restricted access The Oxford Jonson. A review of Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson. Vols I, II, III
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[ 449 The Oxford Jonson A review of Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson. Vols I, II, and III Oxford: Clarendon, 1925-27.1 The Dial, 85 (July 1928) [65]-68 The most conscientious reviewer would find it hard to write in anything but praise, when presented with three such sumptuous volumes as these; and should therefore rejoice to find that the scholarship and critical abilities of the editors deserve the elegance of the printing. This is as fine and as final an edition as any Elizabethan dramatist has yet received; if there are any flaws, they are beyond the competence of this reviewer to discover. The arrangement of the book, first, is one to be commended to all editors of voluminous authors, who aim to combine the functions of scholarship, criticism , and biography. Not only the biography and the general critical estimate , but also the introductions to the several plays, are united in the first two volumes; only with Volume III do the texts begin; and with the first three volumes we have the texts of only four plays: A Tale of a Tub, The Case is Altered, Every Man in His Humour, and Every Man Out of His Humour. This is the right method, for it offers two advantages. Readers who cannot afford all ten volumes can buy the first two, and have at least the most final and exhaustive account of the life and work of Ben Jonson. And while we await the rest of the work, volume by volume, we have already assembled in Volume II, critical introductions to all the plays and minor work. It would be impossible to review thoroughly the information and criticism of these three volumes; one who has already committed himself to a critical estimate of Jonson’s plays finds not only much new information, but many critical suggestions to correct or to extend his own. The last chapter of the general introduction, entitled “Final Appreciation,” condenses a sound opinion into nine pages.2 Against the common view which would isolate Jonson from his contemporaries, and style him “pseudo-classical,” we recommend the following passage: [I]t is clear that the cleavage between his work and the mass of contemporary production was by no means so deep and wide as his frequent air 1928 450 ] of aggressive isolation would suggest. To contrast Jonson as a thoroughbred neo-classic with the “romantic” Elizabethans is a very imperfect way of representing his relation to his fellow-dramatists. . . . More than this, a great part of the matter of Jonsonian drama is common ground. Marston and Dekker, Nashe, Middleton, Fletcher, Beaumont, Shake­ speare himself, and scores of others, whatever their divergences from him and from one another, are Jonson’s fellows and comrades at one point,–thedrasticandhumorousrepresentationofthelifeofElizabethan England. [I ,121-22] And on the reputation of Jonson the authors are equally good: [I]t is founded even now less upon enjoyment or admiration than on the unforgettable image which has come down to us of “Ben,” the most familiarly known to us, beyond comparison, of all the Elizabethans. Jonson, apart from all questions of merit or demerit, is there, a personal force even more than a creative power. . . . Only some nine years younger than Shakespeare, Jonson belongs to an England which had grown older by at least twice as many in that swiftly maturing time. [I, 127] Fromthebiography,withitsnotes,letters,anddocuments,wegetanimpressionofthemanessentiallythesameasthatofhistradition ,butmerelygraven deeper.3 (We repeat with pleasure Jonson’s note on his Catiline: “there’s one scene in that play which I think is flat: I resolve to mix no more water with my wine.”)4 It was through an immensely impressive personality, as much as by the greatness of his work, that Jonson influenced, more than any other one man, the whole course of English literature: it may be asked whether a man of such personality, like Samuel Johnson after him, is not always likely to be read about rather than read.5 It may be this, as much as the difficulty or asperity of the plays themselves, that has left them to be the reading, and the not very constant reading, of a few privileged admirers.6 There is much to be learned by reading the introductions to the several plays straight ahead, as they are here presented, as a consecutive study in criticism. Among the hints which I have got in this way, here is one point which I ought myself to have observed and emphasized years ago...