By Amanda Henrichs
I’ve always imagined Ben Jonson as the quintessential cranky old man, constantly complaining about the current state of things and longing for a return to the good old days, when everyone was virtuous and poetry was good and these darn kids didn’t ruin it all with their loud music and confusing taste in clothing. While clearly overstated, this description is not terribly far from a common critical view about Jonson’s relationship to classical literature: he is thought to admire the classics so deeply that he attempts to imitate them in every way possible, leading to poetry that is merely derivative. Critics have also seen Jonson as a creative classicist, however, incorporating ancient classical poetry into his contemporaneous English context, or “Englishing” the ancients. I subscribe to this view, but in my article for the Ben Jonson Journal, I also suggest that Jonson has a particularly erotic relationship to the classical literature he admires.
I discuss several poems in my article, but a particularly interesting example is Underwoods XLII, “An Elegie.” In this poem, Jonson warns the reader that caring too much about fashionable and beautiful clothing can lead a man to act on his desires: a pivotal moment in the poem features a groom of the chamber engaging in sex with a woman’s hanging gown. But the dangers of beautiful clothes don’t stop there: the next lines worry that if the groom were able to read and write, he might have been like the “songsters” (Jonson’s word for the kind of poet who writes doggerel) who “chanced the lace, laid on a smock, to see, / And straightway spent a sonnet.” Jonson imagines that bad poetry is “spent” (with all innuendo intended), linking bad poems to wasted sexual effort. A sonnet is a particularly English form of poetry, as popularized by Philip Sidney in the 1580s and revived by, among others, William Shakespeare in the early 1600s; and Jonson says that men who care too much about clothes are like men who ejaculate sonnets at any opportunity. They are too English, and somehow this also makes them mistake the clothes women wear as an appropriate erotic object. That is to say, Jonson uses English poetic forms to comment on poetry as a whole: English forms are ephemeral and soon spent, but classical elegies, by virtue of their association with an older form, can stand the test of time. A cranky old man, indeed.
Amanda Henrichs is a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University-Bloomington, and will defend her dissertation “Time, Tradition, and Form in Seventeenth-century Lyric Poetry” in January 2016.