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Ben Jonson's Poetry JENNIFER BRADY Sara J. van den Berg. The Action of Ben Jonson's Poetry University of Delaware Press 1987. 220. us $29.50 Surveying the anomalous status of jonson's poetry in the early 19705, Sheldon Zitner remarked that, by comparison with the scholarly industry generated by the plays, criticism of the non-dramatic Jonson resembled 'an intimate boutique operating in one corner of a vast department store.' The very transparency of Jonsonian lyric had, it seemed, sent it into relative eclipse. As Zitner diagnosed the case in The Elizabethan Theatre IV ted George Hibbard), 'The critic of jonson's non-dramatic verse eyes a plain, well-tended lawn where only a few modest flowers of rhetoric blow, and stands wondering what to say.' Jonson's poetry resisted formalist agendas; nor could it easily be teased into exemplifying the dazzling rhetorical reversals that 'surprised' reader-response theorists during the decade. Wondering what to say, most critics took refuge in ciassicalannotation, in summarizing orthodoxbeliefs, in miningpoems for biographical information, orin prOliferating readings of discrete lyrics - the latter a strategy that pointedly ignored T.S. Eliot's claim that jonson, to be understood, required 'intelligent saturation' in the whole canon. Over the past decade, as a result of a collective reassessment, Jonson's stature as a poet has been renovated. He is now arguably the Marvell of the 19805. For Lawrence Lipking, Jonson figures in the ongoing writing of The Life of the Poet. For Annabel Patterson, likewise interested in poetic careers, the poetry is central to fathoming the socio-political dimension of seventeenth-century lyric. And Richard Newton, who can be credited more than any with moving the debate in Jonson studies to a new level of critical and theoretical sophistication, has proposed Jonson as our first 'textual poet.' A current survey of Jonson criticism yields a very different crop from the more modest studies of only a decade ago. New-historicist and other post-New-Critical approaches have altered the way we read Renaissance poetry, with Jonson emerging as one of the key beneficiaries of these debates. In one respect, though, Zitner's observation has held true. Jonson's poetry has occasioned classic essays, yet few major books. One of these is Sara van den Berg's The Action of Ben Jonson's Poetry, a persuasive and comprehensive reading of his poetic canon. Van den Berg's interpretive deftness and her scholarly acumen make her one of Jonson's finest readers. Another was Richard Newton, who died in 1986. We can, I think, in acknowledging a loss to the profession that cannot be calibrated, cherish even more the publication of a book that does such justice toJonson's achievements as a poet. As with the best of Newton's work, van den Berg's study is a model of lapidary compression, of generosity to others who have 'wrought / In the same mines of knowledge,' and of understated brilliance. Hers is a book that deserves a much wider audience than professional Jonsonians. Jonathan Arac has recently drawn our attention to what he terms a 'fundamen- 566 JENNIFER BRADY tal aporia' in the practice of contemporary criticism. In Lyric Poetry: Beyond Nw Criticism (ed Chaviva Ho~k and Patricia Parker), Arac reminds us that Lipking's and Rosalie Colie's contributions as scholars and as theorists of the lyric ought not to be ignored; the continuing importance of their work lies in its post-New Critical investment in the 'historical specificities that feed upon scholarship.' In The Action of Ben Jonson's Poetry, van den Berg offers us precisely this kind of criticism. Jonson's understanding of historical occasion is placed within the political, intellectual, and cultural debates in Tudor and Stuart historiography. Jonson, like Camden, Selden and other men engaged in the rewriting of England's history, 'found a warrant for his work in the classical tradition' (66). The 'new pattern of classical allusions' (65) to Roman historians that can be charted in their work, van den Berg argues, can also be detected in Jonson's poetry. Her exposition of the changes in Renaissance historiography and of its import fI;>rJonson's work is utterly lucid. Van...


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