Ben Jonson is generally looked upon as a pioneer of the neoclassical movement in English literature. He has often been described as ‘a champion of the rules.’ In the words of Wimsatt and Brooks, “he is the first English man of letters to exhibit a nearly complete and consistent neo-classicism.” Scott-James also feels that “Jonson is perilously near to the neo-classicism of Boileau, Racine, and Le Bossu. ” The same view is shared by Saintsbury who writes : “The mission of the generation may be summed up in the three words: Liberty, Variety and Romance. Jonson’s tastes were for Order, Uniformity, Classicism.”
Though Jonson was a pioneer of neo-classicism, yet he did not love the classics for their own sake. He was at one with the great Elizabethans in loving English more. But it was English raised to the excellence of Greek and Latin. With this noble end in view he applied himself assiduously to cure the ills that beset English literature, which could be summed up in one word ‘excess’: excess of passion, excess of imagination, excess of expression. So Jonson’s classicism was different from Dryden’s and Pope’s. They were the advocates of classicism in an age of reason and good sense which had accepted decorum as a code of behaviour in all walks of life. Jonson was trying to preach decorum as a protest against the unbridled romanticism and chaos of his own age.
Jonson had all admiration for Shakespeare’s ‘excellent Phantasie but he felt “that sometimes it was necessary he should be stop’d.” Similarly, in condemning the ‘furious vociferation’ of’the Tamerlanes and Tamerchams? he was not trying to belittle Marlow’s romantic genius; he was simply denouncing that bombast and reckless violence of his style. What Jonson wanted to point out was that genius was not a justification for every fault. For attaining perfection an “elaborate and painful toil” was needed. The best writers, he tells us, “in their beginnings….imposed upon themselves care and industry; they obtained first to write well, and then custom made it easy and a habit.” Jonson believed that there was no Royal Road to success in literature”. (Scott-James.)
In his dramatic criticism he is rigidly classical and is a follower of Aristotle. His notes on the unity of action are from Aristotle almost word for word with this difference only that to it is added the unity of time which formed no part of Aristotle’s definition of action or plot.
Jonson’s attitude is, on the whole, of a liberal classicist. He shows reverence for the ancients, but he nowhere suggests a servile prostration before them. He advises for the imitation of the models, but he does not recommend a slavish following. He exhibits an unflinching faith in reason, goodsense and judgement and harmony, but he is not in favour of concluding ‘a poet’s liberty within the narrow limits of laws.’ He pleads for orderly craftsmanship, but he does not forget that the excellence of literature springs from the natural excellence of the author’s mind. In his approach to criticism also, he does not pretent to be a hide-bound critic. He knows that ‘to judge of poets is only the faculty of poets.’ It is only on his insistence on the dramatic unities and in his theory and practice of comedy that he appears to be somewhat rigidly classical. Otherwise, as Atkins says, “he is bound by neither classical traditions nor standards. For in both Shakespeare and Donne he discerns qualities of an original kind, for which there was no classical precedent; and the insight, the judgement, and the happy phrasing he there displays are qualities associated with a great and generous critic.”