Archival Project # 2: Ben Johnson’s Classical Folio

After exploring what influenced Johnson’s work, it was time to see if those elements came out in his folios, rather than exploring the folios in his library. I have chosen Johnson’s third and last folio that was published in 1692. While this folio carries Johnson’s plays, masques, and entertainments he performed for the courts, what makes this book interesting is the other additions included in his works. This folio includes a “To the Author” section, personal dedications for each of his plays, a Latin to English translation of Horace’s poetry, two English Grammar books, a Discoveries section, and most interestingly the “ Rules for the Tavern Academy or Laws for the Beaux Esprits” which was engraved in marble over the chimney in the Apollo room at the Old Devil Tavern. There are so many components of this folio that gives Johnson more depth and interiority. This folio also shows us how Johnson was perceived as a writer. This luxurious folio can be compared to the luxury that came with such classics as Vitruvius, which reveals how Johnson’s work not only reflected those influences but his notoriety took similar shape as well. According to Fleming, “the pragmatics of Renaissance reading” include works “whereby humanist scholars mined texts for knowledge to be excerpted and applied” (Fleming 448). After exploring Johnson’s past and digging into his library, I am now able to see the scrapbooked components of his writing through the Latin additions, his dedication to scholarship, and his own educated nature influencing his social habits.

This folio in itself was meant to be a luxury item, which explains all these additions to the content. Like his copy of Vitruvius, which was published in 1567, Johnson’s works were being treated as an object of high value. This folio’s materiality makes the claim that Johnson surpassed the notoriety of Iani Gruteri Pericula, even though it may have inspired his own poetry and elegies. Although the binding has been covered or replaced, according to Robert Hoe, it originally was bound in red morocco levant with a substantial amount of gilt on the cover and the edges. Another luxurious aspect of this folio is that fore edges are marbled. Although marbling became a common practice in the nineteenth-century, in 1692 such detail would only be used for an extravagant item. The way this book was marketed does not shy far from our modern day tactics. The title page states that the works of Johnson that “were formerly printed in two volumes, are now reprinted in one”(Johnson). The difference between these sets is that this copy includes a new comedy and material that has never been published before. Even if a reader already owned the works of Ben Johnson, they would need to purchase this new edition in order to see all the new content added to this folio. Although this folio is grand in design, it was not perfect. According to Hoe, this folio has multiple page numbers missing. The following page numbers were omitted: 265-280, 375-376, and 383-392. With these large gaps I began to wonder were pages missing or were they mislabeled. That sudden jump in page numbers must have jarred the reader, but the places that the page numbers jump are right in between plays or sections. It seems as if specific works were removed from the folio and that is why there are large gaps at a time missing. Like Johnson’s copy of Vitruvius, this edition was imperfect, but at the same time treated as an object of value and education. Therefore not only did his readership consist of higher educated gentlemen to warrant such an extravagant book, but his works itself would have been revered for its classicist nature.

While the extra content may give us more understanding into Johnson’s thoughts, the “To the author” section offers the most insight into Johnson’s readers. A luxurious edition of his works would have never been made if it wasn’t going to make a profit. Clearly many revered Johnson’s works, which warranted such a folio being made 55 years after his death. While these words of praise are interesting, the ones that are the most fascinating are the notes in Latin and the readers own pieces of poetry inspired by Johnson. Three of these notes were written in Latin, which shows Johnson’s classical influence, while one of his notes was an epigram written about his works. His works are inspiring reader’s to write and create, the same manner his library may have inspired him. Some notes are about his works, some about specific plays, and some about him as an author. A man named Wil. Hodgson wrote, “ Here is a Poet! whose unmudled Strains Show that he held all Helicon in’s Brains. What here is writ, is Sterling”(Johnson). These notes all offer some form of praise, which is due to marketing tactics, but it still attests to Johnson being well received and loved. In 1616 Johnson published his first folio, which according to Summers was “ a massive, beautifully produced, physically imposing volume” (Summers 16). Like his first folio in 1616, his final folio shared a similar prestige, for Johnson’s first folio established him as the leading man of letters in London. That year, King James awarded him a pension and “ he became the unofficial poet laureate of England”(Summers 17). Johnson’s works were treated with similar prestige as those of the classics and gained a similar notoriety in his society as those in ancient Greece who were awarded a laurel wreath.

It is clear how much Johnson’s scholarship permeated his works. The books we know of and his previous education are not only clearly present in his plays and poetry, but also in the other components of this folio. To begin, it is important to notice Johnson’s elaborate author’s portrait, that appears opposite of the title page. Not only is it an ornate intaglio engraved by W. Elder, but it also shows him crowned with a laurel wreath. Since Johnson was considered England’s first unofficial poet laureate, it was necessary to express this notoriety in his portrait and the comparison being made between him and earlier classics. Each title page begins with a quote in Latin and when and where this play was performed. By stating where these plays were performed, it brings to light the interactive aspect of content and how it does not just live on the page but in the theater as well, which lends itself to the dynamic nature of words. The title page for this folio reads “ neque, me ut miretur turba laboro: Contentus paucis lectoribus[I do not work so that I will be admired by the crowd, but am content with a few readers].” This quote also opened up Johnson’s 1616 folio and makes a statement on what purpose his writing and reading served. Rather than bring attention to his notoriety, he brings attention to what really matters, the content. According to Jennifer Brady, “each quotation links Johnson not to the classical past in general but to the Roman poet [Horace] he most admired and imitated”(Brady 114). Johnson very much revered Horace and his work and the extra translation of Horace’s poetry in the back of this folio reveals how much he truly appreciated and utilized his works. This Latin quote also gives us insight to his readership and as Brady states, “links Johnson to the coterie audience of humanist scholars and aristocrats who presumably shared his classical learning and values”(Brady 114). It was the well educated who received the full potential of his folios. Each play also had a personal dedication and note inscribed, which expressed who Johnson considered important and influential in his life. The most notable dedication was to “the most learned, and my Honour’d friend”, William Camden, who instilled in him a love for poetry and the classics (Johnson). It is important to note that he dedicated Every Man in His Humour to Camden. Of all his comedies, it was this play that propelled him into notoriety and gave this English audience the spirit of a Latin comedy, while still embodying Renaissance humor. This “comedy of manners molded both classical and native English traditions” and “the play itself [was] self-consciously conceived as a revolutionary attempt to create a new genre of satiric city-comedy”(Summers 34). Camden educated and inspired Johnson and he owes his education and his distinguished taste in literature to his dear professor. This dedication reveals how Johnson’s influences play a part in his folio and in the content that does not include his plays and poetry.

One of the most interesting pieces of content is Johnson’s translation of Horace’s De Arte Poetica. Horace was the roman poet Johnson aligned himself with most and there is a high chance that there was a copy of Horace’s poetry in Johnson’s library that possibly burned away in the fire. Johnson read and admired Horace’s work and by translating this specific piece, he shows that this work was influential enough to share with his readers. According to Fleming, “sometimes, indeed, the process of gathering seems to have assumed more importance than the product” and with Johnson’s translation, it is clear what he considered a necessary part of his scholarship (Fleming 449). Horace’s poetry took up ten pages and this took time to translate. The amount of labor to not only produce this translation, but also to manually produce these pages and adding them to the folio of his works offers us an insight into what Johnson believed was important and what inspired him. Because this folio was published 55 years after his death, it needs to be made clear that Johnson had no say to what would be published in this folio, but what is also very important to note is that he still produced and translated Horace’s poetry. Although the intention of editors might have been to produce a desirable and profitable folio with unpublished content, I believe Johnson’s intentions for creating this translation was to educate and inform.

This folio was desirable and marketed so by stating on the title page that it has “Additions never before published”(Johnson). After comparing it to Johnson’s two-volume folio from 1640, these new additions included Johnson’s translation of Horace’s poetry, two English Grammar books made by him, his Timber or Discoveries, and most importantly the Rules to the Tavern Academy. What has also been advertised as a never before published addition is the new comedy A New Inn. These additions are meant to educate his readers in a similar manner in which he was educated. He was projecting his own classicist ways and believed that the “ The profit of Grammar is great to Strangers, who are to live in communion, and commerce with us; and, it is honorable to our selves”(Johnson 670). In some manner, he is trying to give to his readers the inspiration and education Camden gave to him. With his Discoveries section, they were not only definitions of Latin words, but also opinions of those concepts and man himself. An example of a definition is his thoughts on Fortuna. “ Fortune never crusht that Man, whom good Fortune deceived not” (Johnson 693). This is another section that serves as a vessel to share what he has read and learned over his lifetime. This folio in itself is a scrapbook of what Johnson treasured from his education. Not only was he striving to entertain, he wanted to educate his readers in a similar manner in which he was educated. Similar to his intentions on translating Horace’s poetry, these additions were originally written to educate and marketed to sell his third and last folio.

The most interesting portion of this folio is Leges Convivales or The Rules for the Tavern Academy. These rules have never been included in a copy of his folios and seem to be a later addition because both these pages do not have any signatures on them or page numbers. These rules are so fascinating because these are the rules that dictated Johnson’s social club. According to Summers, he surrounded himself with a group of younger poets and wits who referred to themselves as “the ‘Tribe of Ben’ [and they] met at various London establishments, especially at the Apollo Room of the Devil Tavern, to discuss life and literature in the feasts of wine and wit”(Summers 17). These two pages not only gave readers access to these amusing rules that were engraved in marble over the chimney, but also a small poem that was engraved over the door at the entrance of the Apollo. In the same manner in which Boeckeler explores “ the dynamic interaction between text and object guides user interaction” in comb poems, there is a similar interactive relationship that comes with these rules originally being written on a non-book object (Boeckeler 1). By having these rules on a material other than paper, it gave the Apollo room itself purpose and imposed the desires expressed in words onto a location. These amusing rules were placed into reality by being engraved over the chimney and the set the mood and tone for the interactions held in this room. Over the entrance of the Apollo room, a segment of the poem read, “ All his answers are divine, Truth it self doth flow in wine” (Johnson). The room itself takes on the characteristics of being a place of enjoyment, education, and debauchery. These two pages provide insight into an oral tradition shared amongst writers and Johnson took on the role as their teacher and leader. In a sense he became what Camden was to him to these young writers. These rules give us insight into what Johnson’s social habits were and the influences he shared and took in during these social club meetings. “ Let the Contests be rather of Books than of Wine/ Let the Company be neither noisie or mute. / Let none of things Serious, much less of Divine, When Belly and Head’s full, prophanely dispute”(Johnson). These rules, being a physical part of the room, allowed the Apollo to embody the spirit of the discussion. While the materiality itself provides a dynamic relationship, there is also an interesting interaction that comes from these rules being put into print. This changes how these rules were read and absorbed. Although the rules did not serve the same purpose, because they were printed on a page, they did serve as an insight to how Johnson spent his free time and how he viewed scholarship in a social setting.

Fleming states that while the concept of scrapbooking “ requires the destruction of one composite work … it creates a new work, within which details of the old are revivified and given a new purpose”(Fleming 450). In Johnson’s case, while it is not necessarily destruction, what he has produced has revived these classic concepts and given them new purpose. In exploring Johnson’s library and one of Johnson’s folios, we not only get an inside look to what Johnson was reading, but we can also see how these thoughts and inspirations lead to innovation and reinvention within his own works. The more books attributed to Johnson, the clearer his image gets. It became easier to recognize his inspirations within his works as if I was piecing together a puzzle. This folio was his last folio and I believe it was not only meant to memorialize him but to give his readers a connection to a great man who had passed. Although the editors made the decision of adding these extra sections to Johnson’s folio, it was Johnson himself who made the decision to write them in the first place. By exploring Johnson’s library first, I was capable of recognizing and piecing together the influences of his life. His works were not only influenced by the classics, but he himself wanted to share his love for the classics through his writing, his translations, and his social outings. In the end, he was revered as a poet laureate and shared the recognition that many previous classical authors enjoyed before him in print. Like many Renaissance writers, Johnson took from the classics and applied it to his writing in a new an innovative manner. This allowed his works and his folios to serve as a scrapbook for all the influences and tastes he has achieved in his lifetime.

Works Cited

Boeckeler, Erika. “Comb Poem,” 2016.

Brady, Jennifer, and Wyman H. Herendeen. Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio. University of Delaware Press, 1991.

Fleming, Juliet. “The Renaissance Collage: Signcutting and Signsewing.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 45, no. 3 (2015): 443. doi:10.1215/10829636-3149095.

Hoe, Robert. Catalogue of Books by English Authors Who Lived before the Year 1700, Forming a Part of the Library of Robert Hoe … Printed in New York: Printed in New York, January 1903-February 1905, 1903.

Jonson, Ben, Thomas Hodgkin, Thomas Bassett, Edward Brewster, Richard Chiswell, George Conyers, Henry Herringman, and Matthew Wotton. The Works of Ben Jonson: Which Were Formerly Printed in Two Volumes, Are Now Reprinted in One: To Which Is Added a Comedy, Called The New Inn. With Additions Never before Published. London: Printed by Thomas Hodgkin, for H. Herringman [and 5 others], 1692.

Jonson, Ben. Leges Convivales. Rules for the Tavern Academy, or Laws for the Beaux Esprits. London: Tho. Bassett, 1692.

Summers, Claude J., Ted-Larry Pebworth, and Claude J. Summers. Ben Jonson Revised. Twayne’s English Authors Series, TEAS 557. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.

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