A.W. Johnson. Ben Jonson: Poetry and Architecture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. xviii + 290pp., 26 illustrations, two charts.
Review by,
Robert C. Evans
Auburn University at Montgomery

Evans, Robert C. "Review of Ben Jonson: Poetry and Architecture." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.2 (1995): 11.1-6. <URL:

  1. The appearance of Anthony Johnson's book is only the latest indication of a veritable Renaissance in Jonsonian studies during the past decade or so. Indeed, Johnson's is one of a half-dozen academic monographs to appear in the last twelve months, while the recent publication of the inaugural volume of the Ben Jonson Journal and the convening of a major international conference to plan a new standard edition are just two more signs that interest in this poet may be higher now than at any period since his own lifetime. Why this should be so is a fascinating question, but one reason, surely, must be the extraordinary range and complexity of Jonson's life, mind, and art. Anthony Johnson's study of the links between creative writing and architectural design contributes valuably to our understanding of this poet's complexity, and if even half the arguments he proposes seem plausible, we will need to re-think some of our most common assumptions about Jonson's writing and his intellectual and social milieux.

  2. The first sentence of this book emphasizes "a concern for Jonson's sense of pattern, in so far as it manifests itself in the structure and organization of his encomiastic work" (1). Johnson is particularly concerned with the works written before 1616 (5), arguing that many of them demonstrate a familiarity with architectural principles derived from Vitruvius, Palladio, and Francesco Colonna. "Palladianism," he says, "is, quite simply, an ethically based Vitruvianism" (19); "beauty, for the Palladians, was an attribute of proportion, and its expression in all the arts was linked inseparably with ethics and mathematics" (25). In Jonson's work, he suggests, "the language of Palladian theory--harmony-proportion-balance-circularity--is collocated with the terms of moral 'solidity'--virtue-valour-justice" (80). These assumptions undergird highly detailed discussions of the structures of various works, particularly the early masques and the poems of praise, and while some readers will find some of these arguments initially difficult and perhaps finally unconvincing, Johnson ultimately makes a very strong case for his general hypothesis. The poet he describes is a highly conscious, literally calculating craftsman who left little to chance.

  3. Johnson's arguments are buttressed by a wealth of evidence. He draws very effectively on the marked books surviving from Jonson's personal library, and he makes numerous specific and persuasive suggestions about the poet's indebtedness to various sources. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, charts, tables, and even pull-out diagrams, and it is frankly heartening to see an academic publisher giving such care and attention to a book likely to be studied only by specialists. Johnson has read widely in primary and secondary sources, and he draws on much original archival research. His book is fully (if briefly) annotated, and his comments range over such broader topics as the masque genre, dream theory, psychological theories of aesthetic reception, the subsequent history of architectural poetics, and the art and career of Jonson's great collaborator and rival, Inigo Jones. Instead of simply re-hashing what has already been said about Jonson many times before, he offers new data and takes risks by proposing interpretations which will often seem (and which he sometimes concedes) to be highly speculative. Although Johnson's prose and tone are clear and level- headed (he is highly aware, for instance, of potential objections and does his best to meet them), this is not a book that is likely to seem entirely convincing on first reading. Nor is it a book that most readers are likely to grasp or follow if they read it only once. Inevitably Johnson must employ language that is often highly technical, and sometimes the book seems to have been written as much for mathematicians as for English professors. He makes a very strong case, however, that Jonson himself was highly familiar with, and greatly interested in, such jargon and arcana. Ben would have been an alert and understanding reader of this book.

  4. Whether he would have agreed with all the specific readings Johnson offers is another matter, and modern readers are likely to have their own doubts. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see so much attention being paid to the artistry of Jonson's writing. Some of the hidden patterns Johnson discerns are likely to strike many readers as being either coincidental or imposed, but others seem frankly indisputable. I was particularly convinced, for instance, by his comments on the Haddington Masque and on the poem about Katherine, Lady Ogle. In these and in other works, Jonson clearly seems to have been working according to "architectural" and numerological principles, and the fact that he was doing so in some works increases the likelihood that he did so in others. Numerological interpretations may sometimes seem over-ingenious, but Johnson is fully aware of this potential problem and he successfully avoids dogmatic readings. Moreover, the number of "coincidences" of numbering and design that Johnson has spotted would seem to suggest that they should now be seen as more than coincidental.

  5. There is still, perhaps, more work to be done on the ways in which readers--including the poets themselves--perceived the numerological patterns which much literature contained. Future work might profit from greater emphasis on Sir Kenelm Digby, a friend of Jonson, who also wrote one of the earliest numerological analyses of Edmund Spenser's work. The scholarly essays of Sybil Lutz Severence would also provide further ammunition for Johnson's arguments, as would the highly illuminating article on "To Penshurst" published a few years ago by Richard Harp. And, in relation to Jonson himself, personal inspection of Jonson's copy of Pythagoras (now in the library of Emmanuel College, Cambridge) has convinced me that the markings in that book are Jonson's. This might be another primary source worth exploring more fully. Finally, there seem strong reasons to suspect that Jonson's lengthy epithalamion for the marriage of Jerome Weston is organized according to complex numerological principles. The two central stanzas focus on the king and queen and on Richard Weston (Jonson's patron), and it seems possible to argue that all twenty-four stanzas can be similarly paired, with the first being relevant to the last, the second to the penultimate, and so forth, all converging on the two central stanzas.

  6. Of course, this particular suggestion may be erroneous, but clearly Jonson is doing something (in fact, many things) with numerology and architectonics in the Weston epithalamion. Anthony Johnson's study convincingly shows that this interest in architectural design was not an interest the poet belatedly adopted in his old age. This book has much to tell us (and even more to suggest) about the complex workings of Jonson's mind and art.
[http://asgard.humn.arts.ualberta.ca/emls/EMLS footer.html]

(RGS, rev. 14 February 1998)