Two Critical Errors in the Study of Ben Jonson's Nondramatic Poetry

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Ramsay, William
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Middle Tennessee State University
This essay argues that two influential accounts of Ben Jonson's nondramatic verse are mistaken. The first account, shared by several critics, claims that Jonson feigns a commonwealth in his poetry. The second account, put forward by Stanley Fish, argues that Jonson hints at and engenders a community of the same in his poetry of praise. Both accounts suffer from a failure to carefully attend to Jonson's words. The first account fails to consider the meaning of Jonson's phrase “feign a commonwealth.” The meaning of that phrase, as used by several other Renaissance writers, suggests that Jonson does not feign a commonwealth. In the second account, Stanley Fish offers several tendentious interpretations of Jonson's poetry, and, on occasion, disregards the integrity of the texts of Jonson's poems. Combined with his deliberate equivocation and obfuscation, these flaws undo his argument that Jonson gestures at a community of the same. The essay concludes with a call for greater philological probity and sensitivity in the study of Jonson's nondramatic verse.