Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.01.26

Victoria Moul, Jonson, Horace and the Classical Tradition.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. x, 248.  ISBN 9780521117425.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Nick Hardy, University of Oxford (

Follow this link to buy this book from Amazon and support BMCR


This study sets out to highlight the pervasive influence of Horace on Jonson. Horace, Moul argues, was a lens through which other authors, ancient and modern, were refracted: ‘even when Jonson uses his poetry to think about and engage with other authors, he so often does so in juxtaposition, contention or conversation with an Horatian voice’ (p. 6). This voice, moreover, has been obscured by literary history. The ‘Horatian voice’ as Jonson constructed it is neither the voice echoed by Jonson’s acolytes, the self-styled ‘Sons of Ben’, nor the voice to which modern classicists tend to listen: ‘Jonson, in accord with his time and culture as well as his own personality, takes Horace seriously in all the ways that we, currently, find hardest to appreciate - as a laureate poet of politicised praise, as a literary critic, as a moralist and as a friend’ (p. 12).

That list of attributes takes in most of what follows. Chapter 1 deals with Horace, and Jonson, as ‘laureate poet of politicised praise’, and devotes itself to the ‘creative contention between Horatian and Pindaric tone which structures Jonsonian lyric’ (p. 53). The second chapter takes on, among other things, Horace as ‘a friend’ and the way in which Jonson adapts Horatian models of civilised amicitia in his Epigrams to negotiate his friendships with such figures as John Selden and Thomas Roe. The key word here is ‘liberty’, aspired to in speech and writing, and most accessible in the context of friendship rather than patronage. Jonson’s notion of liberty, Moul claims, is peculiarly Horatian, even if the Epigrams seem in other respects to channel Martial above all; the same is true, she argues in the following chapter, of the notion of ‘licence’ implicit in Jonson’s ‘verse satire’, in spite of its obvious debts to Juvenal (I punctuate this phrase because of the awkwardness of describing poems often labelled as ‘epistles’ as ‘satires’, a problem Moul acknowledges). Moul shows how Jonson uses Horatian ‘laughter’ at the objects of satire to temper Juvenalian ‘anger’, while retaining a licentious, critical edge.

The fourth and fifth chapters stand somewhat apart from the rest of the study; the fourth, because it deals with a play, Poetaster. It traces the networks of intertextual relationships generated by Jonson’s placement of translations of classical texts in the mouths of classical figures. Virgil, for example, is shown to take his advice for poetic composition from Horace’s Ars Poetica, emphasizing the dominance of a Horatian poetics even when the character of Horace is off stage.

The fifth chapter is the most interesting. It treats Jonson as a translator, and then as an object of translation, beginning with an assessment of his English rendition of the Ars Poetica. Later on (p. 192 f.), Moul uses often-overlooked manuscript evidence to discuss the ways in which Jonson’s Horatianism was received by his contemporaries, and the part played by his poems in a broader ‘culture of translation, and especially of Horace and Horatianism’. Readers will be grateful for the transcriptions of this material given in an appendix. Similarly welcome will be the index of passages discussed, a tool often found in Classics monographs, and not often enough in their English Literature counterparts.

Almost every page of this book evinces an author whose knowledge of Horace, and of the other authors dealt with, especially Pindar, Martial, and Juvenal, will be the envy of almost anyone who works on the early modern period. Moul is highly sensitive to every echo of Horace in Jonson’s work, and the allusions she identifies rarely seem tenuous. Equally clear is the extent of her familiarity with Jonson himself, particularly his poems. Her expertise in these two areas makes this book the definitive literary-critical study of the Horatianism of Jonson’s poetry.

Moul claims, however, to offer much more than that. She wants, for instance, to offer us a properly contextualized Jonson, one whose Horatianism is shown to be that of a particular historical moment, even if it can speak to the present as well - hence her eagerness to show that readers in Jonson’s own era understood him to be a Horatian poet; that discussion of imitation and intertextuality was fundamental in Renaissance education; and that Jonson was a serious reader of the classics who interacted with some of the great classical scholars of his age, both in England (Thomas Farnaby) and abroad (Daniel Heinsius).

Readers will not, unfortunately, be convinced that Moul’s Jonson is the historical Jonson, or even that the historical Jonson really is the target of this book. Suspicion arises when it emerges that Moul’s quotations of Horace are taken from the Oxford Classical Text (edited by Edward C. Wickham, 1901) rather than any of the editions of Horace Jonson is known to have possessed, for example Parthenio’s.1 In some cases, the OCT text quoted includes readings which the latter edition either didn’t include or didn’t favour (e.g. the passages given by Moul on pp. 15, 151). More importantly, Moul devotes a surprising amount of attention to modern readings of Horace. Many of the literary critics she cites are classicists interpreting Horace with no reference to his subsequent reception. This is meant, as she puts it, to show the ways in which ‘Jonson's response to, and appropriation of Horatian themes anticipates much more recent developments in classical criticism’.

There may not be any problem with this approach per se, but one of its pitfalls is a weakened attention to relevant contemporary contexts for Jonson’s Horatianism. There is little comparative discussion of other poets’ reception of Horace, not to mention the hinterland of editions, commentaries, literary critical treatises and educational practices which mediated Horace for Renaissance imitators. It remains unclear at the end of the book whether Jonson’s Horace is peculiarly Jonsonian, or whether Jonson is simply one prominent representative of general trends in late-Elizabethan and Stuart reception of Horace. The method followed towards the end of the final chapter, relating Jonson’s Horatianism to the issue of classicism in manuscript poetry as a whole, could have been adopted throughout the book, at the expense of Moul’s frequent invocations of twentieth- and twenty-first-century readings of Horace.

This is not to mention the broader issue of the reception of Horace in relation to the reception of other authors during the same period. Does Jonson’s turn to Horace reflect a conscious move away from the ‘Ovidianism’ that has been identified by Georgia Brown and others as a preoccupation of the literature of the 1590s?2 If Jonson does put Horace in dialogue with Pindar, what were other authors of his era doing with Greek lyric poetry? Closer engagement with accounts of the early modern ‘literary career’ that relate it to classical models of authorship, such as those of Patrick Cheney, could also have been helpful.3 Did Jonson establish himself as an Horatian poet to break from the ‘republican’ or ‘Virgilian’ authorial self-constructions supposedly favoured by earlier poets like Marlowe and Spenser? More generally, how invested were early modern writers in modelling their careers on a single author, in being Horatian, or Lucanic, or Virgilian? Did literary education and literary institutions work to produce such an investment, or did it come from elsewhere?

Furthermore, if one wants to argue that Horace was always the preeminent author for Jonson from the beginning of his career, the one with whom he constructed his literary persona and through whom he read all his other classical sources, focusing on his poems, written in genres directly comparable with those of Horace’s, is the obvious tactic. Concentrating on his plays, which Moul more or less ignores (with the exception of a play that includes Horace as a character), not to mention the masques, might reveal a Jonson less in tune with Horatian models. What would someone looking for Horace everywhere in Jonson’s work make of the marginal annotations in the 1605 quarto of Sejanus, which cite Tacitus, Seneca, Lucan, even Petronius and Statius, but not Horace? Or the similar marginalia printed with his masque, Hymenaei (1606)? When Jonson cites Festus as an authority on Roman marriage rites, is he doing that, too, with an ‘Horatian voice’?

This question brings me to the most disappointing aspect of this book, which is the weakness of the engagement with the issue of Jonson and ‘the classical tradition’ promised by its title. If the apparatus included by Jonson with his printed drama, not to mention numerous other moments in his poetry, plays, masques, as well as his Conversations with William Drummond and Timber, all illustrate one thing, it is the assiduity and range of Jonson as a reader of classical and neo-Latin texts; a breadth of engagement with antiquity which an insistence on an omnipresent Horatianism cannot grasp.

What would Jonson have understood by ‘the classical tradition’? First of all, it might be better to remember that he did not use the word ‘classic’, or cognates thereof, with much frequency. Another term to use in its place might be ‘antiquity’, which he did use - for instance in the preface to Hymenaei (quoted by Moul in her conclusion). In context, as the rest of the preface, and the text of the masque, make clear, Jonson is justifying the apparently excessive erudition (‘antiquitie, and solide learnings’) poured into a one-off performance in a genre better known for spectacle and passing excitement than substance and enduring intellectual or moral utility. The Jonsonian conception of antiquity on display in this masque encompasses, alongside the more usual suspects, Varro, Macrobius, Claudian, Martianus Capella, and a Greek scholiast on Pindar.

The passion for antiquarian research and historical philology exhibited in a 45-page masque does not end there. Had Moul digested David McPherson’s annotated catalogue of Jonson’s library and marginalia more thoroughly, she would have realised that receiving antiquity, for Jonson, also meant devouring Casaubon’s sprawling commentary on Athenaeus; the epoch-making work on chronology begun by Scaliger with his edition of Manilius; and the printing of the text of the Parian marble and other Greek inscriptions by John Selden.4 Selden may not, to modern eyes, match the profile of a scholar of classical literature in the way that Thomas Farnaby, who edited Martial, Lucan, Juvenal and Seneca, does; but the knowledge of the literature and history of antiquity he exhibited in all his published work far exceeded Farnaby’s, and was unparalelled in England before Bentley. He sent Jonson an extraordinary philological letter concerning cross-dressing in antiquity, and he and his milieu (the antiquary William Camden, described as England’s Strabo, was a mutual friend and mentor) surely deserve more recognition in any study of Jonson and classical literature.

Scholars of reception need to pay more attention to the gap between the notion of antiquity of someone like Jonson and the circles in which he moved, and the much more circumscribed curriculum of authors forming ‘the classical tradition’ to which modern-day Classics graduates are exposed. The latter is a product of post-Renaissance, largely nineteenth-century, developments. In ignoring this gap, Moul’s book ignores much of what counted as the classical tradition for Jonson. It does not appreciate the capacious, and not always, to modern eyes, discriminating sense of the classical that characterised Renaissance readers, and particularly the ecumenical way in which it assimilated what moderns call ‘literature’ and ‘history’. The classical tradition, in other words, is a messier affair than this book acknowledges.


1.   Bernardini Parthenii Spilimbergii in Q. Horatii Flacci Carmina atq. Epodos commentarii (Venice, 1584).
2.   For an example and summary of much of this work, see Georgia Brown, Redefining Elizabethan Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
3.   The most recent study by Cheney is Marlowe’s Republican Authorship: Lucan, Liberty, and the Sublime (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
4.   David McPherson, ‘Ben Jonson’s Library and Marginalia: An Annotated Catalogue’, Studies in Philology, 71.5 (1974), pp. 1+3-106. See also Mark Bland, ‘Ben Jonson and the Legacies of the Past’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 67.3 (2004), pp. 371-400.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 06:29:55, Tuesday, 25 January 2011