Ben Jonson Authority Criticism by Richard Dutton (auth.)

By Richard Dutton (auth.)

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But that does not render them worthless. On the contrary, as we shall see, nothing of Jonson's criticism can be wrenched from its context and offered as his 'definitive' view on any matter. The complexity of his position in the intellectual and literary marketplace, which I began this chapter by outlining, rendered such categorical positioning impossible: every document is a strategic intervention in an argument with history, never the final word. And therein lies its value. The Conversations are merely a particularly problematic demonstration of that fact.

A few lines earlier Drummond describes Jonson as 'oppressed with fantasy, which hath ever mastered his reason, a general disease in many poets' (614-15) - 'hath ever mastered' suggests that this was, in origin, a 'confession' on Jonson's own part, and other passages bear out this possibility: 'he hath consumed a whole night in lying looking to his great toe, about which he hath seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians, fight in his imagination' (268-70). But was Jonson straight-faced when he said this, and was Drummond entirely unironic in recording it?

Towards the end we seem to have a recapitulation of all this: 'Lucan, Sidney, Guarini, make every man speak as well as themselves, forgetting decorum; for Dametas sometimes speaks grave sentences. Lucan, taken in parts, excellent; altogether, naught' (537-9). Is this Jonson repeating himself rather tediously, possibly wandering in his cups? Or is it Drummond making an attempt to reduce his notes to order of sorts, or simply forgetting that he had already jotted them down - the process of transcription was presumably haphazard, and there is no indication (another point to bear in mind) that Jonson knew that it was going on.

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