Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
 
Critical Introduction by A. W. Ward
Ben Jonson (1572–1637)
 
[Born at Westminster in 1572; known as a playwright in or before 1597; finished his first extant play in the following year; died 6th August 1637.]  1
 
APART from his dramatic prose, which, as he would readily have asseverated, “none but himself” could have produced, Ben is entitled to some sort of niche of his own among our prose writers. It may be going rather far to say, like his most recent biographer Dr. Herford, that “no other contemporary prose equals the Discoveries in ripe wisdom or sinewy vigour”; for, whatever opinion may be held concerning the claims of aphoristic composition, Ben Jonson’s only extant prose work (with all respect to the English Grammar) can hardly be said to belong to any other species. If it, more or less remotely, “approaches the type of the Baconian Essay,” it savours far more noticeably of the qualities pervading the collectanea of Jonson’s friend and master Camden, the scholar extolled by him for his skill and faith
                                “in things;
[His] sight in searching the most antique springs.”
  2
  Yet it would be a short-sighted exclusiveness which should altogether shut the doors of the temple of classic prose to the literature of annotations, albeit the contributions of so many dunces have swelled its total bulk. At all events we have no other prose (outside his plays and their paraphernalia) remaining from Ben Jonson’s prolific pen. His English Grammar, patriotically designed
        “To teach some that their nurses could not do,
The purity of Language,”—
was consumed, together with much else which posterity has more largely lamented, by the fatal conflagration commemorated in his genial Execration upon Vulcan; and only its dry bones or materials, including, however, an instructive series of quotations, have come down to us. His unpublished translation of Barclay’s Argenis—that typical scholar’s delight, the last book of which the hand of Leibniz turned the pages—has likewise passed out of reach.
  3
  But the Discoveries, which “contain matter” like everything from their author’s pen, will serve. They very evidently belong to his declining years, when, though his creative powers were on the wane, his critical faculty, in which he had stood supreme among his fellows, was stronger and more conscious of its strength than ever. With a great reverence for authority, such as that of the ancients in literary matters, he combined a perfectly fearless independence of thought and judgment; and while as full of reading as he was of experience of life, he digested whatever he read, and was no mere walking mirror of Fleet Street. Thus, although the Discoveries contain little or nothing that is original in the sense of being absolutely new, they fully justify their claim to have “flowed out of his daily readings, or had their reflux to his peculiar notion of the times.” It is the prerogative of a mind so powerful, so well equipped and so well balanced as his, to be able to form and express all its judgments in its own character, and thus to stamp each of its criticisms with that other kind of originality which renders them invariably interesting.  4
  The complement of Ben Jonson’s Discoveries is his so-called Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden, as reported by his host unextenuatingly, but presumably with a touch here and there heightened, and a qualification here and there left out. In these discourses, or heads of discourse, there are passages which once more irresistibly remind us of Jonson’s great later namesake, or rather (since it would be an error to regard these Conversations as more than the merest rough notes of Ben’s actual talk) which suggest that the same versatility, the same precision, and the same force marked much of the spoken as well as of the written criticism of both. Neither in the Devil Tavern nor in the Mitre was the law laid down with a waste of words or with a side-appeal to the audience; and it is this freedom of spirit, born of self-knowledge and of good faith, to which both the one and the other of these great critics owed their “dictatorships.” Beyond a doubt, there are other passages in the Conversations, as condensed by Drummond, perhaps after suffering from his part of auditor tantum, which are mainly attributable to bile, and resemble some of the incidental utterances of Carlyle,—of Annandale stock like Ben. Such are the pronouncements: “That Sharpham, Day, Dekker, were all rogues, and that Minsheu was one.” “That Abraham Fraunce, in his English Hexameters, was a fool.”  5
  But of this there is nothing in the Discoveries, which are marked by genuine sobriety of spirit as well as by a dignity of tone which is not least noticeable in so personal a passage as the fine reference to the poet’s own career cited below. At the same time the general style of these aphorisms, or notes for essays never intended to be written, is quite unforced; and we may perhaps have reason to be glad that they were not over-elaborated for publication.  6
 
 
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