Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Jacobean and Caroline Criticism > Bacon
   Ben Jonson  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XI. Jacobean and Caroline Criticism.

§ 1. Bacon.


THE great names of Jonson and Bacon meet us at the threshold of the seventeenth century, and the names of Milton and Hobbes are soon added to theirs; but disappointment awaits the scholar who expects to find their achievement in poetry and philosophy matched by a similar achievement in the field of criticism. It is doubtful whether any of these four justified one of the most significant of the critic’s functions by interpreting a poet to his contemporaries, or by making an unknown name a real possession of English literature: not a single author was better understood because of any light shed by them. The utterances of Jonson concerning Shakespeare impressed themselves upon his countrymen, and, in a sense, increased Shakespeare’s vogue and prestige; but, for the most part, they understated rather than illuminated the contemporary taste which they confirmed. Yet, it would be untrue to say that these critics did not accomplish anything, for they changed the attitude of men toward literature and the criticism of literature; and, by modifying the literary outlook of Englishmen, they so transformed the spirit of criticism that the transition from the age of Sidney to the age of Dryden seems not only intelligible but inevitable.   1
  At the outset, we are met by Bacon, and it is no less true of him than of the others that his services to contemporary thought are not the measure of his services to criticism. But he, too, helped to transform the theory of literature, or, at least, to bring order out of the chaos of theory; and he created a new conception of literary history, which served as a touchstone to scholars from the moment he enunciated it, though its real significance was not apprehended for many generations to come. It was he who first defined the relation of poetry to the imagination, and attempted a classification of the arts and sciences based on the divisons of the mind, according to which poetry bears the same relation to the imaginative faculty that history and philosophy bear, respectively, to memory and reason. The Spaniard Huarte, in his Examen de Ingenios, had already classified sciences and arts in a similar way, and Bacon adopted this foreign system. But, in elaborating it, he gave it a significance for criticism as well as for philosophy; and his classification became a more or less permanent possession of English thought and taste. Within the scope of the imagination, he included allegorical poetry; and, to his rationalising mind, this seemed the highest expression of poetic genius. He finds no difficulty in justifying this inclusion, though his conception of the imagination as a transformation of the realities of life into forms more sympathetic to the human mind, as external nature idealised, forces him to separate the lyric from truly imaginative poetry and to place it with rhetoric and philosophy.   2
  All this may seem to have little to do with the actual progress of criticism; but it must be remembered that the critics of the preceding age had not thus definitely connected literature with the mental faculty that creates it, and that Bacon, in doing this, is a herald of the attitude of Hobbes and his successors. It is by his conception of literary history, however, that he has made his most important contribution. Just as literature was regarded as a product of the imagination, and not merely as something interesting in itself and by itself separate from the mind of man, so, here, he conceives of it as having certain external relations with the age in which it is produced, not a thing in vacuo but something expressive of the Zeitgeist, of which he was the first to have a fairly adequate conception. Yet, with all these ideas about the place of poetry in the scheme of the sciences and the meaning and function of literary history, Bacon has given us very few concrete judgments in respect to literature that are of any considerable value. His method of interpreting poetry is either through allegory, as in The Wisdom of the Ancients and elsewhere, where poetic truth becomes merely a symbol of moral truth, or through history, where a record of external changes in style and in manner passes for criticism, without for a moment grappling with the secret of an author’s power or charm. His influence, both by his specific achievements and by his general theory, was in the direction of rationalism and science; yet he was an Elizabethan, and touched by the romantic longings of his time. His statement that art becomes more delightful when “strangeness is added to beauty” foreshadows Pater’s definition of romanticism, and his assertion that art works “by felicity not by rule” places him in opposition to the whole tendency of criticism in the century that was to follow.   3

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   Ben Jonson  
 
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