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E211 Fall 2010 Students' Blog

Mousa Kakish on Ben Jonson's "Timber, or Discoveries"

Published by admin_main on Mon 11 Oct, 2010

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?

Ben Jonson believes that a writer's fresh thoughts are part of his faculty to invent whatever it is he may be writing, but more importantly, he believes that revision and reconstruction over initial writings are a writer's most valuable tools. He writes "all we invent doth please us in the conception or birth, else we would never set it down." Ben Jonson does not disparage the fact that sudden ideas inspire writers or that any given whim might result in a writer creating a literary piece, but he does believe that this alone is insufficient when it comes to creating good literature. Relying solely on flights of fancy is considered "rash," and he alleges that when composing, "the safest is to return to our judgment and handle over again those things the easiness of which might make them justly suspected." He claims that all the great writers throughout history had first built their writing abilities, and only afterwards through habit and judging their own work had they became proficient. According to Jonson, critical appraisal and great care in reading over one's own work leads to future moments of "ready writing".

To Ben Jonson, the rashness of invention seems to need a counterpart to allay any doubts of reasonableness?. The relationship between invention and judgment relies on the abilities of the latter. Any given inspiration is capable of producing good work, but it is necessary to approve expatiations with a shrewd frame of mind. He writes "Repeat often what we have formerly written; which, beside that it helps the consequences and makes the juncture better, it quickens the heat of imagination, that often cools in the time of setting down, and gives it new strength." Since Jonson uses an architect as a metaphor for a writer, it seems that the initial invention is the original building that a person plans to build, but judgment tests the practicality of his initial blueprints and takes into consideration all the necessities needed to create such a building. Furthermore, judgment allows the writer to elaborate his ideas so he can orchestrate an even greater literary piece than what had firstbeen imagined. It seems that both these faculties are important to a writer, but invention would hardly be worth having if it wasn't for the writer's ability to judge her own work.

Reading the works of other writers is another important technique to be used by the inexperienced writer. A person more easily comprehends the works of another person than he might comprehend his own works, because the mind is set to decipher external things. Thisnotioncomes up he writes, "For the mind and memory are more sharply exercised in comprehending another man's things than our own". Through reading the writings of another author, a person sharpens his own writing abilities andhis comprehension of literature grows. Reading famous authors also teaches a writer something about style, and through the study of such authors a person gains the ability to write in a similar fashion. Jonson advocates a great knowledge of other authors because in the end it is how a person learns to write.

However, this seems an argument that plays off Ben Jonson's superior knowledge on literature and scholarship. He seems to want to assert his authority, which he certainly has considering he was learned and very knowledgeable and reputable, but his view gives no room to someone who would write in another fashion. It seems almost a play to build himself up even more. Ben Jonson contrasts himself with Shakespeare in this regard. Earlier in the passage he writes of Shakespeare "never blotting out a line" and concludes the playwright would have been better off if he had. Since this particular passage follows the lines about Shakespeare, Jonson is providing the reader with the correct way that a writer goes about his inventions. He comes off rather pompous and disregards the possibility of there being a viable method to a person who fails to follow Jonson's advice. Furthermore, he writes as if he personally knows every great writer that exists or had existed, and again it seems redolent of his pride. Yet, for the majority of writers it seems that his advice is very useful. Rereading one's own work after giving it time to call helps the writer's cause. It makes it easier to judge and errors are much more noticeable after the initial draft. As for reading other authors, it leads to an expanded vocabulary and does improve style.

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