ExcerptS from Ben Jonson’s Discoveries
Release Date: February, 2004 [EBook #5134]
Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee. It springs out of the most
retired and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the parent of it, the mind. No glass
renders a man's form or likeness so true as his speech. Nay, it is likened to a man; and as
we consider feature and composition in a man, so words in language; in the greatness,
aptness, sound structure, and harmony of it.
Some men are tall and big, so some language is high and great. Then the words are
chosen, their sound ample, the composition full, the absolution plenteous, and poured out,
all grave, sinewy, and strong. Some are little and dwarfs; so of speech, it is humble and
low, the words poor and flat, the members and periods thin and weak, without knitting or
number. The middle are of a just stature. There the language is plain and pleasing; even
without stopping, round without swelling: all well-turned, composed, elegant, and accurate.
The vicious language is vast and gaping, swelling and irregular: when it contends to be
high, full of rock, mountain, and pointedness; as it affects to be low, it is abject, and creeps,
full of bogs and holes. And according to their subject these styles vary, and lose their
names: for that which is high and lofty, declaring excellent matter, becomes vast and
tumorous, speaking of petty and inferior things; so that which was even and apt in a mean
and plain subject, will appear most poor and humble in a high argument. Would you not
laugh to meet a great councillor of State in a flat cap, with his trunk hose, and a hobbyhorse
cloak, his gloves under his girdle, and yond haberdasher in a velvet gown, furred with
sables? There is a certain latitude in these things, by which we find the degrees.
The next thing to the stature, is the figure and feature in language--that is, whether it be
round and straight, which consists of short and succinct periods, numerous and polished; or
square and firm, which is to have equal and strong parts everywhere answerable, and
The third is the skin and coat, which rests in the well-joining, cementing, and
coagmentation of words; whenas it is smooth, gentle, and sweet, like a table upon which
you may run your finger without rubs, and your nail cannot find a joint; not horrid, rough,
wrinkled, gaping, or chapped: after these, the flesh, blood, and bones come in question.
We say it is a fleshy style, when there is much periphrasis, and circuit of words; and when
with more than enough, it grows fat and corpulent: full of suet and tallow. It hath blood
and juice when the words are proper and apt, their sound sweet, and the phrase neat and
picked. But where there is redundancy, both the blood and juice are faulty and vicious.
Juice in language is somewhat less than blood; for if the words be but becoming and
signifying, and the sense gentle, there is juice; but where that wanteth, the language is
thin, flagging, poor, starved, scarce covering the bone, and shows like stones in a sack. Jonson’s tips on good writing
Brevitas. Now for fashion: it consists in four things, which are qualities of your style. The
first is brevity; for they must not be treatises or discourses (your letters) except it be to
learned men. And even among them there is a kind