The Trenchant Satirist: Invective, Humor, and Irony in Ben Jonson’s Non-Dramatic Verse

Kenneth, Howe
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University of Hawaii at Manoa
Ben Jonson's non-dramatic verse as a whole has been neglected, and the satiric element in it virtually ignored. There is generally only the occasional paragraph or perhaps a few pages on his verse satire in the relatively few books and articles devoted to Jonson's poetry. One of the few exceptions is Wesley Trimpi's Ben Jonson: A Study of the Plain Style, but this studies Jonson's satiric verse primarily in terms of his debt to the Roman satirists, and their influence on his style. The situation is even worse in those books devoted exclusively to satire. Jonson is seldom mentioned, and when he is, as in Alvin Kernan's The Cankered Muse, it is rarely in reference to his non-dramatic verse. It is difficult to account for this almost total neglect of a large body of non-dramatic verse by a major author, whose best known plays are satires. In generalizing about Jonson's work, Herford and Simpson quote Barnabe Rich: "many excellent wittes are endeavoring by their pennes to set upp lightes & to give the world new eyes to see into deformities," and add, "Jonson could have wished no better statement of his own aims." However, they seldom have unqualified praise for Jonson's poetry, and they give the impression that the neglect the verse satire has suffered is well deserved. My objective in this paper is to examine the satire in Jonson's nondramatic verse. I am not, myself, so interested in Jonson's relationship with Horace and Martial as I am in defining what are, I think, hitherto unrecognized qualities in Jonson's satiric poetry. Jonson is not simply the morose pedant stalking through Jacobean London “wielding his mighty flail.” The range of his satire extends from the light and witty, sometimes hilarious, to the sardonic and disgusting. And although he may not rank with Pope or Dryden, he does not fall far short. I hope to demonstrate that the dismissal of Jonson as a great verse satirist has been entirely unwarranted, and that despite the extremes that Victorian or Edwardian taste found so ghastly (and which may account for the attitudes in some of Jonson's later critics), Jonson remains an often versatile and always trenchant satirist.
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