History: E211_Jonson

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Assigned: The Masque of Blacknesse (1527-34); "On My First Son" (1430); "On Lucy, Countess of Bedford" (1430); "Inviting a Friend to Supper" (1431-32); "To Penshurst" (1434-36); "Song: To Celia" (1436); from "A Celebration of Charis in Ten Lyric Pieces" (1437-38); "To the Memory of my Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare" (1444-46); from Timber, or Discoveries (1448-51).

The Masque of Blackness

1. Briefly, describe the structural progression of this masque -- what happens, and in what order? In addition, choose one scene description and explain how it relates to the action.

2. The Norton editors insist that this masque is "subversive" (a common claim set forth by New Historicist literary critics). What factors might back up their argument? Can you find a way to counter the notion that Jonson is trying to subvert James I's authority?

3. Briefly compare and contrast the treatment of Africans in this masque to Thomas Hariot's non-fiction commentary about native Americans in the brief selection from that author's Report on Virginia (939-43).

"On My First Son" (1430)

4. Jonson describes his departed son Benjamin as his "joy." Aside from being an honest expression of grief at the child's passing, what descriptions of Benjamin's worth, and what resolutions about the proper way to deal with death, are noteworthy in this poem? How, for example, does the final couplet distinguish between "love" and "like" or liking?

"On Lucy, Countess of Bedford" (1430)

5. There's a classical device whereby the speaker mentions something while claiming it won't be mentioned -- (as in "I shall not mention my opponent's many treacheries"). This poem of praise doesn't quite fit in that category, but how is Jonson's descriptive strategy similar?

6. It is difficult to praise a person (especially the great, like Lucy of Bedford) without seeming like a flatterer, but Jonson is generally held to be quite good at praising appropriately. With reference to this poem, what accounts for his success in paying a compliment?

"Inviting a Friend to Supper" (1431-32)

7. Jonson's speaker says it isn't the food that makes a fine supper, but the conversation, and the qualities that the guest brings. But he also keeps describing the food and drink that he plans to serve. What use does the speaker make of this description, aside from simply whetting the guest's appetite? How, that is, does the speaker's treatment of the theme illustrate the art of conversation?

8. What serious note comes in with the poem's conclusion -- what dangers lurk in a pleasant, private evening of conversation, food, and drink?

"To Penshurst" (1434-36)

9. This poem turns upon the distinction Jonson makes at the end between "building" and "dwelling." In what sense is Robert Sidney's estate Penshurst more than a building -- how does it exemplify idyllic social relations between people and perfect harmony between the human and the natural?

"Song: To Celia" (1436)

10. Compare the style of praise in this poem with the one Jonson uses in "On Lucy, Countess of Bedford." What is similar, and what is different? And as in Question 6 above, how does this poem praise its object, Celia, without seeming fulsome or excessive?

From "A Celebration of Charis in Ten Lyric Pieces" (1437-38)

11. How does this "processional" excerpt build up a sense of what the Lady Charis is like? What sorts of comparisons does the speaker make between her attributes and natural or supernatural things?

"To the Memory of my Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare" (1444-46)

12. In the first fifteen lines, Jonson lays out the ways not to praise Shakespeare -- what styles of praise does he mention? By line 43, Jonson has made it clear why it's hard to praise Shakespeare properly -- what reason for this difficulty does he give?

13. From lines 47-65, Jonson considers Shakespeare's relationship with "nature" (in the double sense of "human nature" and "our physical environment") and works in a comment on the old Latin line, "poeta nascitur, not fit" (a poet is born, not made). How does Jonson describe Shakespeare's way of handling human nature and the physical environment -- what is so special about his plays in that regard?

14. With respect to the Latin phrase just mentioned, how much credit does Jonson give to the playwright's native genius, and how much to his development as a craftsman?

From Timber, or Discoveries (1448-51)

15. On 1448-49, Jonson reproaches the taste of those who praise Shakespeare for not editing the text of his plays. What criticism does Jonson make of Shakespeare in this regard? What point is he making about craft thereby?

16. On 1449-50, Jonson offers sage advice on the relationship between "invention" and "judgment" -- basically, a writer's fresh thoughts or flights of fancy and his or her return to such notions by way of correction or elaboration. What is the proper relationship between these faculties? And what is the value of studying the work of others, according to Jonson?

17. On 1450-51, Jonson deals with the sway of custom in matters of language -- after all, language is only capable of "meaning something" because it's a system of publicly agreed-upon conventions, not a private invention. How does Jonson define the term "custom," and, in keeping with his definition, to what extent is a writer bound to honor linguistic custom?

Edition: Abrams, M. H. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN Package 1 (Vols. ABC) 0-393-92833-0.


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