Ben Jonson’s The Underwood: A Selection



Next Meeting: Friday 12th April, 15:00-17:00, in Room 2.47 of the John Percival Building

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was one of the most prominent playwrights, poets, and prose writers of Renaissance London. He is most well known as the author of twenty plays, including Everyman In His Humour (1598) and Volpone (1605), and as one of the most significance masque writers of the early Stuart court, writing thirty-six masques in total. This month, we are looking at a small selection of poems taken from the posthumously published poetry collection entitled The Underwood(1640).

The Underwood was the third collection of poetry to be published under Jonson’s name, following both Epigrams (1612) and The Forest (1616), though the poems contained within Underwood are thought to have been written across Jonson’s career. Jonson wrote, at the start of the collection, that:

‘as the multitude call timber trees promiscuously growing a ‘wood’ or ‘forest’, so am I bold to entitle these lesser poems of later growth by this of ‘underwood’, out of the analogy they hold to The Forest in my former book, and no otherwise’[1]

Though Jonson here seems to imply that the poems contained within Underwood are products of his later life, it seems that he initially wrote a number of them many years earlier. This short preface to the collection does suggest that Jonson had some hand in the preparation and ordering of the volume, though it is unlikely that he prepared the final version for publication given that a number of poems by other writers have managed to slip in, including 39, which we are reading, and which is now believed to have been written by John Donne.

The Underwood came to influence a whole generation of poetic volumes printed in the 1640s, which preserved relics of poets who were dead and gone by the time their works were published’.[2]This led to a ‘cult of resistant nostalgia’, in which dead poets who praise a world which had past and left behind it war and division.[3]Some of this resistant nostalgia is evident in the selection of poems we are reading, and may reflect a Jonson’s view that he was not valued as he once was.

Our primary focus is on An Execration Upon Vulcan, number 43 in the collection. This poem tells of the fire that befell Jonson and destroyed his house in 1623, devouring a number of unpublished and unfinished works of Jonson’s. Jonson rewrote some of the texts he claims were destroyed while others, such as the description of his walk to Scotland and back, would not be rewritten and so were lost to us forever. It appears that Jonson may have written, and circulated this particular poem much earlier than 1640, as Jonson’s neighbour, and devotee, James Howell wrote of a second fire in Jonson’s house that it was ‘the second time that Vulcan hath threatened you. It may be because you spoke ill of his wife, and bin too busy with his hornes.’[4]From the reference to Vulcan, and Vulcan’s wife, it seems likely that Howell had read a version of An Execration Upon Vulcan. It also seems that Jonson had not learned his lesson from the first fire!

Questions/Discussion Topics

  1. How does An Execration Upon Vulcan seem to view different genres? Does a potential hierarchy of literature emerge?
  2. How does the tone shift within An Execration Upon Vulcan? Is it consistent throughout or does it change? How does Jonson construct himself throughout the poem?
  3. Can a discourse of censorship be identified within An Execration Upon Vulcan?
  4. How does Jonson construct death throughout the elegies? Is there a similar discourse of death/loss that runs across the selection?
  5. Is there a noticeable difference between 39, the elegy by Donne, and the other elegies? Is Jonson attempting to mimic Donne’s style?
  6. To what extent are these poems about age and the inability of an aging/dead poet to affect the world around him? Are they nostalgic?
  7. How far is A Speech According to Horaceconcerned with contemporary politics and European affairs?
  8. Do these poems appear to speak to one another in any coherent way, or have they simply fallen where they were dropped?

[1]Ben Jonson, The Underwood, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson: Volume 7: 1641: Bibliography, ed. By David Bevington, Martin Butler, and Ian Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 79-295, p. 79.

[2]Colin Burrow, ‘Introduction: The Underwood’ in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson: Volume 7: 1641: Bibliography, ed. By David Bevington, Martin Butler, and Ian Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 71-6, p. 72.

[3]Burrow, ‘Introduction’, p. 72.

[4]James Howell, Epistalae Ho Elianae. Familiar Letters Domestic and Forren: Partly Historical, Political, Phylosophical(Hum Mosely: London, 1645), Section 5, p. 23.

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