Among the jottings in the Discoveries are also included Jonson’s remarks on men who most interested him—Montaigne, Spenser, Marlowe, Bacon, Shakespeare. Similar remarks, though much shorter, occur in the Conversation with Drummond on Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Chapman, Donne, and others. Of all these the – interesting are those on Bacon and Shakespeare in the Discoveries. Jonson judges both these by the neoclassical standards of order and restraint.
Bacon passes the test fully : ‘no man ever spake more neatly, more pressly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of his own graces.’ Not only this : he ‘performed that in our tongue which may be compared or preferred to insolent Greece or haughty Rome‘. There is a close resemblance between Bacon’s prose style and Jonson’s: both were ‘masters of the closely packed style that says twenty things in ten words.’
Ben Jonson notes the following qualities of Shakespears as a great writer—his unchallenged supremacy in English poetry, a right to be alone classed with the greatest of the ancients, an originality born of native genius, and a universality and permanence of appeal. He says that people praise and honour Shakespeare by saying that “whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line.” To this Jonson replies, “Would he had blotted a thousand.” Though he loves and honours Shakespeare, yet mentions his defects too. The main defect of Shakespeare’s work is his unchecked facility which sometimes resulted in careless and ridiculous passages.
Jonson reacted against the Spenserian tradition. This is visible from his dislike of the Spenserian stanza as well as his subject matter. He is also critical of Spenser’s use of archaic diction and says that “in affecting the ancients he writ on language.”
Jonson is more sympathetic to Donne though he is puzzled by some of Donne’s experiments in verse-form and style and says that “Donne, for not keeping of accent deserved hanging.” Then he also notices intricacies in Donne’s thoughts and says that “Donne, for not being understood, would perish.” But still he notices a few poetic qualities in Donne and says that “Donne was the first poet of the world in some things.”