« PreviousContinue »
A peculiarity, not to say a misfortune, of Poetaster is that it continually reminds us of greater plays, continually suggests, without attaining, the manner of consummate artists. It is patchwork, and the patches are not all purple. Its pedestrian, uncalled-for translations of Ovid and Virgil, its hints of Aristophanes, its travesty of Horace, make us question the vaunted classicism of Ben Jonson. The Augustan satirist lightly derides a fretting adversary, or passes him by with a glance of scorn; the Elizabethan roars at an offender, pursues him with jeer and blow, exults in an inglorious victory. Aristophanes, a seer and yet a conservative, goes singing into battle for ideals and principles that must be established if nations and literatures are not to be hollow at heart; Jonson, awaking in the radiant morning of Elizabethan song, lingers in the shadow of Roman ruins, calling upon the spirits of a yesterday that no poet's magic can restore. Dedicated to the classical ideal, Jonson, we are told, stood unalterably, unquestioningly for its embodiment in the present, and censured the followers of other gods because he believed those gods were false. But have we reached the core of the matter? What Jonson most clearly lacks, as we hear him in prologue, induction, and intermean, or see him in acknowledged characterizations of himself, is temperance, repose, detachment. If he is convinced that his own ideals of art are immortal, his own laureateship secure, why all this nervous challenge, this bitterness toward those who bow to a lesser sovereignty? His self-sufficiency is too blatant, his satire too mean and mirthless. In short, Jonson looms there in the Elizabethan world like an inspired Goth wrapped in a Roman toga, and we have not accounted for him.
What, then, was the secret of this anachronism, this poet with his acrid rages and his spiritual unrest? In the course of the present study I have come to regard Jonson as a being divided against himself, one who had rejected his own time and had in turn been rejected by the past. Intellectual bias and scholarly training had, as it were, delivered him a hostage to the ancient world, but was he in truth a classicist? The spirit of true classicism, zoned with the cestus of beauty, her palpitant bosom defended by the aegis of law, her brow exalted and profound, had this spirit yielded up the heart of her mystery to him? He beheld her there, shining in the distance, sought to win her with the spell of English rime, and then—to fit her with sock and buskin, disguise her in a prologue's cloak. The muse he won was not she: the real goddess, inspirer of all the Muses, mocked him with silvery laughter out of the lips of supposed barbarians all about him. For was there not in Marlowe, Spenser, Shakespeare, a new avatar of the old classicism? Jonson believed himself the heir of the Augustan age: Forum, Capitol, Appian Way, did indeed give up their secrets to him; but there was a glint in the eye of Horace, a dream-shadow on the brow of Virgil that he could not catch. The Acropolis also he knew, with its bronze Athene Promachos; Areopagites, heroes of Salamis, ivy-crowned dramatists, he had mingled with; but the serene wisdom in the face of Sophocles, the calm of the Phidian Zeus, the gleam of wings along the moonlit Parthenon, these were not for him.
So the ancient world seems not to have made him its own: but had he never been wooed by the breath of that English dawn? Surely, as youth and as poet, he must have felt the throb of the incoming tide, must have thrilled to the young prophetic voices. But here was a scholar-mind against a poet-soul, a man brought by heredity and mental discipline into conflict with his spiritual environment. The intellect, devoted to the learning of the past, sternly bade the futtering heart be still; but for him who had been impelled to write The Case is Altered at the outset of his career, and was destined to begin The Sad Shepherd at the close, could peace be thus attained ? No, the inward discord would not cease, nor the doubts be exorcised; and the balked spirit indulged more and more in those extremes of theory and practice, that arrogant censure of the time, that insistent self-exaltation, which make Jonson a problem for us to-day.
Of this intellectual fanaticism, this emotional protest, this failure to possess either past or present, and of the consequent effects upon his art and life, Poetaster bears testimony. An autobiographical as well as a literary document, it has interest for every serious student of Ben Jonson and his time, and so deserves the fullest exposition. It shows Jonson as scholar and dramatist, as poet-militant with high ideals, as spiteful jeerer at the misfortunes of his adversaries. Its aim was to prove John Marston a malicious poet-ape; Thomas Dekker a viperous hireling; Ben Jonson a much maligned priest of the Muses, defender of the old and true literary faith. Compared in its animus and method with La Critique de l'École des Femmes, or, better still, with L’Impromptu de Versailles, how ursine it all is! Molière is the peerless fencer who only smiles disdainfully upon a suddenly disarmed assailant; Jonson is the rude broadswordsman who laughs boisterously, bitterly, as he rains irresistible blows upon a foe not worthy of his steel. Again, not only expressions of Jonson's ideals and methods in art, but also traces of his particular dramatic phases, are to be found in Poetaster. Tucca, Crispinus, and Horace are developments of Bobadill, Brisk, and Asper of the humor plays; Albius and Chloe have already appeared as Deliro and Fallace; the Roman setting, strangely bolstered with uncouth translations, anticipates Catiline; in the relations of Ovid and Julia there is even a faintly romantic touch; while the ridicule of English bombastic tragedy and ranting satire reminds us that much of Jonson's criticism of his contemporaries was sound. It is therefore a study of Jonson's conception of himself, as man and artist, that we have here undertaken; and probably no other single play would prove so rich in material for the biography and criticism of our poet.
It is a pleasure to express my thanks to the following members of Yale University: Professor Albert S. Cook for advice as to matter and method; Professor William Lyon Phelps for the privilege of using his copies of the Folios of 1616 and 1640; Dr. D. Winter for continual interest in my work and for many valuable suggestions; Mr. Austin M. Harmon for a translation of Lucian's Lexiphanes; Mr. Andrew Keogh of the Yale Library for frequent bibliographical aid. My acknowledgments are also due to Mr. W. A. White of New York City for the use of his copy of the 1602 Quarto edition of Poetaster. It should be added that part of the expense of publishing this thesis has been met by the Modern Language Club of Yale University from funds placed at its disposal by Mr. George E. Dimock, of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a graduate of Yale in the Class
H. S. M.
February 10, 1905.