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Lines 14-15 of the speech of Envy in Poetaster give us the time Jonson spent on composition:
These fifteene weekes (So long as since the plot was but an embrion). It is evident also that when Jonson was at work on Poetaster, he had reason to believe that Dekker was already engaged upon a counter-attack; for Histrio (3. 4. 338-342) speaks of Dekker as 'one DEMETRIVS, a dresser of plaies about the towne, here; we haue hir'd him to abuse HORACE [i. e. Ben Jonson], and bring him in, in a play, with all his gallants: as, TIBVLLVS, MECQNAS, CORNELIVS GALLVS, and the rest.' When Jonson writes, moreover, it is still early enough in 1601 for him to speak of 'this winter, which has made Histrio's company of adult actors poorer than so many starved snakes, and this seems to be an allusion to the success of the children's companies during the winter of 1600-1601 particularly. In the year 1600 the Chapel Children had been playing Jonson's Cynthia's Revels at the Blackfriars, hence the hint that the adult players have retained Demetrius in order to attack the successful dramatist and regain their own lost patronage. Lastly, note lines 180-1 of the Apologetical Dialogue of Poetaster:
Pol. Yes: they say you are slow, And scarse bring forth a play a yeere. Avthor. 'Tis true. In this connection, we must turn to Cynthid's Revels, entered Sta. Reg. May 23, 1601. Small (Stage-Quarrel 24) finds internal evidence placing the production of this play in the latter part of 1600, perhaps as late as February or March, 1600-1. So we cannot go back of, say March, 1601, for the inception of Poetaster; nor can its first production take us forward of December, 1601. Ordinarily, we should not expect to find another play produced by Jonson until the late winter of 1601-1602, but in the case of Poetaster he was laboring to anticipate a probable dramatic satire on the part of Dekker, Marston, and the adult players. We may suppose, then, that Jonson began work on Poetaster soon after the production of Cynthia's Revels, which would be early in March, 1601. The fifteen weeks devoted to composition would place the first staging of our play sometime in June, 1601. Before accepting this date, however, let us draw what inferences we fairly may from Dekker's play.
The date of entry of Satiromastix is November 11, 1601; and, since the play abounds in phrases, situations, allusions, and names taken from Poetaster, we are certain that both plays were on the boards sometime before November, 1601. Satiromastix, then, was being acted before November: but it must have been largely composed after the appearance of Poetaster which it parodies. And, as Dekker (Works, 1873, I. 202) scoffs at even the fifteen weeks devoted to Poetaster as too long a time, he must himself be understood as having composed the reply in considerably less time—say in six or eight weeks. His known speed and fertility make this wholly probable. This allowance to Dekker for the production of Satiromastix after the appearance of Poetaster would push our terminus ad quem for the latter back to probably the first of October.
Some particular fifteen weeks, therefore, between February, 1600-1601, and October, 1601, is the time in which Poetaster was in process of composition. The performance of the play may have begun as early as June, which is the month set by Small. I am inclined, however, to accept Fleay's opinion that Satiromastix was first produced in September; to believe that it was written about August; and to place the first appearance of Poetaster in late July, 1601.
D. LITERARY SOURCES In order to give some idea of the method of composition pursued in Poetaster, it is purposed to cite here the principal passages and situations found in classical authors of which Jonson, by virtue of his learning and his peculiar theories of the drama, in this instance availed himself. Jonson's defense of his practice may be found in Poetaster 5. 3. 375-8, and in the Discoveries, on Imitation.
E. 31-2. Cf. Aeneid 3. 175.
1. I. 47–88. The translation of Ovid, El. 1. 15, in so far as it presents a problem of authorship, is fully discussed elsewhere in this Introduction. As a piece of literature, it may be said to preserve something of the brevity and force of the Latin, while its want of Ovid's ease and elegance is not surprising. To turn 42 lines of Latin verse into 42 lines of English, and still to be clear, is something of an achievement.
I. 2. Scene 2 of act i is largely indebted to Ovid, Trist. 4. 10. 17-26, this being especially noticeable in 1. 2. 78-98 of the play. With lines 25–6 of Ovid, cf. Poetaster 1. 3. 89.
2. 2. 120 ff., 201 ff. Gifford and others have noted that the characterization of Hermogenes in the second scene of act 2 is merely an elaboration of Horace, Sat. 1. 3. 1-8.
2. 2. 173-182, 189-198. Whalley was the first to note that the outline of Hermogenes' song is found in Martial, Epig. I. 57
2. 2. 186–7. Cf. Horace, Sat. 1. 9. 25. Compare also Poetaster 3. 1. 190–2 with Sat. 1. 10. 90-I.
2. 2. 211-3. Cf. Horace, Sat. 1. 3. 1-3.
Act 3, scenes 1, 2 and 3. Gifford, who combines these three scenes into one, remarks: ‘This scene is little more than a translation of Hor. Lib. I. Sat. IX. It is far from ill done; and yet, methinks, Jonson might have found a happier method of introducing himself.'
Now Horace's satire contains 78 lines, which we here find expanded into three scenes, comprising 325 lines. Allowing liberally for the compression and pithiness of the Latin, it is still clear that Jonson, who is never given to useless verbiage, must have produced something more than a mere translation of Horace, Sat. 1. 9. Jonson has contributed to the interest and the dramatic effect by his eleven preliminary lines, including the lyric, which is graceful and in character. Lines 23-30 of our text are Jonson's. The theme for lines 31-123 of the play is furnished by lines of the satire:
Cuin quidlibet ille
In lines 124-140 Jonson keeps fairly close to lines 14-19 of his source. Lines 141-171 are Jonson's. Lines 172–293 of the play carry us over lines 20-60 of the satire. Lines 294-9 are interpolated.
The 29 lines of scene 2 cover lines 60 6–74 a of Horace, but Jonson has dropped the allusion to the Jews and contributed what was, considering his purpose, an excellent touch in the allusion to Mæcenas. This scene is as far from mere translation as Gifford could wish, one would think. Lines 74b-78 of the satire furnish the slight suggestion necessary for the dramatic action and animated dialogue of the 28 lines of scene 3.
I submit, then, that if Jonson's translating had never gone farther or fared worse than in this instance, one might have wished him even more given to invasion and pillage than he was.
3. 5. The Horace-Trebatius dialogue was not in quarto 1602. The 86 lines of Horace, Sat. 2. I are here expanded to 140 lines. The more interesting resemblances and differences between the English and the Latin are given in the Notes, but a few others should be mentioned.
Lines 37-42 are an awkward and somewhat obscure rendering of
Quanto rectius hoc, quam tristi laedere versu
The lines made prominent with quotation-marks by Jonson were favorites of his in these times of bulldozing the public and quarrelling with fellow authors. Horace's line 23 was quoted in the dedication to Volpone, 1607.
As has been pointed out by H. Reinsch (Ben Jonson's Poetik 114) lines 3. 5. 51-53 of Poetaster involve one of Jonson's rare mistranslations. Sat. 2. I. 31-2—
Neque, si male gesserat, usquam
Nor, in things vniust,
3. 5. 77–8. Cf. Sat. 2. I. 46: Flebit et insignis tota cantabitur urbe. This theme is developed in 4. 3. 115 ff. of our play. 5. 3. 103-4 What? when the man that first did satyrize,
Durft pull the skin ouer the eares of vice; &c. This is a somewhat too literal rendering of Sat. 2. 1. 62-4:
Quid? cum est Lucilius ausus
Detrahere et pellem, &c.
extinguish fear and cares: So doon, draw thou his cursed skin,
strait over both his eares. I will see the office doon, and that before mine eyes. Finally, Reinsch (p. 114) notes a change of idea in Jonson:
Esto, si quis mala: sed bona si quis
Solventur risu tabulae; tu missus abibis (Sat. 2. 1. 83-6), becomes in Poetaster, 3. 5. 130-6:
I, with lewd verses; such as libels bee,
Were Caesar iudge, and with the makers grace.