Ben Jonson Intertextualities: The Influence Essay


" Shelburne

asserts that the usual view of Jonson's use of the Catullan poem is distorted by an insufficient understanding of Catullus' carmina, which comes from critics' willingness to adhere to a conventional -- yet incorrect and incomplete -- reading of the love poem. When Jonson created his adaptation of carmina 5, there was only one other complete translation in English of a poem by Catullus. That translation is believed to have been Sir Philip Sidney's rendering of poem 70 in Certain Sonnets, however, it was not published until 1598.

This means that Jonson's knowledge of the poem must have come from the Latin text printed in C. Val. Catulli, Albii, Tibulli, Sex. Aur. Propertii Opera omnia quae estant, which was published in Paris in 1604 and known for certain to have been in Jonson's personal library.

It seems that following Volpone, Catullus' love poems became more and more popular as his poems were appearing in translation more frequently.

What this means, however, is that the process of selection by translators privileged only a few poems, creating the idea that Catullus wasn't as wild as he really was. The tame version of Catullus' poem is often believed to be the authority. This even occurs now (people thinking that Catullus is tame) because most people will read Catullus in anthologies, where these "superficially innocent poems appear in isolation, having been dislocated from the context of the other poems."

Paul Allen Miller


In Catullus, it is evidenced by those editions which either suppress sexually explicit and scatological passages or print them but refuse all comment. The result is the tamed Catullus of the oft anthologized kiss poems or the pathetic "odi et amo" ["I hate and I love"], carefully insulated from their far more complex and troubling contexts.


states that whether the usual reading of Catullus' poems comes from the assumptions made by critics who work with an incomplete version of Catullus or from tamed versions of the poem in seventeenth-century lyrics, the common reading of Volpone misrepresents the relationship between Catullus and Jonson and prevents a full understanding of the play. This is because the connection goes beyond the translation of one poem and part of a second; it goes beyond to include the main themes and motifs in the carmina which Jonson uses in Volpone to portray the corruption of familial and civil relationships. To show Jonson's extension of contaminatio to include the incorporation of non-dramatic sources and to illustrate how far-reaching the Catullan influence is in Volpone, the poem will be looked at further.

What must be noted while reading Catullus' poem is the beauty of it. If the poem were just merely being looked at superficially, its innocent cannot be denied:

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus, rumoresque senum severiorum omnes unius aestimemus assis.

soles occidere et redire posunt:

nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux, nox est perpetua una dormienda.

da mi basia mille, deinde centum, dein mille altera, dein secunda centum, deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.

dein, cum milia multa fecerimus, conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus, aut ne quis malus invidere posit, cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Next, we will take a look at the poem translated into English by Barriss Mills:

Let's live and love, my Lesbia, and value at a pennyworth what the crabbed old folks say.

Suns may set and rise again, but once our own brief light goes out, night's one perpetual sleeping.

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then another thousand.

Then a second hundred, and then still another thousand, and then a hundred more. And when we've got to many thousands, we'll lose count, till we don't know.

And spiteful persons won't be able to put jinxes on us, unless they know how many were our kisses.

While Catullus' poem has chiefly been viewed as a love poem and it is, indeed, quite playful, there is something that is also a bit threatening about it. Shelburne states that just as Catullus gives voice to his desire to Lesbia, there are also threats that go along with the desire for satisfaction: the rumors of condemnation of society figured in the severe old men, the threat of being responsible for the love affair, and the narrator's superstitious fear of an envious observer answer all of Catullus' pleas for more kisses. In order for there to be threats against the two of them, this implies that there must be something that is not completely innocent about the affair between the two. Catullus states that they must act with haste because they do not have much time. He also states that they must act despite the consequences and the rumors -- as well as the possibility of being observed by others.

Now we can compare Catullus' love poem to Volpone's song. It is important to note that like Catullus, Jonson decides to make the threat of an observer known and he also hints at the idea that what they are doing is quite wrong.

Come, my Celia, let us prove,

While we can, the sports of love;

Time will not be ours forever,

He, at length, our good will sever;

Spend not then his gifts in vain.

Suns that set may rise again:

But if once we lose this light, 'Tis with us perpetual night.

Why should we defer our joys?

Fame and rumor are but crime would be in being taken or in being seen. Celia, however, will not have any of it and she is fully aware that Volpone is using her husband's greed as a means to have what he desires.
Braden, Cummings and Gillespie

claim that Jonson is reading Catullus here through Ovid and Martial. They argue that his opening trivialization of 'the sports of love' recalls the Marlovian Ovid's designation of sex as 'sport.' Instead of Catullus' demand for infinite kisses, Jonson demands an admonition to secrecy. In the line "Tis no sin love's fruit to steal; / but the sweet thefts to reveal: / to be taken, to be seen, / These have crimes accounted been," Braden et al. name this a mockery of Christian notions of sin which can also be found in Ovid's Amores.

There are other elements in Jonson's Volpone, that can be compared to earlier works -- other than Catullus -- spanning different genres and styles. Volpone can be directly correlated to Aesop if we merely consider the title of the play -- Volpone, which literally translates into "fox." Davis

says there is clearly a connection between Volpone and Aesop's "The Fox and the Grapes" and its variants, which were incredibly popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. While Aesop used the personalities of animals to embody the weaknesses of human beings, as well as make fun of them, all the while teaching a moral, Volpone is a fraud who tries to embody the weaknesses of animals. This makes his work not simply a Comedy of Humours or Manners, but rather, a sort of drama that combines manners as well as moral fable. The animal-like humans are greatly exaggerated and go against the classical ideals of diffidence. What Jonson has done with Volpone is created a new way of writing, a way in which no other writer before him did, even though he is absolutely influenced by their structure and ideas and even though he often likes to turn those structures and ideas on their heads.

Dante's the Divine Comedy also influenced Jonson's play Volpone. Both the Divine Comedy and Volpone depict deceit as a core evil; the judgment of deceit is a theme of both works and, in each, there is a great discipline for those who have erred. In Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy, Dante writes:

Of every malice that earns hate in Heaven, injustice is the end; and each such end by force or fraud brings harm to other men.

However, fraud is man's peculiar vice;

God finds it more displeasing -- and therefore, the fraudulent are lower, suffering more.

In respect to the seriousness of deceit, both Jonson and Dante take this as a very grave pretense. Volpone and Mosca's punishments in Volpone stand out as a standard of penance in the same way that Dante handled his sinners. This being so, some may see Volpone and Mosca's punishments as being quite harsh considering that the play is considered a comedy and that Volpone and Mosca were merely trying to create some excitement with their tomfoolery. This is quite the same as what happens in Dante's Inferno, which shows that Jonson was influenced by this…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Alghieri, Dante Inferno. 1982. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Dell, 2004.


Allen, Graham. Intertextuality. Routledge; First Edition, 2000. Print.

Baker, Christopher. & Harp, Richard. "Jonson' Volpone and Dante." Comparative
10, 2011:
NeoEnglishSystem. "Ben Jonson's Comedy of Humours." (2010). Accessed March 10, 2011:
David Chandler, "Semiotics for Beginners - Intertextuality," Aber, 28 March 2011:
David Cope, "Cross Dressing with a Difference: The Roaring Girl and Epicoene." 1999. Web.

Cite this Document:

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