Ben Jonson in the Seventeenth Century
Ben Jonson was not only witty in himself but also the cause of wit in other men. One does not know which to admire most, his classic sense of tradition or his pioneer originality. On to the medieval stock of English poetry he grafted the sophistication of the Latin classics. He made Catullus, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, Propertius and Martial native to our language. The elegy and the ode, in the sense that we understand them today, were his adaptations. He developed the formal lyric that dominated the seventeenth century. He acclimatised to English the familiar epistle. Lastly, English comedy as an art-form is his creation: at once a refinement and a strengthening of Plautus and Terence. It was an aspect of drama which thinned out gradually through the Caroline and Restoration comedy of manners until it expired—still dominating English theatre—in the 1950s and 1960s. One cannot imagine literary history without Jonson as a central figure. His fertility is as extraordinary as his power of initiation. And, manifold though the forms were with which he inspired his successors, it is a matter of fact that he excelled in them all.