Ben Jonson, like Dryden, Arnold, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Eliot, was both a creative and critical writer. He was a poet, a dramatist and a critic. He wrote a number of tragedies, comedies, elegies, epigrams and critical essays. His critical essays appeared in The Poetaster, in his prefaces and dedications to his plays, in his Conversations with Drummond, and above all in his Timber or Discoveries made upon Men and Matter, commonly known as Discoveries.
Of his critical utterances the most valuable is the Discoveries. It was published four years after his death, in 1641. It is just a collection of notes which Jonson made from time to time, each with a Latin heading and varying in length from a mere sentence to a miniature essay. These notes deal with literature, morality and politics. Among about 137 observations in this book, only a hundred are Jonson’s own, and the rest of them are adaptations or translations. He has done both theoretical and judicial work in criticism. Swinburne rightly observed, “A single leaf of the ‘Discoveries’ is worh all his lyrics, tragedies, elegies, and epigrams together.
Summing up the general achievement of Jonson as a critic Atkins says : “Bearing in mind the varied nature of Jonson’s critical activities— the dramatic criticism, the literary theorizing and judgments of his earlier year together with the later classical studies of the Discoveries—what can now be said of his critical achievement as a whole? As a literary theorist, in the first place, he has been loosely described as ‘a champion of the rules,’ an early advocate of those constricting doctrines bound up with the later neo-classical system. Yet nothing in reality could be farther from the truth. Actuated throughout by a profound respect for the ancient at no stage did he recommend a slavish following to be attained by means of fixers and mechanical rules. “
He recommended to return to the ordered harmony, the spirit of the ancients, to those permanent and fundamental principles that had inspired their art; and in this sense alone can he be regarded as a classicist. Apart from this he is an Elizabethan, to whom, as to most of his contemporaries, Nature or Reason was his ultimate guide, and who recognized that departures from ancient methods were both natural and inevitable.
“Before him,” writes Atkins, “there had been ‘snarling pedants and courtly eulogists’; but apart from Sidney, with his reaction to Chevy Chase, Jonson is the first to introduce effectively the personal touch into critical appreciation.” His critical remarks on Montaigne, on the ‘Tamercham and Tamercham’ and on Shakespeare, Bacon, Spenser and Donne are of considerable interest. Many of his remarks have passed on to posterity for appreciation, justification or refutation. For example, ‘Shakespeare wanted art’, Spenser ‘writ no language’, etc. In fact, Jonson was ‘thefirst to place Shakespeare on the lofty pedestal upon which he has since towered.’ (Atkins).
Jonson is the pioneer of neo-classical criticism in English. He has been called ‘a champion of the rules’, an early advocate of those constricting doctrines bound up with the later neo-classical system. Yet he never recommended a slavish following of the rules of the ancients. ” What he strove for, in view of current extravagances, was a return to the ordered harmony, the spirit of the ancients, to those permanent and fundamental principles that had inspired their art; and in this sense alone can he be regarded as a classicist, (Atkins). His was, indeed, a liberal classicism.
No doubt a few of his judgements are arrogant, prejudiced, and even contradictory, yet he is endowed with a rich critical temper. To quote Atkins again, “In him appeared, in short, the first great English critic, one who gave to criticism a definite place in literary activities, and who did much in diffusing a critical atmosphere and in conveying his love of letters to his own and later generations….”
He had a word of advice for the critics too. He would not trust them unless they were gifted enough to enter into the intricacies of the poetic art. ‘To judge of poets,’ he says, “is only the faculty of poets; and not of all poets, but the best”. If there is one word that can sum up Jonson’s contribution to the critical art, it is ‘the curb’—the necessity of submission to a code of conduct both on the part of the writer and critic. He trusts training more than natural inspiration that is often a law unto itself.