Early Modern Futures

Ben Jonson, Workes

Ben Jonson is famous for the level of control he exerted over the publication of his monumental Workes, which audaciously included drama in the collected works of a living author. Jonson exerted control over his own literary future, even editing collaborative works to remove the efforts of his collaborators. Sejanus is one such example. In his foreword “To the Readers” in Sejanus’ 1605 quarto, Jonson writes, “I would informe you, that this Booke, in all numbers, is not the same with that which was acted on the publike Stage, wherein a second Pen had good share: in place of which I have rather chosen, to put weaker (and no doubt lesse pleaasing) of mine own, then to defraud so happy a Genius of his right, by my lothed usurpation.” Such scruples are rather disingenuous; after all, Sejanus was a commercial failure in performance.

But Jonson could compensate for such failure in his printed versions, both in the 1605 quarto and in the 1616 folio. [Despite the heavy revision exercised by Jonson in the former, eighty additional changes were made to Sejanus’ folio text, many based on Jonson’s annotations of the earlier copy-text for the quarto edition (see Loewenstein, Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship, 186).]George Chapman is not glib, therefore, when in his prefatory poem “Upon Sejanus” he compares Jonson’s muse to a “little brooke” which “growes a goodly river” despite fear of corruption from “prophane feet”

    So thy chast Muse, by vertuous selfe-mistrust,

    Which is a true marke of the truest merit;

    In virgin feare of mens illiterate lust,

    Shut her soft wings, and durst not shew her spirit;

    Till, nobly cherisht, now thou lett’st her flie,

    Singing  the sable orgies of the Muses,

    And in the highest pitch of tragaedie,

    Mak’st her command, all things thy ground produces. (¶5v)

Jonson’s 1616 Workes is evidence both of the author’s “selfe-mistrust” and his “feare of mens illiterate lust,” a case of the author putting his reputation as a writer into no man’s hands but his own.

Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 / rbml@libraries.cul.columia.edu