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Freedom and friendship: Jonson’s verse epistles and epistles I.18

Freedom and friendship: Jonson’s verse epistles and epistles I.18

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Horatian libertas in Jonson’s epigrams and epistles

several of the most significant poems of the Forest and Underwood

�collections, and range in date from 1599 (Forest 12) to the early 1630s

(UW 71).55 There is also some suggestion of a conversational ‘exchange’

of epistles€ – UV 49 (‘An Epistle to a Friend’), for instance, evokes a

correspondence in its opening lines, and apparently quotes from the

addressee’s own poem:

â•…â•…Censure, not sharplye then, but mee advise

â•…â•… before, I wryte more verse, to bee more wyse.

Soe ended yor Epistle, myne beginns

Hee that soe Censureth, or adviseth synns,

The emptye Carper, scorne, not Creditt wynns.

(UV 49.1–5)

In one manuscript this epistle is followed immediately by two verse

letters addressed to Jonson which are now attributed to Sir John Roe,

suggesting that it may have been considered by the compiler of the

collection as part of this correspondence.56 Given the Horatianism of

the Roe poems in the Epigrams, it is worth noting that UV 49 is also

indebted to Horace.

Little know they, that proffesse Amitye

and seeke to scant her comelye Libertye,

Howe much they lame hir, in hir propertye:

And lesse they knowe, that being Free to use

That Frindship, wch noe Chaunce, but Love did Chuse,

Will unto Lycence that Free Leave Abuse:

It is an Acte of Tyranye, not Love,

In Course of Frindshipp, wholie to reprove:

And Flatterye, w th Frindes humors:€still to move.

From each of wch, I labor to Free,

yett, yf w th eythers vyce, I tainted bee,

Forgive it as my Frayltie, and not mee.



These lines€– taken from the shared portion of UV 49/UW 37€– revolve

around freedom, and especially the freedom of speech proper to friendship:€the man who does not speak his mind to his friend ‘lame[s]’ their

relationship and deprives it of the ‘comelye Libertye’ proper to that state;

There is some variation in the generic descriptions of this material:€ Forest 12 is, for instance,

described as an elegy rather than an epistle in several manuscript sources.


Bodleian Rawlinson Poetry 31, fols. 23v–25 v. UV 49 shares its fifteen final lines with the poem

printed as UW 37 (‘An Epistle to a friend’). I suspect several of Jonson’s early poems to unspecified friends may have been written for Roe, including perhaps the ode beginning ‘High-spirited

friend’ (UW 26). I notice that Wesley Trimpi has also suggested this connection (Trimpi, Ben

Jonson’s Poems, pp. 197–8 and 278–9).


Jonson’s verse epistles and Horace, Epistles I.18


but the opposite extreme, the abusive ‘Licence’, speaking too freely, is

equally damaging.

This idea is derived quite closely from Horace, Epistles I.18, concerned

with the poet’s handling of powerful friends. Epistles I.18 is a letter addressed,

like Epistles I.2 and Odes IV.9, to Lollius, a well-born ‘amicus’ (‘amice’, 106),

on how (as a poet) to cultivate and satisfy one’s wealthy patron€– all this in

a collection which begins by testing the boundaries of Horace’s own duty of

obedience towards his wealthy patron, Maecenas (Epistles I.1).

The closest verbal parallel to I.18€ – and the key to the allusion€ – is

the phrase ‘Little knowe they, that proffesse Amitye’ (UV 49.12). This is

also the first line of the section which is replicated in UW 37, implying

that these final lines were originally a separate unit. This phrase ‘proffesse

Amitye’ corresponds closely to the compressed Latin phrase ‘professus

amicum’, ‘having professed yourself a friend’, from the end of the second

line of the Latin poem.57

But the associations are not limited to this tag:€ Horace’s poem, too,

advises Lollius in terms of that opposition of extremes:

Si bene te novi, metues, liberrime Lolli,

scurrantis speciem praebere, professus amicum.

ut matrona meretrici dispar erit atque

discolor, infido scurrae distabit amicus.

est huic diversum vitio vitium prope maius,

asperitas agrestis et inconcinna gravisque,

quae se commendat tonsa cute, dentibus atris,

dum vult libertas dici mera veraque virtus.

virtus est medium vitiorum et utrimque reductum.


(Epistles I.18.1–9)

If I know you well, Lollius, frankest of men [‘liberrime’], you dread

seeming like a sponger, having declared yourself a friend.

Just as a respectable married woman and a prostitute are unlike one

another and

don’t go together, so is a friend far removed from a disloyal parasite.

There is an opposite vice to this one [that is, being a parasite], almost worse:

that is, a boorish rudeness, inappropriate and abrasive,

which commends itself with scraped skin and black teeth,

while wishing to give an impression of unsullied free speech and true


But virtue is a mid-point between vices, distant from both extremes.58

‘Amicus’ is a key word in I.18, as are various terms associated with ‘libertas’ or its loss (‘liberrime’,

1; ‘dum vult libertas dici mera veraque virtus’, 8; ‘lenibus imperiis’, 45).


The same opposition of extremes appears in the same order (albeit more mutedly) in UW 45 (‘An

Epistle to Master Arth:€Squib’):€‘For that is first requir’d, A man be his owne. / But he that’s toomuch that, is friend of none’ (23–4).



Horatian libertas in Jonson’s epigrams and epistles

UV 49 is a minor piece but it is only one of several such ‘friendship’

Â�epistles, most of them probably later works:€a cluster of Jonson’s mature

verses either name friendship in the title or take the conduct of civilised

friendship as their main theme (e.g. UW 37, 45, 69). Included under the

rubric of ‘friendship’ is a wide variety of apparent equals (the ‘friend’,

Colby, of UW 15), men obviously junior to the poet (‘An Epistle answering to one that asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben’, UW 47) as well

as those with power over him (UW 13, to Sir Edward Sackville). In this

range they resemble Horace’s Epistles, likewise concerned with the epistolary bridging of real inequalities of status and significance (between

Maecenas and Horace, Horace and junior poets, Horace and his steward):€ inequalities at once obscured and revealed by the rhetoric of


Interestingly, two contemporary verse miscellanies containing several

of Jonson’s poems also include a translation of the latter half of Epistles

I.18 (lines 67–112). The manuscripts in question are Bodleian Rawlinson

Poetry 31 and BL Harley MS 4064€– the first of these is also the manuscript in which UV 49 immediately precedes Roe’s verse letters to Jonson.

Both manuscripts date from between 1620 and 1633 and include poems

by Jonson which had not yet been published in printed form; both are

anonymously compiled by professional scribes.60

The version of Epistles I.18 has not currently been attributed to Jonson,

although this close translation, beginning at line 67 of the Latin poem,

bears many Jonsonian features, especially in comparison with his other

verse epistles, and I understand that it is to be included under works possibly ascribed to Jonson in the forthcoming Cambridge edition.61 The

poem is discussed in greater depth in Chapter 5, pp. 193–8; whether by

Jonson, Roe or another member of their circle, its presence in a collection

that includes verse epistles by both Jonson and Roe is suggestive of the

perceived ‘Horatianism’ of that genre.

Jonson is not the only poet to be writing in this way. Donne’s verse epistles cover a similar range,

and several engage specifically with Horace (see Moul, ‘Donne’s Horatian Means’, 21–48).


Although neither manuscript is simply a reduced version of the other (since both contain poems

the other does not include), they are clearly closely related. In particular, those poems which they

do share (forty-seven in total, including eight by Jonson) appear, without exception, in the same

order in both manuscripts. The Bodleian manuscript is in the hand of the ‘feathery’ scribe, to

whom Beal devotes a chapter of his book:€Peter Beal, In Praise of Scribes:€Manuscripts and Their

Makers in Seventeenth-century England (Oxford:€Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 58–108. Two pages

(fols. 21v–22r) are reproduced on pages 102–3.


I am grateful to Colin Burrow, the editor of the poems for this edition, for initially alerting

me to the existence of this translation. For further discussion of Jonson’s close translations, see

Chapter 5.


Poet as benefactor in the epistle to Sackville


Jonson uses an Horatian mode, in both epigrams and verse epistles,

to explore a theme that resonates throughout his career:€ how to speak

freely in verse, and the ethical implications of not only addressing, but

also instructing one’s superiors. The greatest challenge to such freedom€–

the ‘libertie’ of ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’€– is the indebtedness of the

recipiÂ�ent to his patron (part of the powerful ‘freedom’ of that poem lies

in the poet’s imagined extravagance of provision:€ indebting his noble

friend, not himself). Jonson repeatedly uses both epigrams and epistles to

test and articulate his indebtedness:€to his friends, his patrons, his teacher

(Epigram 14, to Camden); and also to Martial and (as we shall see) to

Seneca. The voice of Horace, however€– to whom in one sense he owes

most€– repeatedly marks out not the author’s debt, but his freedom.

T h e E pi s t l e t o E dwa r d S ac k v i l l e , a n d

t h e p oe t a s be n e fac t or

The most striking example of this feature of Jonson’s Horatianism is

found in a long and complex epistle, dating perhaps from around 1611 and

addressed to Edward Sackville, UW 13 (‘An Epistle to Sir Edward Sacvile,

now Earle of Dorset’).62 Herford and Simpson describe the poem as ‘modelled on the Epistulae Morales of Seneca, whose treatise De Beneficiis it

utilizes lavishly, assimilating the thought even where it does not directly

reproduce the turn of phrase’.63 The link is further confirmed by the heavy

markings in the opening chapters of De Beneficiis in one of Jonson’s editions of Seneca, which often correspond closely to the passages used in

As H&S point out, Sir Edward succeeded as fourth Earl of Dorset on 28 March 1624, hence

the addendum to the title, ‘now Earle of Dorset’. UW 13 therefore presumably precedes this

date, but it is otherwise undated. A manuscript copy of this poem is extant among the Portland

papers (Portland MS Pw V. 37, pp. 232–6). It is titled ‘A Poeme by the way of thankfull

Acknowledgement sent and dedicated to Sr Edward Sacvile’, and it may preserve a version predating Sackville’s succession. The reference to Coriat (Thomas Coryate) in line 128 may suggest

a date after the publication of his most notorious book, Coryat’s Crudities, in 1611. Edward was

born in 1590. It seems unlikely that Jonson’s poem is addressed to a boy, although certain lines

and tone may imply a young man:€ following an extended series of metaphors of the smooth

and steady pace of moral growth, if it is not to ‘goe out in nothing’ (153), the poet adds:€‘[y]ou

that see / Their difference, cannot choose which you will be’ (153–4, italics mine). This perhaps

suggests a date around 1611 or 1612, as Sackville came of age. I am grateful to Colin Burrow

for alerting me to the existence of the Portland manuscript and for permission to consult his



H&S, vol. xi, p. 55. Seneca’s prose was read much more widely in Jonson’s day than our own€–

the De Beneficiis alone was translated three times in England between 1569 and 1620, including

versions by Arthur Golding (1578) and Thomas Lodge (1614). (On these, see Knud Soerensen,

Thomas Lodge’s Translation of Seneca’s ‘De Beneficiis’ Compared with Arthur Golding’s Version

([Aarhus]:€Gyldendal, 1960)).



Horatian libertas in Jonson’s epigrams and epistles

the poem.64 Dating from around 60 ad, the De Beneficiis is a lengthy

treatise in seven books on the morality of giving and accepting gifts. The

treatise is organised notionally as a letter, addressed to the aptly named

Aebutius Liberalis.65

Structurally, however, Jonson’s poem resembles an Horatian verse epistle:€like those poems, UW 13 moves from personal address and philosophical seriousness in the opening lines, through a central satiric passage, and

concludes with a declaration of the poet’s (and addressee’s) thoughtful

and virtuous distinction from that satiric world, albeit one leavened with

humour and self-deprecation:€‘No more are these of us, let them then goe, /

I have the lyst of mine owne faults to know, / Looke to and cure’ (113–15).66

The poem begins by announcing the theme of the De Beneficiis:€ the

importance of an awareness of the proper ‘how’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ in

granting benefits, and in expressing gratitude for them.

If, Sackvile, all that have the power to doe

Great and good turns, as wel could time them too,

And knew their how, and where:€we should have, then,

Lesse list of proud, hard, or ingratefull Men.


Seneca’s treatise begins:€ ‘Among the many and various errors of those

who live their lives rashly and carelessly, I could hardly mention anything

more unworthy, excellent Liberalis, than the fact that we do not know

either how to grant benefits, nor how to accept them’ (Ben. I.1.1). Jonson’s

poem stresses the numbers of the ungrateful, as does Seneca (‘turba

ingratorum’, ‘the crowd of ungrateful men’, Ben. I.1.9). Certain phrases

are translated directly; compare, for instance:€‘For benefits are ow’d with

Jonson’s copy is L. Annaei Senecae Philosophi scripta quae extant:€ … Cum indicibus certissimis

(Paris:€apud Marcum Orry, 1599), Glasgow University Library (Special Collections B∙11-y.1). This

volume, which bears Jonson’s signature (now partly obscured) and motto as well as characteristic marginalia, is not included in McPherson’s description of Jonson’s library but is described

in Evans, Habits of Mind, pp. 57–88. Evans includes detailed descriptions, keyed to a modern

edition, of which sections of the text are marked; where appropriate I have given a reference to

Evans’ description of the marking. Jonson probably owned more than one edition of Seneca’s

prose in his lifetime, but the correspondences suggest that this was the edition he used in preparing UW 13. Maus discusses Jonson’s use of Seneca, though she has comparatively little to say

about the verse epistles (Maus, Ben Jonson and the Roman Frame of Mind).


See Franỗois-Regis Chaumartin, Le De Beneficiis de Seneque, sa signification philosophique, politique et sociale (Lille and Paris:€Atelier National de Reproduction des Theses, 1985) and Brad

Inwood, Reading Seneca:€Stoic Philosophy at Rome (Oxford:€Clarendon Press, 2005).


This structure is replicated in several of Jonson’s long poems modelled upon Horatian hexameter,

for instance UW 15 (‘An Epistle to a Friend, to perswade him to the Warres’) and UW 47 (‘An

Epistle answering to one that asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben’). A similar combination of

Senecan material and Horatian form is found in UW 17 (‘Epistle To a Friend’).


Poet as benefactor in the epistle to Sackville


the same mind / As they are done,’ (5–6) and ‘eodem animo beneficium

debetur, quo datur’ (Ben. I.1.8).

Herford and Simpson’s annotations on these parallels are full and accurÂ�

ate, although they do not completely convey the density of correspondence between the two texts. Seneca’s expansive and sometimes repetitive

style in this treatise is efficiently compressed (a similar effect to that seen

in the paraphrases of Seneca in Discoveries) and individual verse sentences

often find parallels in several separate Senecan passages. An example of

this occurs at lines 25–32:

â•…Can I owe thankes, for Curtesies receiv’d

Against his will that do’s ’hem? that hath weav’d

Excuses, or Delayes? or done ’hem scant,

That they have more opprest me, then my want?

Or if he did it not to succour me,

But by meere Chance? for interest? or to free

Himselfe of farther trouble, or the weight

Of pressure, like one taken in a streight?



Herford and Simpson cite De Beneficiis I.1.6, from which the strait

(‘angusto vero’) is certainly taken. But we could also note close parallels

at I.7.2–3 (‘on the other hand, benefits are unwelcome … which are either

forced from the donor, or casually dropped’), II.1.2 and II.2.2.67 At II.2.2

Seneca claims that even a small gift, given promptly, gains more gratitude than a more valuable one the conferral of which is ‘laggard and long

thought-over’. Lines 41–2 of Jonson’s poem reiterate the point in imitation

of Seneca’s repetitious style:€‘He neither gives, or do’s, that doth delay / A

Benefit; or that doth throw ’t away.’

Jonson has, moreover, deftly and recognisably transformed Seneca’s

instructions on how to give into a portrait of Sackville as the perfect

(Senecan) giver, fulfilling those very instructions:

You then, whose will not only, but desire

To succour my necessities, tooke fire,

Not at my prayers, but your sense; which laid

The way to meet, what others would upbraid;

And in the Act did so my blush prevent,

As I did feele it done, as soone as meant


Similarly, Seneca recommends that benefits should be conferred promptly;

Jonson’s conscious blush (11) is also derived from Seneca, in the passage

╇ The first of these is marked in Jonson’s edition (Evans, Habits of Mind, p. 64).



Horatian libertas in Jonson’s epigrams and epistles

quoted below, as I think is the metaphor of ‘coming to meet’ the recipient

(‘beneficia … occurrentia’). As so often, the strained English is quickened

by comparison with the Latin text:

Gratissima sunt beneficia parata, facilia, occurrentia, ubi nulla mora fuit nisi

in accipientis verecundia. Optimum est antecedere desiderium cuiusque, proximum sequi. Illud melius, occupare ante quam rogemur, quia, cum homini probo

ad rogandum os concurrat et suffundatur rubor, qui hoc tormentum remittit,

multiplicat munus suum. (Ben. II.1.3)68

The benefits which are most gratefully received are those which are ready and

easy to obtain, that come to meet us, and where there is no delay except out of

regard for the recipient’s embarrassment. It is best to anticipate each person’s

desire; next best is to follow it. It is better to forestall the request before it is

made, since an upright man finds his lips stuck together when he comes to ask,

and he blushes deeply. The man who spares him this torment multiplies his gift.

The grateful voice of the poem takes the part of the ‘upright man’

(‘homini probo’) by his appropriation of the Senecan blush (‘my blush’,

11), and goes on to fulfil in greater detail the terms of proper Senecan

gratitude:€‘You cannot doubt, but I, who freely know / This Good from

you, as freely will it owe’ (13–14).69

‘Freely’ renders Seneca’s ‘libenter’ (although translated below as ‘gladly’,

the word also suggests freedom):

docendi sunt libenter dare, libenter accipere, libenter reddere et magnum ipsis

certamen proponere, eos, quibus obligati sunt, re animoque non tantum aequare

sed vincere … (Ben. I.4.3)

they are to be taught to give gladly, to accept gladly, gladly to return the favour

and to have as their great aim not only to equal but actually to outdo in deed

and spirit alike those to whom they are obliged …

Jonson’s grateful recipient has learnt his Senecan lesson; but the barely

muted tension of the oxymoronic ‘freely owe’ is redolent of Horace’s ‘dialectic of freedom’, and it is this Horatian paradox that animates the end

of the poem.70

The final thirty-line movement of the poem is structured around a series of images of ethical growth:€the virtuous man is like a triumphal arch,

completed by the final addition of the keystone (131–8) and admired by

The earlier part of this passage is marked in Jonson’s copy (Evans, Habits of Mind, p. 65).

The Portland MS cited above has ‘truly’ for ‘freely’ here.


This useful phrase is taken from Johnson’s suggestive book on Epistles I (W.â•›R. Johnson, Horace

and the Dialectic of Freedom:€Readings in Epistles I (Ithaca and London:€Cornell University Press,




Poet as benefactor in the epistle to Sackville


others (139–46). But the closing lines of this long poem come as Â�something

of a surprise:€the poet returns to the theme of De Beneficiis, exploring the

tension between the language of freedom and equality and that of payment and debt€– a tension which, as we have seen, is present, although

muted, in Seneca’s prose, and explored in Horace’s Epistles. At this point

the significance of the poem’s ‘voice’€– that it speaks in the persona of the

recipient, not dispenser, of gratia€– becomes fully apparent.

The poem ends not just with a reminder that with honour and power

comes a responsibility to the less fortunate, but with an unequivocal command€– to the patron and benefactor€– that he must continue to deserve

the love of Jonson himself, the apparently indebted speaker:

You know (without my flatt’ring you) too much

For me to be your Indice. Keep you such,

That I may love your Person (as I doe)

Without your gift, though I can rate that too,

By thanking thus the curtesie to life,

Which you will bury; but therein, the strife

May grow so great to be example, when

(As their true rule or lesson) either men,

Donnor’s or Donnee’s, to their practise shall

Find you to reckon nothing, me owe all.



(155–64, the end of the poem)

The daring contradiction of these lines (Sackville has no need of Jonson

as a guide; but here’s some advice anyway) is amusing, and the implied

threat is clear:€if he loses Jonson’s love, he might get no more poems. The

gesture of defiant independence which lies unstated behind that forceful

‘[w]ithout your gift’ is reminiscent of Epistles I, which flirts throughout,

by fable and allusion, with the possibility of rejecting Maecenas’ patronage in preference for artistic independence:€‘If this story is levelled at me,

I’ll give everything back’ (Epistles I.7.34).71

Jonson goes even further in the involved ambiguities of lines 160–4.

The syntax at this point is tortuous, but the penultimate line is itself an

Horatian allusion to the end of the Ars Poetica:€ ‘tu [Piso] seu donaris

seu quid donare voles cui, / nolito ad versus tibi factos ducere plenum /


The ‘story’ in question is of the bloated fox in the grain bin, who must starve before he can leave;

but the poem is addressed to Maecenas. The insistence upon social autonomy is connected to the

assertion of philosophical independence with which the Epistles begin:€‘nullius addictus iurare

in verba magistri’, Epistles I.1.14. The importance of this gesture, its resonance throughout the

Epistles, and the pervasive language of freedom and entrapment is well described by Oliensis,

Horace and the Rhetoric of Authority, pp. 154–97. She herself interestingly employs the metaphor

of financial debt which Seneca denies but cannot escape (cf. p. 160, on Epistles I.7).


Horatian libertas in Jonson’s epigrams and epistles

laetitiae’ (‘Whether you’ve given someone a gift, or want to do so, / don’t

invite him to hear your verses when he’s full / of gladness’, 426–8). The

lines are mistranslated by Jonson in his translation of the Ars Poetica as

‘whether yo’╛╛are given to, or giver are’, the same meaning as they bear

here. In the Ars Poetica they are also a warning, in that case of the dangers

of indebtedness clouding poetic judgement; and the reference draws our

attention to the presentation to a patron of, specifically, a poem (potentially, in fact, this poem:€the potent unstated beneficium of Jonson’s Â�version

of Seneca):

But you, my Piso, carefully beware,

(Whether yo’are given to, or giver are)

You doe not bring, to judge your Verses, one,

With joy of what is given him, over-gone.

(607–10, corresponding to 426–8 of the Latin text)

Jonson’s translation makes the implied caution of the Latin verse much

more emphatic, labouring the warning in particular (there is no proper

name or ‘carefully beware’ in the Latin text) and unpacking the compressed phrase ‘plenum / laetitiae’:€ in Horace, the exact cause of that

‘gladness’ is left implicit.72

These features are shared by the Sackville poem, and the sense of indebtedness in particular is picked up by the ambiguous conclusion. The syntax of these final nine lines is very difficult. The phrase ‘to life’ is probably

adverbial (I am indebted to Colin Burrow for this suggestion), dependent

upon ‘thanking’, and where the ‘curtesie’ refers back to the (mysterious)

gift for which the speaker is thanking Sackville himself. The overlap of

the two terms perhaps alludes to Jonson’s habitual fascination with the

Latin term ‘gratia’ and its variety of meanings (including both ‘thanks’

and ‘courtesy’).73 The resultant ‘strife’ (160) is between Jonson’s insistent

gratitude and Sackville’s determination not to allow him to feel indebted.

The construction after ‘shall / Find … ’ (of which ‘either men’ is presumably the subject) suggests that ‘me’ like ‘you’ is a direct object of ‘find’, in

which case we must supply a further ‘to’ (‘to reckon nothing … to owe

all’) to make the constructions equal (or, possibly, the ‘me’ is in imitation

of a Latin accusative and infinitive construction). In that case, the sense

is:€ ‘They shall find [that] you reckon nothing [to their practice], [and]

For further discussion of Jonson’s Ars Poetica, see Chapter 5, pp. 175–93.

The Ars Poetica includes the phrase ‘nedum sermonum stet honos et gratia vivax’ (69, italics

mine). De Beneficiis includes an extended digression on the ‘Graces’, and their relationship to the

theme of the treatise (Ben. I.3.2–I.4.6). In Jonson’s edition this passage is the subject of the longest of all his marginal marks (cf. Evans, Habits of Mind, p. 63).



Poet as benefactor in the epistle to Sackville


that I owe all’. It is this distinction€– that Sackville attributes Â�(‘reckons’)

nothing to their giving and receiving (that odd ‘practise’) while Jonson

owes everything to it€– which becomes the donors’ and donees’ ‘true rule

or lesson’.74

If this is indeed the sense of these lines, then their underlying message is rather abrupt. For all the talk of mutual ‘freedom’ in the giving

and receiving (13–14), and the hint that Jonson’s ‘grace’ (his thanks, 24)

lies in the poem’s naming of his donor (18–24), the close of the poem

makes the difference in their situations quite stark. The whole network of

gift and favour is ultimately insignificant to Sackville, central to Jonson€–

and the starkness of that message is highlighted by the blunt language

of financial dependence:€ ‘donor’, ‘donee’, ‘reckon’. We are returned at

once to the guiding metaphor both employed and rejected by Seneca,

and which �animates, too, the tense negotiations of patron and poet in

Horace’s Epistles.

But there is, typically, a further ambiguity in those final words:€the distance of the verb and subject of the subordinate clause (‘me owe all’) from

their object (‘to their practise’), and the emphatic verbal phrase (‘owe all’)

following the accusative ‘me’ also suggests, to the ear, precisely the opposÂ�

ite: that it is the speaker (‘me’) to whom ‘all’ is owed. If we have read the

movement of the preceding thirty lines with attention, we recognise that

this is Jonson’s point:€however generous and noble he might be, without

this poem Sackville too will ‘goe out in nothing’ (153), and indeed the

speaker’s insistence in that passage that Sackville ‘cannot choose which

[he] will be’ suddenly reads quite differently. It is not only that the choice

(between ‘going out in nothing’ and the immortality of the triumphal

arch) is obvious; it is also out of his hands.

In this poem Horatian form and tone structure a meditation on indebtedness and freedom the terms of which are drawn from Seneca. Seneca’s

ethics of gracious and finely judged reciprocity carve a version of Stoic

freedom out of the realities of social relations and commitments. In her

discussion of the connections between Roman amicitia and �beneficium,

Miriam Griffin claims that the giving and receiving of benefits are not

purely secondary to existing friendship relations, but rather that ‘acts

of beneficence are presented as creating a relationship of amicitia’.75 In

Jonson’s poem the ‘Senecan’ speaking voice is transferred, in a manner

The OED lists this meaning of ‘attribute’ as the only sense of the verb which can be followed by

‘to’ in this way and at this period. Jonson’s use presumably also glances towards the common,

and more explicitly financial meaning (as in a ‘reckoning’), as discussed.


Miriam Griffin, ‘De Beneficiis and Roman Society’, Journal of Roman Studies, 93 (2003), 92–113 (97).



Horatian libertas in Jonson’s epigrams and epistles

unparalleled in Seneca’s own works, to a socially inferior, and ostensibly

‘indebted’ party; and the poem€ – the translation, the paraphrase, the

demonstration of scholarship as well as of friendship€– is the gratia that

he gives in exchange.76 This piece is at once a translation of a treatise on

giving and receiving benefits and a demonstration of that art; and just as

the Epigrams transformed Martial, so this is an ‘Horatian’ translation of

Seneca, sealed as such by that slippery final sentence.

UW 13 is not the only one of Jonson’s epistles to demonstrate this combination. The slippage between ‘freely’ and ‘gladly’ (between, as it were,

‘libenter’ and ‘libertas’) is as central to Jonson’s conception of good art as

it is to virtuous friendship. His poetry as a whole forms an extended demonstration of, and meditation upon, the possible ways in which one can

act and respond ‘freely’ to social constraint€– and, repeatedly, relates that

stoically inflected search for meaningful freedom to the poet’s language

and function:€his particular libertas.

C h a r ac t e r a n d s t y l e :€e t h ic a l p oe t ic s a n d



UW 14, ‘An Epistle to Master John Selden’, is the most straightforwardly

panegyric of Jonson’s epistles, and it is one of Jonson’s boldest statements

of the identity of ethical (especially social) and aesthetic virtue.77 In common with Jonson’s other verse epistles (and in imitation of Horace’s), the

poem begins by announcing its theme:€in this case, the discernment of

poetic (and, by association, ethical) good style. Selden’s various forms of

exemplary virtue (in teaching, generosity, seeking the truth) are described

in artistic, and indeed markedly literary terms (citing workmanship, style

and judgement). Appropriately enough, the poem begins with a reference

to Horace’s Ars Poetica:

I know to whom I write. Here, I am sure,

Though I am short, I cannot be obscure:

Lesse shall I for the Art or dressing care,

Truth, and the Graces best, when naked are.

For other examples of financial imagery applied to friendship see:€UW 56 (also an epistle, including the very Senecan paradox that the poet will gain by giving); UW 54 (another epistle); the

closing lines of UW 45 are a kind of compressed version of UW 17; UW 14 envisages the benefits

of friendship as income (79–86); Jonson’s letter to Drayton describes its own tribute as the payment of a ‘reck’ning’ (UV 30.9). In a more light-hearted tone, Epigram 73 (‘To Fine Grand’), in

the form of a versified invoice, imagines the addressee dreading the poem ‘as’t were … a borrowers letter’ (3).


The poem was printed in the prefatory material to Selden’s Titles of honor (London:€ William

Stansby for John Helme, 1614), 4 o, STC (2nd edn)/22177.


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