate and re-possess his writing. He thus heaps preemptive scorn upon figures like the "Poet-Ape" of Epigram 61, who "From brocage is become so bold a thiefe, / As we, the rob'd, leaue rage, and pittie it" (3-4); and "Proule the Plagiary" (Epigram 81), who claims the author- of "all [he] hears" (5), and to whom Jonson therefore refuses to recite his verse; and "Play-Wright" (Epigram 100), of whom Jonson remarks that "Fiue of my iests, then stolne, past him a play" (4). Thus "Jonson's epigrams are full of those who have sullied the fair name of imitation by their thievery";29 what needs to be added is that the thefts in question seem almost always to be committed or threatened against the poet himself. Jonson practically never deploys the idea of plagiarism in a disinterested or abstract way; it has specific self-aggrandizing applications, concomitant with the poet's own search for literary distinction.

In short, one moral of Jonson's poetics would seem to be, "I write; more or less everybody else steals." Within Jonson's self-created realm of authorial property rights, this moral has a corollary: "My work is mine; everybody else's (to the extent that they work at all) is more or less mine as well." And finally, insofar as literary property is a product of labor, another corollary follows, involving the concept of work: "I work; everybody else more or less plays." (Recall Drummond's biting observation that Jonson "thinketh nothing well bot what either he himself, or some of his friends and Countrymen hath said or done" [1:151].) These attitudes--with the implicit interrelations between authorial genius, property-ownership, and labor that subtend them--receive their primary monumentalization in 1616, with the appearance of Jonson's Works. As David Riggs has noted, this volume "give[s] every appearance of having been written with labor"; (30) the title speaks for itself in this regard; and the operative verb of the folio's Horatian epigraph is "laboro." The painstakingly-produced 1616 Works are designed, in Richard Dutton's words, to be "a deliberate and selective account of [Jonson's] career, emphasising those elements which the eminent man of letters wished to commemorate and quietly expunging those he did not." (31) Jonson is to become one of Europe's first professional writers; his main tool for creating this new socioprofessional identity, and for installing himself within it, is the 1616 folio.

As a result, Jonson's Works cut squarely against the residual medieval tendency to disparage dramatic composition in the vulgar tongue. This point, although long recognized, is worth recalling in light of the epigrams that greeted Jonson's forays into folio publication. The poet's detractors insisted that his work was unworthy of being described as such--that "What others call a play, you call a work." (32) His proponents, on the other hand, strove vigorously to reaffirm Jonson's translation of dramatic writing into the realm of productive labor: "The Authors friend thus for the Author sayes, / Bens plays are works, when others works are plays." (33) The linkage between labor, property, and genius could scarcely be more naked: Jonson's writing is unlike anyone else's; it is unique because it is work; and because Jonson alone knows how to work, he is a better person than others and deserves canonization in folio. The book stands in for and proclaims the man, speaking that we may see him.

I take this complex of attitudes to be Jonson's single most revolutionary contribution to western literary history, leading as it does to the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century myth of isolated, elevated, and autonomous authorial genius. Samuel Johnson's construction of Shakespeare as "the poet of nature"--whose "characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpracticed by the rest of the world," (34) and whose ability to create universal characters suggests his own unique, essential universality--would be meaningless without some such underlying doctrine. Likewise, when Terence Hawkes refers to Shakespeare as a nineteenth-century "man of letters" (35)--and, more irreverently, as the "Phallus of the Golden Age," (36) whose individual "potency" can generate an entire cultural tradition--he is invoking notions of authorship that are self-consciously and programmatically advanced, for virtually the first time in English literary history, not by Shakespeare but by Jonson. To this extent, one could say that Jonson himself makes Shakespeare possible.

To put this argument differently: the Jonsonian idea of authorship--in which the author is a worker, producing distinct matter which serves to define his/her personal identity and over which s/he may exercise proprietary rights--helps change the general tenor of English literary praxis. It constitutes a new mode of professional activity and foregrounds a new sense of what is important and problematical about literature. Thus, for instance, Jonsonian authorship tends to focus upon certain matters that earlier authors regularly ignored: the question, for instance, of how and when (and what) an author should publish, and the concomitant question of how to describe writing as a general pursuit--whether as productive or unproductive, as legitimate professional activity or trivial amusement, etc. In addition, Jonson's model of the author takes on an unavoidably militant air, for it precipitates conflict between incompatible views of literary behavior: if writing is work and should be published as such, Renaissance traditions of avocational courtly authorship must sooner or later perish; as Joseph Loewenstein has observed, the notion of writing as labor requires a massive redefinition of the author's legal relations to the text; (37) etc. And by instigating such readjustment, Jonson's ideas pose a sustained threat to the livelihood of the preexistent authorial community, built as it is upon assumptions incompatible with Jonsonian theory. In John Sweeney's words, "the real issue" at the heart of Jonson's career "is who 'owns' Jonson's play, who has the right to determine the value and meaning of his labour." (38) From this issue, a host of others follow.

Moreover, Jonson's own importance in redefining the idea of authorship condemns him to a subsidiary role in later literary history, for any model of literary progress grounded in nature must be embarrassed by evidence of its own factitiousness. Insofar as literature is supposed to reflect and instantiate human essence--The Best That Has Been Thought And Said--it is imperative to represent that Best as a cumulative, continuously-developing body of expression, not marked by rupture, acrimony, or self-repudiation. Hence the real irony of Jonson's model of authorship is that Shakespeare, not he, should be retroactively constructed as its representative par excellence; as Jonathan Bate has acutely summarized the conventional wisdom of the Romantics, "it was Ben Jonson who used the phrase 'language, such as men do use,' but it was Shakespeare who forged tragedy from what Coleridge called the lingua communis." (39) This irony only becomes understandable in light of the very clearly artificial and labored quality of Jonson's work; such artifice speaks against the possibility of ever representing Jonsonian authorship itself as a natural, given, eternal, or universal thing. Instead, the best way to accomplish this latter task is to discover an ideal instance of Jonsonian authorship not in Jonson's own writing, but in that of someone less openly associated with revolutionary notions of authorial labor.


In effect, thus, the very radicalism of Jonson's literary theory forces him to the margins of the new literary history that he and it help to create. Those elements of his work that are most far-reaching and novel also generate a kind of benign critical neglect--or, to use T. S. Eliot's famous phrase, a "perfect conspiracy of approval" (40)--once the novelty has been institutionalized. If, as I think, Jonson was aware of this problem, it must have come close to breaking his heart; in any event, the poet's detractors were more than happy to point out the contradiction between his cult of authorial essence on the one hand and his assimilative tendencies on the other. Owen Felltham, in his "Answer" to Jonson's second "Ode to Himself," thus twits the poet,
      'Tis known you can do well,
      And that you do excell
   As a Translator: But when things require
      A genius and fire,
   Not kindled heretofore by others' pains;
      As oft y'have wanted brains
      And art to strike the White,
      As you have levell'd right. (41)

Henry Parrot describes the massive Latin translations that flesh out Jonson's plays as "feathers ... / Pluckt from a Swanne, and set vpon a Goose." (42) (Ironically, Parrot protests his own originality in another epigram, insisting that his verses "sauour not of stolne or borrowed taste"; (43) once the door was opened to such claims, it could scarcely be shut.) And again, Inigo Jones charges Jonson with having
   Of good and badd things, not with equall witt.
   The reason is, or may be quickly showne,
   The good's translation, butt the ill's thine owne. (44)

Indeed, a substantial body of contemporary opinion accuses Jonson of the very plagiarism that he ascribes to others. This attitude is too widely held to be dismissed out of hand. (45)

Moreover, this view of Jonson receives its classic statement in a work that also associates the poet's literary thievery with his reputation as a worker: Dekker's Satiromastix. Horace, the Jonson-figure in Satiromastix, seeks to compensate for his own lack of natural wit by collecting bits of faux-classical verse and patching them laboriously into a poem:
   O me thy Priest inspire.
   For I to thee and thine immortall name,
   In--in--in golden tunes,
   For I to thee and thine immortall name--
   In--sacred raptures, flowing, flowing, swimming, swimming:
   In sacred raptures swimming,
   Immortal name, game, dame, tame, lame, lame, lame,
   Pux, ha it, shame, proclaime, oh--
   In Sacred raptures flowing, will proclaime, not--
   O me thy Priest inspyre! (46)

This passage derives a peculiarly corrosive satirical quality from the sharp contrast between its overt content and the poet's efforts at composition; Horace/Jonson emerges as a literary poseur intent upon confusing the processes of labor with the "Sacred raptures" of the poet-priest. To this extent, Dekker's play aims to exploit the latent conflict between work and essential identity at the heart of Jonsonian literary theory. Insofar as the poet takes pains with his writing, he betrays his intrinsically unpoetical nature.

If, for Dekker, there is something fundamentally ridiculous about Jonson's characterization of literature as work, the ridiculousness is amplified when Jonson claims his works to be property. Insofar as he is not naturally a poet, his inspiration must come from others; insofar as this is so, his claims to ownership of literary material are vitiated from the outset; and hence Dekker's play ultimately forces Horace/Jonson to swear "not to bumbast out a new Play, with the olde lynings of Iestes, stolne from the Temples Reuels" (5.2.295-96). Likewise, Dekker draws attention to the characteristic Jonsonian practice of heaping contumely upon one's associates while claiming authorial credit and glory for oneself:

You [Horace] shall not sit in a Gallery, when your Comedies and Enterludes haue entred their Actions, and there make vile and bad faces at euerie lyne, to make Sentlemen haue an eye to you, and to make Players afraide to take your part.... Besides, you must foresweare to venter on the stage, when your Play is ended, and to exchange curtezies, and complements with Gallants in the Lordes roomes, to make all the house rise vp in Armes, and to cry that's Horace, that's he, that's he. (5.2.298-307)

Thus, even as early as 1602, Satiromastix presents the entire constellation of opinions and rhetorical habits that typify Jonson's theory of authorship. The individual constituents of this theory--the emphasis upon labor, the problematical claims to originality, the concomitant tendency to charge others with plagiarism and incompetence, and the insistence that writing reflects one's inmost self--are not necessarily unique to Jonson; however, Jonson integrates them into a cohesive whole through the sheer energy of assertion and repetition. To this extent, he becomes one of early modern England's first self-conscious representatives of literature as vocation.

One possible consequence of this fact may be Jonson's proverbial hostility to the lower social ranks. Critics habitually note the disdain that his plays express for the "vnderstanding Gentlemen o' th' ground" (Bartholomew Fair, Induction. 49-50). (47) However, Jonson's emphasis upon literary labor tends to place the poet outside of the residual social hierarchy which he celebrates and to which he does nominal obeisance; thus "Jonson strove, with varying success, to remain independent of courtly ambition ... even as he sought status, recognition, and support there." (48) In sum, the moment the poet identifies work as a privileged vehicle for the construction of personal identity, he alienates himself from the very social superiors whom it is his task to please and to propitiate. An elaborately-conceived antagonism to the lower social ranks may serve to compensate for this embarrassment, while the actual source of embarrassment itself--Jonson's covert sympathy with the idea of labor--survives unobtrusively at other levels of discourse. Surely Jonson's use of artisanal metaphors deserves attention in this light--particularly because these metaphors themselves comprise a reworking, in new sociopolitical circumstances, of an old Horatian commonplace. (49) Not only does Timber present the author as a laborer whose job it is to "forge, and file, [and] tourne" his lines; it also explicitly insists that "A Poeme ... is the work of the Poet; the end, and fruit of his labour" (8:636); and Jonson triumphantly resurrects his image of the blacksmith's forge in "To the Memory of my beloued, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare: And what he hath left us":
        That he,
   Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
      (Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
   Vpon the Muses anuile: turne the same,
      (And himselfe with it) that he thinkes to frame;
   Or for the lawrell, he may gaine a scorne,
      For a good Poet's made, as well as borne.

The upshot of such painstaking exertion is that "the race / Of Shakespeares minde, and manners brightly shines / In his well torned, and true-filed lines" (66-68); he has preserved his immutable essence, that is, by becoming a literary tool-and-die worker.

Elsewhere, too, Jonson's works articulate a modest sympathy for the meaner sort. In A Tale of a Tub, for instance, Dame Turfe curtly orders Hannibal Puppy to carry wood, and he retorts sotto voce,
   I wood to the vier? I shall piss it out first:
   You thinke to make me ene your oxe, or asse;
   Or any thing. Though I cannot right myselfe
   On you; Ile sure revenge me on your meat.

In the same play, the servant Basket Hilts likewise descants upon the arrogance of the propertied ranks:
      A good Dog
   Deserves, Sir, a good bone, of a free Master:
   But, 'an your turnes be serv'd, the divell a bit
   You care for a man after, ere a Lard of you.
   Like will to like, y-faith, quoth the scab'd Squire
   To th' mangy Knight, when both met in a dish
   Of butter'd vish.

And again, there is the following passage from The Case is Altered, in which the servant Onion addresses Count Ferneze with reverent formality, only to receive a rude rebuke:

Count: Tut, tut, leaue pleasing of my honour Diligence, You double with me, come.

Onion: How: does he find fauh with Please his Honour? S'wounds it has begun a seruingmans speech, euer since I belongd to the blew order ...

Count: Whats that, you mutter sir? will you proceed?

Onion: Ant like your good Lordship.

Count: Yet more, Gods precious.

Onion: What, do not this like him neither? Count: What say you sir knaue?

Onion: Mary I say your Lordship were best to set me to schoole againe, to learne how to deliuer a message.


These workers' protests are crafted largely as asides, and in my opinion they comprise a generally-repressed corollary to Jonson's discourse of authorial labor. Onion, as his repeated attempts at formal speech are spurned by Count Ferneze, resorts to the same level of exasperation typical of Jonson himself when an audience rejects his plays. As one of the poet's representatives says in The Magnetic Lady, likening playwriting to textile work for the instruction of the throng, "A good Play, is like a skeene of silke: which, if you take by the right end, you may wind off at pleasure ...: But if you light on the wrong end, you will pull all into a knot" (Induction. 136-41); apparently Count Ferneze and Jonson's hostile audiences have it in common that neither has ever actually worked a spool of cloth.

Of course, the very same plays in which the preceding passages occur also offer numerous examples of contrary rhetoric, in which Jonson reviles his humble contemporaries rather than sympathizing or identifying with them. They become a "rude barbarous crue, a people that haue no brains, and yet grounded iudgements," who "will hisse any thing that mounts aboue their grounded capacities" (The Case is Altered, 2.7.68-71). But such abuse does not obliterate the sympathy; it merely coexists with it, rather as a large and ill-tempered adolescent boy might coexist with his younger brother. For in the event, Jonson's model of authorship needs the sympathy as much as it does the vilification. Without strong views on the importance of labor, Jonson will lose his own best means of distinguishing himself and improving his lot; without a means of distancing himself from other laborers, he will either (a) succumb to what Peter Womack has called "the incipient proletarianizing of the writer by the theatre" (50) or (b) help improve everyone else's lot as well as his own, thereby making his personal attainments unremarkable. This is the essence of his professional dilemma: he must promote himself via the commonest of resources--hands, a mind, and a willingness to work--yet he must avoid amalgamating with those countless namesakes of his who possess, or may possess, roughly the same faculties themselves. He must distinguish himself, that is, from the Johnsons.


This essay began by examining Jonson's surname, for two major reasons. First, as itself a text subject to authorial vision and revision, the name usefully foregrounds Jonson's deep concern with the craft of making things from words. Moreover, as Jonson's name is, after all, Jonson's name, it signals the author's own commitment to reconceiving his personal identity and significance through the medium of his profession. To this latter extent, indeed, one may regard Jonson as the single most outstanding literary character in the Jonson canon. Himself a product of authorial labor, the author becomes one moving fiction among a host of others; moreover, just as the others--Volpone, Subtle, Brainworm, and so on--nonetheless remain subject to subsequent refictionalization through the media of performance, reading, literary history, etc., so does Jonson, too. His work--even his own name--becomes appropriable by others, and thus it resists Jonson's own insistence upon the determinacy of authorial labor, essence, and property.

To illustrate this argument one last time, I want to end where I began: with Jonson's surname itself. I had initially used it to reaffirm a fairly commonplace view of the distinction between Jonson and Shakespeare; Jonson's attempt to fix and control his identity through the materials of literary work would thus contrast with Shakespeare's seeming acquiescence in the processes of linguistic play. But this distinction grows more complicated in light of the editing to which Jonson's name would become subject in the two centuries after his death. For the "h" that he sought to exorcise from his life and work would return with the practice of printers in the 1630s, only to disappear again in the eighteenth century, when its absence frames a typographical distinction between the Jo(h)nsons Ben and Samuel. (51) Thus the very literary device that Jonson initially introduced as a means of marking his separateness from others reappears as a reminder that he is in fact not terribly separate at all--that there is more than one Jo(h)nson in the world, that more than one of them knows how to scribble, and that (to paraphrase Coleridge) there is a touch of Jo(h)nson in all of us to the extent that we as readers are responsible for sustaining the fiction of authorial integrity. As the other Johnson put it, after all, fame is like a shuttlecock; it must be hit to remain in the air, and it is readers, in this case, who must do the hitting.

Borges' classic short story "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" offers a resonant statement of the equivocai relation between author and reader--a statement, moreover, that applies to the distinction between Jonson's Jonson and Johnson's Jonson. Menard as author undertakes to reproduce perfectly what Menard as reader has processed in the past; the result, after much effort, is a letter-perfect replica of "the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of Part One of Don Quixote and a fragment of the twenty-second chapter." (52) Yet the very exactitude of Menard's copy generates vast semiotic disparities:

The fragmentary Don Quixote of Menard is more subtle than that of Cervantes. The latter indulges in a rather coarse opposition between tales of knighthood and the meager, provincial reality of his country; Menard ... disregards or proscribes local color. This disdain indicates a new approach to the historical novel.... Equally vivid is the contrast in styles. The archaic style of Menard--in the last analysis, a foreigner--suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his precursor, who handles easily the ordinary Spanish of his time. (51-53)

In short, "The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer" (52); Borges' ironic depreciation of the original Don Quixote playfully explodes the notion that literary property or value can be assigned to a particular individual or text. There is no space in Borges for a self-identical work of literature, or for a self-identical self.

"Pierre Menard" thus rehearses ex post facto the fate of Jonson's name (and the theory of authorship it represents) within the western hermeneutical tradition. Originally a marker of singularity, the name is generally ignored or (re)revised into a sign of nonoriginality. Yet when it reemerges in the eighteenth century, its very uniqueness is compromised in the gesture; the new Jonson arises from a literary dispensation committed to generalizing the old Jonson's peculiar emphasis upon himself as the source of literary labor, literary products, and literary value. Or, to put things a different way, the idea of the literary professional, so unpopularly promoted by Jonson in his own lifetime, has by the eighteenth century come to appear natural and unavoidable; yet insofar as literary professionalism becomes an accepted, "natural" category, it ceases to be Jonson's own. In the eventual triumph of his ideas on authorship, Jonson must surrender--insofar as he ever really had it--the unique character of his literary identity. To win this game, as David Lodge has somewhere said, is to lose. But then, to lose is also to lose. (53)

Florida State University


(1) For full transcripts of the documents in question, see E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), 2:90-95 and 154-80. The six signatures have been photographically reproduced in--among other places--G. Blakemore Evans et al., eds. The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1696.

(2) In their facsimile edition of Shakespeare's Plays in Quarto (U. of California Press, 1981), Michael Allen and Kenneth Muir reproduce twenty-three title pages, thirteen of which mention Shakespeare by name. Of these thirteen, ten give the now-regular spelling, one (Q1 of Hamlet) gives "Shake-speare," one (Lear) gives "Shak-speare," and one (The Two Noble Kinsmen) gives "Shakspeare."

(3) Evans et al., 1828.

(4) See Margreta de Grazia, Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 86-87, for a summary of Malone's efforts to standardize Shakespeare's name on the basis of his signature. De Grazia notes the obvious problem with such efforts when she asks, "If each of the signatures consisted of different letters and of differently formed letters, how could any one be singled out as the original" of a typographically-regularized name?" (87).

(5) David Riggs, Ben Jonson: A Life (Harvard U. Press, 1989), 114.

(6) Marchette Chute, Ben Jonson of Westminster (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1953), 18-19 n.

(7) I have based these and the following figures on the historical survey of Jonson's early texts included in C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, eds., Ben Jonson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-1952), 9:3-159. Herford and Simpson list seventeen quarto (and one octavo) editions of Jonson's plays before 1669, together with the folios of 1616 and 1640 and the abortive printing of 1631. Of these, the editions prior to 1605 never give "Jonson" or "Ionson" on the title-page; beginning with the quarto Sejanus, "Jonson" and "Ionson" appear uninterruptedly until 1631--by which time Jonson's age and ill-health seem to have partly impaired his ability to supervise printing. The quarto editions of Jonson's masques follow the same trend.

(8) Herford and Simpson, 9:88, 129, 136, and 152-53.

(9) See Herford and Simpson, 1:217-49. Of these records, only one-Jonson's 1621 warrant for the reversion of the mastery of the revels (1:237-39)--spells Jonson's name without the "h." In addition, there is one document--a 1621 deed of assignment (1:236-37)--that bears Jonson's signature with the "h." I take this to be the exception that proves the rule.

(10) See Herford and Simpson 11:3-4; 1:190-216; 7:147, 279, and 277-317; 8:371-72, 384, 402-8, and 666.

(11) A. C. Partridge, The Accidence of Ben Jonson's Plays and Masques: With an Appendix of Comparable Uses in Shakespeare (Cambridge, England: Bowes and Bowes, 1953), 41-55. Partridge particularly notes that "the language of the last decade of the 16th C and the first quarter of the next was undergoing fairly rapid modification" (8), that "indications of this are found ... in the increased use of 's for the possessive genitive" (8), and that "no passage from Shakespeare could offer the wealth of interest ... for the student of the possessive genitive" that Jonson's work affords (45). Since the present essay argues that Jonson's unique contribution to English literary history lies in his developing emphasis upon authorial labor and property, I find these remarks worthy of mention.

(12) Mark Gould (Revolution in the Development of Capitalism [U. of California Press, 1987], 204) has advanced a similar argument concerning the political policie of Jonson's patrons, the early Stuarts. According to Gould, "in endeavoring to maintain the king's traditional role in an altered society, Charles [I] helped to generate the reaction in which his powers were first circumscribed, and later ... effectively eliminated."

(13) Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-1952), 8:623. All references to Jonson's works are to this edition.

(14) Informations be Ben Johnston to W. D., in Herford and Simpson, 1:133. All references to Drummond are to this edition.

(15) Charlton Hinman, ed., The First Folio of Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), 7.

(16) Jonas Barish, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy (Harvard U. Press, 1960), 90.

(17) Arthur Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Duke U. Press, 1965), 154-155.

(18) Of Boccaccio's De Genealogia Deorum, in which the author "discusses the position of ... humanism with regard to the age," Burckhardt remarks that "we must not be misled by his exclusive references to poesia," for "he means thereby the whole mental activity of the poet-scholars" (Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S. G. C. Middlemore [New York: Harper and Row, 1958], 1:214). This concept of "whole mental activity" would of course authorize Jonson's conflation of oratory and poetry. However, other modes of distinction are available, as in Bartolommeo Facio's De Viris Illustribus Liber, which "divides ... famous men into nine classes, nearly all of them prefaced by remarks on their distinctive qualities," and two of which classes happen to be the Poets and the Orators (Burckhardt, 1:159 n.). Jonson's ambiguity in Discoveries seems to be an attempt to move between these two opposed modes of nomenclatural division.

(19) Richard Peterson, Imitation and Praise in the Poems of Ben Jonson (Yale U. Press, 1981), 183.

(20) See Judith Kegan Gardiner and Susanna Epp, "Ben Jonson's Social Attitudes: A Statistical Analysis," in Clifford Davidson et al., eds., Drama in the Renaissance: Comparative and Criticai Essays (New York: AMS Press, 1986), 90-95.

(21) Peterson, 8.

(22) Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 27.

(23) See Harold Ogden White, Plagiarism and Imitation During the English Renaissance (Harvard U. Press, 1935), for a summary of theoretical statements on this subject. In White's view, the dominant (although not the only) Renaissance attitude toward plagiarism and imitation elides literary property with literary value; thus "the writer who transforms what he takes from his predecessors into "as much and as good' is not in debt to his sources" (127). The practical uselessness of this attitudes is obvious; de gustibus non disputandum est.

(24) The Works of John Dryden, ed. H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., et al. (U. of California Press, 1971), 17:21.

(25) Joseph Loewenstein, "The Script in the Marketplace," Representations 12 (1985): 108.

(26) Stephen Orgel, ed., Ben Jonson: The Complete Masques (Yale U. Press, 1969), 2.

(27) Timothy Murray, "From Foul Sheets to Legitimate Model: Antitheater, Text, Ben Jonson," New Literary History 14.3 (1983): 650.

(28) Peterson, 18.

(29) Peterson, 18.

(30) Riggs, 238.

(31) Richard Dutton, Ben Jonson: To the First Folio (Cambridge U. Press, 1983), 11.

(32) Wits Recreations (London, 1641), sig. F4r. In addition, cf. Richard West's prefatory poem to Jacques Ferrand's Erotomania (Oxford, 1645), which disapproves of dedicatory verses' habitual claim that such-and-such a "Play / Exceeds all Johnson's Works" (sig. B7r); and Suckling's "Sessions of the Poets," in which Jonson claims "he deserv'd the Bayes, / For his were calld Works, where others were but Plaies" (21-22; in The Works of Sir John Suckling, ed. T. Clayton and L. A. Beaurline [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971]). Also note attempts, like that of John Eliot, to resituate the value of Jonson's writing within traditional patronage relations and thereby to discount Jonson's own agency as author. Eliot, commenting on Jonson's various epigrams to Richard Lord Weston, Lord High Treasurer, remarks that "they return'd you Ben as I was tould, / Acertam sum of forty pound in gold: / The verses then being rightly understood, / His Lordship not Ben Johnson made them good" (Poems [London, 1658], sig. B6r).

(33) Wits Recreations, sig. F4r.

(34) Samuel Johnson, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Frank Brady and W. K. Wimsatt (U. of California Press, 1977), 301.

(35) Terence Hawkes, That Shakespeherian Rag: Essays on a Critical Process (London: Methuen, 1986), 56.

(36) Hawkes, 60.

(37) Loewenstein, 102.

(38) John Sweeney, Jonson and the Psychology. of Public Theater (Princeton U. Press, 1985), 11.

(39) Bate, 209.

(40) T. S. Eliot, Essays on Elizabethan Drama (New York: Harcourt Brace, n.d.), 65.

(41) Lusoria: Or Occasional Pieces (London, 1661), sig. C1r.

(42) Laquei ridiculosi (London, 1613), sig. G1v.

(43) Parrot, sig. E5r.

(44) British Museum MS. Harley 6057, f. 30; qtd. in Herford and Simpson, 11:385.

(45) In Ben Jonson: The Critical Heritage, 1599-1798 (London: Routledge, 1990), D. H. Craig has brought together a good deal of matter on Jonson's literary borrowings. See especially 91-92, 102, 122, 234, 262, and 358-59.

(46) Thomas Dekker, Dramatic Works, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge U. Press, 1953), 1.2.8-17. Further references will be to this edition.

(47) John Sweeney thus writes of the "deep ... aggression" and "hostility" that Jonson displayed toward his popular audiences (13; 35; 123). Katharine Maus claims that "as his career proceeds, [Jonson] portrays his audience in less and less flattering ways" (Ben Jonson and the Roman Frame of Mind [Princeton U. Press, 1984], 149). Peter Stallybrass and Allon White note the urgency with which Jonson's plays insist upon "the abyss between the author and the vulgar" (The Politics and Poetics of Transgression [Cornell U. Press, 1986], 69). In addition, George Rowe's Distinguishing Jonson: Imitation, Rivalry, and the Direction of a Dramatic Career (U. of Nebraska Press, 1988) is of continuous interest as an analysis of Jonson's efforts to separate himself both from his audiences and from his theatrical/literary colleagues.

(48) Michael McCanles, Jonsonian Discriminations: The Humanist Poet and the Praise of True Nobility (U. of Toronto Press, 1992), 181.

(49) Cf. Jonson's translation of Horace's Ars Poetica 440-41 (627-28 in Jonson's translation): "Blot all: and to the anvile bring / Those ill-torn'd Verses, to new hammering."

(50) Ben Jonson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 19.

(51) Chute, 19 n.

(52) Ficciones, ed. Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 48. All references are to this edition.

(53) I am grateful to Peter Stallybrass, David Lee Miller, Julie Solomon, the 1992 Hudson Strode Seminar of the University of Alabama, and the editors and readers, of Philological Quarterly for various kinds of help with this essay. An abbreviated form of this work was also presented at the 1992 convention of the South Atlantic MLA; I want to thank session-chair Karen Cunningham, along with the other panelists and session participants, for their help with and comments on that presentation.
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Author:Boehrer, Bruce Thomas
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Date:Jun 22, 1993
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